Milwaukee, Wis. is a large city in the midwestern part of the United States. So is Chicago, Ill. Milwaukee is located on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan. So is Chicago. Milwaukee has a major league baseball team. So has Chicago (rumors that Chicago has two major league baseball teams are not to be taken seriously). Milwaukee won 11 of its first 13 games and led its league. So did Chicago. At which point, in Milwaukee, the citizenry cheered great cheers and pummeled one another upon the back and ran shouting through the streets. "This is it," they screamed. "We're going to win the pennant and they'll never catch us now." In Chicago they cheered, too. "Boy," they said, "that was some left hook Robinson hit that guy with, wasn't it?"
The preoccupation of Chicago with a left hook—and its almost shameful indifference to the explosive manner in which the once-beloved White Sox bolted from the starting gate in the 1957 American League pennant race—would indicate that any resemblance between the neighboring cities is highly superficial; in fact, it might indicate that where baseball is concerned, no resemblance even exists. Which would be only partly true. Although the Milwaukee Braves attracted some 130,000 fans to their first six home games while the White Sox played before slightly over 50,000 in their first nine, this is an unfair comparison. For one thing, it is always unfair to compare Milwaukee with anything else in the world when the subject is baseball. For another, it really was quite a left hook. And finally, while the Braves have never managed to get away to anything even resembling such a fabulous start before, the White Sox are off and running with the first pitch every year. For the Milwaukee fan, this was the chance of a lifetime. For the Chicago fan, this was where he came in.
Since 1951, when Lane and Richards combined their talents to lead a downtrodden team out of the wilderness of the American League's second division, the Sox have been good but never quite good enough. And looking back at six straight first-division finishes and five in a row in third place, the script has remained remarkably and monotonously the same. Each spring the White Sox are in strong contention, sometimes even in the lead, until the month of June. At this point they manage to lose enough games in such a short period of time that the expression "June swoon" has become a cliche in the Chicago sports pages and not even a very amusing one at that. Yet it fits, the only variation being that sometimes it is July or August—or even September—before the Sox collapse. Last year, for example, they swept a four-game series with the Yankees on June 24 and moved to within a game of the lead. Twenty-one days later they were 11½ games behind.
Despite early-season evidence to the contrary, however, Chicago is a baseball town and nothing could turn the South Side into a state of bedlam quicker than the honest-to-goodness belief that the Sox might really be champions once again. Milwaukee has never won a pennant, but it has been even longer since one flew over Gomiskey Park. Never, for Milwaukee, extends back only to that day in 1953 when the Braves moved to town from Boston; the White Sox, on the other hand, haven't finished first since 1919. For those who suggest that this is just retribution for the infamous events of that fall—the Black Sox World Series—Chicago can only suggest in return: "In 38 years, haven't we paid for our sins in full?"
So it was that pennant fever, which Chicago managed to avoid like the plague for the first two weeks of the season, began to break out last weekend as the Yankees moved in for three games. Maybe, a few of the people began to say once again, this really could be the year; never before have the Sox started quite so fast and never have they looked quite so good. Perhaps they have found something new.
To be honest, they haven't. A new manager, of course—Al Lopez having replaced Marty Marion—but Lopez is only a good, sound baseball man and not a magician. There is also a new youngster named Jim Landis, who is a major league outfielder all the way—except no one is sure how he will hit—and Bubba Phillips, a converted outfielder, at third base. And because of Landis, Lopez has been able to play Jim Rivera at first, which appears to be a vast improvement over Walt Dropo, who can sometimes hit the ball much harder but usually not so often and has never displayed the former's highly competitive nature.
Basically, however, it is the same lineup: Nellie Fox at second, young Luis Aparicio at short, Minnie Minoso in left, Larry Doby in center and Sherm Lollar behind the plate. Fox and Aparicio form probably the slickest second-base combination in the league, and while neither has much power, both are sharp at the plate. Aparicio, the 1956 Rookie of the Year and this season almost surely the best defensive shortstop west of Roy McMillan, led the league in stolen bases and may easily do it again—if Landis or Minoso or Rivera doesn't steal more. Fox, off to a terrific start, has a .294 lifetime average and, what is more important, somewhere inside a 155-pound body still possesses that innate determination to beat your ears off. That can be an athlete's most valuable asset. Minoso, a .316 hitter last year, is one of the game's truly fine players, and Doby, healthy once again, is already far ahead of a rather miserable 1956 season when he still managed to drive in 102 runs. Lollar, who Paul Richards calls "a manager on the field," ranks behind only Yogi Berra as a catcher and, at 32, gives the appearance of being not only smarter than ever but a more dangerous hitter, too.
