Nearly every Tuesday for 20 years, Frank Thomas and his wife of
half a century, Dolores, have volunteered on behalf of Meals on
Wheels to deliver food to shut-ins in the Pittsburgh area. To
Frank, a 72-year-old former outfielder for seven big league
teams, it has become part of his routine, much as taking batting
practice was during a 16-year major league career that saw him
hit 286 home runs and suit up for three All-Star Games. Taking
care of people in his native city, where four of his seven
children and 10 of his 17 grandchildren and great-grandchildren
live, is an act of gratitude for Thomas, who lived out a dream by
playing his first eight seasons with the Pirates. "Every boy has
the desire to play in the major leagues, and I got to play in my
hometown," he says. "I had the best of both worlds. After I got
traded, I would come back and get standing ovations."
During his years with the Bucs, Thomas bragged that he could
break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record if he played
anywhere but cavernous Forbes Field. Once he left Pittsburgh,
however, he never matched the 35 he hit for the Pirates in 1958.
Hampered in his later seasons by a viral infection and elbow and
hand injuries, he retired in '66 at age 37. Finding a new career
wasn't easy. "I walked the streets for a long time trying to get
a job," says Thomas, who was armed with a high school diploma and
overflowing determination. "One time I got fed up and said to
this guy, 'How did you get your start?' and he said, 'Someone
gave me a chance.' I said, 'That's all I'm looking for.'" Thomas
finally got his opportunity, and for 18 years he was a recruiter
for the ICM School of Business in Pittsburgh, never missing a day
of work or an opportunity to stress the importance of education
to high school kids.
After retiring from ICM in 1984, Thomas focused on extending and
filling in the gaps in his collection of Topps baseball card sets
for every year from 1952. A fire struck his garage in '92,
though, and destroyed the cards. With prices sky-high, he felt he
had no hope of rebuilding the sets, but an article about his loss
in Sports Collectors Digest later that year sparked national
interest. Fans, and some dealers, sent a flood of cards to
Thomas, almost completely restoring his collection. It was an apt
display of appreciation for a man who had spent his nights on the
road answering mail and had signed autographs tirelessly on game
days. "My dad always told me to be nice to the people on the way
up because you're going to need them on the way down," he says.
"But if the only card I need is the '52 Mantle, then God knows
what I'll do."
--Tim Alan Smith
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT GOLDSMITH
COLOR PHOTO: PHIL BATH (COVER)
"Every boy has the desire to play in the major leagues," Thomas
says, "and I got to play in my hometown."