It’s the time of year where, as we look ahead with hopeful eyes to our 2021 Chicago White Sox and hopefully a full baseball season, we look back at those South Siders we lost in 2020. Included among them are a Hall-of-Famer, all-time slugger and future Hall-of-Famer, local guy who became a White Sox player and legendary radio voice, and even one of our own staff members.
(In case you missed last year’s story, at South Side Hit Pen, Leigh Allan likewise penned that one with me.)
Please, feel free to use the comments to honor any White Sox close to you who we lost in 2020.
White Sox career: 1961
Died: Jan. 1, 2020
Perhaps no player in baseball history is more famed for a single event than Don Larsen, who died on New Year’s Day, 2020, at the age of 90.
The big righthander from Michigan City had a major league career that stretched from 1953 to 1967, the biggest chunk with the Yankees and their publicity machine. But for all of that, memory of Larsen goes back to one day — Oct. 8, 1956.
Larsen’s pitching career was ordinary, 18.4 bWAR on 81 wins and 91 losses and a 3.78 ERA — though, to be fair, almost a quarter of the losses came when he led the majors the wrong way, going 3-21 with the horrible 1954 Baltimore Orioles. (He was almost better as a batter, hitting .242 with 14 career homers in 596 at-bats, good enough to get him the occasional pinch-hitting appearance.)
Fortunately for Larsen, he was part of a massive Orioles-Yankees trade after the 1954 season, and became a starter for a perennial powerhouse. Larsen was never at the top of the rotation, but picked up 45 wins over five years in New York.
Forty-five regular season games, that is. None of which are remembered.
But, boy, one postseason game sure is.
Larsen pitched one game in the 1955 World Series, and got walloped — five runs in four innings.
He started game two of the 1956 Series, and didn’t make it through the second inning. Mister October he wasn’t — yet.
But for some reason, Yankees manager Casey Stengel brought him back for Game 5. And history.
That day it was 27 Brooklyn Dodgers up, 27 Brooklyn Dodgers down, the only World Series perfect game ever.
Like most such games, there were some breaks involved, breaks of the Hall-of-Famer variety, with Mickey Mantle chasing down a Gil Hodges blast and a Jackie Robinson line shot caroming off the third baseman’s glove to shortstop Gil McDougal.
But the big factor was control. “I never had that kind of control in my life,” said Larsen, who averaged 4.7 walks per nine in his career. He had so much control only Pee Wee Reese, the second batter of the game, managed to work a three-ball count, and it only took 97 pitches to finish off a lineup that included five future members of the Hall of Fame.
(I was 10 and living in Saudi Arabia, where the Air Force ran a TV station a few hours a day. What little sports programming there was came months after the fact, and the perfect game got shown dozens of times. Baseball-obsessive that I was, I watched it often, even though I came from a long line of Dodger-fan Yankee-haters. No matter how many times I watched, Dale Mitchell still struck out to end it, and Yogi Berra did his famous leap into Larsen’s arms, every time.)
Larsen’s talent may have been dissipated by a less-than-arduous training regimen. On a team infamous for partying, Larsen was the “Gooney Bird,” wilder than the rest. On the perfect game day, his first wife was in court suing for unpaid alimony (he and his second wife were married 60 years).
After the 1959 season, Larsen was part of a multi-player trade with Kansas City that sent Roger Maris to New York. After 1 ½ seasons with the dismal A’s Larsen was part of another mass trade, one that brought him to Chicago. He was mostly a reliever with the White Sox, and pitched well, going 7-2 with a 4.12 ERA. He only stayed with the Sox for that partial 1961 season, moving on to the Giants. He’d be moved to Houston, then end his career back with Orioles in 1965.
It was a journeyman career, both literally and figuratively.
But, oh, that one day.
White Sox career: 1955
Died: Feb. 4, 2020
Gil Coan, who was the third oldest ex-major leaguer when he died on February 4 at the age of 97, had a mostly unremarkable career — unremarkable, that is, until you consider how unlikely he was to ever have a baseball career at all.
