July 30, 1979 was a day I will always remember. No major world events took place. And it wasn’t a particularly glorious night on the diamond, as the Chicago White Sox lost to the New York Yankees, 7-2, at Comiskey Park.
It was, however, the first White Sox game I ever attended, and I was fortunate to spend it with my mother, who happened to be enjoying her 33rd birthday that day.
Prelude to the game
First, before I get to the game itself, let me give you a bit of my background. Alas, I grew up a Cubs fan, and stayed that way until I turned nine. I admit it, and I’m not proud of it. I grew up 100 miles south of Chicago, on a farm where the closest town had fewer than 300 residents. This was an age before cable television, where the only games we could watch were Cubs games on WGN. Sadly, the Sox were on WSNS-TV (Channel 44) and the reception was extremely poor on its best days. So I saw very little baseball action other than the Cubs as a result — the White Sox were, sadly, a non-entity in my family.
I was an avid baseball fan since I could remember, and I educated myself about the players by reading the backs of baseball cards (as well as hoping for Cubs rain delays so I could watch rain delay theater footage of Roberto Clemente, the 1959 World Series, or previous All-Star games).
However, because Cubs home games were all during the day, that meant this budding baseball addict had to get his fix somewhere. In 1977 I began listening to the White Sox on WMAQ-AM 670 in the evening, and was immediately drawn to the hitting heroics of Richie Zisk, Eric Soderholm, Oscar Gamble, Chet Lemon, Ralph Garr and company. It didn’t hurt that I was drawn even further to the White Sox by listening to the antics of Jimmy Piersall and Harry Caray, and the play-by-play of Lorn Brown.
During the day, I used my Wilson glove with Zisk’s signature (I think I used Zisk’s glove more than he did) and in my large yard simulated what it would be like to have my baseball heroes face the Big Red Machine in the World Series. Unfortunately, the Sox fell from contention that year and team was largely dismantled. That still didn’t curtail my love affair with the White Sox — while most of the South Side Hit Men left for greener pastures, I still had Jimmy and Harry to listen to and share a chuckle with.
Eventually, when my hometown planned a bus trip to see a White Sox game in 1979, I was the happiest kid within a 100-mile radius. I later discovered that this game would take place on the day of my mother’s 33rd birthday; this also seemed like a belated birthday for me, since I had just turned 11 just eight days before. Plus. the White Sox would be facing the fearsome, defending WorId Series champs! I was devastated when I heard about Disco Demolition Night on July 12 — I panicked and felt that the field would be permanently destroyed, which would cause me to miss the game. Fortunately, I was wrong and the game would go on!
The matchup was set, and this 11-year-old kid was excited to watch a battle of southpaws. Richard “Tex” Wortham and his 11-9 record matched up against the Bronx Bombers and former White Sox hurler Tommy John. My family and fellow townsfolk got into our seats in plenty of time before Wortham’s opening pitch, which turned about to be a leadoff single by Willie Randolph. The first two innings were uneventful, aside from a sensational snag by third baseman Graig Nettles of a Wayne Nordhagen hot grounder. However, Wortham made things interesting in the third by walking the bases loaded, but eventually coerced Yankees great Thurman Munson into an inning-ending, unassisted groundout to Sox defensive stalwart Mike Squires at first.
The Yankees drew first blood in the fourth, when left fielder Lou Piniella clobbered a solo homer into the left-field bleachers. White Sox DH Lamar Johnson tied it in the bottom half with a two-out single to left, scoring Squires, with Piniella gunning down Nordhagen at third on the play to end the inning. The Yankees took the lead in the fifth when Munson hit a clutch, two-out single to right which plated Randolph. The next hitter, future Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson (yes, I did bring along a Reggie bar to the game), clobbered a 440-foot fly to straight-away center field, which Lemon hauled in. John shut down the Sox in the bottom half of the fifth by inducing Bill Nahorodny to hit into a double play, which he followed up by punching out Greg Pryor.
The sixth inning is when things started to unravel. It certainly started innocently enough, with a Piniella ground out to short. Nettles and Roy White followed with singles, however, with catcher Jerry Narron scored Nettles with a terrific successful suicide squeeze to put the Yankees up, 3-1. After ominously Wortham walked weak-hitting Fred Stanley to load the bases. Randolph promptly took care of that by hitting a three-run triple over Lemon’s head to put the game out of reach, at 6-1. Right-handed reliever Fred Howard replaced Wortham and promptly allowed Juan Beniquez to hit a fly ball to right fielder Nordhagen, deep enough to score Randolph.
There wasn’t much to be excited about afterward. Aside from listening to Nancy Faust’s amazing music and listening to Caray’s rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the game was rather uneventful. Jorge Orta knocked Johnson in with an RBI single to right, which brought to the score to 7-2, where it ultimately remained. After Orta’s hit, Yankees reliever Ron Davis hurled a perfect three innings for his fifth save of the year. Other than hits to Beniquez and Jackson in the ninth, Sox reliever Mike Proly clamped down the Yankees in the final two innings.
John and Randolph were the true stars of the game — John by seemingly inducing groundout after groundout and improving his record to 14-6, Randolph by compiling three hits (including a triple), two runs, three RBI and a walk.
After the Game
This Yankees’ series, which concluded August 1, happened to be the last of Thurman Munson’s career. Even though he played first base on July 30 to give him a rest from catching duties, he rivaled Carlton Fisk and Johnny Bench as the best of his position. Munson’s single in the fifth was not only the game-winning RBI in the game — it was the last hit and RBI of his life; Munson died tragically on August 2 when the Cessna Citation he was piloting crashed in his hometown of Canton, Ohio.
Also on August 2, White Sox player/manager Don Kessinger resigned — replaced by some minor league manager named Tony La Russa. Late in the year, the Sox quietly called up prospects by the names of Britt Burns, LaMarr Hoyt and Richard Dotson. Little did we know that, just four years later, the Sox would win the AL West crown by a whopping 20 games with a nucleus that included those four individuals.
As for the 1979 White Sox, they finished fifth in the AL West with a mediocre 73-89 record. Chet Lemon had the best offensive year of anyone on the team, with a slash line of .318/.391/.496 and 5.8 WAR. The high hopes for the young, four-southpaw Sox rotation of Wortham, Ken Kravec, Ross Baumgarten, Steve Trout and Francisco Barrios were eventually dashed.
But all hope was not lost for this White Sox fan, as four years later would attest!