Friday, July 30, 2010

South Side Hit Men

     “Don’t worry about doing a budget,” owner Bill Veeck told general manager Roland Hemond upon reacquiring the White Sox in 1976. “We don’t have any money.” The two soon unveiled their “rent-a-player” strategy for 1977. Using players who were in their last year before free agency—such as sluggers Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble—or who were bargain-priced because of previous injuries, Veeck and Hemond transformed their hapless team into one of the most exciting in franchise history.
     Led by easy-going manager Bob Lemon, the White Sox became known as the South Side Hit Men and emerged as surprising contenders in the American League West Division. Their boisterous fans introduced two rituals that quickly caught on: dugout curtain calls after home runs and the serenading of departing enemy pitchers with “Nah-nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah-nah, hey hey, goodbye!”
     The high point of that memorable season came on Sunday, July 31. A lively crowd of 50,412 turned out for a sun-drenched doubleheader with the defending division-champion Kansas City Royals. In the first game, Kansas City’s Marty Pattin led 1-0 and held the Sox hitless until Chet Lemon homered in the bottom of the sixth. A homer by Amos Otis the next inning gave the Royals a 2-1 lead, which they held until the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Alan Bannister reached on a two-base error. Jorge Orta’s single to right scored Bannister and sent the game into extra innings.
     White Sox starter Steve Stone retired the first two Royal hitters in the top of the 10th before issuing back-to-back walks to George Brett and Joe Lahoud. Stone headed for the showers, and successive singles by Cookie Rojas and Al Cowens scored Brett, then Lahoud. Further damage was narrowly averted when first baseman Jim Spencer speared a line drive off the bat of John Mayberry for the third out.
     With the Sox now trailing 4-2, Spencer led off the bottom of the 10th with a single to left. Royals manager Whitey Herzog summoned righthander Doug Bird to face Chet Lemon, whose homer had tied the game earlier. This time, Lemon fell behind in the count 0-and-2, then socked a long home run into the center-field bleachers, again tying the score and sending the crowd into a frenzy. This occasioned another of the curtain calls that opponents found so annoying. “It’s bush [league] what they do,” Hal McRae declared. “It’s a disgrace to baseball.” After the commotion had died down, Eric Soderholm coaxed a walk, reached second on a sacrifice bunt by Brian Downing, and scored on a base hit by Ralph Garr.
     The stirring 5-4 win was the ninth in the White Sox’ past 10 games. It put them 25 games over .500, at 62-37, and 6½ games in front of the second-place Royals. “If we’re all dreaming,” said Stone, “I hope we don’t wake up.”
     The second game was also quite eventful. The teams exchanged several knockdown pitches, and as umpire Art Frantz informed them that no further shenanigans would be tolerated on the field, a fight broke out in the stands near the press box. The one-legged, 63-year-old Veeck waded into the fray to act as peacemaker and came away with a bloody lip. “It’s a hot day,” he said cheerfully, “but all I’ve had is iced tea.” Most of the fans, of course, had quenched their thirst with something stronger.
     A good time was had by all, but the White Sox lost the second game 8-4. “We took three out of four [for the series],” said Zisk. “I’ll take it.” As July gave way to August, the White Sox and the equally unlikely Cubs were both in first place. Unfortunately, neither was able to go the distance. The Cubs dropped out of first place a week into August and faded fast thereafter to finish 20 games out. The Sox held on a while longer, occupying first place until August 19, but eventually finished 12 games behind the Royals. Still, the South Side Hit Men won 90 games and set a new franchise attendance record.
     Veeck’s second stint with the White Sox featured softball-style uniforms with untucked shirts and no stirrups, a shower in the center-field bleachers, and the infamous Disco Demolition Night in 1979 which forced the Sox to forfeit a game. It was fun while it lasted, but Veeck’s shoestring operation was on borrowed time. Veeck sold the Sox in 1981 and never set foot in Comiskey Park again. He became a regular in the center-field bleachers at Wrigley Field, perched between the ivy he himself had planted and the scoreboard he had built while working for the Cubs in the thirties.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

No comments:

Post a Comment