One of the very best things that happened to the Chicago White Sox last year did not count. Pete Ward hit two long home runs in the last exhibition game of the spring, making a total of eight. While this signified nothing, officially, the pitchers who made up what was supposed to be the most awesome staff in baseball nudged each other joyfully, the management nodded knowingly and the experts who figured the time was ripe for a Yankee collapse congratulated each other on their foresight in picking the White Sox to move in where the Yankees left off.
The logic seemed irrefutable. Ward, a third baseman who is built like a light bulb (he seems to get bigger nearer the ground, probably because he has a youthful, impish face set atop a torso-rumpled uniform and massive legs), had an unabashed enthusiasm for American League pitching. So the White Sox, who had been flirting with a championship for two years on the basis of excellent pitching, now apparently had the man to put a wow! in their attack and a pennant flag in their ball park.
It was the Chicago Black Hawks who ruined everything. Ward is a Canadian by birth (his father, Jimmy Ward, was a National Hockey League star in the '30s), and the idea of attending a 1965 Stanley Cup match in Chicago appealed to him. It seemed like a harmless enough way to spend an evening, but as he was driving home after the game Ward's car was hit by another and his head was snapped back like a rag doll's. It was what doctors and lawyers call "whiplash," and it ruined Ward as a hitter for the season. It also ruined the White Sox. Instead of romping home first, they spent a forlorn season finitely chasing the Minnesota Twins.
Of course, to say that Ward's unproductive season was responsible for Chicago's disappointing year may be stretching a point. Outfielder Floyd Robinson hit only .265, a most unlusty figure for a batter whose lifetime average had been .301. Power-hitting Catcher John Romano had come back to the White Sox amid excited hurrahs, but Romano hit exactly the way he had for the Cleveland Indians the year before, and that wasn't very good.
But for all that, the White Sox offense was less the villain than the vaunted pitching. Statistics show that the American League as a whole scored fewer runs last season, which means batting generally fell off while pitching improved. But the White Sox pitching fell off, and the White Sox batting improved—if you ignore the lack of timely, game-winning hits. While league totals in runs, total bases, doubles, home runs and runs batted in declined, the White Sox went up in every one of those categories.
But the pitching sagged. Gary Peters and Juan Pizarro, who had been overpoweringly successful pitchers for two seasons (Peters won 19 and 20, Pizarro 16 and 19), could manage just 16 wins between them last year. The starting pitchers generally were undependable and needed help from the sterling bullpen—Eddie Fisher, Hoyt Wilhelm, Bob Locker, et al.—in 141 of the 162 games the team played. American League pitching improved in hits, runs and earned run averages but White Sox pitching got worse in those key categories.
But this spring it's a lot like old times. The run-stingy habits appear to have returned to Peters and Pizarro and the other pitchers. Tommy John says he will be perfectly happy to win 15 games and, off his 14-7 season last year, seems perfectly capable of it. Joe Horlen, on the other hand, says, "Foo" on 15 wins: "If a guy's going to have a year, he's got to win 20." The only discordant note comes from Wilhelm, who broke a finger hitting! At 43, wounds are slow to heal. The line drives hit by Robinson have an old familiar line-drive ring, and Romano, stylishly slim, looks like the hard-hitting Romano of four or five years ago.
Most important, everything seems to be firmly in place in Pete Ward's neck. Now all Manager Eddie Stanky has to do is find a place to play his precocious slugger. The problem arises because Stanky is positively fascinated by players who can't hit. can't run and can't throw but whose urge to win games borders on the suicidal. In Al Weis, Stanky thinks he has found his dream player. Actually, Weis falls somewhat short of Stanky's ideal, since he is an excellent second baseman, batted .296 playing part time last year and can run like hell. But if he hits, he hits gently (three home runs in 685 major league at bats). Ah, that's more like it. Let's put Al at second. The insertion of Weis in the lineup bounces Don Buford over to third, which is where he belonged in the first place. The 5-foot 8-inch Buford is a tough little hitter (.283 last year, with 10 home runs and 93 runs scored, by far the most runs scored by a White Sox player). He is also very fast, but he does have this knack of playing ground balls off his chest—fine technique for a Stanky-type third baseman. So Buford has moved Ward off third, and Ward in turn is moving people every which way.
Last January, Stanky said, "Some people have been saying Ward will be my first baseman, but I want you to know this isn't true. I'm 100% satisfied with Moose Skowron." All this may have been comforting to Skowron, but in spring training who did Moose see working out with a brand-new first baseman's glove? Ward, of course, and when Pete wasn't working out at first base, he was out shagging flies in left field. The implication is clear. Ward is going to be somewhere in the lineup.
Ward in the outfield would seem to create new problems, such as fly balls falling before, behind and on either side of the displaced third baseman. But Pete shows a surprising aptitude for the outfield, and in particularly ticklish situations Center Fielder Ken Berry, who covers enough ground for two, offers protection. And if not Berry, then rookie Tom Agee, who seems to be a better hitter and who, moreover, has a gift for making the most incredible plays at precisely the right time. "A little bit of that this season," notes Stanky, "and we could win this thing."
In Florida the White Sox generally looked like the snappiest team in training. But don't let all that pep and vinegar fool you. It's still an iffy team.