“They come to see me strike out, hit a home run, or run into a fence. I try to accommodate them at least one way every game.”
A current Brewers fan might assume the statement above came from Carlos Gomez. Though Gomez has provided plenty of each this season, it was former Brewers center fielder James Gorman Thomas who set the precedent with the above statement. A Milwaukee fan favorite in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Stormin’ Gorman was honored with a bobblehead during Sunday’s game at Miller Park.
Gorman Thomas spent eleven seasons as a Brewer. His 1,102 games played ties B.J. Surhoff for the 10th most in franchise history. His 208 home runs are fifth most. Thomas’ 605 RBIs are good enough for eighth best. And his 1,033 strikeouts are third most, though Rickie Weeks (who has 1,029 Ks) will probably take that slot from him next season. Yet, even with his name firmly ensconced in the Brewers’ record book, Sunday’s bobblehead had Thomas sporting a Seattle Pilots uniform.
The Seattle Pilots drafted Gorman Thomas with the 21th pick of the 1969 draft, thus making him the first player drafted by the organization that turned into the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970. When Thomas told the tale of being drafted by the Pilots, it sounded like he was lucky to be drafted in the first round at all. Born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, Thomas was a high school shortstop that also pitched for his team. Supposedly, on the day a handful of scouts came to watch him play, Thomas was suspended for intentionally beaning four straight batters the last time he was on the mound. The scouts slipped Thomas’ coach a $20 to forget the suspension and let him play. The scouts also ponied up another $20 to get an extended look at Thomas taking batting practice. The Seattle Pilots took notice and used their first every draft pick on him. Thomas recalled hearing from his mother that the Seattle Pilots had called to say they drafted him. Unfamiliar with the expansion team, and with the country in the thick of the Vietnam war, Thomas was worried, “I thought I had been drafted into the navy”.
That story, and the quote at the top, are courtesy of Daniel Okrent, the man who invented fantasy baseball. In the early ‘80s, Okrent wrote the book 9 Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game. The book is not only an in-depth examination of the game between the Brewers and Orioles at County Stadium on June 10, 1982; it also delves into the histories and personalities of each team. Due to his stature on the club, and larger than life persona, Thomas is featured prominently in the book.
In Okrent’s account, it’s easy to understand why Gorman Thomas was such a fan favorite in Milwaukee. Thomas drank beers with tailgaters in the County Stadium parking lot, had a beer gut, and smoked Marlboros. According to Okrent,
“Thomas was in terrible condition for a professional athlete; Paul Jacobs, the team physician, often worried about how he failed to take care of his body.”
Yet, between 1978 and 1980, Thomas hit more home runs (115) than anybody else in baseball. In 1982, he hit 39 home runs, which tied Reggie Jackson for the most in the AL. Though he was a career .230 hitter, as a Brewer, he drew enough walks to post a .325 OBP and hit for enough power to generate a .786 OPS. Even with the low average and plethora of strikeouts, Thomas managed a career 119 OPS+ for the Brewers. To frame his power another way, according to Fangraphs, Thomas’ .231 ISO is the best for any Brewers center fielder.
Most of that power came from Gorman Thomas’ specialty – the home run. He called his home runs “bumps” and hitting them “dialing 8” (8 being the number first dialed for long distance calls from a hotel room). Okrent describes Thomas as having only two swings. One for hitting “bumps” and one for when there were two outs and men-on-base. So, basically, one swing. Thomas claimed he could hit .280 or .290, if he wanted to, “but not with 35 bumps. I’m here for the bumps.”
Thomas was also there to play centerfield. After spending the majority of the late ‘70s and 1980 patrolling center field, in 1981, the Brewers’ organization wanted to move Thomas to right field to make room for one of their rising stars – Paul Molitor. Thomas was not happy with the decision and told the media, “In center field, you’re the driver in a grand prix race; in right, you’re a mechanic”.
There was tension in the Brewers clubhouse during this period but Thomas handled it gracefully. Thomas could be loud, boisterous, and intimidating but he was still a good teammate. With reporters, he didn’t pull any punches but he also refused to throw Molitor under the bus for any misplayed balls. Thomas believed that, “You don’t rip people for their bad play. And if you do, you’d better have a clean closet. No one does.” Eventually, an injury to Molitor derailed the Brewers’ plan. Thomas made his way back to center field and Molitor finally found a home at third base to start the 1982 season.
Gorman Thomas roamed center field for the Crew until he was traded to Cleveland in June of 1983. That off-season, Cleveland traded Thomas to the city that originally drafted him. He played as a Seattle Mariner until being released June 25, 1986. The Brewers brought him back to DH for the rest of the 1986 season. True to form, he finished out the season with the Crew by hitting .179 with 6 home runs and 50 strikeouts. After that, he retired.
Tom Flaherty, the former Brewers beat reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, knew Gorman Thomas from his days at A ball in Clinton, Iowa. Once while watching Thomas try to leg out a slow roller, Flaherty said, “He always hustles. He’ll still never beat one out, but he’ll always hustle.” It wasn’t just Thomas’ beer gut and honest, but honorable, disposition that made him a fan favorite in Milwaukee. His determination and work ethic also struck a chord with the hometown crowd. Using his unique set of tools, Thomas carved out his niche amongst both the Brewer faithful and the records books. And, in the era when Milwaukee made its only World Series appearance, Gorman Thomas embodied what it meant to be a Brewer.