A Conversation With: Ken Berry

Tension makes a tangle: Ken Berry was part of several first-division twists and turns during his White Sox years. (Sports Illustrated)

He showed himself to be a worthy successor to Jim Landis in the White Sox galaxy of center fielders. His nickname was “The Bandit” because of his ability to rob opponents of sure home runs by vaulting himself onto the center field fence in Comiskey Park, stretching higher still and taking away blasts that seemed destined for the back of the bullpens.

Later in life, Ken Berry would become a noted minor league manager, working with such promising youngsters as John Elway, Robin Ventura, Alex Fernandez and Frank Thomas. And if a major league career spanning 1962 through 1975 wasn’t enough, along with an All-Star appearance and two Gold Gloves, Berry then found himself working in the movies, as fate pointed his way towards a technical advisor position in the baseball film “Eight Men Out.”

Throw in two of the greatest pennant races in White Sox history, and you have quite a story to tell.

Ken told that story from his Kansas home on a Tuesday morning. I found him to be extremely insightful about baseball (possibly because he managed, he was strong in his opinions as to how to play the game) and sure of his White Sox memories, from managers like Al Lopez, Eddie Stanky and Chuck Tanner to a dreadful week in late September 1967.

Yes indeed, it’s quite a story!

Mark Liptak: Ken, how did this love affair begin between you and baseball? I imagine you played it a lot as a kid growing up in Kansas.

Ken Berry: I had played Little League baseball and then American Legion ball. It was only about 25 games a year, not like the 40 or 50 games traveling teams play today. We made it to the regional tournament in Oklahoma City one year, but we were beat by a team with former Yankee great Allie Reynolds’ son on it. Had we won that game, we would have gone to the World Series. I started out as a third baseman and had good speed. I was a wide receiver in football.

By the time you were in college (at what is now Wichita State University), the Sox apparently were very interested in you. Tell us about how you were scouted, and how you signed. And wasn’t Ted Lyons part of the Sox contingent that scouted you?

Ted had come up from Louisiana to watch me play. It was really the only time that I was aware that someone was interested in me for baseball. I had a scholarship to play football in college, like I said I was a wide receiver, and the San Diego Chargers of the old AFL knew about me. But this was the first time for baseball.

You signed with the Sox, worked your way up the minor league system, and made your major league debut on Sept. 9, 1962 in Chicago against the Washington Senators. The Sox won 3-2 in 11 innings, you went 1-for-3. What more do you remember from your first day on the field? (Berry’s first major league hit came in the fifth inning, when he singled to center off of Senators pitcher Bob Baird.)

I don’t remember much, except that the first time I came up to bat I remember shaking badly. I didn’t play much the first few years [Berry appeared in three games in 1962, going 2-for-6.] I was 20 years old at the time, and it just didn’t hit me that I was playing in the major leagues. I guess I just felt that it was my turn.

I do remember Comiskey Park, though. It was big, and it was very tough for hitters to see in those days. Back then you had this gigantic scoreboard. It had all the team names on it, numbers, lights and so on. Light would reflect off it, [making] it was hard to see at the plate. It wasn’t like the backdrops they have today. Also fans could sit in the bleachers then, it wasn’t empty or with a black background like today.

In 1963 and 1964 you were called up late, getting into a total of 16 games. You knocked out your first major league home run in Kansas City on Sept. 25, 1964 as the Sox routed the A’s, 11-3. Do you remember it? (Berry connected in the second inning for a three-run shot off K.C.’s John O’Donoghue.)

No I don’t. I thought I hit it off Catfish Hunter. I used to like to hit off him because he was always around the plate. His attitude was “here it is … try to hit it if you can.”

1964 was the year of the great chase, as the Sox desperately tried to catch the Yankees and clinch the pennant. They would fall short by a single game, and despite winning 98 games on the season would be shut out of the World Series. The Sox won their final nine straight games to close the season out. Talk us through say that final week, and what was the mood in the locker room like when New York finally clinched on the next-to-last day of the season.

