Now "The Big Hurt" is ready to take his place alongside those stars. The former White Sox, A's and Blue Jays slugger on Monday toured the shrine where he's scheduled for induction on Sunday, July 27.
"This is the top one percent in all of baseball," Thomas said. "To dream that as a kid, that's a big dream."
It came true a couple of months ago when he got a phone call notifying him of his election as a first-ballot inductee. The last time he was here, in 2007, was for the annual Hall of Fame Game as a member of the Blue Jays.
That same summer, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn joined the Hall, setting an all-time induction weekend attendance record. Thomas thinks this year's crowd could be even bigger, given the cast he's going in with -- managers Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox, and 300-game winners Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.
He joked when asked if he felt slighted by getting less votes than those two great hurlers.
"Are you crazy?" Thomas said. "I'm just happy to be going to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's hard to take something like this in. Hard work and dedication is what it's all about."
Possessing a rare ability to hit for average and power, Thomas finished up his 19-year career (1990-2008) with a .301 average, 1,704 RBIs and 521 home runs, which is tied for 18th all time with Ted Williams and Willie McCovey. Thomas was a two-time American League MVP in 1993 and '94, won the AL batting title in 1997 (.347) and is one of only a handful of players to hit .300, belt 20 or more homers and knock in 100 runs for seven straight years (1991-97).
Despite his immense size and power -- 6-foot-5, 240 pounds -- Thomas prided himself on making contact. That's how he wants to be remembered.
"He was the biggest man on the field, but he was a consistent hitter," said Thomas, describing himself. "I cared about getting hits and scoring runs. A lot of times I was content getting on base and letting other guys drive me in."
He scored and drove in more than 100 runs for eight straight seasons (1991-98).
Part of his success he attributes to a good luck charm, a piece of iron rebar that he found one day at a construction site across from the White Sox Spring Training facility in Florida. Picking it up, he began swinging it, liked the way it felt and decided it worked better than a weighted bat. So it went with him in the on-deck circle for the rest his career.
"It was my blanket, like Linus," Thomas said, smiling.
Of course, luck didn't get him to Cooperstown. Thomas went to Auburn on a football scholarship, following in the footsteps of another Tigers two-sport star: Bo Jackson.
"Everybody wanted to be like Bo," Thomas said. "That's one of the reasons I went to Auburn. I knew the coaches didn't have a problem with guys playing two sports."
After getting injured in football, he focused full time on baseball and became a White Sox first-round Draft pick. During his 16 years in the Windy City, Thomas virtually rewrote the Pale Hose record book for offense prowess.
La Russa will bring fans to Cooperstown from Chicago's South Side as well, and Maddux, who also played for the Cubs, should attract many Wrigley Field faithful.
Cox, Glavine and Maddux will all have many Braves fans on hand, and Yankees lovers from the region will show up for Torre's induction.
"We're hoping for record crowds," Thomas said.
White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson tagged him with the nickname "The Big Hurt" early in his career, and it stuck.
"It's the first nickname I ever liked," Thomas said. "That's got a little ring to it."
For the better part of two decades, he put a hurting on opposing pitchers with every trip to the plate.
Thomas looked with awe at Hank Aaron's plaque, not just for his athletic feats, but for the way he handled himself while chasing Babe Ruth's home run record in the face of racial tensions that included threats on his life.
"All little kids have heroes," Thomas said. "He was mine. I idolized him."