PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — We all live on “borrowed time,” said former Pittsburgh Pirates great Frank Thomas — “The Original One” — and we have the free will to choose how we want to live our lives.
“What do you want to do with it?” he asked.
So, at age 90 and with support from his deep Catholic faith, he continues to support two charities that are close to his heart. The money he makes for signing photos and other baseball memorabilia goes to Camp Happy Days — Kids Kickin’ Cancer and Courageous Kidz, a safe haven for children with cancer.
Thomas was taking part in a South Carolina golf tournament hosted by football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly in the 1980s when he was asked to visit a hospital there. He encountered a girl who was by herself because her mother was unable to visit her. “It brought tears to my eyes,” he said.
The visit convinced him to reach out to young people. “I just felt that I wanted to do something,” he told the Pittsburgh Catholic, newspaper of the Pittsburgh Diocese. “God has been good to me.”
Thomas said he was grateful that God had brought his wife, Delores, into his life and blessed them with eight healthy children. His youngest, Father Mark A. Thomas, is a Pittsburgh diocesan priest.
Debby Stephenson, founder and executive director of Courageous Kidz, said Thomas is “quite amazing.” She met him when he was at the South Carolina tournament.
“I’m in South Carolina, he’s in Pittsburgh,” she said. “There are many nonprofits all around that he can help, and he has chosen us. I feel honored.”
Her organization presently serves more than 200 children, Stephenson said, and 93.5% of donations go directly to the families. Stephenson noted she was playing Santa Claus to a dying 15-month-old boy who is facing his last Christmas.
Thomas said many of his values were instilled in him by the Carmelite priests when he was a seminary student at Mount Carmel College in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He entered as a 12-year-old and stayed there until he was 17, when he realized that he wanted to pursue a baseball career. He was a multisport star while he was there, with one of his football teammates being future Steelers great Jack Butler.
Thomas spent eight years with the Pirates. He was a three-time All-Star and had his best season in 1958 when he hit 35 home runs and drove in 109 runs. In all, he would hit 286 home runs and drive in 962 runs for his career. The late Nelly King once said that Thomas could have hit 500 home runs had he played in a smaller ballpark than Forbes Field. It was known as a hitters’ park, but its cavernous dimensions were not kind to home-run hitters.
He was instrumental in the 1958 trade with the Cincinnati Reds that brought Smoky Burgess, Don Hoak and Harvey Haddix to the Pirates. The trio would play big roles with the Bucs on their way to the 1960 World Series title. Thomas would play for six other teams before he retired in 1966.
Thomas is legendary for his willingness to make time for kids. He would stay around after games until he signed autographs for all who had gathered around him. He also made it a point to never take the game home with him.
He had his own Babe Ruth-like experience in the 1950s. He was told about a little boy in the hospital who would never smile. But when he poked his head in the boy’s room, his face lit up with a big smile and he exclaimed, “I know who that is. That’s Frank Thomas, my favorite ballplayer.”
Thomas gave the boy a ball autographed by the Pirates, but the youngster had a request. Would he hit a home run for him? Thomas recalled that he remembered thinking, “Dear God, can I do this?”
He told the boy that he would try. He was in the on-deck circle at the next game in Chicago when he asked, “Dear God, not for me, but for the little boy. I can’t do this unless you help me.” He went to bat and struck out.
The next time up he made the same request. On a 3-2 pitch, he connected for a home run. Thomas recalled that as he was rounding the bases he “was wondering what Stephen was thinking.” After the game, he returned to his locker to find a telegram from the boy’s mother. He had died shortly after the home run.
“That’s why I have the faith I do,” Thomas said. “God has never let me down.”
His Catholic faith sustained him when Delores, his wife of 61 years, died in 2016. It also supported him when his daughter, Sharon, was killed in a fall on the evening of New Year’s Eve 1973.
Today, Thomas has found companionship in a relationship, and he is a member of the Neighbors North Catholic Community in the North Hills.
“I still feel blessed,” he said.
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Franko is a staff writer at the Pittsburgh Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
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