I think I played every game down the stretch, which surprised me. Jim Landis had been there for years, and he had been through the pressure. I hit very well in that stretch. Les Moss, my manager in Indianapolis, changed the position of my hands a little bit and I had a good year. (Berry hit .375 in those 12 games, going 12-for-32 with a double, a home run, five walks and four RBIs.)

I remember the Yankees closed out the season with the Indians, who had talked about how they were ready to beat them. Instead, New York won the first two games and won the pennant. The furthest thing from my mind at that time was getting to play in a World Series. I just wanted to play well right then. (The Yankees beat Cleveland 5-2 and 8-3, clinching the title after Saturday’s win.)

1965 was your first full season with the Sox, as on Jan. 20, 1965 the Sox, Indians and A’s were part of a three-way deal sending Landis and Mike Hershberger to Kansas City and Cam Carreon to Cleveland. In return the Sox got back John Romano, Tommy Agee and Tommy John. That year you led the league in game appearances, games started, games finished, put outs and innings played but you only hit .217. Was it just that you were having a hard time adjusting to quality major league pitching?

No, I had hurt my neck playing football when I was 14 making a tackle. For some reason that injury flared up that spring. My neck muscles spasmed and I couldn’t turn my head. I had to turn my body when trying to catch a fly ball; I couldn’t turn my neck the first half of the season. I literally played those games and innings without being able to turn my head. I finally found a Japanese gentleman who lived in Oak Park, I think, and he used muscle interruption therapy to relax the muscles in my neck. The second half of the season I felt better, and hit around .240.

That was a tough year, because I’d always had success in athletics. Also hurting me was the fact that I got an ulcer from the pressure being put on me by [GM] Ed Short. Short kept threatening me, saying he was going to send me down to the minors if I didn’t start playing better. I was hurt. It’s not like I wanted to struggle.

You had known Sox manager Al Lopez  for a number of seasons when you were at spring training, but this was the first time you got to see him on an everyday basis. What kind of man was he, what kind of manager was he?

Al was extremely professional. He and his coaching staff were very close; they’d play golf all the time and knew each other well. He played the percentages, and with the type of pitching staffs that we had, he’d play for one run. We didn’t hit and run or use the delayed steal, for example. We weren’t very aggressive. We did a lot of taking when the count was 3-1. I’m not saying he was wrong, considering the quality of the guys we had on the pitching staff that was probably the right thing to do. But that’s not the way I liked to play, and that’s not what I did when I managed.

The Sox had another fabulous season, finishing second with 95 wins. But some considered the season disappointing given that you guys started off by winning 22 of your first 30 games. Injuries played a part, as both Gary Peters and Juan Pizarro went down, but Lopez also missed time with a stomach ailment in June that season, didn’t he? I imagine the uncertainty with Al didn’t help matters.

Actually, Lopez being sick really wasn’t that big of a distraction because his guys like Tony Cuccinello and Don Gutteridge knew exactly what Al wanted to do. The continuity was still there. The injuries to Peters and Pizarro are what hurt us. When you lose two pitchers who were that good, that really hurt us. We missed the quality starts they gave us.

The other big story that season involved so-called frozen baseballs, a charge made that August by Tigers pitcher Hank Aguirre. Any truth to those accusations?

I didn’t know anything about that aspect. What I did know is how they tailored Comiskey Park to our team, and that really hurt me and the other hitters.

I’ve heard for years from people about how I led the team in batting in 1967 at .241, along with Don Buford. What the fans don’t realize though is that with the pitching staff we had, the park was tailored towards them. The infield grass was kept high so that our infielders could get the balls, our pitchers were basically ground-ball type guys, and the area around home plate was always a swamp. When you stepped in, you could see the water seep up around your spikes. We weren’t that bad of hitters … it’s just that it was very difficult to get ground balls through our infield.

I remember one day, I hit three curve balls hard off Gary Bell and every single one of them hit that area around home plate and died. I don’t think I could hit a ball any harder, yet I had nothing to show for it. That was frustrating. Bell made all three plays and he was laughing as I ran down the line.

For a few reasons, including health, Lopez resigned as White Sox manager in November 1965. He was replaced by Eddie Stanky, which was akin (as Sox historian Rich Lindberg wrote) to letting Al Capone take over the town again. I guess the best place to start is by asking your take on the differences between Al and Eddie.

