Whenever I thought about Roland Hemond, I smiled. He was such a generous, kind, and talented man, a breath of fresh air and sunshine every time we spoke.
But, as befits a site editor, I also worried about what would happen when we lost him.
That day has come, as word leaked out at midday Monday that Hemond had died, at 92.
We’d like to use this occasion as a time to publish something in Roland’s own words, a piece I worked on with him during for of the anniversaries of the South Side Hit Men. So for the first time here, this is Hemond’s look back on perhaps his most amazing GM job ever, the 90-win 1977 White Sox.
A Look Back at 1977
By Roland Hemond, as told to Brett Ballantini
Many things come to mind when I think back on the 1977 season — pride and fatigue among them.
But first and foremost has to be the experience working with owner Bill Veeck. I thought about it the other day: I had five years with Bill, but it felt like 10. He wouldn’t let anything slow him down, and as the man Bill considered his “legs,” I had to hustle at full speed just to keep up.
Bill had stepped in to save the White Sox from leaving Chicago for Seattle in 1975, scraping together his very last penny to do so. But just as the keys to Comiskey Park were being handed to him, the free agency era began. The days of a man making baseball ownership his sole business were over, and Veeck soon found he couldn’t keep up in the new financial climate.
After a painful, last-place season in 1976, we hatched a new plan that we hoped would allow us to compete against owners with deeper pockets. The idea was to pick up as many players as possible who were in their contract year. We might only “rent” them for one season, but the players would be hard-driven to earn their next contracts.
Back then, there was a draft of free agents — to negotiate with a player, you had to “claim” him. We drove the other owners nuts by staking claims on everyone. The thinking was hey, we want to let players know they’re wanted. We weren’t claiming the Reggie Jacksons of the world, players we knew we could never sign, but players who were eager to prove something.
A couple of our earliest and most wildly successful free-agent gambles were Steve Stone and Eric Soderholm. Stone had struggled through arm injuries and was looking to remain in the Chicago area. Soderholm had been injured and out of baseball entirely, and was a player who Bill particularly identified with, given his leg injuries. Stone would end up leading the team with 15 wins, and Soderholm had a comeback season for the ages, slugging 25 home runs.
We picked up several hungry players heading into 1977 through trade as well. We acquired Richie Zisk, who would hit 30 homers for us, from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Our ironman closer, Lerrin LaGrow, came from the St. Louis Cardinals. And at the dawn of the season, we added our final piece in New York Yankees outfielder Oscar Gamble, who would go on to set a team record for left-handers with 31 home runs.
The Gamble trade was particularly interesting. We gave up Bucky Dent, a very popular shortstop, but among the throw-ins we received a struggling minor-league pitcher named Dewey LaMarr Hoyt — only after angling for weeks on another Yankees minor-leaguer, Ron Guidry. Hoyt became a Cy Young Award winner in 1983 for the division-winning White Sox — and in 1984 he was the key piece in a trade for a guy you might know a little bit about, Ozzie Guillén, who was then a pencil-thin 19-year-old.
Today, there are baseball statistics galore, and fewer and fewer “unknown” players, but back then, we didn’t have anything like that. Charlie Evranian was our extra pair of eyes. He would “red-line” players, poring through statistics and underlining anything that looked like it should warrant our attention with a red pen.
This was the first team of great success that I could truly feel responsible for, from first player to last. Some of the stalwarts were from the pre-Veeck era: Chet Lemon, one of my favorite players ever; Jorge Orta and Francisco Barrios, who we acquired from Mexican League teams; starters Chris Knapp and Ken Kravec, who came up through the farm system; and others.
Bill wouldn’t let me rest. If he was reading up on a player, I’d have to be right there with him and talk to his Little League coach to boot (don’t laugh — Bill scouted Harold Baines in Maryland’s Little League). It got to where I’d have to try to steal some sleep in the dugout before night games, or in the bullpen. But just as I’d settle in, on came the field sprinklers to soak me in the dugout, or some prankster like Ron Schueler would ring the batting practice bell to wake me up.
Ultimately, we fell short in 1977, and some of the key players we’d gambled on ended up signing lucrative deals with new teams that had deeper pockets. We tried to keep the “rent-a-player” concept going, but it would never again find the same success.
Even though I’ve helped the White Sox win divisions and even a World Series title since then, I still look back at 1977 as a wonderful time. Bill taught me a lot about life, not just baseball. He had a real joy about him, and had no problem poking the air out of someone else because he never took himself too seriously. He warned me never to gloat or strut, because as soon as baseball crowns you a king, it will humble you at the next turn.