In an era in which baseballs flew out of the park at record paces, Jim Thome sneaked up on us as one of the premium sluggers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Quiet and humble, Thome was, in many ways, just a face in the crowd on the 1995 Cleveland Indians, a super-team that won 100 games despite a strike-shortened 144-game schedule.
1995 was already Thome’s 5th season with the Tribe, but only his 2nd as a full-time starter. He turned 25 in August. At the end of the year, in which he hit 25 home runs, his career total was 55. Seventeen years later, when his career came to an end, Thome had a total of 612 taters, the eighth highest total in the history of the game.
A player who, throughout his 20’s, seemed like a very good but not Cooperstown caliber player, Thome was elected to the Hall of Fame last Wednesday by the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America). He was elected, on his first appearance on the ballot, with 89.8% of the vote, far more than the 75% required for induction. In an era where home run records were tainted forever by other players’ use of PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs), Thome is now widely regarded as one of the great authentic sluggers in the PED era.
Cooperstown Cred: Jim Thome
- Career: 612 HR, 1,699 RBI, 147 park-adjusted OPS+
- 612 career home runs (8th most all-time)
- 13.8 career at bats per home run (4th best all-time) (min 5,000 plate appearances)
- 1,747 career walks (7th most all-time)
- 72.9 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) (9th best ever for 1st basemen)
- 5-time All-Star
- 6 times in top 15 for MVP voting
(Cover photo: The Sporting News)
Let’s put three of those statistics into context by showing the company Jim Thome keeps when it comes to his total number of home runs, his home run rate per at bat and his ability to draw a free pass.
These lists are almost universally filled with Hall of Famers, players who are not yet eligible or players who would be in the Hall of Fame if not for their links to PEDs. There’s another career list in which Thome sits near the top. He is 2nd all time with 2,548 strikeouts. Even in this more infamous record, Thome has good company; the all-time leader in strikeouts for batters is Reggie Jackson.
James Howard Thome was born on August 27, 1970 in Peoria, Illinois. Peoria is a small manufacturing city in the southern part of Illinois, about 165 southwest of Chicago and 95 miles east of Iowa. From a 1998 profile in Sports Illustrated, the Thome family was synonymous with baseball in Peoria. His older brothers, his father, grandfather and aunt were all local legends in either baseball or softball. His father Chuck Jr. was a longtime employee of Caterpillar, building bulldozers for a living.
With his height (6’4″), size (250 pounds), Popeye forearms and farm-boy looks, Jim Thome was a natural star in the Midwest.
Shortly before his 19th birthday, in 1989, Thome was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 13th round of the June player draft. If you can believe it now, Thome (who bats left-handed but throws right-handed) was drafted as shortstop.
The Pride of Peoria struggled in his first minor league season; believe it or not, he didn’t hit a single home run in his first professional campaign (in 213 plate appearances).
It was hitting coach Charlie Manuel who, from Jay Jaffe’s bio on si.com, encouraged Thome to open up his stance, positioning his back foot close to the plate to enable him to crush outside pitches to the opposite field while still being able to pull the ball.
Manuel also encouraged his pupil to take a page from The Natrual.
“We were looking for a swing key, something that would open Jimmy up, let him hit to all fields. Redford steps in there and holds the bat with his right hand, way out in front of him, shoulder high. We both said, ‘Let’s try that.’ Right away, it worked.”
— Charlie Manuel (si.com/vault, July 13, 1988)
Thome, now an offensive force in the minors, was moved to 3rd base. He hit so well in the minor leagues that he was promoted to get his first taste of major league baseball in September 1991, shortly after his 21st birthday.
After going up and down from the minor leagues in the following two seasons, Thome became the Tribe’s starting 3rd baseman in 1994.
Thome’s ascendance to a full time MLB starter coincided with the Indians’ move from Cleveland Municipal Stadium to Jacobs Field. It was a move from the old, cavernous “Mistake on the Lake” to a beautiful, state-of-the-art ballpark in the new retro style of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The Indians had for years been doormats in the American League East. In 1994, the leagues realigned from two to three divisions, with the Tribe winding up in the A.L. Central. The players’ strike ended the ’94 season prematurely but, when the strike hit, the team had the third best record in the A.L.
Thome, in that first full season as a starter, hit 20 home runs with 52 RBI and a 127 OPS+ in 98 games.
In this piece, OPS+ will be cited often. OPS+ is on-base% plus slugging% adjusted for the ballparks each player hit in and also adjusted for the overall scoring environment of each MLB season. 100 is league average, so an OPS+ of 127 means that the player was 27% above average.
The 1995 Indians: a Team of Stars
When the strike ended in April 1995, expectations were high for the Tribe. This was a team that featured a winning mixture of promising young stars and distinguished veterans. Besides Thome, the young stars in the making included left fielder Albert Belle, center fielder Kenny Lofton, right fielder Manny Ramirez, second baseman Carlos Baerga, shortstop Omar Vizquel, starting pitcher Charles Nagy and closer Jose Mesa.
The afore-mentioned stars were all in their 20’s. Also on the team were veteran starting pitchers Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser, catcher Tony Pena, and future Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield. Also, shortly before the trading deadline, the Tribe acquired starting pitcher Ken Hill from the St. Louis Cardinals. Hill was second in the Cy Young voting for the ’94 Montreal Expos.
Six members of the Indians (Belle, Lofton, Ramirez, Baerga, Mesa and Martinez) made the 1995 All-Star team. Seven others (Murray, Winfield, Hershiser, Pena, Nagy, Hill and the team’s other catcher Sandy Alomar Jr.) were on previous Mid-Summer Classic rosters. Thome and Vizquel would make future squads.
This super-team had 3 players who finished in the top 12 of the A.L. MVP voting (Belle, Mesa and Manny) and two members who finished in the top 6 of the A.L. Cy Young voting (Mesa and Nagy). Besides the six All-Stars, the 1995 Indians had two Gold Glove Award winners (Lofton and Vizquel).
What’s the point of this little diversion into Indians history and the accolades of all of Thome’s esteemed teammates?
The point is that the young third baseman, early in his career, as good as he was, was overshadowed by the more celebrated members of his team. Ranked by WAR (a statistic that didn’t exist in 1995), Thome was the 2nd most valuable player on the Indians (2nd to Belle, who hit 50 home runs with 52 doubles, 126 RBI and 121 runs scored). But, at the time in 1995, nary a soul would have ranked Thome as the team’s 2nd best player.
Thome’s under the radar season included a .314 average with 25 home runs, 73 RBI, a team-leading .438 on-base% and a 157 OPS+ (another statistic that nobody had ever heard of in ’95).
On a team with so many premier offensive options, the 24-year-old Thome mostly hit 6th or 8th. His 25 taters tied for 3rd best on the squad; his 73 RBI were 6th; his .314 batting average was tied for 3rd. These were the statistics people followed in 1995. On this team, as good as he was, he was a face in the crowd.
The 1995 World Series: Jones vs. Thome
The ’95 Indians won 100 games in just 144 games (the season shortened due to the strike), swept the Texas Rangers in the A.L. Division Series, defeated the Seattle Mariners 4 games to 2 in the ALCS before succumbing in six games to the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. By drawing the Braves as their opponent in he Fall Classic, the super-team Indians were up against the team of the ’90’s, a team that had won three out of the last four N.L. pennants.
Like Cleveland, Atlanta also had a young third baseman, a switch-hitting rookie named Chipper Jones, who was the runner up to Hideo Nomo in the rookie of the year voting. Chipper, despite being on a team with three future Hall of Fame pitchers (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz), was an instant star in Atlanta, partially a result of having been the first overall pick in the 1990 player draft.
Chipper, unlike Thome, was a featured performer in the Braves lineup, occupying the 3-hole for most of the season, hitting right in front of cleanup hitter Fred McGriff.
Neither 3rd sacker had a major impact in the Fall Classic, although Thome played a key role in the Indians’ Game 5 victory. In the bottom of the 6th inning, Thome delivered a tie-breaking RBI single off Maddux, followed by an 8th inning solo home run to seal the Tribe’s 4-2 win. In Game 6, however, neither Thome nor his illustrious teammates could solve Glavine, who pitched 8 innings of one-hit ball in the Braves’ clinching 1-0 win.