This is an easy question. The differences were like night and day. Eddie was extremely aggressive as a manager. He always wanted us to put the pressure on the other team. He used the bunt a lot, the hit and run, the delayed steal … we had four or five guys who could run, and we stole a lot of bases.

Eddie had a rule that you tag on every fly ball, at least make a bluff. He wanted to get the opposition to throw the ball around. He’d teach us things like how to try to knock the glove off the opponent when they were going to tag you. There’s a way to do it without being blatant about it and getting the umpire to call you out automatically.

He wanted to win, and he expected you to have the same attitude. I didn’t have a problem with him because I knew that’s the way he was. If you were hurt and couldn’t play, Eddie would take it personally. I was in the trainer’s room one time; I had a bad back. Charlie Saad, our trainer, was working on me trying to get it loose. Eddie came over to see how I was and I told him I didn’t know if I could play. Eddie looked at me and called me a dog. That’s the way he was.

I’d run through a wall for him though, he taught me a lot, and was very thorough about the game. He always said, “You only get 27 outs in a game, so don’t waste them.” When I became a manager myself and looked back at the type of manager Eddie was, I’d say I learned 80% of on-field, aggressive baseball stuff from him. I also learned another 20% of stuff on how not to treat people from him.

When Eddie would do things like his famous “strip tease” act in April 1966 or his comments about Carl Yastrzemski in June 1967, how much tougher did it make it for the Sox players to win games against guys who were upset by his actions? [In April 1966, Stanky launched a verbal tirade at Detroit News sportswriter Watson Spoelstra afterSpoelstra asked what kind of pitch Sox relief pitcher Bob Locker threw to Gates Brown in a key situation. In addition to the verbal rampage, Stanky ripped his uniform top to shreds and threw his spikes against the clubhouse wall. In June 1967, Stanky was quoted as saying about Yaz “he may be an All-Star from the neck down, but in my book he’s a moody ballplayer … and I don’t like moody ballplayers.”]

It didn’t make a difference to me. A lot of the guys would laugh about it. Eddie just didn’t like “Yaz” for some reason. Eddie could be that way. If he didn’t like you, he’d do anything he could to get into your head. I’m sure there were times when Eddie regretted something he said or done, but he wasn’t going to show any weaknesses by apologizing for it.

With all this as a backdrop, the 1967 season started with the Sox considered also-rans, yet somehow you guys won. A 10-game winning streak started on April 30 vaulted the team into first place, where you basically stayed through mid-August. Considering the talent on teams like the Red Sox, Tigers and Twins, the long ball potential they had, how did the White Sox keep winning games?

We won because of pitching, speed and defense. Every team that you mentioned hit about .260 or better that year and when you look at the guys they had, they had lineups than us. We hit about .230 as a team, but we made up for it by doing the little things to win games.

Personally you started to blossom that year: You had a 20-game hitting streak and started playing the kind of outfield defense that earned you the nickname of The Bandit for your ability to rob guys of home runs. Was it simply the fact that now you were comfortable in the major leagues?

During that 20-game hitting streak, everything I hit fell in. Didn’t matter if it was a line drive or a blooper, they all fell in. That happens sometimes. I never really understood hitting until after I retired and started playing slo-pitch softball. In that sport you have to wait for the pitch, keep your weight back, things like that. When I played in the majors I had a lot of bad habits. I had bad balance, I dove into balls and had poor recognition on pitches. I used to be an aggressive hitter, I was uncomfortable having two strikes on me so often I’d swing early in the count [and] sometimes they weren’t the best pitches.

That year you were named to the All-Star team for the game in Anaheim. What was that experience like for you?

It wasn’t a good one. I was hitting above .300 when the players voted for the team, but by the time the game came around I was down to around .255 or so. I finished fourth in the player voting for outfielders but Orioles manager Hank Bauer, who had the team that year, said he wasn’t going to pick me despite the player vote.