That’s because when Coan was 10, he developed an infection that led to most of his left thumb being amputated. Doctors made him a prosthetic, but he didn’t like it and played with just a stub for a thumb instead.
Now, missing a thumb may not seem nearly as impressive as Jim Abbott pitching for a decade in the majors after being born without a hand, or one-armed Peter Gray playing for the Browns in 1945, but Coan hit lefty. Grab a bat and give it a nice hefty swing lefty without your left thumb. Not easy.
Coan said the missing thumb didn’t hurt his hitting as much as his throwing, which is interesting because the outfielder threw righty (though perhaps that was because of the thumb). He was minor league player of the year in 1945, and early in his 11-year major league career he was a very good hitter, with a .303 average for the Senators in both 1950 and ’51. Coan amassed 3.5 bWAR in those two years, more than his career total of 2.1.
Coan understandably lacked power, topping off at nine homers in 1951, but had plenty of speed — 23 stolen bases in 1948. That speed helped him into the record books when, in April 1951, Coan hit two triples in one inning. It was the 10th time the feat had been accomplished, and the last until Cory Sullivan of the Rockies in 2006.
Overall, Coan was a .254 career hitter in eight years with the Senators, and the final two of his career with three other teams, including a very brief stint with the White Sox. The Sox got him on waivers from the Orioles in July 1955, and he only had 17 at-bats and just three hits for them before being traded to the Giants a month later.
Coan retired after one at-bat in 1956 and returned to his hometown of Brevard, N.C., to sell insurance. He was such a highly-respected citizen there that Brevard College, his alma mater, named its baseball field for him, and put him in the college’s Hall of Fame and on the Board of Trustees.
White Sox career: 1962
Died: Feb. 23, 2020
Conde was a victim of some bad timing with his major league opportunity, where he went 0-for-16 in spotty time with the White Sox in 1962. But his full baseball story is much richer.
Conde had such a love of baseball he in fact died while watching it, at 85, succumbing to a heart attack while in Florida for the Grapefruit League. He only made it to the White Sox for his brief cup of coffee in 1962, at 27, after years of minor-league ball for several franchises after signing out of Puerto Rico. That year, he got off to a .343 start with 12 homers and 72 RBIs for Triple-A Indianapolis when the White Sox called him up. Conde would get just two starts, mostly functioning as a pinch-runner or late-inning defender, getting just three walks and an RBI against three Ks.
A few years later, Conde admitted being confused by such a brief stay in the majors: “It rained the first five days after I went up, and we didn’t even get batting practice. When I finally started a game, my timing was off and I go 0-for-4. It was two weeks before I started another game, and I went 0-for-3 then. In between, all I do is pinch hit. I never get to hit against a lefthander.”
In 17 seasons in the minors, Conde had 1,917 hits and a .307 average, with 111 home runs and 651 RBIs. He also played 20 seasons in his country of origin, Puerto Rico, in the Puerto Rican Winter League — in the 1959-60 season, he hit .336 as the league’s MVP.
White Sox career: 1949
Died: Feb. 25, 2020
Yankowski lived a lifetime before ever getting a crack at the major leagues.
After leaving college early to sign with the Athletics, Philadelphia promised to keep him on their major league roster if he wasn’t called to active duty in World War II. The 19-year-old catcher did finish out the season, getting his first career hit on Sept. 2, 1942. Rather than return to compete for a roster spot in 1943, Yankowski joined the Army, where he served as a sniper at the Battle of the Bulge and helped to liberate the Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany.
A dispute over money ended his A’s career upon return from the war, and the White Sox snatched him up. Chicago invited Yankowski to spring training in 1949 and made the team. While just a third-string catcher, Yankowski made a good impression on the White Sox and was only sent back to the minors after an injury — fastball had caught his bare right hand instead of the catcher’s mitt and smashed his fingers (a fact that he’d kept silent from the White Sox in order to stay in the majors). After the season, which he finished in Memphis, Yankowski retired.