It is a good ball club, and it is winning because it is getting good pitching and because it can run (very fast), field (perhaps better than anyone else), hit (adequately) and throw (very well). It is not a ball club that beats itself, and it is a lot of fun to watch. This year it has been even more fun than usual and a lot of the missing fans don't really know what they are missing after all. The old Go-Go Sox, Rivera and Minoso and Fox, are still around and the mercurial youngsters, Aparicio and Landis, have ignited the fuse. Last year the team led the league in stolen bases with 70; this season, in the first 13 games, they stole 18.
The good South Side fans, however, remembering '51 and '52 and all the seasons of acute disappointment since, have reached the point where nothing short of a real run at the hated Yankees, a real season-long battle for the pennant, is going to get them out of their cynical and well-entrenched defensive positions. For they know that if the White Sox are fun to watch, they have deficiencies, too; they know that speed and skill cannot always make up for a very evident lack of power and an even more evident lack of depth.
It is a sad truth that the White Sox just don't hit very many home runs. When Lollar, for example, banged out his fourth of the season on April 27, not one Chicago writer went dashing to the record books to discover that this placed the White Sox catcher six games head of Ruth. At least, none bothered to report it; they know Lollar is still Lollar and that there is a long summer ahead.
White Sox Vice-President Chuck Comiskey recently said that the only way to determine if your team is a strong pennant possibility is to compare it position by position with the other contenders. He was only fooling himself when he came out of this bit of mental calisthenics with the Sox in good shape. Man for man, they do compare favorably with the Yankees—until you come to Mantle and Berra. As Comiskey knows as well as anyone, the Sox do not have a Mantle and a Berra. And neither do they have the well-stocked Yankee bench.
This could leave the issue squarely up to the pitching, and it is here that Lopez either has information unavailable to others or perhaps he is deluding himself a bit, too. It was suggested by Marty Marion, upon vacating the job of residential tactician last winter, that Lopez would be wise to bring his Cleveland pitching staff along with him; he might have need for it before the 1957 season was over. But Lopez, after two weeks of watching the Chicago pitchers operate, says no.
"I think this pitching staff is just as good, maybe even better, than Cleveland's," he says, "because we have more depth." But as he ticks off the names—Pierce, Harshman, Donovan, Wilson, Keegan, Staley, Howell, LaPalme—Al Lopez can be forgiven if he lingers longest over the first name on the list. If the White Sox are to finish at the top of the American League, a very great deal depends upon Billy Pierce.
Walter William Pierce is a compactly built young man from Detroit who at the age of 30 has already achieved half a dozen more or less valid claims to fame. He was the first ballplayer Frank Lane ever brought to Chicago in a trade. He is considered by Paul Richards, once his catcher and later his manager, as just about the stubbornest young man alive. He beat Nellie Fox out of $5 last season playing gin rummy. He can eat more candy and go to more shows than anybody on the White Sox roster. He has been the starting American League pitcher in three of the last four All-Star Games. And he is perhaps the best left-handed pitcher in the American League.
To those who immediately, in this last connection, bring up the names of Herb Score and Whitey Ford, it is agreed that you could hand the award to any one of the three. Score, the young man for whom the Red Sox offered Cleveland $1 million this spring, won 20 games last year and, for the second straight season, the strikeout championship as well. He has never led the earned run averages but in two years finished second and fourth. Ford, on the other hand, has never won 20 games—nor has he ever been valued at $1 million, either—but the tough little Yankee has won 19 once, 18 twice, was low ERA man last year and second the year before. Pierce, however, has gained all three. He won the strikeout championship in '53, the ERA title in '55 with a very fine 1.97 and last year finally got his 20-victory season, too. There is little to choose between them and on occasion each has beaten the other; they will undoubtedly take turns doing it again.
"The thing to remember, though," says Sherm Lollar, "is that Bill is hot only the best now, he's been one of the best for quite a few years. He had that sore arm in '54 but otherwise he's won 15 or more games for the last six years. And sometimes," Lollar says, "we didn't get him very many runs."
BRILLIANT ALL-STAR RECORD
In his three All-Star Games, Pierce has given up four hits and one run in nine innings. He has walked only one and struck out nine. But if the National League batters think he is tough, they should talk to the guys in the other league who have to look at him every few days. He once pitched 39‚Öî scoreless innings, which ranks behind only Carl Hubbell's record shutout feat of 46‚Öì in the left-handers' hall of fame.
