Jim Thome joined the most elite club in baseball on Wednesday. With 89.8% of the vote on his first-ever appearance on the ballot, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Thome, his 612 home runs, his lifetime .276/.402/.554 triple slash, his 1,747 walks, and a bronze rendering of his warm and welcoming smile will be enshrined in Cooperstown forever.
But a bronze plaque will never be able to capture the true essence of Thome. He’s baseball’s Paul Bunyan, larger than life, but approachable and gentle. Fans everywhere loved him. Asking why seems almost silly, because for most people who have ever seen him play, or been lucky enough to have him play for their favorite team, it’s obvious. He had an uncontainable love for the game. He looked like a big kid out there, holding his bat out straight at the plate before he settled in, looking for his pitch, and taking a big swing before connecting and trotting around the bases.
Thome was the archetypal old-time baseball slugger, which is why he seemed to fit in everywhere he played. What team didn’t need a big, barrel-chested hitter who could knock the cream cheese out of a baseball? He looks like he could play for your hometown adult league, or even one of the beer leagues they used to have in the 1800s. He looks like that, but inside that barrel chest beats the heart of a gifted slugger and an on-base machine.
There are a lot of reasons that Thome was loved by fans in Cleveland and Philadephia among other cities. His attitude was always gregarious and generous. He was a selfless player, waiving his no-trade clause so the Phillies could install a young Ryan Howard. In return, the Phillies traded him to the Chicago White Sox so he could be closer to his father.
Thome (along with his wife, Andrea) is a dedicated philanthropist. He’s raised money for charities in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois. Thome has granted wishes for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He’s donated to children’s hospitals, and worked extensively with the United Way. In recognition of his charity work, the MLB Players Association gave him the Marvin Miller Man of the Year award in 2001 and 2004, and he received the Roberto Clemente Award in 2002.
But all of those reasons wouldn’t mean nearly as much if it wasn’t for Thome’s talent for hitting home runs. Big, tall, giant, fat home runs. Home runs that set records and nearly left stadiums. When Jim Thome hit a home run, you knew it was as much fun for him as it was for you. Thome home runs were joyful. He hit 612 of them over his 22-year career, which means he put a staggering amount of joy into the world.
He played with the Cleveland Indians for just short of 13 seasons, and he hit 337 home runs for them. Cleveland loved Thome so much that they unveiled a statue of him at Progressive Field in 2014, the same day he signed a one-day contract with the team so he could officially retire an Indian. Two years later, he was inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame.
With Philadelphia, Thome hit 101 home runs over three and a half seasons. He gave fans something to look forward to on the Phillies teams of the early 2000s, when there wasn’t much else to see. He helped revive baseball in Philadelphia, and the fans didn’t just love him for it, they never forgot it. In 2016, Thome was elected to the Phillies Wall of Fame, and given his own plaque beside Charlie Manuel (his former minor league manager), Mike Schmidt, Darren Daulton, Robin Roberts, and many more Philadelphia sports legends.
Add 134 homers over four years with the Chicago White Sox, 37 in two seasons with the Minnesota Twins (which felt very much like Paul Bunyan returning to his ancestral home), and three in his 17-game stint with the Baltimore Orioles, and you’re at 612. That puts Thome at eighth place on the all-time home run list, having just been passed by Albert Pujols. Six hundred is a big number when it comes to home runs. Only nine players have ever hit that many. Hitting 600 homers doesn’t guarantee a player a place in the Hall of Fame, but it absolutely helps.
Looking at the eight other players who have hit 600 or more home runs, you can divide them into three categories: Hall of Famers (Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr.), active players (Albert Pujols), and those who have been accused of or admitted to PED use (Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa). Thome has joined that Hall of Famer category, and there’s no use pretending that his squeaky clean record has nothing to do with it. There has never been even a whisper of PED talk around Thome, which makes him an incredibly attractive candidate. With the PED controversy surrounding them, the 600-homer mark isn’t enough for Sosa and Bonds to be enshrined (though Bonds is garnering support as time goes on), and it most likely won’t be enough when A-Rod is eligible in 2021.
Thome feels like the last of the old-fashioned tater mashers. No one can say that we won’t see a player like him again, but it feels like it’ll be awhile. Baseball has changed so much that there may not be room for that kind of player anymore. But his election to the Hall of Fame means there’s certainly room in the annals of baseball history for Jim Thome.
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