Ho-lee Cow: On a first-pitch opportunity to stab the Red Sox in the heart, Carlton Fisk drove the knife in deep. (YouTube)
1959 The season opener to a memorable, pennant-winning year started in Detroit where Billy Pierce faced Jim Bunning. The Sox blew a 7-4 lead when the Tigers got three runs in the eighth inning, and matters weren’t decided until the 14th. That’s when Nellie Fox, who hit home runs as often as he struck out, blasted a two-run shot to give the Sox the 9-7 win. Fox would go 5-for-7 and knock in three runs that afternoon, despite freezing temperatures.
1961 White Sox outfielder “Jungle” Jim Rivera was always good for the unexpected. Right before the Sox played in Washington D.C. to open the season, President John Kennedy threw out the first ball. Rivera came up with it and was escorted to the President’s box, where both Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson signed the ball.
After Rivera looked at it he said to the President, “You’ll have to do better than that, John. This is a scribble I can hardly read!” So Kennedy, in block letters, spelled out his name on the baseball. Oh … the Sox went on to win the game, 4-3, getting single runs in the seventh and eighth innings. It was the first game the expansion Washington Senators ever played.
1968 Social unrest on the West Side of Chicago after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King held the Opening Day crowd at Comiskey Park to fewer than 8,000. The White Sox got shut out by Cleveland’s Sonny Siebert, 9-0. It was the first of a franchise-record 10 straight losses to open the season. Coupled with the five straight losses to close out 1967, the Sox would end up dropping 15 in a row.
1981 If you had written the script and pitched it to Hollywood, it would have refused it on the grounds of corniness — but reality is sometimes stranger than fiction. Carlton Fisk, native son of New England, returned to Boston on Opening Day mere weeks after leaving the Red Sox for the White Sox. Fisk was declared a free agent after the Red Sox mailed him his contract past the legal deadline, and he left. With a new team, in a new uniform, Fisk immediately began making Boston pay as he ripped a first-pitch, three-run home run in the eighth inning off of Bob Stanley to put the White Sox ahead 3-2 in a game they’d win 5-3.
Ascent to superstardom: Pierce pitched his way out of arm trouble here in 1954 and began his ascent to a Hall of Fame-caliber career. (Acme Wire Photo)
I first got to know Billy Pierce in the summer of 2002 when I contacted him to do an interview. He was warm and generous over the phone, and from there a friendship developed. We’d talk a few times a year, I’d call him on his birthday, and whenever I got back to Chicago I’d usually hook up with him and his wife Gloria, who opened their home in Lamont to me. When he passed away in July 2015 and I got the news, I was completely shocked. I never knew Bill was even sick. Doing his obituary was literally one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done; it’s hard to type when your eyes are filled with tears. Simply put, Billy was one of the nicest people I ever had the pleasure to meet, and his baseball accomplishments speak for themselves. Here is the interview that started the relationship. Rest in peace, my friend.
Billy Pierce … just saying the name evokes memories of another time in America.
It was a time when baseball was the national pastime, when the White Sox didn’t play second fiddle to anyone, especially in their own city. It was a time when the players actually cared (especially about winning), when owners actually tried to do their best to win instead of making excuses about profit margins, and when kids all over the country could recite the starting lineups of most teams in baseball just as easily as their math tables.
It was a time when even the worst teams like Washington and Kansas City had players of the caliber of Harmon Killebrew, Roy Sievers and Roger Maris.
Billy Pierce was right in the middle of it.
Despite being small in size, “Billy the Kid” proved he was among the best pitchers in baseball, and did it consistently for more than 10 years. The list of his accomplishments could go on forever but we’ll only highlight some of them, especially for fans who never saw him play:
Won 186 games with the White Sox from 1949-1961 (211 overall)
Had 11 years of double-digit wins (12 overall)
20-game winner in 1956 and 1957
Threw 35 shutouts (38 overall)
Had 19 saves (38 overall)
Led the American League in complete games in 1956, 1957 and 1958 (193 in his career)
Led the American League in ERA in 1955 (1.97; career ERA of 3.27)
Led the American League in strikeouts in 1953 (186; had 1,999 in his career)
Threw four one-hitters, including losing a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning (1958)
Seven-time All-Star, and the only Sox pitcher to ever start an All-Star Game multiple times (1953, 1955, 1956)
Sports Illustrated cover boy in May 1957
Sport magazine cover boy for October 1957
Pierce was also respected as a genuine good guy who always had time for the fans. He treated everyone the same, whether it was then Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (who had front-row season tickets right next to the Sox dugout) or the local grocer.
Pierce never embarrassed himself, the White Sox organization or the city of Chicago. His No. 19 was retired by the club in 1987.
Nobody ever had an unkind word for him:
“Billy was the first guy we ever got in a trade. He was a winning pitcher, a mainstay as we were building a championship club. When he’d pitch against Whitey Ford, you could sell the seats 25 times over. That’s how many fans wanted to see him pitch.” – Former White Sox owner Chuck Comiskey.
“That little guy had more courage per ounce than any ballplayer I ever saw. You didn’t need a relief pitcher when he pitched. If he had a one-run lead going into the seventh or eighth inning, the ball game was over.”–former White Sox GM Frank “Trader” Lane.
Mark Liptak: Billy, you were born and raised in Detroit. How did your involvement with baseball begin?
Billy Pierce: Like with most kids in those days we played in the schoolyards, played in the alley, played all the time. Nothing was organized, we just played. The old clichés are true: When we broke a bat, we’d nail it back together. When the ball blew apart, we’d wrap tape around it and keep playing, even though the ball looked like a football. We’d play wherever we could. If we couldn’t play baseball, we’d play softball. We just had fun playing. It wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 that I finally played on an organized team.
When did you realize you were good and could perhaps play at the pro level?
Playing in the pros never entered my mind. I played a lot, and was pretty good. You know how when kids get together and play, they choose up sides? I was always one of the first kids picked. I was a first baseman when I was 14, and the kid who was a pitcher on our team left and went to another club because they had better-looking uniforms. We were only about a week from starting play in our league and I threw hard, so I became the pitcher.
I was wild in those days! When I was in high school the scouts came around to see me, but I wanted to be a doctor. My dad was a pharmacist and I took a lot of classes to get ready for medical school. I had a scholarship, but I thought I’d try to play for two or three years and if it didn’t work out I’d use the scholarship and go back to school.
You only spent a few years in the minors, and suddenly you were a hometown kid playing for the hometown team. How did it feel the first time you pitched in the big leagues?
It was very exciting. It was in Boston, I’ll never forget it. I was 18 years old. The bullpen in those days was a long way away from the mound, and as I walked in our right fielder, center fielder and second baseman were shouting encouragement to me as I passed them. In those days, the veterans weren’t that hard on us rookies. [Pierce made his debut on June 1, 1945. He threw 3 ⅓ innings, allowing only one hit with four strikeouts. His catcher was his future manager, Paul Richards.]
You spent two years with the Tigers, and then on Nov. 10, 1948 you were traded to the White Sox for catcher Aaron Robinson. How did you hear about it and how did you feel?
I was at my girlfriend’s house, she’s now my wife, and we heard it over the radio. A DJ came on with a sports bulletin that said I was traded to Chicago. I wasn’t very happy about it, because it was just in the paper about two weeks before that the Tigers were going to rebuild and give all of us kids a chance to play. I did not want to go to either Chicago or Philadelphia. It’s not that I didn’t like Chicago, but in those days the stockyards were going full force and when you played in Comiskey Park, especially at night, the smell was unbelievable! It turned out to be a great break for me … the Sox had lost like a hundred games the year before and they were going to give everybody a chance.
In 1951 Paul Richards took over as manager, you had your first winning season, and the Sox started to take off. What was it about Richards that helped you personally and the team?
