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Flashback: April 1958

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With high hopes of catching the Yankees for the pennant, Chicago’s season started off in almost the saddest way possible

Lead the Way to Opening Day: In early April, Lopez [left] named Pierce as his starter in the season opener — Pierce’s sixth consecutive for the Sox.
Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The offseason prior to the 1958 season was a tumultuous one for the Chicago White Sox.

After seven seasons of stardom, beloved Cuban star Minnie Miñoso was traded back to the Cleveland Indians, for outfielder Al Smith and starter Early Wynn. Unbeknown to the Sox, or perhaps just partly known, was Smith’s leg tendon injury, one that would basically plague him for all of the 1958 season.

A year earlier, in 1957, the White Sox had finished spring training at 13-17, but got out of the gate on fire in the regular season by winning four of their first five and 11 of 13, holding a 26-11 record through the first two months. The club would remain in first place in the American League almost exclusively until June 29, taking a tumble afterward and not getting any closer than four games of the damn New York Yankees in August and September.

The second-place finish gave Chicago hope that 1958 would be the year it would overtake the Bronx Bombers, and a strong spring training bolstered the notion.

No. 3 starter Dick Donovan finished his Florida slate of spring training with a 9.00 ERA — but no worries, there was plenty of time for the “insurance counselor” who won a “70% pay increase” in the offseason (after leading the AL in winning percentage in 1957, going 16-6): The White Sox would spend the next two weeks lazily winding its way northward for the April 15 home opener at Comiskey Park, playing a long series against the St. Louis Cardinals along the way.

Before camp broke, and on his 31st birthday, Billy Pierce learned he would start the opener, marking his sixth straight White Sox Opening Day start.

At the time, manager Al Lopez (a.k.a the senor according to newsies of the day) tabbed “gray-thatched righthander” Ray Moore, with his Grapefruit 3.18 ERA, as the pitching surprise of camp.

Among the stops for games vs. the Cardinals on the 12-day tour home were Pensacola, Fla.; Beaumont, Texas; Houston; Wichita; Oklahoma City; Denver; Omaha; and Davenport, Iowa.

In Beaumont, the major league exhibition was one of the last games in the city’s Stuart Stadium, docketed to be torn down to build a “gigantic shopping center” that would come to be known as the “Ballpark Shopping Center” (they are a simple people, in Beaumont).

Bubba Phillips, who was fighting for a regular spot in the lineup and tabbed by Lopez as the “most improved Sox,” in that game launched a homer out of Stuart Stadium that “fell in front of Miss Nogi’s grocery store across the street from the left-field fence,” according to accounts.

Around the time the White Sox played an exhibition at Busch Stadium in Houston, Lopez had his face smashed by an errant throw and spent the game managing in the dugout with ice pressed against his face.

The White Sox played two games in Denver on April 9 and 10. The April 9 game was played in a 38° drizzle that lasted the entire contest. Chicago took the game, 10-6, behind the “astounding” play of offseason acquisition Tito Francona, who had a homer and double in the same inning, plus two singles and a walk, pushing him to 17 RBI and a .373 spring average.

Also starring in the game Ron Jackson, a young first baseman also trying to earn regular time with the team. In Denver, Jackson hit what writers initially tabbed a 600-foot home run, to help him to 23 hits, 47 total bases and 17 RBI for the spring.

The next day, publicity man Ed Short and others measured off the blast (through a driving snowstorm, before the game) and determined that the ball landed 542 from home plate.

The Sox dropped that second game, 8-7, as Pierce was shelled, giving up 10 hits in his last tuneup before Opening Day.

On April 12, the White Sox finished up their spring slate with a win over the Washington Senators in Davenport. The game ended when Luis Aparicio stabbed a Harmon Killebrew line drive to start a game-ending double play. The club finished 18-12 for the spring, with 103,165 fans coming through the various turnstiles.

Nellie Fox, with an ever-present wad of “eating tobacco,” batted .314 for the spring.

The beginning of 1958 ran counter to 1957, in which a poor spring begat a strong start. This time around, hot play through a cold stretch of games back to Chicago seemed to freeze White Sox bats once Opening Day came around. The team off to a sluggish start, as much of the heart of the order, including Francona, Phillips and Smith, all fell fallow.

On Opening Day, Pierce was bested by Jim Bunning, who hurled a complete game and a 68 game score in Detroit’s 4-3 win in front of 28,319 at Comiskey. The White Sox scored only in the third, the big blow being Lollar’s two-run homer.

The next day came another one-run loss, 5-4. Attendance fell to 5,524 for the Wednesday day game, gutted by four late runs by the Tigers to complete the comeback, one-run win. Donovan was splendid through eight, but surrendered a three-run blast to Frank Bolling in the ninth to be yoked with his first loss of the season.

The Sox avoided the sweep with a one-run win of their own the next day, and split two in Kansas City before arriving in Detroit, for more pain.

In the first game of the series, on April 21, Donovan suffered another heartbreaker, as the Tigers came from behind to tie in the eighth and earn a “walk-off” win in the ninth.

Donovan again tried to complete the game, but was yanked after surrendering a leadoff double to Charlie Maxwell in the ninth. Moore relieved Donovan, but pinch-hitter Mickey McDermott singled for the win.

That made three one-run losses to Detroit in just the first six games of the season.

On April 22, Detroit Tiger Billy Hoeft threw his third straight complete-game win against the White Sox (dating to 1957) in an 8-2 blowout that dropped Chicago to 2-5. Wynn was clobbered for six hits and five earned runs in just one inning, earning a 22 game score.

After a 6-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians (completing a second straight “mini series sweep”), the White Sox fell to 2-7, losers of five straight. During the losing streak, the Sox were averaging just 5.6 hits and 1.8 runs per game. Phillips was hitting .156, first baseman Walt Dropo .125. Smith was at .200 and routinely getting pinch-run for or yanked for a defensive replacement at the end of games due to his lingering leg injury. Worst of all, the White Sox had dropped into last place in the eight-team American League.

Psst: It’s the hitters.

The lone highlight at the end of the month — for the entire April regular season, really — was an exciting 6-5 win over the Kansas City Athletics. The White Sox staved off a sixth straight loss by rallying to tie the game at five with three runs in the bottom of the ninth. First baseman Earl Torgeson walked in a run to make the game 5-3, and after a Francona whiff for the second out, Jim Rivera singled in two runs to send the game to extras.

When his turn came around again in the 12th, Rivera led off with a bunt single and was sacrificed to second by Phillips, Go-Go style. After a walk to Jackson, Aparicio slapped a single to center, scoring Rivera.

If not for Rivera’s late heroics, Chicago would have slid to 2-10 at month’s end, because the club would drop the next game to K.C. and, after a couple of rainouts, lose in Baltimore to being April to a merciful end.

Just 12 games in, the high-hoped Pale Hose had been outscored by 20 and sat in last place in the American League. The good news is that April was the worst stretch of their 1958 season. The bad is that the turnaround was still about a month away.