Right On Q: Luke Appling's final year

He was at the end of his career. He was the team captain. His role was largely "inspirational." Paul Konerko is the new Luke Appling

The hard part about assessing Paul Konerko's place in White Sox history is the fact that he played at the same time as Frank Thomas.

The Big Hurt's numbers are so eye-popping, they skew our perception. Thomas, of course, should be in the Hall of Fame before too long. He belongs to the ages. Paul Konerko will not be in the Hall of Fame. But he is a White Sox Lifer, and his number will be retired as soon he decides to hang it up.

One day, Konerko's No. 14 will be enshrined alongside 3, 72, 35, 9, 19, 11, 2, 16, and 4. Since Paulie is in the twilight of his career, I did some digging to find out if another Sox legend went out in a similar fashion.

Fisk was released. Minnie Minoso's second go-around with the Sox ended in 1964 (I am not including his Bill Veeck stunt at-bats in 1976 and 1980). Luis Aparicio was traded. Harold Baines was traded in 1989, then returned to the White Sox for a couple of decent seasons in the late 1990's. Thomas left via free agency. Nellie Fox was traded.  Billy Pierce was traded. Ted Lyons enlisted in the Marines to fight in World War II. He made five appearances as a Pitcher/Manager in 1946. Mark Buehrle (oh come on, you know it's going to happen) left via free agency.

Which takes us to Luke Appling.

If I had access to a time machine, I would love to go back to the 1930's to watch Luke Appling play. Comiskey Park in the 1930's would have been a remarkable sight. Imagine Comiskey before the whitewashing. Before the exploding scoreboard. Before the light standards.

Ol' Aches and Pains was with the White Sox for all 20 years of his baseball career. He played his first game in 1930, and he retired in 1950. He was the bridge between two eras of White Sox history. The Luke Appling era began amidst the wreckage of the Black Sox scandal. It ended just as the Go-Go White Sox were starting to take shape.

Appling was an OBP guy back when on-base percentage was an undervalued asset.  He won the batting title in 1936 and 1943. He was an unbelievably patient hitter. He was legendary for fouling off pitch after pitch until he found the right one. In 665 plate appearances in 1937, he struck out twenty eight times!

During his years in Chicago, Appling was one of the best players in the game. Unfortunately, his time in the national spotlight was limited to seven appearances in the All-Star Game. The White Sox were mediocre-to-decent during the Appling years, and the team never finished higher than third in the American League.

Luke Appling had better numbers than Paul Konerko, for sure. But Konerko will have that grand slam in Game Two of the 2005 World Series. Appling never had the chance to play in the postseason.

A youth movement was underway in 1950. Charles Comiskey II and GM Frank Lane were retooling the White Sox to be younger and faster.  A 22-year-old kid named Nellie Fox was at second base; 27-year-old Billy Pierce had just been picked up from Detroit and 24-year-old Chico Carrasquel was at shortstop.

With a young player from Latin America waiting in the wings, it seemed that there was no room on the diamond for 43-year-old Luke Appling.

In January of 1950, Appling signed what would be his last White Sox contract. The Tribune noted that Appling was accepting the J. Louis Comiskey Award from Chicago Sportswriters honoring his decades of service to the Chicago White Sox. Then he was going off to meet Dr. John D. Claridge, "who will remove a pea-sized growth from the athlete's right thumb."

The Sox brass wanted Carrasquel to play shortstop. They also wanted to keep Appling's bat in the lineup. So they moved him to first base.  The idea was suggested to Frank Lane by Pittsburgh Pirates GM Roy Hamey and Pirates scout Babe Herman.

The Tribune story from March 28, 1950 suggested Appling wasn't too crazy about the idea.

Publicly, Appling was a good sport. He worked out at the position during an exhibition game at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Afterward, he said "I'll give the assignment a buzz."

That buzz lasted a week. He played First during an exhibition game in El Paso, Texas. Afterward, he told Manager Jack Onslow that he wasn't comfortable on that side of the diamond.  But, he added, he learned enough about the position to fill in "during an emergency."

The Trib also reported that Appling will keep his new $13.95 first baseman's glove, "which had been well broken in."

Appling was still upset about being moved away from his old position at shortstop.

Here's the Tribune from April 13, 1950:

Appling has been overheard repeatedly making a variety of sarcastic remarks not only critical of his manager, but also of the club from which he has drawn upwards of $200,000 in salary ($1.9 million in 2013 dollars).  Carrasquel, a shy Venezuelan, 22 years old, too timid to use the few English words he knows, also has been the target of many sarcastic shots.

Appling was the team captain, a title that earned him a few additional dollars. So even if he refused to play, Appling had "inspirational duties."

After an 8-22 start, Manager Jack Onslow was fired. New manager Red Corriden named Appling his first base coach. It was a title he would keep for the rest of the year.

The Sox went 60-94 in 1950, finishing 38 games behind the Yankees in the American League. Comiskey and Lane found a way to get Appling off the diamond for good.

They offered him a coaching job.

The Memphis Chicks, the White Sox minor league affiliate, needed a new manager. The job was his if he wanted it.  He could also stay with the big club as a member of the coaching staff of new manager Paul Richards.

Appling accepted the job. Several months later, Arch Ward wrote "there is no guarantee that he will not be in the Memphis lineup shortly after Opening Day." Appling thought he still had some gas in the tank.

He had great success as a minor-league manager.  He led Memphis to a Southern Association championship and was named Minor League Manager of the Year in 1952.  His only shot at big league managing came in 1967, when he replaced Alvin Dark as manager of the Kansas City A's.

Of course, no discussion of Luke Appling is complete without this:

In 1982, at the age of 75, Appling hit a home run during an Old Timers' Game at RFK Stadium in Washington.

Paul Konerko is getting a rare opportunity. The White Sox are giving him a victory lap. Of all the Sox player who have, or will have their numbers retired, he's the only one to get a farewell tour.

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