Paul was the best teaching manager I ever had anywhere, without question. Frank Lane made all the trades and brought the players in, guys like myself, and Nellie Fox, but Richards was always working with us. Paul for example, changed the bat that Nellie was using to that bottle style and turned him into a great hitter. [Pierce and Fox were roommates for 11 seasons with the Sox.]
Richards left to take over the Baltimore franchise but your career continued to prosper under Marty Marion, an underrated manager. What was it like to play for him?
Very good. I was surprised when he was left out and the Sox replaced him, because we played well under him. He wasn’t as good a teacher as Paul was, but then nobody was, but he was still very, very good.
Your career continued to roll along, culminating with the pennant year of 1959. For the city and the team it was the pinnacle of success, but for you personally, it wasn’t your best season. You missed six weeks with a hip injury and when it came time for the World Series, manager Al Lopez passed you over for a starting assignment. Older Sox fans still insist, if you start Game 2 instead of Bob Shaw, and win, the Sox take the Series. How difficult was that for you being relegated to only four innings of relief work?
It was very tough. It was a real hard thing. I appeared in three games and pitched well, but it was a disappointment. I still wanted the Sox to win, after all they were my teammates, but I was very glad when it was over. Let’s put it this way, I left town pretty quickly to try to forget about it all.
Did that affect your relationship with Lopez, and what did you think of him as a manager?
Al was a real good manager. His record shows that. He was a solid percentage baseball guy. I honestly think the controversy affected Al more than me. I wasn’t the culprit; all I could do was what he told me. He had to listen to the fans who wanted me to pitch, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
Still, clinching the pennant had to be exciting.
It was tremendous, the crowd that we had at Midway Airport! The toughest part about the trip was getting back home because so many people were out. I remember Earl Torgeson and I were in a cab and we were going down Garfield Boulevard, it had to be one or two o’clock in the morning, and fans were everywhere. They had flares lit up on the front lawns, everyone was outside their homes talking and celebrating.
After the 1961 season you were traded to the Giants for pitchers Eddie Fisher, Dom Zanni and outfielder Bob Farley. As a Chicago baseball institution, were you shocked by what happened or did you look at it as a fresh start with a good San Francisco team?
Truthfully the way things were going the last few seasons, I expected it. All I did was ask [then-GM] Ed Short that if something happened that he please call me first before he told the media. Remember, the last time I was traded I heard about it over the radio. Short did call me one day and said he made a deal with San Francisco. I thanked him for letting me know, and that was it. I was really worried about how I was going to tell my son about it. He was nine or 10 at the time and grew up around Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox and the guys. So my wife and I told him, and he looked up and said ‘Great, now I get to meet Willie Mays!’ So that was it, we got his seal of approval and moved on.
You at least finally got a chance to start in the 1962 World Series against your old friends, the Yankees. Did you at least get a measure of personal satisfaction out of that?
Without question. That whole period coming so late in my career … the playoff games against the Dodgers and then the World Series with the Yankees was very special. It was an exciting 10-day period especially, like I said, because it came so late for me. [In the NL playoff series, Pierce shut out the Dodgers 8-0 in Game 1, beating Sandy Koufax, then saved the pennant-clinching Game 3. In the World Series he started two games, winning Game 6 over Whitey Ford, 5-2. In 15 postseason innings, Pierce allowed eight hits and four runs.]
After the 1964 season and with 18 years of service, you retired. Was that an easy decision for you?
After the 1963 season I decided with my wife that the 1964 season would be it. In the fall of 1963 we moved to Chicago, where we’ve been ever since. This is where we wanted to be. Once I had made up my mind to retire, it was easy to accept. I was very willing to leave. It was much easier because it was on my terms.
Looking back Billy, which year was your best season?
I’d have to say 1955. I led the league that year in ERA at 1.97. It had been like 20 years since anybody ended a season with an ERA under two. I only went 15-10 that season, but I lost four games by the score of 1-0. I think I pitched as well as I did in 1956 when I won 20 games, but I just didn’t get some breaks. I also think that was my best year because in 1954 I was a little sore, so in 1955 the Sox gave me a little most rest between starts.
