In memoriam: The White Sox’s other losses in 2021

In chronological order…

JUAN PIZARRO

Born: Feb. 7, 1937
Died: Feb. 18, 2021
Played for White Sox: 1961-66
SABR bio

The 1960s White Sox are the franchise’s most underappreciated era, and Juan Pizarro was the most overlooked member of the rotation that drove the Sox to an unmatched three consecutive 90-win seasons. From 1961 through 1964, Pizarro went 61-38 with a 2.93 ERA while averaging 213 innings. He struck out 686 batters over that stretch. Of the only seven pitchers to fan more, six of them are Hall of Famers.

Pizarro joined the White Sox from the Milwaukee Braves via a three-way trade with the Reds, with the Sox also receiving fading starter Cal McLish from Cincinnati. It cost the White Sox a decent infielder in Gene Freese, but the Sox got more than a fair return from the deal. McLish turned in a below-average season, but Pizarro, who never could capitalize on his potential in Milwaukee, blossomed with the White Sox.

Pizarro, who hailed from Puerto Rico and didn’t develop a great command of English during his playing days, was a victim of the language barrier at both ends of his career. His SABR biography points to Henry Aaron’s autobiography I Had a Hammer, which relays input from fellow Puerto Rican Brave Felix Mantilla:

“I don’t think our managers and front office ever understood Pizarro. He was always in shape and ready to pitch, but he was moody. Managers would say things to him about being moody and it would just make him angry.” Mantilla then went on to talk at length about the “unwritten rule” in those days against having five black players on the field at the same time, which cost both him and Pizarro playing time.

In Total White Sox, Richard Lindberg says Pizarro’s run came to an end starting with an arm injury he suffered in the Puerto Rican Winter League before the 1965 season, saying that Pizarro hid the issue because he didn’t want to be called a quitter. The following year, Lindberg says Pizarro ran afoul of manager Eddie Stanky for reporting late to a game in 1966 due to a head injury suffered in a car accident. He was dealt after that second injury-shortened season to Pittsburgh for Wilbur Wood, so he was a gift that kept on giving.

In between the turmoil, Pizarro helped the White Sox transition from a rotation led by Billy Pierce and Early Wynn to one staffed with Gary Peters and Joe Horlen. He led the league in strikeouts per nine in 1961 and 1962, and was a mainstay on the ERA leaderboards, with top-five finishes in 1961, 1963 and 1964, including a runner-up finish to Peters in the second of those seasons.

Pizarro wasn’t an immediate success in Chicago. Despite a dynamic fastball-curve combo, he risked languishing in another bullpen for the first two months of the 1961 season. His first 13 appearances all came in White Sox losses. In Bob Vanderberg’s Sox, pitching coach Ray Berres describes Pizarro’s development as a bullpen epiphany.

Pizarro pitched with an arched back and a rushed delivery and consequently all he could throw was one fastball after another and his best pitches — with the most velocity and most movement — were up out of the strike zone. Well, you might as well throw it out the window. It took a long time to convince him to change his delivery just a little bit. I told him, “This is what’s hurting you: Unless they chase your bad, high fastballs, you’re not gonna accomplish anything. You’re not gonna pitch here until you make the change. But I’ll tell you what. We’ll make you a promise that we’lls tay with you and give you enough time to develop this and we’ll give it enough time to prove either we’re wrong or you’re wrong.’ And that was satisfactory with him.

He was in the bullpen one day in May and all of a sudden he threw a ball, one of his last pitches, just before the game ended — when he wasn’t gonna be used. I said, ‘Hey, do that again.’ He said, ‘Why?’ ‘Just go ahead and do it. Throw it down to the wall down there.’ The catchers had already left. So he threw it. ‘Here’s another — do it again,’ I told him. And he did. I called a catcher back. ‘Now throw it a little harder, a little harder, a little harder. Throw it to approximate your game speed.’ Finally he said again, ‘What’s hard about that?’ ‘The hardest part was getting you to do this. Now throw your slider. Now your curve.’ And they were all real good. He’d gone from arching his back and rushing to the plate like that to just laying back and throwing it. And when it got it, he said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘My God, every day I’m telling you!’

