Right on Q: Harold Baines: A piece of the puzzle

Evidently! - Kevork Djansezian

How a No. 1 draft pick turned into a lifetime relationship

When Roland Hemond inherited the White Sox in September of 1970, it was the worst in baseball. By 1972, the Sox were contenders again. They were in first place as late as Aug. 28before falling behind the eventual World Champion Oakland A's.

The White Sox kept it going in 1973. They jumped out into first place once again. On June 28, 1973, Dick Allen broke his leg in a collision with the Angels' Mike Epstein. The '73 Sox were knocked out of first by June 30. They finished the season in fifth place, with a record of 77-85.

The 1974 White Sox were marginally better, finishing 80-80. Dick Allen quit on the team in September. In his autobiography, Allen blamed a feud with Ron Santo (during his one year on the White Sox) for his early departure. It was such a sore subject that the following summer, Roland Hemond and Harry Caray tossed a couple of shots at Allen's "retirement" on a pregame show.

The White Sox continued to sputter in 1975. By that time, they were fighting to stay in Chicago. Bill Veeck came in at the 11th hour to keep the team from moving to Seattle. But they finished '76 with a league-worst record of 64-97, and that was with a 10-game winning streak in late May.

The story of the 1977 White Sox has been told a thousand times before. Veeck and Hemond, unable to afford expensive free agents, traded for superstars in the final year of their contracts. The only free agents he could afford were injured guys like Erik Soderholm.

It worked. Richie Zisk, Oscar Gamble, and Soderholm pumped some life into Comiskey Park for the first time in five years. The "South Side Hit Men" was 70's baseball at its boozy, smoky, and funky best. If I ever had access to a time machine, I would love to attend a Sox game in the summer of '77. A summer sunset tinted by the smoke from the still-active steel mills, the blue cloud of cigarette smoke over the ballpark, the rusting remnants of the industries that dotted the neighborhood around the ballpark...

It would have been great.

1977 was temporary. The Sox won 90 games and finished in third place. But it was a hell of a lot of fun. While the fans were focused on Richie Zisk's home runs and the helmet perched on top of Oscar Gamble's afro, the White Sox made a move that would define the franchise for decades.

Because the White Sox were the worst in baseball in 1976, they had the first pick in the 1977 draft. Our attitude towards the draft has changed over the last 36 years. Now, the draft the best way to keep a minor league system stocked with young, cost controlled players. Prospects are highly valuable.

Dave Nightengale in the Tribune summarized the overall attitude towards the draft circa 1978:

"White Sox farm director Paul Richards, assistants Charlie Evranian and Dave Dombrowski, and scout Steve Vrablik will gather in the Comiskey Park dining room Tuesday morning for their annual crap shoot- a roll of the bones more improbable than anything ever concocted in the halls of Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

The event is the annual summer free-agent draft, the biggest opportunity to procure young and willing flesh since the New Orleans slave markets."

Horrible historical analogies aside, sportswriters viewed the draft with a cynical eye.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that news of the Sox drafting Harold Baines was relegated to page three of the Tribune sports section on June 8, 1977. Even then, the Baines pick was a small part of a larger story on the draft itself.

Heck, the paragraph devoted to Harold Baines was really about Bill Veeck. The old baseball wizard had his eye on Baines since he was in Little League in Maryland.

"Our choice was universal," Veeck said. "We scouted him as thoroughly as we scouted anybody, even that Bill Gullickson and others."

The truth was that the White Sox could not afford to pay the signing bonus to Paul Molitor, who was the best player in that draft (Molitor got $77,500. Baines' signing bonus was $32,000).

Baines was assigned to single-A Appleton ... where he fell flat. Here's the Tribune on Jun 4, 1978:

No matter how much Bill Veeck colors Baines, his former "next door" Maryland neighbor, Harold has been a major disappointment. Last summer's No. 1 pick was hitting only .215 through Memorial Day.

Baines was moved up to Knoxville this year, although his 1977 Appleton figures (.261/.369/.396) didn't indicate promotion, perhaps because of Veeck's almost paternal interest.

"Harold is running in tough luck. Everything he hits goes right at somebody. He's hitting the hardest .220 in baseball."

Veeck's patience began to pay off in late 1978. By November, Baines led the Instructional League with 38 RBI in 32 games. By 1980, he was on the White Sox roster, where he would stay for the next nine years. It was the beginning of a relationship between Baines and the White Sox that continues today.

Next week, assembling the team that won the AL West in 1983.

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