Yankowski moved back to New England and completed his education degree. He taught high school, coached basketball and played semipro baseball after his baseball career.
At the time of his death, Yankowski was the fourth-oldest living ballplayer, and the one who had made his earliest MLB debut.
White Sox career: 1969
Died: March 5, 2020
Wisconsite Don Pavletich was a bonus baby, and one of a select group of major leaguers from an early attempt at competitive balance who never really worked very well, and fizzled out after a 1953-57 run.
Yes, Pavletich was one of some five dozen signees to carry the “bonus baby” moniker, a group that ran from future Hall-of-Famers Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Sandy Koufax, and Catfish Hunter to many who never met with the least bit of success. A catcher, Pavletich signed out of high school in West Allis with the Reds for $30,000 — $6,000 more than Koufax got from the Dodgers.
Under the bonus baby program, any player signed for more than $4,000 had to go on the major league roster for two years. That caused a lot of the failures, since sitting on the bench for two years just led to stagnation rather than development, and most bonus babies were straight out of high school.
Pavletich was smart enough to work around that. His first year was the usual failure for bonus babies — one hitless at-bat on April 24, 1957, earning an OPS+ of -100. Rather than stagnate, though, Pavletich went into the service, using up much of his two “bonus baby” years. When he got discharged in 1959, he had another one-appearance year, this time as a pinch runner (he scored!) — but he hadn’t wasted another full season.
Then it was a trip to the minors, to come back to the Reds in 1962 and serve as the backup catcher and an occasional first-baseman there for seven years. Two of those years were excellent for a backup — hitting .319 in 1965 and .294 with 12 homers in 235 at-bats the next season.
Come 1969, the Reds had a catcher in the minors they thought might make the grade — some kid named Bench — and they sent Pavletich and Don Secrist to the White Sox for Jack Fisher. Pavletich hit .245 for the Sox in 1969, slightly below his .254 career average, with a -0.2 bWAR (dragged down by a -0.6 on the defensive side). It was defense that lumbered Pavletich’s career bWAR as well, a 4.0 that was hurt by a -1.8 dWAR.
That 1969 assemblage was a terrible White Sox team, but Pavletich got lucky before they plunged even further into horror showness in 1970, when he and Gary Peters were swapped to the Red Sox. Pavletich spent two years of little action in Boston before being sent on to Milwaukee, which cut him before the 1972 season, ending his career, after which he became a mortgage loan officer in Milwaukee.
White Sox career: 1956-57
Died: March 12, 2020
Derrington was also a bonus baby, snatched up by Chicago after starting his semipro career in California at age 13. The southpaw graduated from high school early and signed with the White Sox at 16, signing a $78,000 deal (the second biggest-ever at the time); as in the case of Pavletich above, the White Sox were required to keep the teenager on the roster for all of 1956 and 1957.
Derrington made his major league debut as the season finale starter on Sept. 30, 1956, at 16 years and 306 days, making him the youngest pitcher to start a game in the 20th Century and the youngest to start a game in AL history — a marks he still alone holds. Derrington also had a single in his debut, making him the youngest player to record a hit in AL history.
In 1957, Derrington pitched in 20 games and made five starts, but when MLB’s “bonus rule” was cancelled for the 1958 season, the White Sox sent Derrington to Triple-A, where he struggled. In 1960, his elbow was badly injured while pitching, although Derrington continued the season as a position player and eventually made a pitching comeback. But he’d never see the majors again.
After years in private business, Derrington returned to coaching (prep and independent ball) in the 1990s.
Right-Handed Relief Pitcher
White Sox career: 1979-81
Died: April 1, 2020
Farmer was a local boy who made good, overcoming a debilitating kidney condition to pitch 370 games over 11 years in the majors. He even made one All-Star appearance, as a member of the White Sox, in 1980. But it was his post-career life in Chicago where he had the most impact, as the team’s play-by-play man on radio for almost three decades. Read more about Ed in our tribute at the time of his death. We also teamed with Breaking T on a Farmio T-shirt, with proceeds going to the Polycystic Kidney Disease Research Foundation. Click here to order one, and Light it Up for Farmio.