22 years and 9 months later, the 25-year old Thome and 23-year old Jones will have another opportunity to reminisce about the ’95 Fall Classic when their plaques are unveiled on the same day in Cooperstown.
1996-2002 in Cleveland: Thome emerges as an All-Star
Still on a team of superstar hitters, Jim Thome started the 1996 season mostly hitting 7th in manager Mike Hargrove’s lineup. Shortly before the All-Star break, however, sporting a .455 on-base% with 15 HR and 48 RBI, Hargrove moved him up to #3 in the order, where he remained for most of the rest of the season.
Thome responded to the promotion with a monster second half: since July 6th, he hit .316 with a .444 OBP, 23 HR, and 63 RBI in 71 games. All in all, Thome’s final ’96 tally included a slash line of .311 BA/.450 OBP/.612 SLG with 38 HR, 116 RBI and 122 runs scored. Still a 3rd baseman, he won his first Silver Slugger Award and finished 15th in the A.L. MVP voting, although he probably deserved to finish higher. His WAR was 7.5, his OPS+ 167.
The 38 home runs represented the first of 12 seasons in which Thome would hit 30 or more. With 116 RBI, he eclipsed the 100 mark for the first of 9 seasons.
When the Indians acquired third baseman Matt Williams from the San Francisco Giants in the off-season, the 6’4″ Thome was moved across the diamond to first for the 1997 campaign. He had another excellent season, making his first All-Star squad while finishing 6th in the MVP voting. He hit exactly 40 home runs, the first of 6 seasons with 40 or more. The Tribe returned to the World Series in ’97 but fell in 7 games to the Florida Marlins.
Thome missed 35 games in 1998 due to a fractured metacarpal but still hit 30 home runs with 85 RBI. The ’98 Indians found themselves in the ALCS against a true super-team, the 114-win New York Yankees. Thome was a star in the losing effort, hitting .304 with 4 HR and 8 RBI. Included was a grand slam in the top of the 5th inning of Game 6. The Tribe, facing elimination, were trailing 6-1 against David Cone; Thome’s grand slam made it a 6-5 contest but the Indians would not score again and lost 9-5.
1999 was the last of three straight All-Star appearances for the slugging first baseman, although hardly his best season. An “off” season for Thome featured 33 HR, 108 RBI and a 142 OPS+. In the playoffs for the fifth straight year, the Indians fell in the ALDS to the Boston Red Sox, despite 4 HR, 10 RBI and a 1.059 slugging percentage from Thome.
Cleveland missed the playoffs in 2000 with Thome having another mediocre season by his standards. He smashed 37 homers and drove in 106 but set six-year lows in AVG, OBP, SLG and therefore OPS+ (a mere 132).
2001 and 2002 were Thome’s last two seasons with Cleveland and he went out with a bang:
- 2001: 49 HR, 124 RBI, .291 AVG/.416 OBP/.624 SLG with a 170 OPS+
- 2002: 52 HR, 118 RBI, .304 AVG/.445 OBP/.677 SLG with a 197 OPS+ (best in the A.L.)
In the 2002 campaign, Thome set career highs in HR, SLG and OPS+.
All in all, including 22 games back in Cleveland at the end of 2011, Thome is the Indians’ franchise’s all-time leader in home runs, with 337, far ahead of Albert Belle’s 242.
The Philadelphia Years
The 2002 Indians were no longer the powerhouse team they had been in the 1990’s. The team finished 74-88, the franchise’s first losing season since 1993. At the age of 32, Thome was offered a five-year, $62 million contract, hardly a pittance.
However, the Philadelphia Phillies were moving into their new jewel of a ballpark (Citizens Bank Field) and were looking for a star to add to the team. Thome was signed to a six-year deal worth $85 million.
The decision was not an easy one for the loyal Midwesterner. In the press conference announcing the signing in Philadelphia, the long-time Indian got choked up and walked away from the podium. When he returned, he talked about a lot of “sleepless nights” in the decision-making process.
The contract was ultimately not a good one for the Phillies but Thome certainly delivered in his first two years in the City of Brotherly Love. In 2003, the first-year Phillie led the majors with 47 home runs; he drove in 131 with a 154 OPS+ and finished 4th in the MVP voting. In 2004, he made his 4th All-Star squad, while hitting 42 home runs, driving in 105 and posting a 144 OPS+.