It turned out that right before the break we played the Orioles. Tom Phoebus threw me a pitch that I hit for a home run and as I was rounding the bases I yelled, “take that, Bauer!” In that same series Frank Robinson, who was going to be in the game, took out Al Weis trying to break up a double play. Weis suffered a torn ACL and was through for the season but Robinson got hit in the head when he made contact with Al and had double vision for a long time, so he was out of the [All-Star] game. Then that Sunday, Al Kaline popped up in a key situation and broke his hand when he punched the water cooler, so he was out of the [All-Star] game. When that happened, Bauer said he’d take me.

The game itself started in twilight, and nobody at the plate could see anything. I’m sitting there on the bench watching guys like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew just strike out. I don’t think the fans wanted to see an All-Star Game where the pitchers just struck everyone out. [That game went 15 innings, with the National League winning 2-1 on a home run by Tony Perez. Both pitching staffs combined for 30 strikeouts!] Finally in the last of the 15th, Bauer says to grab a bat. I go up there against Tom Seaver, and he strikes me out on three pitches to end the game.

Ken it was right there going into the final week of the season. The Sox trailed Minnesota by a game and closed the season with the A’s and the Senators. The World Series was so close Sox fans could taste it. Even opponents like Mike Andrews of the Red Sox told me that he and his teammates saw who the Sox were going to play and said it was all over. The trouble was, in reality it was all over for the Sox, who dropped all five games and saw their chances blown away in a 1-0 loss to Washington on the last Friday of the year. It’s been a long time, but I know you have to remember that week.

We went into that last week running out of gas. Stanky didn’t substitute, so we played every inning of every game. Maybe we were just worn out. The other thing was that, yes, Kansas City and Washington were the two worst teams, but they had some good young players who were coming up. They were impressive, and you have to give them credit. We also didn’t play well defensively, making three or four errors. [In the doubleheader loss to the A’s on Wednesday, September 27 the Sox made three errors, leading to three unearned runs.]

The other thing I remember was that when we came home to face the Senators, we still had a chance to win the pennant but in the stands there were only like 13,000 or 14,000 people. We should have had 40,000 or so to help cheer us on. It was just a downward spiral.” [The Sox came home for a weekend series with Washington. The Friday night game on September 29 drew 12,665. The Sox lost 1-0 and were eliminated.]

Some of your teammates on that club have told me they still haven’t gotten over the shock of seeing the pennant slip away like that. Over the years, did you ever wonder “what if?”

I don’t deal with that a whole lot. The only time I ever thought “what if” was when I think that maybe I should have done something like invite Al Kaline out for a cup of coffee and talk about hitting. Spend some time with some of the great hitters I played against. Maybe if I did that, I could have picked up some things and been a much better hitter. That wasn’t my nature, however. I just never did that.”

The collapse came the following year, and from 1968-70 despite having talented guys like you, Ed Herrmann, Luis Aparicio, Joe Horlen, Peters and John, the Sox were awful. Why couldn’t those teams win?

Look at the guys the Sox traded: Weis, Don Buford, Agee, Tommy McCraw, all the guys who could run. The trades completely changed the team around. The Sox completely lost their aggressiveness.

I remember one game I was sitting right next to the manager. We had a guy on first and the hitter was ahead in the count 2-1 or 3-1. I said, “Boy this would be a great spot for a hit-and-run.” The manager looked at me and said, “Oh noooo. The hitter might miss and the runner could get thrown out at second.” Right there was the problem. The Sox played boring, lackluster baseball, just waiting to get beat.

You had some personal success, though. In 1970, you hit .276 and won your first Gold Glove. Sox fans of that time remember you against the center field fence vaulting high to grab what should have been home runs. Was that something you actually practiced?

I worked on those leaping catches every single day. Every day I practiced stealing home runs. During batting practice, I’d clear out the other guys from center field and start working. I’d throw my hat down to give me an idea of where I started from and I’d just start going after fly balls. After I’d make the catch I could see how far I went to get them and that gave me an idea of what I could do in a game.”

Probably the greatest catch I ever made came when I was with the Angels. We were in Baltimore and Terry Crowley, a strong left-handed hitter, drove a ball in the gap. Andy Messersmith was pitching, it was late in the game and the Orioles had a couple guys on base. The fence in Baltimore was like the one in Comiskey Park, a chain link one with green slats covering it. I ran and leaped and got my spike in the fence and vaulted up about nine feet high. I made the catch with my arm, glove, head and upper body going over the fence then snapping back on to the field. Somehow I held on to the ball. I wish I had that video.

