Frank Thomas passed away on January 16, 2023, at age 93. Although in a wheelchair, he was still able to make an appearance at last year's New York Mets 2022 Old Timer’s Game. He had been a member of the original 1962 Mets. Thomas led that team with 34 home runs and 94 RBIs, becoming one of the few bright spots in an awful season which saw the club lose three-quarters of their games. Thomas had had a few solid years with the Pittsburgh Pirates back in the 1950’s, being names to three All Star games. By the time he arrived in New York, like most of the Mets 1962 roster, he was in the twilight of his career. However, he also has a special place in my heart as he was my very first favorite Met.
Original 1962 Mets Frank Thomas. A celebration to replace the sadness.
There is always sadness when you hear of anyone’s passing, particularly someone who played a brief but important part of your growing up. I choose to celebrate Frank Thomas’ life and accomplishments and what they taught a ten year old boy who was just beginning to learn about this scary new world. His career, although seemingly insignificant to a casual observer, carried a lot more importance to an inquisitive little boy who always wanted to know the why and how behind everything.
The year was 1962. All my friends were Yankees fans. I decided that I didn’t want to be a follower. I chose to become a fan of the new team in town, the New York Mets, and adopted Frank Thomas as my guy. This was an important fact when you played backyard whiffle ball. As each player came to bat, he would introduce himself as his favorite player and do a little Phil Rizzuto style (holy cow) color commentary. Sometimes we would use my little sister’s sidewalk chalk to write our player’s number on the back of our dirty tee shirts.
You had to be prepared to take heat from the guys if your player wasn’t hitting. Many a slumping Hector Lopez fan changed overnight into Joe Pepitone. This was a good introduction to loyalty. Your team is your team, even when they stink. Don’t give in and become a follower. Your guy is your guy through thick and thin. Thomas would eventually be traded. I would stop writing his 25 on my shirt and switched to Ron Hunt’s 33. Circumstances change and evolve but loyalty remains a constant.
Frank Thomas was also the only person I ever saw successfully pull off the hidden ball trick. Thomas was playing first base and after a conference on the mound, he returned to his position. He told the Houston .45’s rookie Jim Wynn to get off the bag so he could clean the dirt off of it. Wynn stepped off. Thomas tagged him out. I’d like to believe that I’ve used this kind of imagination and attention to details many times in my life. I’m sure that Thomas won’t mind if I give him credit for planting the seed.
The 1962 Mets had a catcher named Choo Choo Coleman. The nuns who taught in my school said that everyone is supposed to be named after a saint. Who was Saint Choo Choo? Frank Joseph Thomas was a safe name to discuss in school. The man had saints everywhere.
Realistic expectations for the 1962 Mets were never high. Small victories were often all you had. Even if the team was losing and the game was out of hand, if Frank Thomas could only hit an eighth inning home run, it somehow made it a little easier to read about in tomorrow's box score.
"Yo la tenga"
No story about Frank Thomas would be complete without a retelling of the "Yo la tenga" incident. Richie Ashburn was playing center field for the Mets and Elio Chacon was the shortstop, Every time a batter would pop up to short center field, Ashburn would run in shouting, ‘I Got It!’ indicating that would catch the ball. Inevitably, Ashburn would be crashed into by shortstop Chacon, who was running out for the ball himself. The ball would land untouched in the grass, and the batter would usually end up on second base. Ashburn was beside himself. What was wrong with Chacon?
Well, Chacon was from Venezuela and didn’t speak a word of English. Ashburn sought the help of bilingual teammate Joe Christopher. After talking it over with Chacon, Christopher told Ashburn that the Spanish phrase for ‘I got it’ was ‘Yo la tenga!’ If he shouted that, Chacon would give way. It was only a few days later that another ball was popped up to short center field. Ashburn trotted in for the ball and yelled ‘Yo la tenga!’ Chacon, who had been headed for the ball, pulled up to let Ashburn make the catch. Ashburn relaxed and settled under the ball, only to be crashed into by Mets left fielder Frank Thomas who was from Pittsburgh and didn’t speak a word of Spanish. You can't make this up.
Rest in peace, Mr. Frank Thomas. You've earned it.