What was your best pitch and how hard did you throw?
I wish I could tell you. I know I read where Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams both said I threw very hard, but we didn’t have radar guns in those days. At first my best pitch was my fastball, but then about 1953 to 1955, I developed a good slider. A real, hard slider that would break in on guys six or seven inches. It would dart in on fellows.
Today many scouts simply look at how fast kids throw, but pitching is more than just raw speed, isn’t it?
Without a doubt. Speed is important, certainly that would be the first thing I looked for, but you’ve got to have some movement on a pitch. A straight fastball doesn’t do you any good; you have to have some natural movement on it. You also have to stay ahead of hitters. If you keep falling behind 2-0 in a count, you’re going to get hurt.
What was the secret to your success, especially for a guy your size?
“At em’” balls! [laughing]. Seriously, I worked hard when I pitched. I never believed in that approach where you’ve got to pace yourself. The first inning was just as important as the others. I also felt I had to get the weak hitters out. You couldn’t afford to give up hits to the eighth- or ninth-place hitters … those three, four and five guys were just too good to come up with guys on base.
Billy I’d like to talk about some of your individual accomplishments. You were named to seven All-Star teams, started three, appeared in four and pitched 10 ⅔ innings giving up four runs. This was when playing in the All-Star game meant something, and you were facing the best hitters in the game.
It did. You basically pitched three innings. They’ve changed that philosophy over the years. It wasn’t considered an exhibition game back then, you played to win, and you took it seriously. Just being there was an honor. I remember the 1953 game, my wife was in the hospital, and my son had just been born. I was starting the All-Star game in Cincinnati thinking about both of them. What a gift. I also remember the 1955 game in Milwaukee. Mickey Mantle hit a ball into the trees outside of the stadium.
You also threw four one-hitters, the best remembered on the night of June 27, 1958. You took a perfect game into the ninth inning against the Senators. You got the first two outs, then gave up a double just fair to a guy named Ed Fitzgerald. What goes through a pitcher’s mind when he gets that close to the ultimate game?
At the time, I didn’t think it was that important. I was a team guy, and we wound up winning the game. Sure, I wanted to get him out. He was a first-ball, fastball hitter. We threw him a low breaking ball that he hit off the end of the bat. I won the game [3-0], though, and that was more important to me at the time. Over the years however, I’ve had so many people tell me they were listening to the game on the radio or were at the park watching, that I’ve wanted that one pitch back more now than I ever did then.
You also threw one-hitters on June 15, 1950 (Yankees), April 16, 1953 (Browns) and June 11, 1959 (at Washington). Do you remember anything specific about those games, like who got the hit and in what inning?
The Yankees game, I remembered it rained a couple of times. Billy Johnson got a single to right field in the fifth inning. The St. Louis game, a guy named Bobby Young got a hit, a double I think, to right-center, in the seventh. I don’t remember anything at all about the game at Washington. Whoever got the hit must have done it very early in the game.[Senators hitter Ron Samford doubled to left in the third inning.]
How did you pitch to a friend of yours, Ted Williams?
VERY carefully! He would absolutely kill a fastball. And if you should make him look bad on a swing he’d grab his cap and pull it down tighter — you better be careful on your next pitch. I faced a lot of great hitters, but I don’t know of anybody who was better. He’s the only guy I know, who, when he came up to bat, the other guys would be watching him from the dugout and not going inside or using the restroom. I know he didn’t get along with the media, but he was well-liked by the players. He was always helping guys, whether it was his teammates or guys on the other club.
Billy from talking with you and from everything that I’ve read or heard about you, you are a very modest man. What would it mean to you and your family for you to get a call from Cooperstown saying you are now in the Hall of Fame?
It would be a tremendous thrill, the culmination of my life, no question about it. My family and I would appreciate it very much. You have no way of knowing how the people vote; I’m sure all of them have their favorites, so we’ll just have to see.
Wrap up your career for me, will you?
