The White Sox operate on pitching and defense, but their hopes for a pennant are based, paradoxically, on hitting. Last year the Sox finished second, only one game behind the Yankees, despite a feeble offense that ranked seventh in the league in runs scored. Now Chicago has Catcher John (Honey) Romano, the home-run-hitting catcher (19 in 106 games) they obtained during the winter in a three-way trade with Kansas City and Cleveland, and they also will have First Baseman Bill Skowron for the full season. Skowron joined the Sox in July last year and hit .293 with 38 runs batted in over the last part of the season. "If we had had the first baseman earlier," says Manager Al Lopez, "we'd have won the pennant." There is some basis to the claim. The White Sox lost their first 10 games to the Yankees; after Skowron joined the club the Sox took six of the remaining eight. Beyond Romano and Skowron there is Third Baseman Pete Ward, who is shaped something like a bottle (he has massive legs and a little boy's face) but who happens to hit like one of the best batters in the league. He drove in 94 runs with base hits that went every which way but always, as Lopez points out, with sting. "He doesn't slap the ball," says Lopez. "He lashes it." Floyd Robinson, short but powerful, is a consistent .300 hitter who batted in 109 runs in 1962 (he fell off to 59 last year). Ron Hansen is not a high-average batter (.261 in 1964), but he hit 20 homers and had 68 runs batted in, impressive figures for a shortstop. Don Buford and Al Weis shared second base last season and are reasonably consistent punch hitters. Rookie Ken Berry, who will play center, had a modest batting average in the minors, but hit 20 homers. Danny Cater, who will be in right, batted .296 in 60 games with the Phils. The White Sox should get good pinch hitting, too. On the bench at one time could be big Dave Nicholson (who mixes homers with strikeouts at a ratio of about 1 to 10), Tom McCraw (.261 in 368 ABs), rookie Tommie Agee, Smoky Burgess and either Buford or Weis. Not to mention Gary Peters, the pitcher, who hits like an outfielder. In fact, the pitcher's spot in the Chicago batting order produced 57 runs batted in last year; only Ward, Hansen and Robinson had more.
It was an achievement of some note to score off a Chicago pitcher last season and, though it seems improbable, the pitching looks even better now. Gary Peters (20-8, 2.50 ERA) is the best lefthander in the league and Juan Pizarro, who held out through most of spring training, is only slightly less effective (19-9, 2.56 ERA). Both, however, may be upstaged by Joe Horlen, a mild-mannered right-hander who was just another name on the roster until Relief Pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm discovered him throwing a blinding assortment of fast balls and curves in the bullpen. "Why don't you throw like that in a game?" Wilhelm asked. "The way your ball moves, forget all that pitching for the corners and throw." Horlen began to cut loose and ended up with 13 victories and an earned run average of 1.88, which was bettered in the majors only by Dean Chance and Sandy Koufax. Dave Debusschere, the 6-foot 6-inch pitcher who in the winter is player-coach of the Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball League, arrived at spring training late and may have trouble beating out veteran John Buzhardt and rookies Bruce Howard, 22, Tommy John, 21, and Bob Locker, 27, for a starter's spot. The new legislation limiting the size of the catcher's mitt will not help Chicago's relief corps. Both Hoyt Wilhelm (12-9 with a 1.99 ERA in 73 games, all in relief) and Ed Fisher use the knuckle ball, and it's hard to hang on to that pitch with a pillow. However, it is unlikely that there will be enough passed balls to give opposing teams any late-inning comfort. Wilhelm, who will be 42 in July, won six games and saved three more in the last 25 games of 1964.
Chicago is feeling very smug about the winter trade that sent Jim Landis and Mike Hershberger to Kansas City. "I suppose the Yankees are outraged," says General Manager Ed Short. The Sox reason that while both Landis and Hershberger are excellent fielders, they won't be missed because their replacements are as good. Berry is supposed to be able to do everything Landis can do in the field—which is saying a lot—and he's a cinch to be better with a bat (Landis hit .208 each of the past two seasons). "If Berry hits .260 we're ahead of the game," says Lopez. Cater moves well and has a good arm, and in reserve is Agee, who is very agile in the field. ("Sort of reminds you of Willie Mays, doesn't he?" says Lopez hopefully.) The infield is solid, if unspectacular. Ward, at third, was terrible his rookie year, but last season he cut his errors in half and was vastly improved. Romano is not the best catcher in the world, but he'll do.
The good White Sox pitching is more overpowering than ever, the attack seems considerably more potent, the fielding is probably better and the bench is stronger. The White Sox should win.
RUNS BATTED IN