[Ed. note: Introducing another new regular monthly feature on South Side Sox, The Game I’ll Never Forget. Told by White Sox in their own words, we’ll trace history through the eyes and experiences of the players. Leading off the series former White Sox All-Star, Chet Lemon.]
Chet Lemon was the closest thing the Chicago White Sox had to a superstar post-Hit Men, pre-Winning Ugly. He was a defensive standout in center field, and a potent hitter. Traded before getting a chance to taste the champagne on the South Side in 1983, he was a linchpin of the 1984 Detroit Tigers juggernaut that stormed out of the gate and won the World Series. Lemon logged a career WAR of 55.5, certainly more worthy of Hall of Fame consideration than the voters gave him (receiving just one vote in 1996!). His career WAR places him 144th all-time among position players and 231st among all players. The JAWS Hall of Fame measurement places him as the 20th-best center fielder of all time.
Lemon was my first White Sox hero. I went so far as to emulate his casual way of catching fly balls, with the glove sitting languidly on my left shoulder—although never in games! (Says Lemon: “Harold Baines still gets on me about how I caught the ball!”)
In his own words, here are Chet Lemon’s memories of the White Sox, including his very first game, one he’ll never forget.
By Chet Lemon, as told to Brett Ballantini
And I was a third baseman.
I was in awe of Comiskey Park as I went out to take my position in the first inning. Growing up in Los Angeles, I had been to Dodger Stadium many times to see my heroes, like Willie Mays, come through town, but to be on a major league field … there was nothing like it.
When I first came into the big leagues, Ralph Garr took me under his wing. Roland Hemond, Chicago’s GM, was like my dad. I was so far from home, and he looked out for me. I was just a nervous, snotty-nosed kid.
It was crazy. I was watching guys I first saw as a little kid in Los Angeles. I got a chance to play with Claude Osteen on the White Sox, and when I was little, I watched him with Don Drysdale. I got a chance to play with Bart Johnson, Wilbur Wood, all those established White Sox. And even though guys like Bucky Dent and Brian Downing were considered young players, those guys were five years older than me!
So here I am in my first game, just about jumping out of my uniform I was so excited.
In my very first at-bat, in the second inning, I singled to right field off of Steve Hargan, a veteran righty. Nyls Nyman had led off with a bunt single to third, and I followed with a sharp crack to Jeff Burroughs in right. Burroughs couldn’t make a clean play, so we advanced to second and third on the error. Mike Squires scored Nyls and moved me to third with a ground out, and then I scored when Brian Downing hit a sacrifice fly to left. In my first inning on offense, I got a hit and scored the run to give my team a 2-1 lead.
In the field, it was a little bit of a different story. I always had a lot of range on defense. Problem is, at third base, great range perhaps isn’t as valued as it is at other positions. In the fifth inning, we were down 10-2, and I got my first ground ball in the majors.
Well, check that. It wasn’t exactly my ground ball. Tom Grieve hit a ground ball to short that I cut way over to grab, snagging the ball in front of Bucky Dent, and practically crashed into our second baseman, Jorge Orta, who was merely minding his own business trying to get the force out. I probably could have made the out at second unassisted—as a third baseman!
Maybe I wasn’t going to make it as an infielder.
After that game, Chuck Tanner, our manager, smiled and put his arm around me. We walked back up the dugout steps, and he pointed out to center field. Back then, Comiskey Park was particularly cavernous, stretching 445 feet straightaway to the fence. I knew what was coming.
“See there, Chet?,” Chuck said. “You can have all the room in the world to run. There’s no one to get in your way out there.’”
Chuck gave me a chance “out there” in the last game of the season, against the Minnesota Twins. I started in center and boy, was that space big! I didn’t get a single chance in the eight innings I played there in the game, and I have to admit, I was pretty nervous with all that green space around me.
But you might say I adapted to center field pretty quickly, because I pretty much never played another position for the next dozen years.
In just my second year as a center fielder, in 1977, I set an American League record, with 524 outfield chances and 512 putouts. [Ed note: The putouts mark broke Dom DiMaggio’s record of 503 set 29 years earlier, and both records still stand as AL bests.] By the end of my career I had five seasons of 400-plus putouts, including three straight as a Detroit Tiger. No AL player has ever had more. And it was with those records that people first started talking about me as an elite center fielder.
I became known as a fearless, aggressive player, both on defense in center field, and on the basepaths. I used to love to dive headfirst into first base on those bang-bang plays on the infield. Coaches told me to stop, but it was just instinct. I couldn’t help it.
