Several weeks ago, the White Sox hit a 33-year low. They had posted their worst winning percentage since September of 1980. At the time, the Sox were still mired in their late-'70s doldrums. But their time in Baseball Hell was short-lived, thanks to trio young pitchers assembled by Bill Veeck during the lean years of 1978 and ‘79.
Executive Vice President Kenny Williams has told anyone who will listen that the pitching staff is the key to the future, and the past suggests he might be right.
Veeck assembled the 1977 "South Side Hit Men" via "rent-a-player." He traded for superstars in the final year of their contracts. Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble are the names most commonly associated with the summer of '77. But the prospects included in those trades were the key to winning the AL West in 1983.
Most die-hard White Sox fans know that Veeck and Roland Hemond traded Bucky F'in Dent to the Yankees for Oscar Gamble. The Yankees also threw in minor league pitchers Bob Polinsky and Dewey LaMarr Hoyt. The Sox also got $400,000 in cash.
Dent was traded to New York just before Opening Day, 1977. The Tribune noted that Hoyt and Polinsky were the centerpieces of the trade:
"Besides the return of Gamble, 27, to Chicago (he played for the Cubs in 1969) and the acquisition of the money, they key to the trade may be the two minor leaguers, right-handed pitchers Dewey Hoyt and Bob Polinsky."
Dewey Hoyt became LaMarr Hoyt by the time spring training arrived in 1979. The Tribune pointed to Hoyt as one of the promising rookies of 1979. A sentence was devoted to Hoyt. The rest of the story was about Harry Chappas, the 5-foot-5-inch shortstop who hit .302 in Single-A Appleton.
Hoyt was finally called up to the big club in September, 1979. He pitched scoreless innings of relief. He pitched out of the bullpen again in the first half of 1980.
His first Major League start was a complete game, 4-3 win over the Texas Rangers on July 26, 1980 at Comiskey Park.
Hoyt won the AL Cy Young Award in 1983. In 1985, he was traded to the San Diego Padres for Ozzie Guillen.
"PITCH AT RISK TO RICH ZISK" was a popular slogan at Comiskey Park in 1977. As expected, the Sox were unable to afford Zisk or Oscar Gamble when they hit free agency at the end of '77.
Veeck promised to replace as much of Zisk's and Gamble's production as possible. With that in mind, he traded catcher Brian Downing, pitcher Dave Frost, and pitcher Chris Knapp for Bobby Bonds and a minor league pitcher named Richard Dotson.
On Opening Day, 1978, the signs at Comiskey Park read "THIS YEAR WE ARE PUTTING OUR MONEY IN BONDS." He was supposed to be the big White Sox star of 1978:
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Bonds was gone a month later, traded to Texas for Rusty Torres and Claudell Washington.
The Tribune compared Dotson to Tom Seaver.
Dotson didn't quite meet expectations in his first Major League start on Sept. 4, 1979. He gave up four runs in the first inning. Dotson's second inning started with a groundout from Bert Campaneris. Dotson then gave up two consecutive singles to Rick Miller and Carney Landsford. With one out and runners on first and third, manager Tony LaRussa pulled Dotson in favor of Britt Burns.
Dotson would spend the next 10 years with the White Sox. In 1983, he finished fourth in Cy Young voting.
Then again, the White Sox would have been better off if they kept Brian Downing. Dotson was worth 17.5 WAR over his 10 years with the Sox. Downing was worth 51.4 WAR over his 20-year career.
Burns was drafted by the White Sox in the third round of the 1978 draft. He's probably the only pitcher in the history of baseball to be scouted by a newspaper book critic. Tribune sportswriter Bob Cromie saw Burns while he was still in high school in Birmingham, Ala. Cromie mailed a blurb about Burns in the Birmingham paper to Bill Veeck.
Burns was the Chris Sale of 1978. He was drafted in June. Burns was 19 when he was called up to the White Sox in August. He made his major league debut on Aug. 5 of that year, giving up five earned runs over five innings in a 7-0 loss to the Tigers in Detroit. He started one more game in '78, giving up six earned runs over 2 2/3 innings during a 7-3 loss to the Tigers at Comiskey Park.
Burns didn't become a full-time starter until 1980. He would remain in the starting rotation until 1985. Hawk Harrelson traded Burns to the Yankees that December for Joe Cowley and Ron Hassey. He never pitched for New York. A degenerative hip condition knocked him out of baseball for good.
Burns is now the pitching coach for the Birmingham Barons.
The White Sox's homegrown pitching staff pulled the team out of their late-'70s nosedive. In 1981, the Sox were 2 1/2 games out of first place when the players went on strike on June 12. The team went 87-75 in 1982, a 17-game improvement over 1980. The following year, the Sox won 99 games and a division title.
The White Sox have the starting rotation of a contending team. Now it's up to Rick Hahn to give them an offense.