Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Splendid Seasons: White Sox MVPs

We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. Three of these players have represented the White Sox.

Nellie Fox,

     “There was never a more bear-down, hard-nosed little guy than Nellie Fox,” said the great Ted Williams. Fox teamed first with Chico Carrasquel and later with Luis Aparicio to give the White Sox the slickest double-play tandem of the fifties.
     In 1959, leadoff man Aparicio and second hitter Fox supplied the octane for the pennant-winning Go-Go Sox. Aparicio stole 56 bases and scored 98 runs. Fox hit .306 with 70 RBIs, while playing every game (his consecutive-games streak eventually reached 798, a record for second basemen). Both players won Gold Gloves. In the MVP balloting, Fox preceded the man he followed in the batting order, winning the award while Aparicio was runner-up.
     It was no coincidence that Aparicio led the league in steals in each of the seven years that he and Fox played together. Fox was the ideal No. 2 hitter: he could take pitches and foul off pitches all day long without fear of striking out, and he bunted with the best of them. He led the American League for 10 straight years in the category of toughest to strike out. He also led the league in hits four times, played in 12 All-Star games (batting .386), and won three Gold Gloves.
     Fox made an indelible impression on fans with his scrappy, hustling play and the ever-present chaw of tobacco bulging out of his cheek. Listed at five-foot-nine and 160 pounds, Fox never backed down at the plate or in the field. “The most important thing to me,” said teammate Billy Pierce, “was his determination and competitiveness, which made up for some of the physical things he didn’t have. He loved the game and he played it hard.”
     Fox was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997—but alas, he never knew it, having passed away in 1975.

Dick Allen,

     One of the most talented and enigmatic players of recent decades, Dick Allen used his amazing strength and bat speed to terrorize pitchers in 1972, his first year in the American League after eight seasons in the National League as Richie Allen. Acquired by the White Sox after wearing out his welcome with three other clubs in the previous three years, he came to Chicago with a new name but with the same old attitude. He skipped batting practice, traveled separately from his teammates, and smoked on the bench. He showed up late even for the All-Star Game.
     Despite all this, Allen flourished with the Sox—for a time. Manager Chuck Tanner blithely admitted that he had one set of rules for Allen and another for the rest of the team. The recalcitrant slugger responded with a then-club-record 37 homers to go with 113 RBIs and a .308 average as the Sox stayed in contention all year; they finished five and a half games behind Oakland after bottoming out with 106 losses only two years before. A particular highlight was a doubleheader sweep of the Yankees on June 4 before a Bat Day crowd of 51,904 at Comiskey Park. In the nightcap, the Sox were trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth when Allen blasted a three-run pinch-hit homer into the upper deck in left field.
     Allen used the heaviest bat in the majors, a 42-ounce war club, and launched the most wicked line drives. He literally hit the ball through the back of a wooden seat on more than one occasion. He always wore a batting helmet in the field, a reminder of his days in Philadelphia, where fans pelted him with coins, batteries, and even bottles. White Sox fans showered Allen only with love, but even so, his limited attention span finally gave out in 1974, his third year in Chicago. He quit the team with three weeks left in the season.

Frank Thomas,
1993, 1994

     Frank Thomas joined the White Sox on August 2, 1990, fully formed as a major-league star. He hit .330 in that first partial season. He never experienced the growing pains typical of rookies. He never suffered through a prolonged slump. It soon became apparent that he was the most dangerous offensive force to come along since Ted Williams, half a century before him. No one since Williams had put up such gaudy numbers so consistently from the start of his career. In his first six full seasons, Thomas batted .327 and averaged 36 homers, 116 RBIs, 106 runs scored, and 121 walks.
     The imposing, six-foot-four Thomas played football at Auburn University, where he was a little-known teammate of Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson. When the two were reunited with the White Sox, it was Bo’s turn to be eclipsed. In 1993, Thomas slammed 41 homers, knocked in 128 runs, and batted .317 to earn his first American League MVP award as the Sox won their division by eight games.
     In 1994, the Sox were in first place again and might have been destined for their first World Series in 35 years when a labor dispute ended the season on August 12. For the first time since 1904, there was no World Series. Thomas’s second straight MVP was bittersweet, but comparisons to the immortal Williams didn’t seem far-fetched in light of the Big Hurt’s .353 average, 38 homers, 101 RBIs, 106 runs scored, .494 on-base percentage, and .729 slugging percentage in just 113 games.
     Thomas appeared almost exclusively as a designated hitter after the age of 30, and his production declined rather sharply. He had one more monster year in 2000 as the Sox ran away with the division title; he hit .328 with 43 homers, 143 RBIs, and 115 runs scored, finishing second in the MVP voting. Unfortunately, Thomas missed the Sox' unforgettable 2005 postseason with an injury, and he was let go the following winter. By the end of his career in 2008, he ranked among the top sluggers of all time in every pertinent category. It seems safe to assume that he will soon be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Mildly Interesting Trivia Department: Frank Thomas of the White Sox, 1994 American League MVP, and Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros, 1994 National League MVP, were born on the same day—May 27, 1968.

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