The #1 song in the country at the open of the 1968 season was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” a posthumous miracle crafted by the heartbeat of Stax Records, guitarist Steve Cropper.
This song, the most melancholic chunk of Zen you’ll ever hear, provided the soundtrack to the most tragic beginning to a baseball season there has ever been. As Redding’s masterpiece filled the airwaves, riots struck most of the cities across major league baseball, including Chicago.
The riots, foreshadowing the most violent stretch on American soil in the 20th Century, were precipitated by an event that would delay Opening Day: the April 4 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis.
It’s not a runaway choice, but there is no more obvious candidate for worst season in Chicago White Sox history, all things told, than 1968.
And yet the year began with a seemingly unrealistic level of optimism and hope.
At the team’s January ticket caravan press conference, manager Eddie Stanky and plum new acquisition Tommy Davis were pinching themselves over the potential of the White Sox — who basically came within an end-of-season doubleheader sweep at the hands of the worst team in the American League, the Kansas City A’s, of winning the pennant the previous year.
“I can’t say the White Sox would have won the pennant [with me and the reacquired Luis Aparicio on the 1967 team],” Davis said. “But it would have been an interesting season.”
The White Sox had averaged 90 wins so far in the decade of the 1960s, second-best in the AL behind the New York Yankees, on the strength of their pitching, defense and hitting — the Go-Go Sox incarnate. The weak offensive punch in crunch time of 1967 made team speed the fall guy going forward. Most notably, the White Sox dealt away budding star Tommie Agee, as well as Don Buford, in the speed purge.
It would not prove a wise strategy.
“We didn’t win anything with our speed, so we’ll have to make up for it in other areas,” Stanky reasoned. “Such as our hitting.”
In another foreboding development, the White Sox inked an agreement to play 10 “home” games at Milwaukee’s County Stadium — a preseason finale vs. the Chicago Cubs in April, and one regular season game against every other American League team. The ongoing agreement for the White Sox to play up north would provide fuel for future Milwaukee Brewers owner (and baseball commissioner) Bud Selig to come thisclose to stealing the White Sox away to Brewtown.
The swap that landed Aparicio back on the South Side pushed shortstop mainstay Ron Hansen out of a position, so on Valentine’s Day he was dealt to the Washington Senators in a package that netted the White Sox presumptive second base starter Tim Cullen.
The White Sox generally stuck at .500 throughout Grapefruit League play, indicative of a team sorting itself out. On one hand, the top three, workhorse starters were set: Tommy John, Gary Peters and Joel Horlen. Offensively, Stanky threw down the gauntlet, saying he’d be a “push-button manager” by installing the eight hottest spring hitters in his Opening Day lineup.
An early highlight came on March 12, when the White Sox pounded the defending AL champion Boston Red Sox, 10-5, in an 18-hit attack. In the early going, the new additions acquired to beef up the offense were getting the job done, with Aparicio batting .429 and Davis .417.
As the month came to a close, another aspect of the team rounded into shape: the fourth starter. Francisco “Cisco” Carlos dropped his spring ERA to 1.06 with a 4-0 win over the now-Oakland A’s on March 26, allowing just two singles. Contemporary reports pegged Carlos as a better shot to become A.L. Rookie of the Year than Johnny Bench had to be the N.L. top frosh.
Despite Davis pulling a hamstring mid-spring and being relegated to pinch-hitting duties to finish out Grapefruit play, Chicago was pleased enough with its burgeoning O that it sold veteran outfielder Rocky Colavito to the Los Angeles Dodgers on the eve of the season. Had the sale not been made, Stanky said Colavito would have been cut outright.
Management was also pleased enough with Stanky to hand him a four-year contract to manage the club into the 1970s. More on that aggressive, Venturian move in future installments.
On April 2, the White Sox lost their Florida finale, 5-1, to the Detroit Tigers, slipping to 12-13 on the spring. Four days later, Stanky’s charges evened things up at .500 for the preseason with a 10th-inning, 3-2 win over the Cubs in Milwaukee, in a last-minute tuneup for the season.
The White Sox would not win for another three weeks.
The delayed season opener, after the assassination and interment of Dr. King, was at Comiskey Park on April 10. What was promised as a pitching duel between Cleveland’s Sonny Siebert and the South Side’s Horlen — advantage, Chicago — was a lopsided mess. Just 7,756 fans turned out to see the Indians crush the Sox, 9-0, as Siebert tossed a complete game two-hitter (86 game score).
WMAQ was not prophetic:
Four days later, in Detroit, Bill Freehan walked the White Sox off with a single, to keep the Chisox winless, at 0-3. Two days later, the venue had changed to Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, but the song remained the same: Luis Tiant dropped the Sox to 0-4. The next day, in Boston, the White Sox were shut out, 2-0, to drop to 0-5.
Stanky (aka the “Brat”) wasn’t dealing too well with the pressure of high expectations:
In the first five games of the season, the White Sox had scored seven runs, on just 30 hits. And you thought the 2011 White Sox were the first of their kind to go “All-In” on offense, then see their lumber wither almost right out of the gate.
Back at Comiskey Park on April 20, after an ugly, three-city, five-loss road trip, the White Sox again suffered heartbreak.
John and Detroit’s Mickey Lolich pitched a scoreless duel, Lolich through seven and John into the ninth. With two outs in the top of the ninth, Freehan doubled in Mickey Stanley to give Detroit a 1-0 lead. With Willie Horton on third and Freehan on second, Bob Locker issued an intentional pass to Don Wert and gave way to Wilbur Wood, for the lefty-lefty matchup against Jim Northrup, with the sacks packed. Wood induced a comebacker to get out the inning.
In their last gasp, the White Sox managed a rally as well, off of reliever Fred Lasher. Davis singled, his cranky hammie giving way to Sandy Alomar as a pinch-runner. Lasher then fumbled a tapper back to the mound from Pete Ward, putting runners on first and second. Ken Berry pushed a bunt back to Lasher for a sacrifice, pushing ducks onto the pond. For his last act of a disastrous ninth, Lasher intentionally walked Duane Josephson.
Jon Warden came on to try to put out Lasher’s fire, and did not succeed, walking pinch-hitter Wayne Causey and forcing in the tying run. Ken Boyer was up with one out and the sacks packed, ready to be a hero, and delivered — with a line out to third baseman Wert, who doubled Ward off of third and sent the game to extras.
In the 10th, a Dick McAuliffe single and Norm Cash groundout off Wood pushed two runs across, and the White Sox went down 1-2-3 to earn their seventh loss in seven tries.
By April 22, the White Sox had dropped to 0-9, tallying 11 runs and 50 hits in the early season. The team, less than two weeks into embarking on a season with legitimate pennant hopes, was already 8 1⁄2 games out of first place. Just two regulars were hitting better than .207: Ward at third (.290) and backstop Josephson (.292). Ward, at .581, was the only regular slugging better than .333.
Meanwhile, Stanky didn’t seem concerned:
The White Sox’s 10th game, at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis, was a 3-2 loss to the Twins — made worse by the fact that the White Sox outhit Minny in the contest, 12-3. Just one of the Pale Hose’s hits were for extra bases, however, and Peters fell to 0-3 in spite of a game score of 67 that far outpaced that of Jim Perry, his opponent.
Finally, 11 games in came a win, 3-2, as John hurled just well enough to deliver the W and Davis added his second homer of the season. Two days later, the Sox took another 3-2 contest, this one in comeback fashion: Ward hit a two-run shot in the top of the ninth, raising the Chisox record to 2-11.
No surprise, the month would end in agonizing fashion: a four-hour, 18-minute, 12-inning loss back home to the Senators. Chicago had rallied for a 4-1 lead after the seventh-inning stretch when Davis clubbed a three-run shot with two outs, but gave the lead right back in the top of the eighth, on a Frank Howard RBI double and Ken McMullen two-run homer. In the 12th, McMullen added a solo shot, giving the Nats the eventual win. At least Peters wasn’t yoked with his fourth loss of the season, after another brilliant start.
At the end of April, the White Sox offense was in shambles:
- Leadoff hitter Aparicio was hitting .190, with a .200 OBP.
- Ballyhooed offseason acquisition Boyer was at .125.
- Davis had three homers, but was slashing .154/.196/.327.
- First sacker Tommy McCraw was at .180.
- Second baseman Cullen was hitting .179.
- Russ Snyder, another outfield bat acquired in the offseason to possibly push the glove-first Berry out of center field, was hitting .111 — 154 points lower than Berry.
- Starting pitcher Peters, at .273, was hitting for a better average than any regular besides Ward and Josephson. Peters was slugging .364, better than all regulars but Ward.
The good news to come? May would be the best month of the White Sox season.
The bad news? It would not push the needle on the soundtrack by much.