Thomas fought back tears during an emotional ceremony that included fireworks and several of his former teammates. He thanked the organization and the city, saying "you can only dream of something like this" as his voice cracked.
Among those on hand to see Thomas become the ninth White Sox player to have his number retired were Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk and former World Series MVP Jermaine Dye, who both played with him. They got big ovations along with Billy Pierce and Minnie Minoso, while former manager Terry Bevington got booed.
The biggest reaction was for the honoree.
"It brought back a lot of memories, thinking about teammates and all the great times and bad times," Thomas said. "It just got to me. Emotion caught up. I'm a very, very proud man today, and this was probably was the proudest day of my life."
There was a video tribute for Thomas, who was then presented a painting and framed jersey by chairman Jerry Reinsdorf near home plate. Thomas' image with his No. 35 was unveiled along the wall in left-center and fireworks went off. The team later announced plans to install a bronze sculpture of Thomas in the outfield concourse next season, adding another honor on a day that Thomas said he'll remember for the "rest of my life."
The tributes are fitting, considering he is regarded by many as the greatest White Sox player of all.
"You want to talk White Sox, Frank Thomas' name has got to be No. 1," said Ozzie Guillen, his former teammate and manager. "I know Luke Appling played here. I know Nellie (Fox) played here, I know (Luis) Aparicio played, (Harold) Baines — all those guys. I think Frank Thomas did stuff for this organization that people are not going to forget."
Thomas retired in February after a 19-year career in which the two-time AL MVP hit .301 with 521 homers and 1,704 RBIs.
The Big Hurt made his major league debut in 1990 and set club marks for homers (448) and RBIs (1,465) before splitting his final three seasons with Toronto. That came after a messy split with Chicago following the 2005 championship season, but the ill will eased in recent years, with the White Sox hiring him as an ambassador last month.
When he left Chicago, Thomas was upset when the club bought out his option for $3.5 million that December, and things got particularly nasty during the 2006 spring training. He sounded off against the organization in an interview with The Daily Southtown of suburban Tinley Park, Ill., and general manager Ken Williams responded by calling him "an idiot."
Thomas was angry with the organization for portraying him as a damaged player, although injuries to his left ankle limited him to 34 games and made him a spectator as the White Sox grabbed their first World Series title since 1917. So it was a bitter end to an otherwise storied tenure with the team.
"It's going to be some ups and downs if you play anywhere as long as I played," Thomas said. "It happens to all the big players. Sixteen years in one city and played at a high level for such a long time, you're going to have your ups and downs. I'm sorry, people want to knock you down sometimes. I'm used to that. I had broad shoulders; I had to get broader shoulders.
"There were some days that I wanted to just go in my locker and cry with all that stuff. But I kept finding a way to get it done. I'm proud of what I accomplished over 16 years here and thank all of Chicago," he said.