Posts Tagged 'White Sox'

Johnny and Phil

The Cubs have been around, under various names, since 1876.  The White Sox have been with us since 1901.  At some time in our lives, most of us Chicago boys have dreamed of playing with one or another of the teams.

Of course, few people ever grow up to play in the major leagues.  The Chicagoans who do usually wind up with other ballclubs.  Even those local boys who do make it onto one of the local teams—like Moose Skowron, for instance—often spend part of their careers on the side of an enemy.

With the baseball season coming to a close, let’s look at two players, one from the Sox and one from the Cubs.  Both were natives of Chicago, and both played their entire major league careers in a Chicago uniform.  And both of them were stars.

Johnny Mostil was born in Chicago in 1896.  When he was a boy, his family moved a few miles over the state line to Whiting.  He started playing semi-pro baseball as a teenager.  He was mostly an infielder.
Mostil played 10 games for the Sox during the war-year 1918.  The war ended, the regulars returned, and Johnny went back to working at Montgomery Ward’s and getting in some ball on the side.  Then the “Black Sox” scandal hit.

Suddenly the Sox needed players.  Mostil rejoined the team as an outfielder in 1921, and showed superb defensive skills.  Writers compared him to the legendary Tris Speaker.  Once Centerfielder Mostil managed to catch a fly ball in foul territory, something even Speaker never did.

He became one of the team’s most popular players.  During his rookie year, his former colleagues at Ward’s staged a Johnny Mostil Day at the ballpark.  People in Whiting were proud of him.  Traffic on the South Shore Line spiked whenever Mostil and the Sox were playing at Comiskey.

Mostil twice led the American League in stolen bases.  He could hit, too—his batting average was usually over .300, peaking at .328 in 1926.  That year he was runner-up for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

The Sox were in spring training at Shreveport in 1927.  On the morning of March 9, Mostil tried to commit suicide by slashing his chest and wrists with a razor.  The team announced he was suffering from neuritis, and had endured constant headaches and sleepless nights.  Insiders whispered that he was depressed over a shattered love affair.

Mostil recovered and came back late in the 1927 season.  But he was never the same player.  The Sox released him in 1929.

He later managed in the minor leagues, and eventually became a White Sox scout.  Johnny Mostil died at his home in Midlothian in 1970.

Phil Cavaretta was born twenty years after Mostil, in 1916.  Unlike Mostil, he made it to the major leagues quickly.  He was only 18, and a few months out of Lane Tech, when the Cubs signed him in 1934.  In his first appearance at Wrigley Field, he hit a home run.

The next season Cavaretta became the Cubs’ regular first baseman.  He developed into a solid left-handed hitter known for his hustling style of play.  Injuries plagued him.  Separate broken ankles kept him out of action for much of two seasons.

Cavaretta was rejected for World War II service because of a hearing problem.  Now in his late 20s, he hit his playing peak.  In 1944 he made the All-Star team for the first time.  The next year was Cavaretta’s year.

In 1945 Cavaretta hit .355 to win the National League batting championship.  He was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, and led his team into the World Series—the last time the Cubs made it that far until last year.  Though the team lost, Phil batted .423 for the seven games.

After the war ended, Cavaretta was named an All-Star twice more, showing he was more than a wartime flash.  Meanwhile, the Cubs were going into a long decline.  In 1951, Cubs’ owner P.K. Wrigley made his most popular player the team’s manager.

Cavaretta continued to play part-time.  His record as a manager was mixed.  Just before the start of the 1954 season, Wrigley fired him.  Always honest, Cavaretta had told his boss that the team had no hope of making the first division.

After 20 years with the Cubs, Cavaretta now signed with the White Sox as a first baseman and pinch-hitter.  He got into 71 games and hit .316.  That proved to be his last hurrah.  The Sox released him early in the 1955 season.

Phil Cavaretta stayed in baseball another two decades, managing in the minor leagues, working as a hitting coach, and doing some scouting.  He died in 2010 at the age of 94.  At the time of his death he was the last major leaguer to have played against Babe Ruth.

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Almost Perfect (6-27-1958)

Back in the 1950s, the era of the Go-Go White Sox, Billy Pierce was arguably the best left-handed pitcher in the American League. Whitey Ford got the most publicity because he was a Yankee. But whenever the two aces went head-to-head, Pierce usually came out on top.

Besides, in the 1955 season, Pierce posted an ERA of 1.97. That was remarkable for such a high-scoring era.

Billy Pierce

Pierce was a power pitcher, always among the leaders in strikeouts. That was also remarkable, since he wasn’t a big man. His full overhand delivery was the likely explanation.

On the evening of June 27, 1958, Pierce took the mound at Comiskey Park. The Sox were playing the last-place Washington Senators. About 11,000 people were at the park. I was ten years old and listening on the radio, trusting I could stay awake despite Bob Elson’s droning play-by-play.

The Sox scored a run in the third, and added 2 more in the eighth. Meanwhile, Pierce was shutting down the opposition. Going into the ninth inning, he had retired the first 24 Senators in a row.

