Thome made an impact locally

Former MLB slugger played at Johnson Park in 1988

Photo courtesy of Red Wyczawski Hall of Famer Jim Thome, pictured with Carl “Red” Wyczawski, played in the Central Plains Tournament at Johnson Park in 1988. Thome will be inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.

NEW ULM — On Sunday, Jim Thome will be become baseball immortality when he is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

But 30 years ago, Thome was making his mark at Johnson Park, where he played for Bartonville, Illinois in the Central Plains Region Six Legion Tournament.

New Ulm sports historian Red Wyczawski, who was the mayor of New Ulm in 1988, remembers Thome and that tournament quite well. Wyczawski said that Thome hit about .450 in the tournament that year with a couple of home runs. He was named the MVP of the tournament.

Thome is regarded as one of the sport’s greatest power hitters of all-time. He came up with the Cleveland Indians, where he spent a majority of his time as a first baseman and DH. He hit 612 home runs in a 22-year career, which ranks eighth all-time.

When he played for Bartonville, he was a tall, thin shortstop with power. Scouts took note of him him and so did Wyczawski.

“I was very impressed,” Wyczawski said. “There were a couple of major league scouts, one from Cleveland, and he said ‘take a good look at that shortstop from Bartonville, he’s got a future.’ And I watched him that first game and I thought, boy, definitely.

“He was in the category of [Paul] Molitor and [Michael] Restovich, some of the guys that played here before him,” Wyczawski said. “When I met him, we became friends. He likes hunting and fishing and we talked about that.”

Wyczawski said that he and Thome had dinner with Thome’s coach and Wyczawski got a tip from the Cleveland scout. After the tournament, he signed with the Indians.

“He told me not to talk about him to the other scouts because he wanted to sign him,” Wyczawski said.

While it’s impossible to predict major league stardom, New Ulm has had its share of big league players here, both from New Ulm and from other teams playing in tournaments. Thome is one who stands out to Wyczawski for obvious reasons.

“I thought he had a future as a major leaguer, but I didn’t expect him to be No. 8 all-time in home runs,” he said.

Wyczawski said that he reconnected with Thome after he signed with the Indians. Thome left two tickets for Wyczawski when the Indians came to town once and they had dinner at Murray’s Steakhouse in Minneapolis.

While Thome was one of the game’s greatest power hitters, he was also one of the game’s nicest guys.

“That was my impression from Day 1 when I met him, and he stopped at my house and he met my family and we became pretty good friends,” Wyczawski said. “I wrote him a letter and told him and I need his autograph and he did, he sent one. He’s a true gentleman. I would rank him in the Top 10, 15 that I met in baseball.”

Of course, Wyczawski will be tuned in on Sunday when Thome gives his speech.

“I’ll watch it, I wouldn’t miss it,” he said. “I’d like to see him again. [He’s] Just one of the real nice people in baseball.”