2005, however, was a lost season. Back and elbow injuries limited Thome to 59 games, in which he hit just .207 with 7 home runs.
While Thome was hurt, a near physical clone in the body of 6’4″, 250 pound Ryan Howard emerged as a star replacement at first base. Howard was 9 years younger and, with the lack of a designated hitter position in the N.L., Thome had to go.
Back in the A.L. with the White Sox
On November 25, 2005, Jim Thome was traded to the Chicago White Sox, who had just recently won the World Series. The trade to Chicago put Thome as close to his hometown as he would ever be. This was especially significant for the Peoria native because his mother Joyce had passed away earlier in the year.
At the age of 35, Thome was no longer asked to play in the field. He became the team’s full-time DH and only played in the field 9 times in the final 805 games of his career, spanning seven seasons.
Five days after trading for Thome, the Chisox re-signed free agent Paul Konerko (a post-season hero in the Sox title run) to play first base. Thome’s acquisition and the re-signing of Konerko marked the end of Frank Thomas‘ career in Chicago. Like Thome, the Big Hurt was also injured a lot in the 2005 season. No longer needed in Chicago, Thomas signed a one-year contract with the Oakland Athletics.
Now injury-free, Thome had a huge bounce-back season and was named the A.L. Comeback Player of the Year. While earning his 5th All-Star bid, Thome swatted 42 home runs to go with 109 RBI, 108 runs scored, a .416 OBP and 155 OPS+.
Ironically, Thomas also had a big comeback campaign in Oakland, hitting 39 HR with 114 RBI and a 140 OPS+. Although it’s clear by the numbers that Thome had the superior season, Thomas finished 4th in the A.L. MVP voting; Thome finished 12th.
Despite missing a few weeks early in the season, Thome had another big year in 2007; he hit 35 home runs with 96 RBI and a 150 OPS+ in 130 games.
The 500th Home Run
On September 16th, Jim Thome hit his 500th home run. The home run broke a 7-7 tie in the 9th inning and was the 10th walk-off tater of his career.
Getting #500 in walk-off fashion, the first player to do that (according to the Elias Sports Bureau), is only a small part of the story that Thome said was like a “movie script.” Yes, the slugger whose pre-swing key was patterned after Roy Hobbs in The Natural, has a 500th home run story worthy of Redford narrating it, set to the iconic music from that classic film.
It was Jim Thome Bobblehead Day in Chicago. His father Chuck and wife Andrea, seven months pregnant with the couple’s second child, were sitting behind home plate, part of a 25-person family entourage.
From a piece in the Harrisburg Register, the ball was caught by Will Stewart, a fan visiting from Austin, Texas. The Thome family, knowing that a milestone ball can fetch a lot of money on the memorabilia market, had pre-planned a bunch of goodies to trade for the historic ball, including a pair of 2008 season tickets.
After the game, Stewart handed the ball to the man of the hour and, as a non-Chicago resident, announced he would donate the season tickets to Thome’s favorite charity, which was the Peoria-based Children’s Hospital of Illinois. The ultimate nice-guy slugger’s 500th home run ball wound up in the hands of another super nice guy.
Embed from Getty Images
The following spring, Chuck and Jim Thome traveled together and personally delivered the 500 home run ball to the National Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
Seven Clubs in Five Years
If Jim Thome had retired after the 2007 season, he would have had a good case for the Hall of Fame. He had 5 All-Star appearances, 507 career home runs, a .409 career on-base% and a career OPS+ of 150. But he wasn’t finished.
In 2008, the 38-year old DH had another solid campaign, hitting 34 home runs with 90 RBI. But it wasn’t a season up to his normal standards; the slash line of .245 AVG/.362 OBP/.503 SLG were the lowest for his career for any full season. 2009 wasn’t much better; with similar numbers most of the season and the Chisox out of contention, Thome was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he was used exclusively as a pinch hitter for the month of September.
Thome landed in Minnesota for the 2010 campaign. As a part-time DH, Thome mashed 25 home runs with a 182 OPS+ in 340 plate appearances.
On August 15th, 2011, the Twins were visiting the Detroit Tigers. In the top of the 6th inning, Thome broke a 3-3 tie with a 2-run home run to left field off Rick Porcello; it was the 599th home run of his career.