In the outfield, a lot of people think I was just fast, or that the pitching staffs in front of me pitched to a lot of contact, so I had more chances. But I took time to learn the different ballparks and hitters. I deciphered our catcher’s signals. Nobody gave them to me, I just picked them up on my own, and moved accordingly.
That way, I was off to the races, always moving, based on the pitch that was called and the hitter’s tendencies. My plan was to already be on the move before the ball was hit. Anticipating a play is better than standing flat-footed, even if I was moving in the wrong direction. I would study hitters, and study ballparks. A hitter like Rod Carew, you had to study overtime on him, and still he kept you guessing.
I don’t know what motivated me to work as hard as I did in the outfield, really. I just wanted to be the best.
Back in 1975, we weren’t too good. I mean, I believed I was a major leaguer, but you don’t have many 20-year-olds starting games if you’re a great team. We finished in fifth place in 1975, and it got even worse in my first full season, 1976: last place at 64-97, 25 ½ games out.
I know it was a shock to a lot of people when the 1977 White Sox turned into the storied South Side Hit Men, but we never thought what we were doing was strange or unexpected. It was just a matter of a group of guys coming together with the same oneness of mind. We weren’t concerned with the individual, but with the team.
What a great year 1977 was. What I remember most is how the fans responded to the South Side Hit Men and all the success we had that year. We went into August five and a half games in front of the Kansas City Royals, who were pretty dominant at that time. We played a four-game homestand and the end of July in Chicago, and won the first three games and lost the last. Back in Kansas City about a week later, they swept us to pretty much erase our first-place lead, and we were in trouble by then.
But the season was so great. The fact that when we hit a home run, the fans wouldn’t let us sit down until we came out for a curtain call. For me, it was one of the most wonderful experiences I ever had in Chicago.
Chicago raised me. My first seven years were in Chicago. Those are memories I’ll have for a long time.
We always felt we had the talent in Chicago, but for some reason we could never put it together. It was nice to make a run for it in 1977, for as long as we did. Going into the 1978 season, we really believed that we had a chance to do real good. We had a real young pitching staff. We had a bunch of good, young, talented players.
The year after the Hit Men, when I was just 23, I played in my first All-Star Game. An even bigger honor was how much encouragement I got from a player I really looked up to, Bobby Bonds. He was my White Sox teammate for about half a season, but made a huge impact on my career.
It was always my goal to be a franchise player, but Bobby was the first guy who really started talking me up as one of the best center fielders in baseball. He said I was as good as anyone he’d seen, and for a man who played with one of my heroes, Willie Mays, that’s high praise.
In 1979, I finished ninth in the AL in batting average (.318) and on-base percentage (.391) and led the league in doubles with 44. I also made my second All-Star team.
Into the 1980s, the team was finally starting to come together. We had a great first half in 1981, but then the strike sort of took our momentum away.
And unfortunately, early in 1981, I sort of sealed my fate in Chicago.
In spring training, I had agreed to an extension with the White Sox, which would have made me the highest-paid player on the team. Both sides had agreed, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t signed the actual contract yet.
Then Bill Veeck sold the team, and the new owners made a bit of a surprise move and signed Carlton Fisk as a free agent, making him the highest-paid player on the team. I didn’t like that one bit.
I was still in my twenties, and as a young kid, I didn’t see getting a great player like Fisk as the opportunity it was—I saw it as an insult. I was still maturing.
Part of me said, forget it, I’ll just go and be a free agent. But another part of me was scared and nervous. I didn’t know anything but Chicago. Chicago was my home. The fans were always kind and encouraging, and I liked that.
The White Sox were afraid they wouldn’t be able to re-sign me, so they traded me after the 1981 season. Bad luck for me, because by 1983 Chicago had won the division!
Things worked out for me in Detroit, of course; we had an incredible year and won the World Series in 1984. I ended up playing more games, for more seasons, in Detroit than I did Chicago. I played in three decades—not many players can make that claim!
People asked me how I played so long. I mean, I was a full-time center fielder for 12 seasons. That’s not easy.
The key to my longevity was a fear of failure. I loved the game, don’t get me wrong. But I was a kid from the ghetto, from Watts. I never wanted to go back. I had an opportunity to make it, and so many friends were pulling hard for me to make it, I just couldn’t let them down.
It wasn’t enough for me to just to get there, for that one game in 1975. I had to excel. Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, we all grew up together, playing. All of us wanted to get out of ghetto, and with baseball, we saw a way out. All of us played for a long time—I don’t think that’s a coincidence.