You know, I’ve been wanting to get this off my chest for a long time. One time I was watching ESPN baseball with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. Miller reminded Morgan that late in his career he played some outfield and asked what it was like. Morgan said, “It wasn’t like being at second base. You could relax out there.” I was sitting at home and started shaking my head. When I played center field, I was responsible for my other two outfielders as far as positioning them. I had to know who was hitting. I had to know what my pitchers were going to throw them. When I was in Comiskey Park, I’d have to keep checking the wind because it would often shift or swirl. I had to always be ready. Yet Morgan said you could “relax” when you played the outfield.

One of the most bizarre plays you’d ever want to see took place on Sept. 18, 1971, and you were involved in it as a member of the Angels. It took place in Comiskey Park, on a hit off the bat of Carlos May. I was sitting near Harry Caray in the center field bleachers when it happened. It took place in the first inning, with the bases loaded. Tom Murphy was the pitcher. Will you take it from there?

I was playing left field, and Mickey Rivers was in center that day. Carlos sliced a ball down the line and it was tailing away from me. I left my feet to try to make a diving catch but missed. I hit the turf really hard and got shook up a little. By the time Mickey got to the ball everyone scored. It wasn’t one of my prouder moments; in fact I’ve been trying to forget it! [laughing]. That’s one of those lessons: If you are going to dive for the ball, you sure better get a glove on it.” [Berry was replaced immediately after the play. His spot was taken by Tony Gonzales.]

You also had the chance to manage in the minor leagues for a number of years. You had John Elway when you were with the Yankees. You managed for the Padres, and also the White Sox, in Birmingham. Can you list some of the kids you had the chance to work with who later went on to the South Side?

That was the year our Birmingham team was like a runaway train. We just beat everyone in the league. We won 14 in a row at one point. I had guys like Robin Ventura, Matt Merullo, Rich Amaral, Frank Thomas and Craig Grebeck.

Our style was to be aggressive; that’s what I learned from Eddie Stanky. We did a lot of things like hit-and-run, steal bases, move guys along. I had a little problem, though, because I couldn’t figure out who should be my cleanup hitter. None of the guys I had really fit. Finally I came up with the idea of having Grebeck hit cleanup. (Yes, that’s 5´8´´, 160-pound Craig Grebeck!) It worked out perfectly because Craig could do so many things with the bat. He’d get the sacrifice fly, hit a ground ball to get the guy over, come up with the big two out hit. He had something like 87 RBIs that year and was the MVP. He had such a big heart, and when he played with the Sox I thought he was the best utility guy in the league because he could play three infield positions and play them very well.

ML: I’d like to zero in on Frank. Even from his first few days in the majors, he had an uncanny ability to be able to hit the ball hard and far, but also he had an incredible ability to draw walks, to work a pitcher and know the strike zone. You played against Hall-of-Famers like Al Kaline, Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew and Yastrzemski. As a hitter how does Frank compare with those greats?

Don’t forget, he was such a big man that he had a big strike zone. He hit with a little bit of a crouch, and it was remarkable the knowledge he had of the strike zone. The last thing I told him when he was called up was “don’t stop hitting the ball to center field.” With him, he had such power, that he could do that and the ball would still go 450-500 feet. Also doing that let you see the ball just a little longer to tell the type of pitch it was.

You also got the opportunity to be the technical advisor on the baseball movie, “Eight Men Out,” directed by John Sayles. How did you get that chance?

I was managing in Appleton, Wis. for the Royals. The Twins farm club was being managed by a friend of mine, Don Leppert. We had a good season, but they had an outstanding June draft, and those guys were assigned to that team and they caught us for the league title at the end. They won something like 13 in a row.

Anyway Leppert calls me after it’s over and asks me what I’m doing in the offseason. I told him just going back home. He asked if I’d like to help on a movie. He was in charge of the Twins instructional league and couldn’t help on this picture. So he gave me the number of the person to call, I did, and got to be technical advisor on “Eight Men Out.” It took about two months, and I had a great time.