Right Fielder/First Baseman
White Sox career: 1970
Died: April 7, 2020
John Matias was a rarity in several ways. For one thing, he played his entire major league career with the White Sox.
Unfortunately, that career only consisted of 58 games. Even more unfortunately, it was for the horrendous 1970 team.
Matias was originally signed by the Orioles, after a scout saw him play in a national American Legion tournament in 1963. He had a solid minor league career and was part of the trade that brought Luis Aparicio back to the White Sox for the 1968 season.
The southpaw first baseman/outfielder had one brief hot stretch, going 9-for-16 over four games in May. That stretch including another rarity — how many players who hit only two major league homers blasted one of them off of a future Hall-of-Famer? Matias hit his off of no less than Catfish Hunter.
That was pretty much it. Either Matias developed a problem or the league got a book on his weaknesses, but he had only six hits over his next 32 games, ending up with a .188 average and a negative WAR. He got swapped to Kansas City and never made it back to the show, though he had a lengthy successful career in Mexico.
Another rarity in our nation of hyphenated heritages, Matias was a Puerto Rican-Hawaiian. There are some 30,000 Hawaiians of Puerto Rican heritage, descendants of workers shipped in to work on plantations in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and all four of Matrias’ grandparents made the trip in the early 1900s. (And they say baseball isn’t educational.)
After retiring as a player, Matias returned to Hawaii, where he was a highly successful high school coach. His nephew, Joe De Sa, played 28 games for the White Sox in 1985.
White Sox career: 1969-77
Died: April 22, 2020
An astounding athlete who tried out for the Seattle SuperSonics while a White Sox pitcher, Bart Johnson was a born-and-bred Southern Californian who learned to appreciate and become one of up, a South Sider to the core. Our tribute to him in the form of a Mark Liptak Q&A ran at South Side Hit Pen at Sports Illustrated, so read tons more about his life and career there.
White Sox career: 1978-80
Died: June 10, 2020
Washington, who played for the White Sox in three seasons (1978-80), had a bit of a miracle path to the majors. After being overused as a 14-year-old high school pitcher, Washington quit the game to focus on basketball and track. After graduation, he played Connie Mack ball in Berkeley (a teammate of fellow future MLB outfielder Ruppert Jones) and was signed by an Oakland A’s scout.
At 18, Washington went straight to Single-A, learning how to play the outfield on the fly, so to speak. The next year, he was advanced to Double-A Birmingham and had a killer first half (.361 with 11 home runs, 55 RBIs and 33 steals) before injuries in the A’s outfield saw him leapfrog right into the majors. In his second game with the defending champions, he had a walk-off single in extras off of Gaylord Perry, ending Perry’s 15-game winning streak and earning a $500 bonus from jubilant A’s owner Charlie Finley.
Washington spent the next 17 years in the majors.
He’d go 4-for-7 in the World Series that completed Oakland’s three-peat, and in 1975, at age 20, made his first All-Star team. But Finley’s favoritism had ripples in the A’s clubhouse, and Washington was dealt to Texas a day after signing a new contract, and from there, in 1978, was swapped to the White Sox for Bobby Bonds. He had a bit of a resurgence during a relatively long stint with the Atlanta Braves, during which he made his second All-Star team, nine years after his first appearance.
Over 17 seasons, Washington slashed .278/.325/.420 with 1,884 hits, 334 doubles, 69 triples and 164 homers. He stole 312 stolen bases and had 824 RBIs, with a career 106 OPS+ and 19.6 bWAR.
Washington died of prostate cancer, surviving for two years after publicly announcing he’d quit treatment for the disease.
