Jonah Keri, the author of The Extra 2%, is America’s foremost Montreal Expos nostalgist, a Tim Raines for Hall of Fame advocate, and an excellent podcaster. Keri selected Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell as the quintessential first basemen of the 1990s.
Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas were born on the same day: May 27, 1968. They put up preposterous numbers. Not Barry Bonds, “73”-type numbers, but still very large ones, for many years. In any other generation, they would be shoo-ins for Hall of Fame induction. More than just Hall of Fame recognition, they would be recognized the way all-time greats are. Better than Willie McCovey, not quite Jimmie Foxx. That’s the kind of company they would be keeping.
But because of the era in which they played, that recognition could take a while, far longer than is fair or reasonable. Bagwell has already been denied first-ballot entry into the Hall. He’s supposed to be a good bet to make it on his second try, but that’s no sure thing. Thomas, who lacked Bagwell’s defensive and baserunning skill, and thus gets pegged even more aggressively as a big, hulking slugger in an era where that’s somehow not a good thing, could face an even tougher road into Cooperstown. Even after both eventually get their plaques, they’ll be forgotten soon enough, just two more home run hitters in an era where Brady Anderson and Luis Gonzalez went off for vintage Gehrig and Aaron seasons.
I have my issues with denying Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, and Sosa their rightful place in history, and in our collective imagination. But the Steroids Era’s lingering legacy is guilt by association.
Few players will suffer more for it than Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas.