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Chuck Tanner and Dick Allen
Figure out a way to bring these two guys back to life, and all shall be well.

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What can be learned from White Sox history?

The history of the inglorious season of 1970, that is

The White Sox of 1970 have been ingloriously brought to the fore by the White Sox of 2023, as 101 losses is the most for the team since that dreaded 1970 record-setter. But while there is very little hope that the current powers-that-be in Bridgeport can keep the team from being even more woeful in the next year (or two, or three, or four), the rise from the ashes of 1970 was quick.

What can we learn from way back then?

Circumstances were different, in many ways. The Sox had only recently collapsed, after a string of 17 straight winning seasons through 1967 — not wallowed in the muck for a decade aside from two seasons bolstered by incredibly soft schedules. The amateur draft was still fairly new, and free agency yet to be.

Yet there may be some lessons in what happened. Not that Jerry Reinsdorf, et. al, ever learn anything. Or in Reinsdorf’s case, care.

How bad was 1970?

Really, really, really bad. And not just 106 losses bad.

Financially, the situation was a disaster, It was the period between Bill Veeck stints, the owner being John Allyn, who had bought out the share of his older brother, Arthur Allyn Jr. Arthur was famous as a lepidopterist, which made sense because he gave fans butterflies.

Eddie Stanky and and Arthur Allyn - Chicago White Sox
Eddie Stanky and Arthur Allyn Jr. [right], in happier days.

There wasn’t big TV or web money like today, no revenue sharing, and attendance was abysmal. The Sox had drawn more than a million or right at it through the 17 winning years, but then it dropped off to 804,000 in 1968, 590,000 in 1969, and finally 495,000 in 1970 ... and those figures were all bolstered by excellent attendance when the team played a few home games in Milwaukee.

Much of the drop was due to team performance, of course, but there was a nasty sociological factor in the late ’60s as well, with fears stirred up that Bridgeport was dangerous — which it wasn’t. Plus, the Cubs actually were the more interesting team for a short while.

As for team performance ...

The 1970 White Sox had five starters with an OPS+ better than 100 (led by Ed Herrmann), Bill Melton hit 33 homers, and future Hall-of-Famer Luis Aparicio hit .313 and walked more than he struck out. But the Sox were still 19th (of 24) in runs and 21st in OPS, partly caused by being (you’ll note a certain similarity here) 22nd with just 477 walks.

On the pitching side, only one team gave up more runs, and the team ERA was dead last, despite excellent years from pre-surgery Tommy John and reliever Wilbur Wood. The staff gave up more homers than all but two teams, and ran 16th in walks allowed.

Part of the reason the runs allowed total was so bad was that (bet you see this pattern) the fielding was horrible ... 22nd in fielding percentage (of only 24, remember), third-most errors committed, 19th in defensive efficiency. That may actually be a little better than the current team, but not by much.

So, what did they do?

Ed Short had been the general manager since 1961 and had seven good years before the fall, but the fall was fast, with losses of 95, 98 and 106 games made 1968-70 the worst three-season stretch in team history — and there was no pretense of “rebuilding” to use as an excuse. On September 2, Short was out, though he did have one last positive in drafting Terry Forster and Rich Gossage that year (also Jerry Hairston, for you JH fans).

Stuart Holcomb was named GM, which was even stranger than naming a proven incompetent from within the organization, because Holcombe had spent his career as a football and basketball coach and AD of Northwestern, and had been GM of the Chicago Mustangs soccer team, also owned by the Allyns. Unlike any recent and current honchos, though, Holcombe knew that he didn’t know what he was doing, and two days after getting the job hired Roland Hemond away from the Angels to be director of player personnel.

Roland Hemond visiting spring training in 2003.
Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Hemond, famed for his research work (such as it could be back when computers would have taken up an entire infield), would eventually be officially named GM, part of a career that led to a lifetime achievement award from the Hall of Fame. among many other kudos. And Hemond brought with him the manager of the Angels Triple-A team in Hawaii, 42-year-old Chuck Tanner, who had led the Islanders to a season still listed among the best in minor league history.

Note that Tanner was not brought from a terrible team, but a terrific one, and had managerial experience, albeit in the minors. What a concept!

Tanner technically replaced interim manager Bill Adair, who had taken over after Don Gutteridge was fired when Hemond took over in September. Adair had the helm for a rather inauspicious 3-13 finish to the season, but that was not any form of omen. The resurgence was under way.

After the purge came the resurge

The initial trade moves by the new front office were not auspicious. Chicago did get Pat Kelly from the Royals for not much, and picked up Tom Bradley and Jay Johnstone from the Angels for Ken Berry and a couple of washouts, but the biggest trade of the year was a flop.

The White Sox sent the shortstop who was the face of the franchise (sound familiar?) and who just happened to be heading toward the Hall of Fame (not toward being a trivia question, as may be the current case) to Boston for Luis Alvarado and Mike Andrews. Aparicio was 36, but turned out to still have a couple of good years left, while Alvarado was a complete bust and Andrews had a good season in 1971 but then headed down to Mendoza Line-territory, to wind up most famous for being horribly mistreated by A’s owner Charley Finley during the 1973 World Series.

But Tanner came to the rescue.

The laid-back new manager pulled Wood out of the bullpen and put him in the starting rotation, and the portly knuckleballer responded with a 22-13 record and a 1.91 ERA over 334 innings. That’s right, 334. Of course, Wood mostly just played catch with Herrmann, Bradley, though threw 286 innings and went 15-15, and John picked up 13 wins.

Chicago White Sox v Boston Red Sox
Why doesn’t this man have a statue at the GuRF?
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Those were the days of four-man rotations, and of starting pitchers not getting gassed so easily, or injured so often, but still ...

(Tanner would pull the opposite trick with Gossage, turning him from starter to reliever. That took a couple of years to work out, but then it was a straight shot to the Hall of Fame for Gossage.)

Overall, in 1971 the Sox jumped from 24th in ERA to fifth, and finished third in FIP. They were fifth-best in issuing walks, a huge change from 22nd.

The offense came to life somewhat as well. Melton hit 33 dingers again, and the team moved up to 14th in runs and 10th in OPS. It even walked almost 100 more times, moving up to a tie for fifth. (imagine what such a shift in walks issued and taken could mean today ... though it’s highly unlikely either will occur.)

The fielding even improved a little, moving up from dead last in defensive efficiency to 19th.

The result? A 79-83 record, good for third in the AL West. Quite a leap from 56-106. If the current team added 23 wins, 2024 would sport a 84-78 record and almost surely be vying for the AL Central title.

Ha-ha. Just put that in as a joke.

And even more resurge

Hemond had been pursing Dick Allen in trade since he took the job in Chicago, and in December 1971 the White Sox sent John and .209-hitting utility infielder to the Dodgers for him, which may well be the last time the Dodgers lost a trade to the Sox. Allen, who was sometimes beset by demons either totally from outside his control (vicious racism when he was with the Phillies — from their own fans and at least one of his own teammates) or from within, had had a mere 151 OPS+ with LA, low for him.

With the White Sox and under Tanner, Allen’s troubles were in the past. Allen hit for an astounding 199 OPS+ with 37 homers, 113 RBIs (in a strike-shortened 154 games), a .308 average and MLB-leading .420 on-base percentage. He cruised to the AL MVP and led the White Sox to an 87-67 record. That would have been good enough to win the AL East, but not to top Oakland’s 93-62 in the West.

(I occasionally got to watch Allen hit from the vantage point of the press box, and I still believe that when he connected you could see the side of the ball go flat. He’s the best hitter I’ve ever seen, and it’s a shame modern measurement techniques didn’t exist, so we could know just how hard he did hit the ball.)

Chicago White Sox
Dick Allen at bat. (You can’t see the ball because he knocked it flat.)
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The rest of the offense joined in, with six starters with an OPS+ better than 100, with Carlos May at 148, and Melton against hitting 33 round-trippers, though Chicago was still only 11th in MLB in runs and 10th in homers.

On the pitching side, Wood turned it up a notch to 376 2⁄3 innings and a 24-17 record and 2.51 ERA. Stan Bahnsen, who had been picked up from the Yankees for Rich McKinney, went 21-16 and Bradley was 15-14, both of them pitching more than 250 innings. Forster and Gossage led the bullpen (especially Forster), but the team was still only 10th in ERA, though first in FIP.

How could that difference be? The defense, of course — 18th in efficiency and dead last in range factor. Some things just don’t change.

Still, in two years the White Sox went from 56 to 79 to 87 wins, with the 87 coming in a shorter season. For those of us who had just become fans (I got out of the Navy and moved to Chicago during the 1971 season), it was quite a ride.

And it was all terrific after that, right?

Well, er, uh, no.

The record dropped to 77-85 in an injury-riddled 1973, then 80-80-3, 75-86, and 64-97 before 90 wins in 1977. Only 1975 was a miserable attendance year, though.

Part of the problem was a tendency to make first round draft choices who wouldn’t sign (Danny Goodwin) or never amounted to much of anything (whole bunches).

Allen was hurt much of 1973, but rebounded to another huge year in 1974 before he walked out on the team/retired at the end of the season, thus essentially given away to the Braves, who then sent him on back to the Phillies where his hitting went downhill. Also going downhill was the whole offense in 1973, with homers in particular hard to come by — 10th out of 12 AL teams.

On the pitching side, Wood continued to be outstanding for several more years, Bahnsen for one or two more. Some guy named Steve Stone joined the rotation for a year and wasn’t much good, but did well in a second Sox stint beginning in 1977.

So what happened to the guys at the top?

Amid rumors of a move to Seattle, John Allyn sold the Sox back to Veeck in December 1975, just in time for free agency to kick in. Veeck had been a big supporter of the players but didn’t have the money to compete in the new financial world, so he tried to sell the team to Edward DeBartolo in 1980 — and when the league refused that, made a sale to another group in 1981.

We all unfortunately know how that has worked out.

Hemond, who just died two years ago, stayed as GM through the 1985 season, then moving on to the Orioles. He actually came back for a short stint as a Sox executive from 2001-07, which of course includes the 2005 championship.

Tanner was ousted after the 1975 season, moved on to Oakland for a year, then to Pittsburgh, where he led the team to a World Series victory in 1979. He continued managing through 1988, and died in 2011.

So what are the lessons to be learned?

How about: Get a general manager who is up on all the latest ways to gather information and evaluate players (one of Hemond’s many awards from the SABR folks) and not some hack who has already proven incompetent in another role in the organization.

And then: Get a manager who has had success at the helm but is still young enough to have solid energy and relate to the team, not some coach from a terrible team whose only visible skills are spouting platitudes, throwing rookies under the bus and sucking up to his veterans and bosses.

Don’t be set in your ways when it comes to handling the pitching staff, but be ready to make major changes in who does what if that looks right.

And, oh, yes — it doesn’t hurt to pick up a superstar.


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