I had a wonderful career. The fans in Chicago couldn’t have been nicer to me and my family. I am very thankful to them.
Double trouble: Fain faltered on the South Side — and was a menace, to boot.
1953 It was one of those deals seemed was too good to be true, and unfortunately that turned out to be the case when the White Sox acquired two-time AL batting champ Ferris Fain from the Philadelphia A’s as part of a five-player deal.
Fain never approached those heights in Chicago, was a distraction off the field, got injured, and was rumored to have gotten into a fight with second baseman Nellie Fox that resulted in injuries. Lockers were supposedly pushed on Fox during the altercation, and he was pinned under them. The fight was thought to have taken place after a game in Washington D.C. against the Senators.
Doubling back: After his brother purchased the club from Bill Veeck in 1961, John Allyn returns the “keys to the White Sox.”
1963 One of the last players from the “Go-Go” Sox era, second baseman Nellie Fox, was traded to the Houston Colt 45s for pitchers Jim Golden and Danny Murphy. Fox, who’d eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame, played for 14 years on the South Side, being named to 12 All-Star teams. He was AL MVP in 1959 and won three Gold Gloves. Fox was dealt because young infielder Don Buford had hit .336 at Indianapolis and was ready to take over.
1975 After first being turned down, American League owners voted to allow Bill Veeck to buy the White Sox from John Allyn. The agreement kept the team in Chicago and ended speculation that the Sox were bound for Seattle, with Charlie Finley’s A’s headed for the South Side. Major League baseball wanted the Sox to move to the Pacific Northwest in order to end lawsuits filed after the Pilots were moved to Milwaukee before the start of the 1970 season.
It was the second time Veeck owned the club, the first time being from 1959 through July 1961.
1976 Bill Veeck came up with a unique way to try to bolster his cash-strapped franchise: A Rent-a-Player approach, attempting to acquire as many players as possible who were about to become free agents. He figured that because those players were playing for new, big money deals, they’d play hard every night.
With that as the backdrop, he traded relief pitchers RichGossage and Terry Forster, both former American League Fireman of the Year winners, to the Pirates for slugger Richie Zisk and pitcher Silvio Martinez.
Zisk, in his one season on the South Side, would belt 30 home runs and knock in 101 as the undisputed leader of the South Side Hit Men who shocked baseball by winning 90 games in 1977. Among Zisk’s home runs that season were a blast into the original center field bleachers at Comiskey Park (under the exploding scoreboard) and one over the roof and out of the park in left-center.
1987 GM Larry Himes sent pitcher Floyd Bannister and infielder Dave Cochrane to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for four players, including pitchers Greg Hibbard and Melido Perez. Both would help stabilize the starting rotation in the early 1990s.
1959 — He helped lead the White Sox to their first pennant in 40 years and because of his contributions on the field and in the clubhouse, Nellie Fox became the first member of the franchise to be named American League MVP. Foxhit .306 on the year with 191 hits, 34 doubles, 70 RBIs and 71 walks (as compared to only 13 strikeouts!) Fox also led all AL second basemen in putouts, assists, total chances and fielding percentage. He also was named to the All-Star team.
Nelliegot 16 first-place votes by the Baseball Writers Association of America and beat out his teammate, shortstop Luis Aparicio, 295-255. Pitcher Early Wynn, who’d win the Cy Young Award that season, would finish third, giving the Sox the top three spots in the final voting.
1949 – White Sox GM Frank Lane struck again. Lane dealt backup catcher and malcontent Joe Tipton to the Philadelphia A’s for a young, small second baseman named Jacob Nelson “Nellie” Fox. Tipton had gotten into a fistfight with Sox manager Jack Onslow during the 1949 season and wasn’t going to be kept.
All Fox did was eventually get to the Hall of Fame, have his No. 2 retired by the team in 1976, make 12 All- Star teams, win the league’s MVP award in 1959 and become one of the faces of the “Go-Go” Sox during the 1950s and early 1960s.
The trade, as measured through today’s WAR prism, netted the White Sox 44.2 bWAR.
Sept. 27, 1959 — The White Sox closed their championship season with a 6-4 win at Detroit and when the final stats were in, second baseman Nellie Fox pulled off a rare feat, leading all American League second baseman in fielding percentage, putouts and assists.
Sept. 27, 1963 — During the last home doubleheader, the White Sox caught on to the folk music craze sweeping the nation. Between games against the Washington Senators, the club had a hootenanny promotion where folk groups and singers held a concert on the field.
Sept. 27, 1967— The White Sox finished the season with the two worst teams in the league, the Kansas City A’s and Washington Senators, and fans could smell that elusive World Series.
However it all began to fall apart when the Sox dropped a doubleheader to the A’s (5-2 and 4-0) after rain postponed the game Tuesday night. The Sox, in the middle of a pennant race, got more than three days off, not having played since Sunday afternoon in Cleveland. Pitchers Gary Peters and Joe Horlen got tagged with the losses on “Black Wednesday,” but the final embarrassment was yet to come.
Sept. 27, 1993 — In front of a capacity crowd at Comiskey Park II, the White Sox clinched the Western Division by beating Seattle, 4-2. It was Bo Jackson who clubbed a towering, three-run blast that just dropped over the wall in left that was the difference in the game. The homer capped off an incredible comeback season for one of the finest athletes in history. Also in this game Sox starting pitcher Wilson Alvarez saw his streak of 30 consecutive shutout innings snapped when Seattle got to him for two runs in the eighth. The Sox went 94-68 and took the title by eight games over Texas.
Sept. 27, 2003 — In one of the highest scoring games in their history, the White Sox battered the Royals in Kansas City, 19-3. Pitcher Bartolo Colon won this one easily. Joe Crede and Carl Everett both had four RBIs.
Sept. 27, 2011 — Pitcher Mark Buehrle set the franchise record when, for the 11th straight season he made at least 30 starts, won at least 10 games and pitched at least 200 innings. Buehrle set the milestone during a 2-1 win over the Blue Jays. Those numbers were a testament to his ability, dedication and durability.
Sept. 27, 2014 — The Chicago White Sox have had a number of great players over the decades. One of them was first baseman Paul Konerko, and on this day the Sox honored Paul with a ceremony and unveiled a sculpture of him. The numbers showed that Konerko was one of the best players in franchise history, hitting 432 home runs and driving in 1,383 RBIs. He was a six time All-Star, a World Series champion, the 2005 ALCS MVP and 2002 Comeback Player of the Year. Konerko would play his final game for the Sox the next day, and retired after 16 seasons with the club. In May 2015, Konerko returned to U.S. Cellular Field and had his No. 14 retired.
Iron man, chipmunk cheeks: Fox played in more than five seasons’ worth of consecutive contests before a virus snapped his streak, just short of 800 games. (Topps)
Sept. 4, 1960 — A viral infection knocked Nellie Fox out of the lineup for the first time since August 1955. He played in 798 consecutive games (still the White Sox record) and 1,072 out of 1,073.
Sept. 4, 1961 — It was a strange start to a good White Sox career for pitcher Joe Horlen. Horlen entered the game at the Minnesota Twins wearing a blank jersey. That’s right … no name, no number, on the back!
(Only one other time in major league history has this happened: Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds, on May 19, 1984.)
Horlen allowed two hits in four innings of work, and got the win in the 9-5 decision. An unusual major league debut!
Sept. 4, 1995 — Robin Ventura hit a pair of grand slams in a 14-3 win over the Texas Rangers. He was the eighth player in history at the time to hit a pair in one game. His eight RBIs tied the White Sox franchise record.
Sept. 4, 2016 — And 21 years later in a wild slugfest in Minnesota, won by the Sox 13-11, first baseman José Abreu drove in seven runs. José had a pair of three-run home runs in the game, along with an RBI single. The homers came in the first and seventh innings. The seven RBIs are one off of the franchise record for a single game.