In the Argument of Griffey Vs. Thomas, I Always Selected Thomas

Frank Thomas or Ken Griffey, Jr? Aside from that one weird kid who only wanted Cal Ripken cards, those were the names collectors most wanted to pull from packs in the 1990s. I was among that group, but I consistently hoped for a Frank Thomas card. If I found a Griffey, I wanted to trade it straight up for a Thomas. I found a lot of takers for this swap, as Griffey was more popular among my friends. They would argue over who was going to “be” Griffey in our backyard baseball games.

“It was easier to turn your cap backwards than to imitate Thomas’ enormous arms.”

A forgotten source explaining why Griffey was so popular

I didn’t care about losing Griffey cards from my collection, as I was getting in return cards of a much better hitter. He was a legitimate triple crown threat for a large portion of the decade and led Griffey in offensive categories during the years I most intensely followed the sport. From 1990-1999 he is essentially tied with Barry Bonds in terms of wOBA, followed by Mark McGwire and then a double-digit cliff down to everyone else. His batting average is fifth place for this period, with a similar rank for drawing walks highlighting his plate discipline.

Of course, metrics like wOBA and WAR weren’t something being watched back then. I liked Thomas because I got both homeruns and batting average. In hindsight Griffey outplayed him during the ’90s, hitting almost 1/3 more HRs and generating an annual gap of 1-2 WAR during this period. Thomas aged a bit better, but neither was their earlier selves in the second half of their careers.

What I liked about Thomas was the theatrics that accompanied his presence on a ball field. Nicknamed “The Big Hurt,” he looked like it. Buffalo Bills Defensive End Bruce Smith was 6’4″ and weighed 280 pounds. Thomas reached a height of 6’5″ and weighed 275. Imagine trying to pitch inside to someone the size of a defensive lineman. Now imagine that he had been watching you from the on deck circle while swinging a giant piece of industrial steel rebar.

2001 Upper Deck #356 shows Thomas with the bar.

That’s right, Frank Thomas warmed up with a pair of steel bars that were salvaged from a highway construction project. They look incredibly heavy, and it turns out that 3/4″ diameter rebar has a weight of about 1.5 lbs per linear foot. That puts the weight of Frank’s on-deck prop close to 6 pounds, or about the same as him swinging three bats of average weight.

Above: An autographed Frank Thomas card in my collection. 2014 Topps Five Star Rainbow Autographs.

Thomas was already a huge physical presence in an era seemingly defined by growing larger. While other players looked to pharmacists for help, Thomas advocated for widespread PED testing across the sport. He was the only player to cooperate with the investigation leading to the Mitchell Report. In an interview with CBS Sports Radio, he estimated he would have hit close to 800 home runs if he had been juicing. Doing so certainly would have aided recovery times from injury, but I’m not sure how much more could have actually been packed onto Thomas’ frame.

Big Card of the Big Hurt

If it were 1993, there are very few refractors you would want to pull from a pack more than Frank Thomas. The card debuted in Beckett as only trailing the demand for Nolan Ryan and Mike Piazza. By 1995 collectors were holding this card with the same regard as Nolan Ryan’s rookie card. The Griffey refractor, now seen as the most wanted card in the set, did not surpass this card in popularity until the tail end of the decade.

Even now this card is still a big deal to collectors. I had it on my short list of “cards I had no idea how I would tackle” when I started this project. One showed up through Robert Edward Auctions and I ended up as the high bidder. This card is the first purchase I ever made through one of the larger auction houses and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. This was my first encounter with open-ended bidding windows in an auction format, something that still takes a bit of getting used to after decades of using eBay. The card arrived along with a steady stream of drool-inducing auction catalogs, each of which make a wonderful reference item on my bookshelf.

Above: Other players chewed tobacco, Frank Thomas played first base while blowing bubble gum. I think I had the same posture and facial expression when waiting for the gavel to drop during bidding for this card.