Pizarro finally got his chance to start on June 10 and threw seven innings of two-run ball. He struck out 10 Senators over 7⅔ innings for his first victory as a White Sox his next time out, marking the start of one of the more impressive stretches for a White Sox pitcher, and arguably the least heralded.

STAN WILLIAMS

Born: Sept. 14, 1936
Died: Feb. 20, 2021
Pitching coach for White Sox: 1977-78
SABR bio

You could say that Frank Thomas wasn’t the first Big Hurt in White Sox history. Stan Williams beat him to that nickname, at least as a player. He was an imposing figure on the mound, standing 6’5″ and throwing a hard fastball without much of an ability to control it, at least early in his career. He was a classic journeyman who won 109 games over 14 seasons for six different teams, although none of them were the White Sox.

New manager Bob Lemon picked Williams for his pitching coach after the Red Sox let Williams go. Williams was in charge of the Boston staff during the pennant-winning 1975 season, but when the Red Sox replaced Darrell Johnson with Don Zimmer during the 1976 season, Zimmer decided to make his mark after the season by choosing his own coaching staff.

The 1977 White Sox surprised, although not because of their pitching. They finished with the 10th-worst ERA at 4.25, and no starter finished with an ERA under 4.00, although partially because the team was not called the South Side Glove Men. It all worked to support the league’s third-most prolific offense for a 90-win season, but when White Sox failed to replace the production of Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble in the offseason, the focus turned to whether the pitchers could pick up the slack.

Williams tried to make the case in a skeptical Chicago Tribune article from April 16, 1978, which opens with Williams being called a dead ringer for E.J. Smith, the captain of the Titanic.

“I know people have a lot of questions about my pitchers,” Williams said good-naturedly, in answer to the gibes. “But I’ll tell you too things: They are better than people think, and we’ve made a lot more changes than people think.”

They were right to have questions. The Sox finished with the third-worst ERA in the American League and no future fixtures, and when Lemon was fired at the end of June, the White Sox also dismissed Williams, replacing him with Triple-A pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton. Williams might not have been a success, but any pitching coach might’ve been overwhelmed with the state of the White Sox at the time. A Chicago Tribune column from Aug. 13, 1978, sums up the issues with the organization under Lemon replacement Larry Doby and Dal Canton, who started the 1978 season trying to make the team.

Item: Ken Kravec says he’s looking for leadership — someone who can tell him what’s gone wrong with his pitching.

Item: Francisco Barrios says he’s being mishandled and that the Sox pitching staff, in particular, misses Bob Lemon.

Item: Mike Proly, recently promoted from bullpen to starter, says six or seven days between starts is too long for him.

Item: Wilbur Wood fails five times to win his 11th game in a tailspin that began shortly after Lemon’s dismissal.

Item: Steve Stone reveals he calls his own pitches, largely due to inexperienced White Sox catchers.

To whatever degree Williams had to restore his reputation, he did so in the next two decades. He was the pitching coach for the pennant-winning 1981 Yankees, and oversaw the Nasty Boys staff of the championship 1990 Cincinnati Reds.

JOE CUNNINGHAM

Born: Aug. 27, 1931
Died: March 25, 2021
Played for White Sox: 1962-64
SABR bio

Joe Cunningham took his turn through the White Sox’s revolving door at first base in the 1960s. He showed up from St. Louis after the 1961 season when the White Sox sent Minnie Miñoso to the National League, with Lindberg saying in Total White Sox that Cunningham and Miñoso were attending the same function in Joliet when the news broke. Miñoso never took to St. Louis, but Cunningham responded to the deal with a season that stands as one of his best. He hit .295/.410/.428 with a career-high 101 walks over a career-high 149 games. You could argue that his 1959 season with the Cardinals outpaced it (.345/.453/.478), although WAR dings him for his work in the outfield.

Cunningham was a more gifted defender at first base. That’s where the White Sox played him, and because he was a White Sox first baseman, he totaled just eight homers in his best year. What’s more, Cunningham couldn’t even reach double digits in that category over his South Side career. He posted diminishing returns over the next season and a half, mostly due to a fractured collarbone in the middle of the 1963 season. He hit just one homer over his final 107 games with the Sox before they dealt him for their next light-hitting first baseman, Moose Skowron.

DICK TIDROW

Born: May 14, 1947
Died: July 10, 2021
Played for White Sox: 1983

The mustachioed Dick Tidrow was 35 and at the tail end of his 13-year career when the White Sox acquired him in a six-player deal with the Cubs in January of 1983. Steve Trout headlined the deal in the other direction, and Scott Fletcher ended up being the most consequential player in the return, but Tidrow led the Winning Ugly White Sox with 88⅔ innings out of the bullpen over 49 games, along with a three-inning start. He also collected seven saves, although five of them were of the three-inning variety.

He also picked up a pair of wins that ended up being the last two of his career. They’re worth noting because they were No. 99 and No. 100.

VITO VALENTINETTI

Born: Sept. 16, 1928
Died: Aug. 5 2021
Played for White Sox: 1954
SABR bio

Vito Valentinetti’s White Sox career lasted all of one game. He made his MLB debut as a 25-year-old on June 20, 1954, as he lost a couple years of development due to military service. He entered the ninth inning with the White Sox trailing the Yankees 10-6. He left the game with the White Sox trailing 16-6. His 54.00 ERA is the highest of any White Sox pitcher to complete an inning.

Second on that list is Drew Anderson at 40.50. One could say Vito Valentinetti was the Drew Anderson of the 1950s White Sox if anybody would care to.

JOHNNY GROTH

Born: July 23, 1926
Died: Aug. 7, 2021
Played for White Sox: 1954-55
SABR bio

The Chicago-born Johnny Groth spent 15 years in the majors, and he was able to spend a season and a half of that playing for his hometown team. His SABR bio is noncommittal about which team he supported growing up, saying that to the extent Groth’s father was a White Sox fan, it was only to spite Cubs fans. The younger Groth was a three-sport star at Chicago’s Latin High School, but while he succeeded in football and basketball, the Navy interrupted any scholarship offers. He joined the service in February of 1945, catching the eye of Bob Feller, but while Cleveland showed interest in him after the war, Detroit made a stronger push, and Groth spent most of his career in the Tigers outfield.

But in between his stints with the Tigers, Groth spent all of 1954 and half of 1955 with the White Sox, where he played center field and hit .285/.347/.395, all of which were roughly in line with his career averages. More was expected of Groth given his athleticism and his fourth-place finish in the 1949 Rookie of the Year voting. He never developed the pull-field power to make him a real home-run threat, and a beaning by Billy Pierce in 1953 more or less ended his peak at age 26.

CHARLIE LINDSTROM

Born: Sept. 7, 1936
Died: Sept. 29, 2021
Played for White Sox: 1958

Like Groth, Charlie Lindstrom was born in Chicago. Like Valentinetti, Lindstrom also played in just one game for the White Sox. A couple of key differences:

  1. It was far more successful.
  2. He didn’t get another chance.

Lindstrom, the son of Chicago native and dubious Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom, appeared in the final innings of the final game of the 1958 season against the Kansas City Athletics. He replaced catcher Johnny Romano in the fifth inning, then came to the plate for the first time in the bottom of the sixth, drawing a walk against Bob Davis. Facingn Davis a second time an inning later, he delivered a two-out triple to right field that scored Johnny Callison to extend the Chicago lead to 8-4. Lindstrom almost came to the plate a third time, but Sammy Esposito struck out looking with Lindstrom on deck.

I’m not seeing any specific stories how Lindstrom surfaced with the Sox as a 21-year-old at the end of the season. He hit .276/.342/.434 for Class B Davenport, which wasn’t bad, but there were two minor-league levels above him. Perhaps it was a positional scarcity thing. Perhaps Lindstrom’s father, a former New York Giants star who coached Northwestern’s baseball program at the time, pulled some strings.

However it happened, once Lindstrom was left on deck, he never came that close to big-league action again. On the bright side, he owns the highest OPS of any player in White Sox history at 4.000, or 1.000 ahead of Matt Albers and Neal Cotts.

EDDIE ROBINSON

Born: Dec. 15, 1920
Died: Oct. 4, 2021
Played for White Sox: 1950-52
SABR bio

When Eddie Robinson died at age 100, he had been the oldest living former major leaguer. For reasons good and bad, he was a fitting owner of that title.

He was Remember Some Guys material of the 1950s: a sturdy first baseman and a four-time All-Star who hit .268/.353/.440 over 13 big-league seasons.

He peaked with the White Sox, and one personal high resulted in a franchise best. He joined the White Sox at the end of May in 1950 in a big trade that sent a trio of Poles, Bob Kuzava, Cass Michaels and Johnny Ostrowski, to Washington. Robinson wasted no time making his presence felt. He belted 20 homers in just 119 games, which was good enough to finish second on the team to Gus Zernial and his franchise-record 29 homers.

A year later, in a season that stood as his best ever, Robinson hit .282/.372/.495 and tied Zernial with his own 29-homer season, driving in 117 runs as well. To provide some context about Robinson’s power, nobody else on the 1951 White Sox hit more than 10. Robinson followed it up with another sound season at age 31 (.296/.382/.466, 22 homers, 104 RBIs), including his second consecutive All-Star appearance. General manager Frank Lane was never afraid to sell high, and so he sent Robinson to Philadelphia after the season for Ferris Fain in a swap of star first basemen about to enter steep declines. Still, Robinson’s record stood as a shared team mark until Bill Melton swatted 33 homers in 1970.

Robinson remained an active figure in baseball for the rest of his life, including an appearance on the Effectively Wild Podcast as a 98-year-old, which led to him starting his own podcast as he approached 100. But his longevity also allowed some ugly incidents from his past — and baseball’s past — to resurface. It normally would’ve been a no-brainer for Cleveland to honor the last living member of the 1948 championship team at their World Series appearance in 2016, but Robinson’s time in Cleveland included a refusal to shake Larry Doby’s hand or lend him his glove. He also might’ve kicked Jackie Robinson in the back. His late-in-life interviews implied that any anti-integration stances he harbored had long left him. Perhaps you could say he embodied baseball’s evolution, and also what baseball was forced to evolve from.

LaMARR HOYT

Born: Jan. 1, 1955
Died: Nov. 29, 2021
Played for White Sox: 1982-84

Dewey LaMarr Hoyt is the subject of one of the better what-ifs in White Sox history: What if the White Sox were able to get the 1983 ALCS to a Game 5?

Hoyt, the eventual Cy Young winner that season, pitched the White Sox to their lone win over Baltimore on the road in Game 1, throwing a five-hit gem to outduel fellow Cy finalist Scott McGregor. He didn’t get a chance to pitch a Game 5, although it wasn’t because of a lesser effort from the Game 4 starter (Britt Burns pitched nine scoreless innings before Tito Landrum hit a three-run homer on Burns’ 150th pitch of the game in the 10th). Others were to blame.

In a cruel twist, Hoyt faced McGregor the next time he pitched … on Opening Day of the 1984 season. He outpitched McGregor again in a 5-2 victory. Alas.

