I think the most important part of sports fandom as a kid is having your favorites. A favorite team is one thing, and I imagine having a team is much more visceral for kids who grow up in a city with a professional sports team, but I grew up about 90 miles from Chicago, about 100ish from Detroit, maybe another 30 or so beyond that to Cleveland, and so on. We get Chicago sports channels, so we have a lot of Chicago sports fans here, and I certainly counted myself in their number for most of my childhood.
But where it seems like the majority of folks around here — including most of my family members — followed the Cubs, I swerved and chose the White Sox. I don’t know exactly why, but I imagine it was a lot of factors: They definitely had cool-ass uniforms after they changed to the black and white pinstripes in the early 90s, and maybe I was also just a little nonconformist. I also instantly preferred the American League game with its DH to the seemingly slower pace of the National League. Also, while the Cubs had a reputation as “lovable losers,” the White Sox seemed to be on the upswing in the early 90s, challenging for the old West Division title (and eventually winning it in 1993, which overlapped perfectly with my full sports awakening at age 11).
So for me, a favorite team was great, but I found myself drawn early to individual players more than teams. I could follow a team, but I could identify with a player, hear their stories, think about the ways these humans honed their craft to become among the best in the world at a specific athletic endeavor.
It just so happens that a few days after my 8th birthday in 1990, a young man many were already comparing to Ted Williams for his hitting talents made his debut for the White Sox.
The rookie card
At the time Frank Thomas came into the league, there were only a few other players I remember really liking. I liked them for sentimental reasons, like Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, who was born in Indiana like me. I liked them for stylistic reasons, like brand-spanking-new Mariners phenom Ken Griffey Jr., who was more or less the definition of ’90s cool along with tennis star Andre Agassi and two-sport star Bo Jackson. Some I liked for reasons I couldn’t quite define at all, like Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser. Why did I like him, exactly? He’s a fine ballplayer, but, you know, why?
Frank Thomas somehow intersected all those lines for me. He played for my “favorite” team. He was a star football player at Auburn University (like Bo!) but chose baseball instead. He was big and intimidating but also super smart and quiet and athletic. And he had a fun nickname: The Big Hurt.
That Topps rookie card, though, with him kneeling at first in his college uniform, serenely applying a tag to a runner who, through a mixture of perspective and the runner’s position, looks like he’s about half Frank’s size (and he may well have been: Frank stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 245 out of college): It’s iconic to me, and to a lot of other collectors. The card itself is printed on the old-style rough cardboard, no pictures on the back, no foil or holograms, often printed kinda blurry or off-center. In fact, the most famous and valuable Frank Thomas rookie card of all is this Topps edition with a printing error: some cards made it off the line and into packs without his name printed on the front. You can find PSA-grade 10 (mint condition, in other words) Thomas error NNOF (no name on front) cards going for five digits nowadays. The card I have is hardly worth anything other than the sentimental value it has for me.
In my first Blast From the Packs post, I mentioned that I had a reputation as the Penny Hardaway kid at the sports card collecting club I used to belong to because of my propensity for amassing Anfernee Hardaway basketball cards. I loved that dude. As I look back at my collection, though, I realize I was definitely the Frank Thomas kid, too. I have way more Frank Thomas cards than I remember. Something about the way he looked in photos, whether he was in action on the field or posing, made all of his cards irresistible to me. Of course, I was a fan, so there’s that, but just even from an aesthetic point of view, I don’t think I own a bad-looking Frank Thomas card, and most of them look completely fantastic. That ’93 Upper Deck card above is probably worth 10 cents, but it’s a work of art, a perfect example both of Upper Deck’s industry-leading attention to quality photography and of just how damned photogenic Frank was when he was doing his thing.
Like, look at the Frank Thomas Flair card above: That perfect swing AND a shot of him poised for action in the field. Beautiful. (I’ll write more about Fleer’s premium Flair sets later on, just gorgeous overall.)
And on the 1993 Leaf subset called On the Fast Track: There’s that picture-perfect swing again, the one that earned him comparisons to Ted Williams, the one that served him so well throughout his Hall of Fame career.
But there’s one Frank Thomas card in the collection that I really wish you could see through 10-year-old me’s eyes.
The Stadium Club
In 1992, there was a card shop at the local mall, and it was on an open corner spot where you could walk by and see things in the display cases from outside the store in the main walkway, on account of there being no walls. And of course, I would pretty much invariably see SOMETHING in or on the display cases that made me want to stop every time I walked by. At one point, on maybe the second or third shelf down on one of the lit, glass-enclosed display cases, I saw this card, and somehow even from the walkway 15 feet away, I knew who and what it was:
The Topps Stadium Club set was Topps’s first foray into a more premium set of cards, and it clearly was mimicking the other top sets of the day with a shinier cardstock, a splash of gold foil, color on the back, and very high-quality photography. I believe the 1992 set was the second year for Stadium Club, and I had already purchased some packs, so I knew what the fronts looked like, with the small, unobtrusive logo and player name in the corner, and wall-to-wall, un-bordered photography the rest of the way.
But I hadn’t seen this. For me, this is the Mona Lisa of baseball cards. How could something so simple — a ballplayer sitting down, posing in uniform with a bat, smiling into the camera; a pose that had been used in sports photography for generations already — be so striking, so memorable? The pop of yellow on the tunnel wall behind him, contrasted with the blue railing and the shadow of the distant lower concourse behind him combine to create an intensely pleasing backdrop. This photo likely being taken at or even before the beginning of the season at media day means Frank’s cap, alternate jersey (complete with Comiskey Park commemorative patch on right shoulder), batting gloves and bat were all unblemished, like a kid primped and groomed for school photo day.
This card became my new white whale. It wasn’t that it was particularly valuable (it was just a normal series card in the set, not a chase card or a special insert), but I loved it. I don’t remember exactly how much it was going for at the time, but it was more than I figured my parents would pony up for a single card (maybe $15 or $20?). So I gasped, oohed, and aahhed at it, and left it in its case that time and for what seemed like the next 10 or 15 trips to the mall. It was always there, always in the same spot.
Needless to say that set became a focal point of my collecting. When I had cash for cards, I would make sure to buy at least a couple packs of Stadium Club. It should be noted at this point that I’ve always considered myself to have kind of poor luck. If I’m playing a board game, I always roll dice for the worst outcome for my situation. If I’m playing a card game, I never draw the cards I need to make a proper winning play. In my memory, my bad luck even extended to being able to pull the cards I wanted from new packs of sports cards, but … now that I look back at my collection, I’m not so sure that was the case.
For example, I’m pretty certain at some point that year, I pulled this card from a pack, gasped-oohed-aahhed again, slid it carefully into a protective sleeve, and stared at it for a while in awe. I felt very lucky. Now, although it was indeed a normal series card in the set, this was, as most were at that time, a BIG set. 1992 Stadium Club was an astounding 900 cards split into three series of 300 cards a piece. The Frank Thomas card was the first card, #301, of series two. And to be honest, I’m not sure I was fully aware of the series thing when I was buying packs: I don’t remember making sure I was buying only series two in my chase for Frank, so I may very well have been “wasting money” on series one or three cards as well. Or maybe not; I may be giving myself too little credit at that age.
But I got it all the same. And of course, as the Frank Thomas kid, I never entertained a trade offer for it.