Some of the actors involved in that movie, especially Charlie Sheen, had been around the game all their life and had played it competitively. I’d imagine you could tell fairly quickly who could play and who couldn’t. Was their anybody else besides Sheen who impressed you that way? [Sheen, while attending Yale University, was the last cut from the baseball team his freshmen year. He was a pitcher, and later used that experience playing Ricky Vaughn in the movie “Major League.”]

D.B. Sweeney knew what he was doing. He had a good idea of how to play the game. John Cusack was pretty athletic, it’s just that era-wise he wasn’t quite right. He was trying to do a lot of things that just didn’t happen on a ball field in the 1920s. He did make some athletic stops at third base in the movie, he’d just dive fully extended and make the catch. I was hitting those balls to him off camera with a fungo bat, and I was hitting them good.

I enjoyed working with John Sayles. He was a good director. He’d give me the scenes that we needed to shoot, and we’d work on them. I remember one where Sheen had to make a catch, then hit the unpadded portion of the park we were shooting in. [The game scenes were filmed in Indianapolis where the White Sox had their top farm team for many years. Berry himself played there in 1963 and 1964.] I showed Charlie how to make the catch and then spin into the wall so that he really wasn’t hitting it that hard. So we did the shot, and Charlie unfortunately forgot about spinning and just slammed right into it. He also tore up his leg pretty good when he caught it on a piece that was sticking out from the door. One other thing about Charlie stands out: I was throwing the ball, and he had to dive and make the catch. On one play, he did it fully extended, directly over his head. Just remarkable. It was something like Willie Mays did in the World Series.

You also got the chance for a small, on-camera speaking part in the film. What’s the story behind that? (Towards the end of the movie, as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson is playing under an assumed name in a minor league game, a fan heckles him over his lack of intelligence. After Jackson belts a triple, while standing on third base he gives it right back to the fan. That fan was Berry!)

I was actually supposed to play the part of the thug that threatens to kill Lefty Williams’ wife if he doesn’t throw the last game. So I practiced the role and had it down right, when the girl in charge of casting said that she wanted to make a change. She said that hearing my voice every day during filming made her think the part of the heckler was the right one.”

So I started working on that, and felt I had it OK. One day Sayles comes up to me and says, “Are you ready?” He also said that because it was late in the day and the sun was going down it had to be done in one take. You talk about pressure! So we got into position, I had called up a friend of mine Dick Kenworthy, who lived in the area and asked him, “You want to be in a movie?” He was sitting right next to me in the scene. [Kenworthy played for the Sox in 1962 and from 1964 through the 1968 seasons. His best year was 1967 as he had four doubles, a triple and four home runs in 97 at bats.] So we did it, and I was so proud that I was actually able to do it in one take.

Your son Layne was in the Sox minor league system at one time. He spent time with you while you were working on the movie, right?

He was around seven when that movie was being made. I’d hit balls to him on the field during the day and he make diving catches. Some balls almost knocked him down, but that’s where he caught the bug for the game. He’d make a nice catch, and the people watching the movie being made would start applauding. He liked hearing that sound.

Over a decade, counting your minor league days in the White Sox system, can you wrap up that entire experience for me?

I had some great years and great memories in Chicago. I was so fortunate to play under the Sox managers I did, because they all gave me something that I could use later when I became a manager myself. Al Lopez was part of the old guard and I learned working the percentages from him, Eddie Stanky taught me a lot about the game and the aggressive style that I think wins in baseball, and Chuck Tanner, who was only my manager for about a month, taught me how to be a player’s manager. He and Roland Hemond were exactly the type of people the Sox needed, at the right time.

It wasn’t easy, and I went through some tough times with the Sox, but that’s part of life. Baseball can drive you crazy at times! The fans were good to me, and I appreciate the fact that they still remember “The Bandit.”



5 thoughts on “A Conversation With: Ken Berry

  1. Thanks for the discussion. I remember Ken when I was growing up a Sox fan, he was a big part of my growth, as was Landis. 1967 was a tough year to swallow. Also I didn’t know Berry was part of the crew in Eight Men Out. Anyway I always enjoyed his defense, just wish he could have hit a little better.


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