"Whitey Ford is hard to beat because he pitches for the Yankees," Richards told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Reporter Jack Olsen in a recent interview. "And Score is tough when he has his control. But Billy is the best."
And Lopez, when assessing his staff, points out that while he has three other good starters in Harshman, Donovan and Wilson and two good spot pitchers in Keegan and Staley, only Pierce ranks with his big three of Score, Lemon and Wynn back at Cleveland. "He's as good as any of them," says Lopez. "He's one of the real good ones, a guy that can beat anybody."
Pierce has been one of the real good ones ever since he was 13 and went out to pitch for his Detroit recreation league team one day after the regular pitcher deserted to join a rival club with prettier uniforms. Billy was named outstanding player at a boys' national, all-star game in New York in 1944 when only 17 and the following fall the Tigers signed him away from half a dozen other big league clubs with a $15,000 bonus. He spent three seasons with Buffalo, came up to the Tigers in 1948 and that winter was traded, along with $10,000, to the White Sox for Catcher Aaron Robinson. It was not only Frank Lane's first deal, it was perhaps his best.
WAIT FOR THE FAST ONE
It hasn't always been easy for Pierce, however. For one thing, he had some faults that needed to be corrected. "He had a tendency to windmill in his delivery," Richards says, "which makes the ball spin too much and takes the life out of it. He flashed his curve—the Yankees always knew when he was throwing a curve. But mainly Bill didn't want to throw anything but fast balls in the old days. He laughed at the change-of-pace and the slider, so most of the strong right-hand hitters were laying back for him, waiting for a fast ball down the middle.
"One day I finally got him to throw a slider against the Yankees. He got Mantle to hit an easy one-hopper to third; then Bauer hit right back to Billy for an easy out. Since then Billy's been throwing a slider—but he had to find out for himself. Then, for a while there, he began throwing nothing but sliders. He finally learned about that, too. Even today Pierce will pitch a whole ball game and almost never throw anything but fast balls. But only on certain days."
Pierce still considers a good fast ball his main pitch, and Lollar says only Score can throw harder. "He isn't too big," admits the White Sox catcher when asked how a 5-foot 10-inch, 160-pounder can be so fast, "but he has wonderful coordination. And he sure is pretty to watch, the way he pumps and rocks and throws. Sometimes," he says, "when I'm not catching a game, I'll just go off to one side and watch him pitch."
"Pierce is a perfectionist," says Richards, "who has achieved maximum potential out of the equipment nature gave him. It took Billy extra long to learn some of these things because he had his own way of pitching and he wanted to stick to it. He'll take your advice, but with a guy like that you better be right when you do tell him something. The first time you tell him wrong, he'll never listen to you again."
But Richards adds that "his temperament is just about perfect," and the players on the White Sox agree. He is friendly and pleasant and a hard worker; he has also managed to hang on to his sense of humor throughout some pretty tough seasons. One day several years ago he was being hit hard but was staying out of trouble primarily through the heroic defensive efforts of Jim Busby in center field. After Busby had made about eight circus catches, Richards went out to the mound. "How you feel?" Richards asked him. "Don't ask me," grinned Pierce. "Ask Busby. If he's strong enough, I can finish the game."
While Richards was managing the club, he preferred to use Billy every five or six days, holding him out of rotation against the weak clubs occasionally in order to spot him against the tough ones. "He never missed pitching against the Yankees or Cleveland, though," says Lollar. "Which, in a way, I guess, was a compliment, but if he had worked a little more often and in turn against all the teams, including the easy ones, he might have won 20 games a lot sooner."
Last year Marion used him every fourth or fifth day, and Lopez has done the same. This spring Pierce had trouble and only twice did he pitch well in exhibition games ("Just seemed tired, I guess") but when opening day rolled around, he was fine. He beat Score 3-2 in 11 innings. His next opponent was Score again, and this one he lost. But he beat Kansas City and Baltimore, and as the Yankees moved into Comiskey Park last weekend, Pierce prepared to go to work again. Trailing the White Sox by 2½ games and faced with the necessity of sweeping the series if they wanted to take over the league lead, the Yankees knew they had to beat not only Wilson and Harshman—but Billy Pierce, too.
That is precisely what they did, in three close games, which only proved once again that the Yankees are still the Yankees. The Go-Go Sox were still looking good, but the series made it all the easier to understand that deep-rooted skepticism of their fans.