Pierce quickly disposed of Ken Aspromonte and Steve Korcheck. With the pitcher due up next, the Senators sent in a right-handed pinch-hitter.

Ed FitzGerald

Ed FitzGerald was an eleven-year veteran. The Senators’ roster listed him as a catcher, but at this stage of his career, he was mostly a pinch-hitter. He was good at it, too, batting better than .350 as a sub in 1958.

The book said FitzGerald was a first pitch, fastball hitter. Pierce wound up and threw a low curve. FitzGerald swung, slicing the ball down the right field line. It landed fair by a foot.

As FitzGerald chugged into second, the park erupted in boos. At home I vented my disappointment by shouting a bad word at the radio. I don’t recall what Bob Elson said.

The perfect game was gone. So was the no-hitter.  Then Pierce struck out Albie Pearson on three pitches to end the game. Afterward the police escorted FitzGerald from the park.

In 2014 Billy Pierce was honored at Sox Park for his charitable work. He died in 2015.

Ed FitzGerald celebrated a birthday last month. He is now 93. He has not been seen in Chicago for some time.

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The Black Sox (9-28-1920)

The little boy is waiting outside the court house for his hero, the big league baseball player.  The player emerges.  Tears in his eyes, the boy approaches the man.  “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” the kid pleads.  The player says nothing.

If that familiar bit of folklore ever happened, this was the day it did.  This was the day that the Black Sox scandal broke.

In 1919 the Chicago White Sox had entered the World Series as heavy favorites.  When they were upset by the Cincinnati Reds, rumors spread that the series had been fixed.  Most of the public refused to believe it, and the whispers died down.

1919 Chicago White Sox

1919 Chicago White Sox

Then, in the summer of 1920, a Cook County grand jury began investigating a supposed fix in a Cubs-Phillies game.  Various baseball people testified.  The recent World Series came up, and Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte was summoned.

On the stand, Cicotte admitted to taking $10,000 from gamblers to throw the series.  Other players were called.  Eight White Sox were indicted by the grand jury.  The charges involved such things as running a confidence game, and conspiracy to defraud teammates out of  $1784—the difference between winners’ and losers’ shares in the World Series.

Team owner Charles Comiskey suspended the indicted players.  They became known as the Black Sox.  One of them was star outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson.  After his confession to the grand jury, a local paper ran the story about the tearful boy confronting him in disbelief.  Jackson always denied it happened.

The

The “Black Sox” and their lawyers in court

The Black Sox case dragged on into 1921.  Somewhere along the way, the players’ confessions mysteriously disappeared.  The eight players and assorted gamblers were eventually brought to trial, and all of them pleaded “Not Guilty.”  It took a jury two hours to acquit everyone.

Faced with a monumental P-R problem, the baseball club owners had hired federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as their commissioner.  He was given wide powers to clean up the game.  The day after the players were acquitted, Landis banned all eight of them for life—“regardless of the verdict of juries,” he said.

None of the eight Black Sox ever again played major league baseball.

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The Sirens of September (9-22-1959)

After forty years of frustration, the White Sox clinched the American League pennant.  What followed became almost as big a story.

The Sox had won their last league championship in 1919–and then eight of their players had dumped the World Series.  Now it was 1959.  Bill Veeck had bought the team.  The Yankees were slumping.  This might be the year the Sox finally did it.

1959 Chicago White Sox

1959 Chicago White Sox

All season long, the Sox had been battling the Cleveland Indians for the league lead.  On September 22 the two teams were scheduled to play a night game in Cleveland.  Win this one, and the Sox had the pennant locked up.

WGN telecast both Cubs and Sox games in 1959.  TV was still relatively new.  Road games were not carried.  For that matter, neither were night games.

But this was a special occasion.  So WGN sent announcer Jack Brickhouse and his crew to Cleveland to beam the game back to Chicago.  All over the city–but particularly south of Madison Street–baseball fans tuned in.

It was an exciting game.  The Sox took a 4-2 lead.  Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Cleveland filled the bases with one out.  Dangerous Vic Power came to bat.  He banged the first pitch toward second.

Fire Commissioner Quinn

Fire Commissioner Quinn

Shortstop Luis Aparicio raced in and grabbed the grounder.  He kicked second base for the force, then fired to first to get Power.  9:41 p.m. CDT–Sox win!

Within moments, air raid sirens were sounding all over the city.

I was in 7th grade.  I’d been watching the game with my buddies.  The moment Power was thrown out, we raced outside to yell and cheer and generally celebrate.  When the sirens went off, we never doubted that they were for the Sox.

But there were people who hadn’t been watching WGN.  Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was in the U.S. at the time.  The Cold War was at its coldest.  Maybe somebody had shot Khrushchev, and World War III was under way!  Where are those fall-out shelters, anyway?

The next day, Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn took responsibility for sounding the sirens.  Mayor Richard J. Daley was a major Sox fan, and there was talk that the order had come from him.  A few stuffed shirts demanded an investigation.  In the end, the matter was dropped.

What happened after that, in the World Series?  Let’s talk about the 2005 Sox instead . . .

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