Hoyt slowly slid from peak from shortly thereafter, and then health and legal troubles took hold, but the two years that preceded it were as charmed as other years were unfortunate. Hoyt came over to the White Sox as a secondary piece in a key South Side Hit Men trade (Oscar Gamble for Bucky Dent), but he wouldn’t surface in the majors until two years later as a 25-year-old. He bounced between the rotation and bullpen for Tony La Russa between 1980 and 1980, including 10 saves in the split season of 1981.

He also opened the 1982 season in the bullpen, but he seized an opportunity to start with eight strong innings against the Milwaukee Brewers at the end of April, and he never looked back. He led the league with 19 wins while posting a 3.53 ERA over 239⅔ innings, which set the stage for his Cy Young season of 1983. He went 24-10 over 260⅔ innings, and besides the fact that he once again paced the league in victories, he also gained a share of the White Sox’s best single-season win total over the last 100 years. Wilbur Wood won 24 games twice, and no other pitcher has done it since Red Faber won 25 games in 1921. Hoyt did it with impeccable control, walking only 31 batters that season.

He wouldn’t reach those highs again, although he had one more success in store after the White Sox traded him to San Diego for Ozzie Guillen after the 1984 season. He went 16-8 for the Padres and picked up the win in the All-Star Game, but he pitched the season in pain, working through what turned out to be a torn rotator cuff. He became dependent on painkillers, and was arrested several times on drug possession charges, a prolonged reckoning with pain management, addiction issues and a sleep disorder.

Hoyt’s run-ins with the laws seemed to end after his career, and he re-settled in South Carolina with his family. After Hoyt’s death, his son Matthew said that Hoyt’s time with the White Sox were “the best years of his life.”

ROLAND HEMOND

Born: Oct. 26, 1929
Died: Dec. 12, 2021
Worked for White Sox: 1970-85, 2001-07

Roland Hemond made all the trades mentioned in Hoyt’s passage, which accounted for two of the three signature teams he developed during a time as GM that spanned three different owners. In acquiring Gamble, he maximized Bill Veeck’s cash-strapped desperation by loading up on impending free agents for the team that became the South Side Hit Men. Six years later with Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn in charge, Hoyt’s emergence anchored a dominant rotation for a Winning Ugly team that had the makings of a pennant winner, if only Hoyt had the chance.

But his most important job was his first task upon joining the White Sox in 1970, and that was to build a team interesting enough to stave off relocation. Interest in the White Sox plummeted by the end of the previous decade, to the point that the White Sox openly began experimenting with a relocation to Milwaukee. In came Hemond, whose acquisition of Dick Allen after the 1971 season finally gave the Sox the offensive force that had been missing on the South Side since the Black Sox scandal. The Sox didn’t have enough talent around Allen to win any divisions, but the 87-win season of 1972 and promising seasons that followed reversed the attendance slide and kept the Chicago White Sox afloat as they were tossed from Allyn to Allyn to Veeck, and eventually Reinsdorf.

PERTINENT: Roland Hemond, 92, made massive impacts on White Sox, baseball

The White Sox fired Hemond after the 1985 season, with Reinsdorf suggesting that the team needed fresh eyes to steer them out of a dead end. Perhaps that was true, but it didn’t help that the eyes he found were attached to Hawk Harrelson’s brain. While the White Sox needed several seasons to right themselves, Hemond moved on to a successful stint rebuilding the Baltimore Orioles, after which he guided the Arizona Diamondbacks through their infancy. He always seemed to be the right guy to give a franchise a lift.

It helped that his ability to evaluate talent was paired with an ability to connect with people. His leadership tree includes World Series-winning GMs in Kenny Williams, Dave Dombrowski and Walt Jocketty, and he was known for acknowledging and remembering everybody who worked for his teams. He co-founded the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundations to support scouts who had fallen on hard times, and founded the Arizona Fall League as a way to give prospects an extra chance to impress. His well-rounded and wholesome impact on the game led him to be the first recipient of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award who wasn’t Buck O’Neil. Baseball lost a tremendous resource in Hemond, which is captured by Jacob Pomrenke’s wonderful obituary on SABR’s website.

