On February 8, 1978, the Milwaukee Brewers purchased Gorman Thomas from the Texas Rangers. It officially became Thomas’ second tour of duty with the Brewers, though he had never actually played for any other organization.
The South Carolina native from James Island HS was the Seattle Pilots #1 draft choice in 1969. In Rookie ball that year, Thomas showed promise at the plate, hitting .296, but was a defensive butcher, making 26 errors in 34 games at shortstop. The following year, playing A-ball in Clinton while the parent club moved from Seattle to Milwaukee, Thomas booted 28 chances in 85 games split between shortstop and third base, and batted only .212, racking up 98 strikeouts in 295 at-bats. Fearing his defensive miscues were effecting his hitting, the club permanently converted Thomas to the outfield. And while the high strikeout rate would continue throughout his professional career, he showed great power in 1971, smashing 55 extra base hits, including 31 homers. By 1973, Thomas earned a mid-season call-up to Milwaukee, hitting his first big-league homer off Jim Palmer, but batted only .187 in 59 games and was sent down to the AAA Sacramento Solons.
Thomas enjoyed what seemed a break-out season with Sacramento in 1974, blasting 51 homers with 122 RBI. While the cozy dimensions of Hughes Stadium, a converted football stadium that measured just 232 feet down the left field line certainly helped, Thomas did manage to hit .297 despite 175 strikeouts.
He again struggled after moving back up to the big club; in 1975 and 1976 Thomas hit under .200 both seasons with just 18 combined home runs in 220 games.
In 1977, back in AAA, this time in Spokane, Thomas was running out of chances. He began studying the hitting mechanics of Mike Schmidt, and patterned his stroke after the reigning 3-time major league home run champ. Thomas did a pretty fair Schmidt impression that year, tearing up Pacific Coast League pitching with 36 homers and 41 doubles, plus 20 stolen bases and a .322 batting average, his best ever as a pro. Gorman never played in the minors again.
That off-season was when Milwaukee, worried about losing Thomas in the 1977 Rule V draft if he was left off their 40-man roster, arranged a deal that sent him to Texas as the player to be named later in an August deal for Ed Kirkpatrick. Texas had the roster space to protect Thomas before selling him back to the Brewers in February.
From there he took off as one of the league’s best power hitters, walloping 32 homers in 1978. In 1979 Thomas finished 7th in MVP voting; he set a Brewers team record and led the American League with 45 home runs, walked 98 times for a career best .356 on base percentage, and drove in 123 runs. He added 38 HR, 105 RBI in 1980, then made his first All-Star team in the ’81 strike season. Thomas wore his blonde hair long and wild, with facial hair at various stages of unkept growth depending on his mood. Luis Tiant commented that Thomas was so ugly ‘he could be anything in the jungle he wanted to be, except the hunter’. Bob Verdi of the Chicago Tribune once said ‘If Gorman comes into your house with your daughter, you’d disown them both’.
1982 saw the rise of ‘Harvey’s Wallbangers’, led by Thomas who again paced the junior circuit with 39 home runs, to go with 112 RBI. Thomas finished eighth in AL MVP voting, good for only third on his own club behind MVP teammate Robin Yount and #5 vote-getter Cecil Cooper. The Brewers won the pennant, but were turned away in a 7 games World Series by the St Louis Cardinals. Thomas struggled mightily, managing only 3 hits and 3 RBI with no extra base hits in 26 at-bats. It followed an ALCS that saw Thomas go 1 for 15 during Milwaukee’s 5-game victory over the Angels.
In June of 1983, Thomas, hitting just .183, was swapped to Cleveland primarily for outfielder Rick Manning. He rebounded to a decent second half with the Indians, then was traded in the off-season to Seattle. After an injury-plagued year, Thomas rebounded enough in 1985 to take AL Comeback Player of the Year honors. Though he batted only .215, he hit 32 homers with 85 RBI, and drew 84 walks as the Mariners DH.
Thomas retired after the 1986 season, which saw him return to the Brewers after Seattle released him in mid-year. From 1978-83 no one in the American League hit more than Thomas’ 197 home runs. He finished with 268 lifetime homers, and had a ‘take and rake’ approach that become popular with sluggers in years to follow, tallying 697 career walks and a .324 OBP in spite of 1,339 whiffs. Despite his barrel chested physique, the former Florida State football recruit had enough speed and athleticism to hold down centerfield duties capably until shoulder surgery in 1984 limited him to a designated hitter role.
Gorman has since been elected to both the Wisconsin and South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fames, and the Charleston Baseball Hall of Fame. Thomas brings fond memories to fans who recall the ‘Wallbanger’ days, and is employed by the club to make personal appearances in the Milwaukee area and greet fans at Gorman’s Grill in Miller Park.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: