It’s not often, or ever, I’ve gotten an essay this good to accompany a Meet the Players survey for a new writer. But, that’s how Leigh Allan rolls. A radio/newspaper/theatre vet, Leigh hops on for the fun and frolic of the 2019 season, doing a little bit of recapping, and a little bit of essaying. Please, enjoy Leigh’s first piece, followed by our regularly scheduled Meet the Players survey.
What would Wilbur Wood do? (or: do not necessarily despair, all ye who enter here)
We live in trying times, when all who consider creating life have to ask themselves if it is fair and right to bring innocent children into this world … and then to indoctrinate them into becoming White Sox fans. It is a reasonable question, given the probability of a lifetime of woe, only occasionally interspersed with glee.
Can that pattern change? A definite maybe. Though the light at the end of the tunnel might just be flaming disco records.
Let us examine 1970.
From 1951 to 1967, the Sox had an astounding run of winning seasons. But in 1968 the wheels on the bus went “thump, thump, thump,” eventually leading to the abysmal, team-record 106 losses in 1970.
That was despite Luis Aparicio hitting .313 in his last year before moving on to Boston and Cooperstown, and Bill Melton hitting 33 dingers. The problem was pitching — a team ERA of 4.54, back when the DH was just a gleam in Charlie Finley’s eye, with no starter but Tommy John less than 4.77.
The 1970 season was so bad that not only was attendance under half a million, even with Harry Caray at the mike WMAQ dropped coverage and no other major radio station would pick it up. Instead, the Sox ended up with an unwieldy mash of small stations headed by WEAW-AM&FM in Evanston. (I’ve seen articles, including one on SSS, that said the flagship was WTAQ in La Grange. Nope. WTAQ was a key element, and Ralph Faucher of WTAQ was Harry’s sidekick, but WEAW ran the network.)
Major radio or not, 1971 was a huge bump. With a new front office headed by Roland Hemond, and Chuck Tanner becoming manager, the Sox jumped to 79-83, a 23-game improvement. Hemond’s key move was getting Tom Bradley, who won 15 with a 2.54 FIP. Tanner’s even better move, showing he wasn’t just a morale-raising guy, was converting Wilbur Wood from a useless role of “closer” on a team that seldom had a lead, to a starter who went 22-13, throwing 334 innings and 22 complete games, the first of many superb years. (And Tanner smartly reversed the process later with Rich Gossage.)
Wood was phenomenal, even though back in those ancient times the idea was to hit ’em where they ain’t and put pressure on defenses and pitchers. In today’s launch angle-obsessed game, where the idea is to bore fans to death with 20 strikeouts and popups and then maybe hit a meaningless solo homer, he and other great knucklers might get a 30-strikeout game, the added 3 on third-strike passed balls.
The big leap came in 1971 not because of the offense — which was actually worse, with 617 runs compared 653 — but the pitching, as runs allowed went down from 822 to 597. To borrow from politics — it’s the pitching, stupid!
This is where I wandered innocently in.
I had never even been to Chicago before coming for grad school after getting out of the Navy in 1971. My family was peripatetic, and my fandom moved with us. I have a toddler picture in a Brooklyn Dodgers Gil Hodges uniform. The first game my dad took me to was Washington vs. Philadelphia. That was our hometown Washington (“first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”) Senators, with my hero Eddie Yost, against the Philadelphia A’s. I moved on to the Pirates and Maz, then to a long stint in Ohio rooting for the Indians.
But when I came back to the States after the service, there wasn’t a single name I knew on the Cleveland roster. I was a baseball orphan, ripe for picking by a Chicago team. But which?
The answer came because I quickly learned that the University of Chicago and I weren’t BFFs, so I needed a job. My brother was working part-time at WEAW while a Northwestern student, and told me that the engineer who had travelled with Harry for the 1971 season wanted out — and no one else at the station wanted in.
What better opportunity could a baseball lover find? I applied, was told I needed a First Class FCC license, spent a few months in a school to get one, and went back. But one of the other engineers had changed his mind, so he took the Sox job, and I took his. It wasn’t a great place to work — other than Sox games, the stations sold off blocks of time to hellfire-and-brimstone preachers and foreign language shows (though WEAW-FM later became WOJO, a Spanish-language ratings monster ever since), with income mostly from the brilliant move of getting all antenna rights to the top of the Hancock.
White Sox games were a major challenge — a network of two dozen stations, across five states. These days, setting that up would involve a few keystrokes, but back then it meant so many patch cords the control room looked like The Invasion of the Octopus People. Woe if you patched one wrong.
Still, on home Wednesdays, Harry would broadcast from the centerfield bleachers, and an extra engineer was needed. So I occasionally got to go down to Comiskey Park and either watch a few dials or tote an extra six-pack out to Harry when he ran dry. Sox fan, I became.
And definitely, 1972 was a good year for that. In a big trade, the Sox sent John and his soon-to-be-medically-renowned UCL to the Dodgers for Dick Allen, the best hitter I’ve ever seen — would have been an all-time great if it weren’t for personal issues that disrupted his career. I swear when Allen barreled one, you could see the ball go flat. Allen had an AL MVP year sporting a .308 average, 37 home runs and 113 RBIs, and the Sox chased the A’s into September and ended up 87-67.
Despite Allen’s huge year, the offense amazingly got worse while the record got much better — just 566 runs, partly because Melton got hurt. Again, it was the pitching, allowing only 538. Hemond had stolen Stan Bahnsen from the Yankees for utilityman Rich McKinney, and Bahnsen was almost as good as Wood, better than Bradley. Team ERA was 3.12, with future HOFer Gossage’s the worst on the staff. (Unearned runs allowed ran at about 100 each of those years, far more than in recent defensively-horrific seasons. One suspects today’s pathetically lenient official scorers may explain it.)
Improving a team is actually easier now. Back then, the Curt Floodgates of free agency had yet to open. The draft was only a few years old, and the Sox began their tradition of making picks by dart throw. Means of getting players were limited — though money wasn’t as much of an issue, with the entire Sox payroll being about what Clayton Kershaw gets paid for one game.
Given what the White Sox accomplished with handcuffs and a shoestring almost half a century ago, let me reassure you that today there are possibilities of major improvement, even if the first of our rebuilding blocks all seem made of jello. There is hope.
Not too much hope, mind you. Allen missed much of ’73, the first of four losing years. But those years were respectable and watchable, adjectives that would be nice to be able to apply again.
I’ve been a Sox fan ever since, for better or (too often) worse, even though I spent 30 years in Reds turf before returning. I dared to lead my son astray as well, and am working on my Cincinnatian daughter’s innocent kids.
We had the joy of ought five. May the children you inevitably indoctrinate despite your fears have such a season soon. Or at least a Disco Demolition Night.
Meet the Players: Quick Hits
Name: Leigh Allan (formerly: soxsanta)
Hometown: Born in Boston, live in Chicago, whole bunch of states and countries in between.
White Sox fan since: 1971
First White Sox memory: Walking into Comiskey for the first time and getting to chow down at the Bards Room because I was part of a radio crew.
(Oh, OK, if you have to be sticklers for the truth, the first White Sox memory was in 1959, when I lived in the Cleveland burbs and was an Indians fan. Sox came to town with Indians a game or two behind, and I was part of the SRO crowd jammed like mosh pitters between the old and new Cleveland Stadium fences. I was 13 and small and never saw a damned thing, but shared the disappointment of the four-game sweep that took the Sox to the World Series. But that was then.)
Favorite White Sox memory: Bill Veeck trying to break up a fight in the stands so it wouldn’t ruin the day for the fans.
Favorite White Sox player: At my age, a sequence … maybe Wilbur Wood, Ray Durham, Ozzie, Buehrle, Alexei, Yolmer … basically, I love guys who play like they love the game, and are sufficiently unjaded to be amazed at themselves when they do something really good.
Next White Sox statue: I’d say Wilbur Wood, but the bronze required would preempt getting good free agents (Baseball Reference lists him at 180 pounds. Yeah. Right.), so let’s go with Ozzie. Gives Kenny a chance to man up.
Next White Sox retired number: Wilbur Wood, long overdue. Or Ozzie.
Go-to concession food at Sox Park: Italian beef
Favorite Baseball Movie, and why: Damn Yankees. My first ballgame was cheering for the old Washington Senators, and anything that damns the Yankees has got to be great.
South Side Sox on the field: Gotta be short. I was an infielder until I tried a softball comeback at age 50 and they made me catch. I would have been upset, except a friend who tried the same thing told me he was OK with catching after the first time he yelled “I got it, I got it” on a fly ball and then watched it land right where he thought he would get to, 30 feet from where he actually was.
True or false: Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders what the part that isn’t thinking isn’t thinking of. Is that a sequel to the bit about every Congressman having a thinking end and a sitting end and his whole career being dependent on his seat?