Jim Thome was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The announcement arrived Wednesday night from New York. There wasn’t much doubt the affable Thome, with 612 career home runs and a career devoid of steroid accusations, would be elected along with fellow first-timer Chipper Jones this year. It’s an outstanding Cooperstown class that includes Vlad Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman.
No question all belong. Jones, a third baseman for the Atlanta Braves is an excellent example. He might be among the greatest third basemen of all time. Only Mariano Rivera keeps Hoffman from consideration as the best closer in history.
So no, the only question I have concerning members of this year’s Hall class is more locally oriented to my home in Burlington, North Carolina. And it’s this: Is Jim Thome the first player to spend time on a minor league team in Alamance County to make the baseball Hall of Fame?
The answer is not perfectly clear, but it’s certainly likely. What I can say without question is that Thome is the first player from an Alamance County / Burlington minor league team to make the Hall of Fame since baseball returned to Burlington in 1986. Thome only played 34 games for the then-Burlington Indians of 1990, but they were a memorable 34 games.
Drafted by the Cleveland Indians, where he would spend most of his stellar career, Thome spent 55 games in 1989 playing for a rookie league team in the Gulf Coast League. In 1990 he was moved to Burlington to play for the Indians minor league affiliate in the rookie level Appalachian League. I was still living in Burlington at the time, working as an editor at the Times-News but just a couple of years removed from my sports writing days when I spent a lot of nights at Burlington Athletic Stadium covering Indians games, starting when the city got a minor league franchise again in 1986 after an absence of several years. By 1990 I was attending games on my own just to follow the team and have a couple of beers on a warm summer night.
What I remember about Thome — in the few games I saw — was the power he displayed here. He simply overwhelmed rookie league pitching and it was no contest. In those 34 games for Burlington he clubbed 12 homers with 34 runs batted in. Of his 44 hits in 118 at-bats (amazing .373 average) 19 were for extra bases. He scored 31 runs with an on base percentage of .503. He walked 27 times. Those stats led the league for two to three weeks after he was promoted.
Thome was so far above his teammates in Burlington that he was moved to the Kinston Indians at the single A Carolina League level. That cooled him off some, but not for long. Baseball writer Joe Posnanski lays out a brilliant look at Thome’s statistical career as a corner infielder and designated hitter in this blog post. It also includes a lot of little-known stuff about Thome. It’s a fun read about a quality guy who brought honor to baseball at a time of great dishonor.
But that brings me back to the question of whether Thome, originally of Peoria, Ill., is the first future hall of famer ever to grace a minor league field in Alamance County. I did a quick search of myriad sources trying to determine if that might be indeed the case. Nothing I could find was definitive. Burlington and Alamance County had several teams dating back to 1945 when the Burlington Bees were founded. That team lasted until 1951. The Bees became the Burlington-Graham (Bur-Gra) Pirates in 1952 and ended in 1955. In 1958 baseball returned to the area as the Alamance Indians. I recall my old friend and now late sports editor Bill Hunter telling me about covering those teams, that included fireballing righthander Luis Tiant. The Indians pulled out of Burlington in 1964 and replaced the following year by the Burlington Senators. That affiliation ended in 1972 and Alamance County was without minor league baseball the next 14 years before the Indians — now the Royals — arrived in 1986.
Tiant is by far the most notable of those early Burlington-area alumni that I could find and he has yet to make the Hall of Fame, but still might. Others include: pitcher Sonny Siebert, outfielder Tommie Agee and infielder Toby Harrah. Catcher Jack McKeon also makes the list of notables and may yet be elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager or baseball executive. The legendary Trader Jack, who now lives in Elon, built highly successful teams in San Diego as a general manager and won a World Series as a manager in 2003 with the Florida Marlins. He was 72 years old at the time.
That leaves Thome as the first following a cursory look.
But he most certainly won’t be the last. A few players who played for the Burlington Indians may yet make the Hall of Fame. C.C. Sabathia, a lefthanded pitcher now with the New York Yankees, will certainly merit strong consideration when his career is completed. He started five games for the 1998 Burlington Indians, tossed 18 innings and compiled a 1-0 record. He was 17 years old. The year was 1998.
And Manny Ramirez, one of the best right-handed hitters of the last 25 years, would almost certainly be in the Hall of Fame were it not for his connection to performance-enhancing drugs. At age 19 in Burlington he played 59 games with 19 homers, a .326 batting average and 63 runs batted in.
The Indians became the Royals in 2007. It’s far too soon to know what players from those teams might actually accomplish, though catcher Salvador Perez, who wasn’t in Burlington long enough to get a hot dog from Zack’s, is off to a good start.