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Thomas gets HOF call, then call from Obama

On memorable day for slugger, former coaches reflect on his early career

CHICAGO -- Messages of congratulations regarding Frank Thomas' first-ballot Hall of Fame selection apparently have gone beyond the world of sports, let alone Thomas' friends and former teammates.

On Wednesday night, through his Twitter account @TheBigHurt_35 and the account belonging to his wife Megan, a message was delivered that President Barack Obama called the legendary White Sox slugger.

"What a day!! First HOF and Second Our Wonderful President Of The United States Called Me!!! "

It's common knowledge that the president has a strong affinity for sports overall, not to mention standing as the diehard White Sox First Fan. But here's a piece of information about Thomas that might not have been known until he revealed it during a press conference at U.S. Cellular Field late Wednesday afternoon.

Baseball was not always Thomas' first love.

"To be honest, football was my game," said a smiling Thomas.

Growing up in Columbus, Ga., in the heart of SEC country, it's easy to understand how football was Thomas' original road traveled. He actually went to Auburn on a football scholarship but also chose the school for the ability to play for a quality baseball program.

Auburn stands as the place that refined Thomas' work ethic, with Thomas pointing out Wednesday that if you weren't in the weight room early or working to get better every day, you were going to get passed. But Thomas hurt his foot playing in a football game against Tennessee as a sophomore and that career path quickly changed.

How it changed might not be realized even by Thomas to this day.

Pat Dye, the Auburn football coach at the time, put in a call to Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird at the end of the season and asked Baird one basic, two-part question: How good is Frank and can Frank take care of his family in baseball? Baird's response was not only straight to the point but extraordinarily prophetic considering Thomas was in the early stages of his career.

"I said, 'He's the best I've ever seen,'" a proud Baird told by phone on Wednesday. "And remember, a year earlier, I had Bo Jackson."

Coach Dye and Frank Thomas' father, Frank Sr., had talked about the younger Thomas giving up football, and Dye just wanted to make sure Thomas had a future in baseball. Based on Wednesday's announcement, the highly touted tight end coming out of high school made the right decision.

Baird talked about Thomas' amazing vision at the plate as a trait setting him apart. Even as a raw talent, Thomas was a sophisticated force who owned the strike zone.

"A pitch would miss by a couple of inches, and he would take it," Baird said. "He never gave up an at-bat. With kids throwing 93-to-95 mph, that was an amazing skill to watch."

Mike Gellinger would agree.

The assistant hitting coach for the White Sox under Greg Walker and currently the manager for the franchise's Rookie-level team in Arizona was with Thomas at Double-A Birmingham in 1990, after the White Sox took Thomas seventh overall in the 1989 First-Year Player Draft. Gellinger was an extra coach with the Barons assigned to work on Thomas' defense at first base, but he immediately noticed his excellence with the bat.

From the beginning, Thomas had a routine and understood how important that routine was to find a high level of consistency. That routine was refined under White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak, but Thomas always had structure.

"This is what I'm doing and I'm doing it every day, and this is how I'm doing it every day. That's the way it's going to be," said Gellinger when asked to describe Thomas' routine. "Put a great athlete with ability and mix in consistency and hard work and dedication, and what you get is a Hall of Famer."

"I've never known a time when Frank wasn't great," Baird said.

That vision discussed by Baird translated into Thomas' "ability to make a decision" for Gellinger. He could get the pitch to where he needed it to hit. He made good choices.

When pitchers went after Thomas away, he took the ball to center and right-center. Later in his career, when they pitched him in, Thomas became a pull hitter with powerful success.

"How many guys can do that? Just change his approach," Gellinger said.

Thomas' sum total was an illustrious 19-year-career, eventually bringing him to a surprise presidential call, and words of congratulations from old friends and colleagues.

"Induction into Cooperstown is the game's greatest honor, and to see Frank's plaque placed alongside baseball's other outstanding hitters brings his White Sox career full circle," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, in a statement regarding Thomas' Hall of Fame election. "Frank is the greatest offensive player in White Sox history, a line-drive hitter and on-base machine in a slugger's body.

"He now deservedly joins baseball royalty like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Hank Aaron, as well as Sox legends like Louie [Aparicio], Nellie [Fox] and Luke [Appling], in Cooperstown. To have had the opportunity to see his career begin in 1990 and then end in the Hall of Fame has been a special privilege for me and for many with the White Sox, including so many fans who witnessed his greatness firsthand. Frank should be very proud today, celebrating along with his family, friends, teammates and every Sox fan who had the chance to cheer for The Big Hurt."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin.

Chicago White Sox, Frank Thomas