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Billy Pierce: The hero next door

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The left hander helped revive the White Sox franchise in the 1950's. But that was only the beginning.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Depending on when you were born and when you became a White Sox fan, Billy Pierce is either a Childhood Hero or Cool Old Man.

If your formative years were in the 1950's, Billy Pierce was part of a team that elevated the White Sox from permanent joke to perennial contender.  If you were born after the Go Go White Sox went their separate ways, Pierce was the friendly legend who had an arsenal of polished stories about the good old days.  In person, he was extremely kind.  But he had just enough of the Red Ass to satisfy those who felt that modern baseball didn't compare to the game as it was practiced six decades ago (he didn't have any use for the Quality Start stat, for example).

He was born in Detroit in 1927 and drafted by the hometown Tigers in 1945.  He would make his Major League debut that year.  He had control problems in the early going. In 10 innings of work, he struck out 10 and walked 10.  He wouldn't pitch for the Tigers again until 1948.

That year, the White Sox were under new management. Charles Comiskey III and General Manager Frank Lane were determined to revive a franchise that had been irrelevant since 1920. Lane started his White Sox tenure by putting the entire team on waivers. The Tigers claimed Aaron Robinson, sending Pierce and cash to Chicago.

Pierce originally said he wasn't thrilled with the idea of pitching for the White Sox.  Comiskey Park was near the Stockyards and he wasn't looking forward to the smell.

He made his White Sox debut in 1949, but the '50s would turn out to be a decade of dominance for Pierce.  He fixed his control problems and became the ace of the White Sox staff.  He was a seven time All-Star.

Pierce almost had a perfect game.  On June 27, 1958 he had a perfecto going against the Washington Senators.  Pinch hitter Ed Fitz Gerald was the 27th out.  He hit a double just inside the first base line.  Perfect game spoiled.  One of the people watching the game?  Vice President and White Sox fan Richard Nixon.  Pierce told the Tribune in 1994:

"I remember it very well," Billy Pierce recalled Monday. "He said to me, `I almost kicked in the television set when Ed Fitz Gerald got that hit off you.' "

When Mark Buehrle tossed his perfect game in 2009, some astute sportswriters noted that Dewayne Wise made that game saving catch above the picture of Billy Pierce on the outfield wall.  The play that saved a perfect game took place in the presence of another legendary lefty who came ever so close.

His wife Gloria Pierce told the Reader

"Lookit, he caught it right on your head!" screamed Pierce's wife, Gloria, in the living room of the Pierces' home in southwest-suburban Lemont. Pierce shook his head and laughed.

Even though Pierce was on the team that went to the World Series in 1959, he didn't pitch in any of the games.  A hip injury that year led to a late season slump.

He was traded to the San Francisco Giants in 1961, and made another appearance in the Fall Classic in 1962.  Pierce retired from baseball in 1964.

After leaving baseball, he could have moved back to Detroit (during the offseason, he helped manage the family pharmacy). Instead, he remained in the Chicago area. The Pierces moved to Evergreen Park. Billy took on a variety of business ventures - car dealer, stockbroker, color analyst on Sox games on WFLD-TV - before settling into the public relations department at Continental Envelope.

In 1993, Pierce told the Tribune that business was as satisfying as baseball.

On the job, Pierce's background was an asset with business executives who enjoy talking about sports and their youth. But as the long list of athletes who have struggled financially proves, fame is only a foot in the door. Pierce said he has succeeded by always making himself available to his customers. In fact, he said he gets the same kind of satisfaction from a business achievement as he used to get from baseball, although he realizes there is a big difference. 
"When you sell envelopes, you're happy, but when you're at a ballgame, there's 40,000 people screaming and being happy," he said.

He coached Little League baseball in Evergreen Park, volunteered at his church, and lived an above average suburban life.

Most importantly, he hung around the White Sox.  He was a regular presence at SoxFest. In 1985, he was part of the inaugural coaching staff (along with Moose Skowron and Minnie Minoso) for White Sox Fantasy Camp.

Moose, Billy, Minnie

46 years after not pitching in the World Series, he finally got to see the White Sox win the whole thing. He rode the bus through the victory parade.

I met Billy Pierce once. I was working at WGN and he was Bob Sirott's guest on the old "Noon Show." He was one of two guests that made me run down the hallway to the studio so I could say hello (the other was Dave Barry). We ended up having a pleasant conversation about Javier Vazquez, pitch counts, and how people liked his leather fedora. I ended up walking him out to his car.

It's a cliché to say that Pierce's death is "the end of an era." But it is. Pierce was part of a team that was special because for decades it was the only group of White Sox to actually play in a World Series. In 2005, he was able to pass the torch to a new generation of White Sox heroes.

Even if he moved back to Detroit after his playing days were done, Billy Pierce had a life well lived. Thanks for sharing it with us.