In his very next at bat, in the top of the 7th, the left-handed slugger swatted a 3-run blast to left-center off reliever Daniel Schlereth. Thome’s 600th home run put the Twins up 9-5 and solidified their victory. You can see it by clicking here.
Ten days later, Thome went to his original baseball home; the Cleveland Indians purchased his contract from the Twins. Thome hit 3 home runs and posted a 144 OPS+ in 22 late-season games with the Tribe.
2012 would be the final campaign for Jim Thome. It was split between a reunion in Philadelphia and, after a trade, 28 games with the Baltimore Orioles. Even at the age of 41, Thome provided above-average value in his final season, delivering a 112 OPS+.
In the final at bat of his career, in Game 4 of the ALDS between the Orioles and New York Yankees, Thome reached base on an infield single. The game was tied in the 9th inning; Thome was replaced by a pinch runner.
Thome never played again but didn’t officially retire until August 3, 2014; he signed a one-day contract with the Indians and the team unveiled a statue in his honor.
The Walk-Off Specialist
As we’ve seen, Jim Thome is 8th on the all-time home run list. He’s 4th on the all-time list for at bats per home run (minimum 5,000 PA). That’s pretty darned great. But there is a home run mark upon which Thome reigns supreme. He is the all-time record holder with 13 career regular season walk-off home runs.
A bunch of nobodies named Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial and Frank Robinson shared the record at 12 before Thome surpassed them. Thome’s record is for regular season games only. Mantle also hit one in the World Series (for 13 total). Musial hit one in the All-Star Game (for 13 total). David Ortiz hit 11 regular season walk-off homers and hit two in the post-season (for 13 total).
No matter how you count it, Thome is on top of a list with the most esteemed company. He hit his first walk-off in 1994, his first year as a full-time starter. He hit his last in 2012, with the Phillies, in his final MLB campaign. In between, he walked it off 11 other times, including his 500th career blast. On four different occasions, he turned defeat into victory by delivering his walk-off tater while his team was trailing in the game.
You can watch all 13 Thome walk-offs by clicking here.
Note the line from Phillies broadcaster Tom McCarthy’s on the 13th of the 13 walk-offs: “you’re watching a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest home run hitters of all time.”
The Overlooked All-Time Great
When Jim Thome was elected to the Hall of Fame last week with 89.8% of the BBWAA vote, he set a new record for the highest vote total ever for a 1st baseman (assuming you count Rod Carew as a 2nd baseman). His election represented the end to an incredible journey from a face on the crowd on the Indians super-teams of the ’90’s to Hall of Famer.
Playing second or third fiddle to his more famous Cleveland teammates was a theme that would persist. Throughout his career, Thome was overlooked or overshadowed.
During his 22 years in the game, Thome only made five All-Star teams. He only had one season in which he finished in the top 5 of the MVP voting. By comparison, Eddie Murray, his teammate with the Indians in Thome’s early years, made 8 All-Star squads and finished in the top 5 of the MVP voting 6 different times.
Amazingly, he won only one Silver Slugger Award (the award for the best hitter at each defensive position). He won the award at 3rd base in ’96 but never as a first sacker or DH. Year after year, Thome’s consistently excellent seasons were eclipsed by superb years by Tino Martinez, Rafael Palmeiro, Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton, Pujols and Ortiz.
Despite the lack of Silver Sluggers, All-Star berths and MVP votes, Thome was in fact one of the most consistent offensive forces in baseball history. He had ten different seasons in which he hit over 30 home runs and did while sporting an OPS+ of 140 or above. Only Hank Aaron, Ruth, Barry Bonds, Mike Schmidt, Ramirez, Albert Pujols, Willie Mays, and Foxx did this more than ten times. On this illustrious list, Thome is tied for 9th with Frank Robinson and Lou Gehrig.
Ask anybody in the business of baseball about Jim Thome and they’ll tell you he was one of the nicest players they’ve ever met. They’ll also tell you he was one of the greatest sluggers they ever saw. Now he’s a Hall of Famer. The Pride of Peoria will soon have a plaque in the same museum in which he and his father personally delivered his 500th home run ball.
Thanks for reading.