(Photo by Eric Enfermero)

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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asinwreck

Great work, Jim.

with the Sox also receiving fading starter Cal McLish

I can’t ever think of this pitcher as, simply, Cal. When I was eight, his full name fascinated me: Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish. An 80-grade name.

Reading through these obituaries, it struck me that a pretty good book could be written about the history of White Sox pitching coaches. Juan Pizzaro’s turnaround was one of many success stories in the 17 seasons Ray Berres served the team.

“He was the reason I got to the big leagues,” former White Sox pitcher Gary Peters said of Berres. “He had a knack for spotting mechanical problems and he could cure you pretty easily.” As with many pitchers, success came quickly to Peters once he was able to grasp Berres’ concepts. After several frustrating seasons in which he pitched well for Sox farm teams but could never stick with the big club, Peters won 19 games and the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1963, then became a 20-game winner the next season.

“He was a quiet fellow, a very, very good coach,” Billy Pierce, the ace of the White Sox pitching staff during the 1950s, said of Berres. “Ray’s main theory was that a pitcher’s arm would drop down as he began to tire. He would watch that intently.”

After Berres, Johnny Sain was oft-traveled not because he didn’t get results (he did), but because he’d tell his pitchers to hold out for what they were worth, angering ownership. Sain was Leo Mazzone’s mentor, so he had a connection to the great Braves’ teams of the 90s.

Mr. Sain could correct a pitcher’s flaws and teach him pitches, but he was revolutionary in his emphasis on the mental side of pitching. He consulted books on psychology, salesmanship and warfare and was a keen student of Machiavelli — “especially the parts on cunning,” he once said.

After some turnover in the second Veeck era, Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn allowed Roland Hemond and Tony La Russa to spend for state-of-the-industry coaches. That brought Charley Lau to Comiskey and also lured Dave Duncan at the same time Hemond signed Duncan’s Seattle charge Floyd Bannister. Duncan’s first year went pretty well, as Jim’s obit of Hoyt indicates, and he presided over the team’s first foray into biomechanics. That story is a great example of how Roland Hemond’s long tenure involved modernizing the team’s operations, and how lucky we were to have him run this team.

Not to take anything away from Dick Bosman or Sammy Ellis or Nardi Contreras, but the next notable figure in the job was the one who was in it forever. Don Cooper was with the Sox long enough that a lot of weird stuff happened and maybe he should have moved on before Renteria became manager. That doesn’t take away from his accomplishments, including the durable 2005 rotation and presiding over Chris Sale’s development.

Now, Ethan Katz is integrating new biomechanical approaches after coming over from the Giants’ massive, data-driven coaching staff. James Fegan’s story linked in the Dave Duncan paragraph above reveals links between what Katz is doing now and what the team was doing under Dave Duncan in the 80s, and a history of how the job has evolved from Berres to Katz would illuminate many changes and continuities of how instruction in baseball has evolved over the past seventy years.

Last edited 11 months ago by asinwreck
asinwreck

I should mention that one of the pitching coaches in Veeck’s second go-round was Stan Williams, who died in February.

GrinnellSteve

I wonder if any other team has fared so well with pitching coaches over such a long period.

ParisSox

“One could say Vito Valentinetti was the Drew Anderson of the 1950s White Sox”.

This is my icebreaker at parties.

Joliet Orange Sox

I believe you have mentioned a wife and child in the past. Very impressive that you were able to overcome this icebreaker. Perhaps you are an incredibly handsome man or fabulously wealthy.

Ted Mulvey

One of my favorite all-time zingers, and this meme feels appropriate to my reaction when I read it: “The White Sox fired Hemond after the 1985 season, with Reinsdorf suggesting that the team needed fresh eyes to steer them out of a dead end. Perhaps that was true, but it didn’t help that the eyes he found were attached to Hawk Harrelson’s brain.” I laughed out loud in my office.