Died: Aug. 14, 2020
Big Jim Thompson never played for the White Sox, never coached, never scouted, never even ran a concession stand. But he is one of the most important figures in the team’s history, because his strength — or weakness, depending on your point of view — may be why the Chicago White Sox exist today.
Thompson was the longest-serving governor in Illinois history (four terms, from 1977-91). He was a massive political power. But apparently even a massive political power can succumb to the greed and blackmail of Jerry Reinsdorf.
It was in 1988 that Thompson cowered before Reinsdorf, and made the Illinois state legislature cower in turn. Reinsdorf was making his usual threats to move the Sox, the extortion this time involving Tampa, though he occasionally tossed in other locations as well. All he wanted was a nice new stadium he didn’t have to spend on ... getting other people to pay for things that make profit for him being a Reinsdorf specialty.
Losing sports teams is something politicians fear, so Thompson came up with something called the Illinois Sports Facility Authority, $150 million of investment — or total boondoggle, if you prefer — for a new stadium, with bond sales financed by hotel taxes. Rules on paying it back were on the lax side, what with all the fear of Reinsdorf coming up with another extortion plot and all, and — surprise, surprise — Reinsdorf later needed even more money.
The legislature didn’t like the boondoggle, though, so Thompson had to strong-arm it through on the final day of the session — and beyond the final day, by stopping the clock on the legislature floor — using coercion, promises, cajolery, whatever he could. Tales of the governor sweating profusely as he prowled among the members are legion.
Thompson won, though, 60-55 in the House, and the ISFA has funded Guaranteed Rate, Soldier Field improvements and other projects, with taxpayers naturally left on the hook because of the inevitable hotel tax shortfall. Taxpayers will have put much, much more money into the Sox than Reinsdorf and friends paid for the team originally, and are still on the hook for more, but you can be sure they will not take part in the profits when he or his heirs sell for billions.
But the team still is in Chicago, thanks to Thompson.
White Sox career: 1948-52
Died: Aug. 18, 2020
Like Ed Farmer, Howie Judson was a legendary athlete from the Chicago area, still known as one of the greatest athletes to come out of McHenry County. His baseball pitching, in fact, took a sidecar to his scoring ability on the Hebron High School basketball team, leading it to back-to-back titles in 1941 and 1942. In the 1942 title win, Judson scored 21 points — and Hebron’s opponent, Woodstock, managed just 29.
It was paying prep basketball, however, that Judson suffered an injury that would see him discharged from the Navy during World War II and would plague him in his major league career: Judson had been hit with a sling-shotted staple from the crowd, and the resulting vision problems would affect him for the rest of this life.
When Judson’s father died young, Howie took over as the primary breadwinner and set out to make a career in baseball, signing with the White Sox at age 21 and splashing into the majors two years later with five no-hit innings vs. the Detroit Tigers.
In spring training of 1948, Judson turned heads by holding both the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates hitless for 5 innings in starts. With that kind of performance, the White Sox couldn’t keep him in the minors any longer. The 22-year-old made his MLB debut on April 22, 1948, against the Tigers. Once again, he threw 5 no-hit innings before the Tigers’ offense broke through for two runs in the sixth inning. Judson suffered a 3-2 loss despite 7 innings of 4-hit, 3-run ball. He walked 5 and fanned 1. He appeared in a total of 40 games with the White Sox that year, but all but five of them came out of the bullpen. He did record 8 saves, which was good enough for fifth-best in the AL that year.
Judson had a 17-37 record with a 4.29 ERA over seven seasons. He pitched in 207 games, (48 starts), but was best known for a bad-luck losing streak of 15 games for Chicago in 1949-50.
Right-Handed Starting Pitcher
White Sox career: 1984-86
Died: Aug. 31, 2020
Tom Seaver, by almost any measure, makes the pitching staff of an all-time team and is among the Top 30 players in baseball history. The White Sox, through some cavalier free agent drafting, managed to pluck a still-extremely effective starter from the Mets and benefit from 9.7 bWAR over his age 39-41 seasons, which included his iconic 300th win at Yankee Stadium.
That such a cerebral pitcher, who talked a good pitching game both as a player and later as a broadcaster, was limited at the end of his life by dementia makes his loss especially bitter. Mark Liptak wrote a wonderful remembrance of Seaver at South Side Hit Pen at Sports Illustrated.
White Sox career: 1971-72
Died: Sept. 26, 2020
Jay Johnstone was a first-class practical joker and funnyman (think, in later White Sox terms, perhaps of Tom Paciorek). But his White Sox career was one of missed opportunity, as the club outright released Johnstone during Spring Training 1973 in a money dispute; in 1972, Johnstone had been a 1.6 bWAR player in just 124 games. It’s safe to say that Chicago did not make the right call in releasing a 26-year-old outfielder who’d play until 1985 and amass 8.7 bWAR in utility roles. Mark Liptak memorialized Johnstone and offered a little more detail on his White Sox release at South Side Hit Pen at Sports Illustrated.
White Sox career: 2006-07
Died: Oct. 3, 2020
It’s the rare occasion that a memoriam essay appears due to a criminal act, so we’ll keep this brief and say that Haeger murdered his estranged girlfriend, Danielle Breed, then killed himself with Phoenix police pursuing him for the crime.
South Side Sox career: 2011-20
Died: Oct. 22, 2020
Lil Jimmy was a popular and proficient member of South Side Sox for all of the past decade, contributing draft coverage and bringing insight and good cheer to the proceedings. After losing Rob Warmowski last year, it would have been nice to keep our staff members out of this story for a year, at least. But it wasn’t to me. The baseball and acting worlds are sadder without Jim. Read more about him at our South Side Sox tribute from October.
Right Fielder/First Baseman
White Sox career: 1964-66
Died: Oct. 29, 2020
Jim Hicks was the quintessential AAAA player. A three-sport star at East Chicago High, Hicks was the Hammond newspaper’s prep athlete of the year in 1958 and received a football scholarship to the University of Illinois. But he wanted to play baseball as well, and when he did so, U-of-I pulled his scholarship.
Since he could no longer afford room and board at the school, Hicks turned to professional baseball, and was signed as an outfielder by the White Sox in February 1959. The Sox sent him to Holdredge in the Class D Nebraska State League, where he hit .318 and was voted the best big-league prospect in the NSL.
Hicks marched through the minors and got a sip of coffee with the Sox in 1964, getting to pinch-hit twice, unsuccessfully. The righty got a slightly longer look in in ’65, going 5-for-19, a .263 average that would prove to be his best in the majors. He got another brief look in ’66, but it was mostly back to the Pacific Coast League, where he was a star.
The White Sox gave up on Hicks and sold his contract to the Cardinals after the 1967 season; the Cards sent him to Tulsa, where he was the 1968 PCL Player of the Year, hitting .366 with 23 homers. That led to his longest stint in the big time, 56 games between the Cardinals and Angels in 1969, but he hit a combined .130 and after four at-bats in 1970 his major league career was over.
Back in the PCL at Hawaii, Hicks thrived again, hitting better than .300 for three years in a row, with an OPS better than 1.000 two of those years and .942 the other. He went to Japan for two years after that, racking up 33 homers in 542 at-bats.
The father of six then retired to Houston, where he worked for Continental Airlines.
First Baseman/Third Baseman
White Sox career: 1972-74
Died: Dec. 7, 2020
Dick Allen was on the precipice of the Hall of Fame when he passed away earlier this month after fighting cancer. Had the pandemic not forced the BBWAA Veterans Committee to postpone its vote until 2021, he might have learned of his (likely) vote into Cooperstown on the day before he passed away. Read much more about this White Sox slugging legend with Mark Liptak’s touching remembrance, featuring memories of many teammates, that ran on South Side Sox.
Research assistance by Sam Gazdziak at RIP Baseball.