The Western Division of the American League is supposed to be the dullest in all of baseball. In its first three years the division never generated enough genuine competition to draw more than yawns as first the Minnesota Twins and then the Oakland A's ran off with easy championships. The two teams subsequently lost nine consecutive games to the Baltimore Orioles in the playoffs. But last week a race finally developed in the West as the Chicago White Sox came galloping up on Oakland, caught the A's and a share of first place.
The White Sox? Yes, the White Sox, until recently a familiar name only because of the past. Nellie Fox, Luke Appling, Minnie Minoso, Ed Walsh, Jim Landis, Al Lopez, Gary Peters, all those Comiskeys, Bill Veeck and "Say it ain't so, Joe." The Black Sox. "Go, Go, Go," exploding scoreboards, cups of beer poured down on outfielders, sharp defense, Announcer Bob Elson interviewing players from the Pump Room. Death came to those Sox in 1970 and they were programmed to rest forevermore in peace and privacy on the South Side of Chicago after losing 106 games, finishing sixth and ludicrously calling themselves "The Big White Machine."
Walk the streets of Chicago these days, however, and the only place one is apt to find a genuine Cub fan is under a rock. Despite all that noise coming from the American League East where the Tigers, Orioles, Yankees and Red Sox seem to be backing away from first place, the long-shot White Sox have won enough games to be leading the Eastern division by five games if the alignments were different. From July 22 through the end of last week Chicago won 21 of 28 to erase an Oakland lead that had once stretched to 8½ games.
The Sox have made their way back into the hearts of Chicago fans for several reasons. Manager Chuck Tanner exudes such charm and expresses so many positive thoughts about his club that he could easily be mistaken for a male Dinah Shore. Dick Allen, his personality and life-style in severe contrast to Ernie Banks and Billy Williams of the North Side Cubs, is leading the American League in virtually every batting category and has not only showed up for every game but played in all of them as well. Wilbur Wood, the chunky lefthander, pitches on six seconds' notice and has yet to knuckle under to fatigue. Carlos May, baseball's most valorous performer (part of his right thumb was blown off three years ago), is among the top hitters in the league. Although "Beltin' " Bill Melton, the Sox' first home run champion ever, was lost to the team for the season seven weeks ago due to a back injury, still the Sox came on.
Just two seasons ago the White Sox had the worst record in the major leagues as well as the lowest attendance. This year only Detroit among American League teams is ahead of Chicago in home crowds. Exactly what form of miracle the White Sox are perpetrating no one can yet define, but climbing from 42 games behind a division winner to fighting for a championship in only 20 months is so remarkable it might be suspected that voodoo is afoot.
Others believe that there may be more involved in Chicago's rise, however, than mere run-of-the-mill hocus-pocus. Because of the team's outstanding record in White Sox Park (46-16) and its miserable showing on the road (21-32), some opponents feel that the Sox are once again utilizing the giant scoreboard in center field as a crow's nest from which to steal signs from visiting catchers and relay them to waiting hitters.
"No matter where the White Sox finish," says Frank Lane, general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, "Chuck Tanner is the Manager of the Year. He swears by everything that is holy that his team is not getting the pitches from the scoreboard. Methinks he doth protest too much. If they aren't coming from there, they must be coming from another spot. The White Sox are hitting .265 at home and not a dollar and a quarter on the road. Dick Allen has 30 homers, and 23 of them have come at Sox Park. I know all about that scoreboard being used to help hitters. Hell, I was one of the men to originate that trick when I was the general manager in Chicago. We had Sherm Lollar catching for us then and his uniform number was 10. It would be posted on the scoreboard and we'd send Del Wilber up there with a pair of binoculars. If it was the sign for a fastball, Wilber would jiggle the one. If it was a curve, he'd jiggle the zero. Another time, we had a light in the bullpen and we'd blink it one time for the fastball and twice for the curve. We also had a buzzer in the dugout: one buzz for the fastball, two for the curve. I know it helps some hitters and not others, but I still feel that Chicago's home record compared to its road record is very interesting."
Tanner is a handsome, articulate 43-year-old generally regarded as one of the best organized managers to come into the major leagues in years. He is also a product of what might best be called "The Fred Haney Graduating Class of 1957." Tanner played under Haney at Milwaukee, and that team also produced current big-league Managers Del Crandall, Red Schoendienst, Eddie Mathews and Del Rice. Don McMahon, Warren Spahn and Lou Burdette are now coaches. (Joe Adcock, also a member of that team, managed the Cleveland Indians in 1967.) "I was just lucky enough to make the major leagues," Tanner says, "and I enjoyed every minute of it." Milwaukee brought Tanner up after he had played nine years in the minors, and he hit the first big-league pitch he ever saw for a home run. He played 396 games in the majors, finishing with a .261 average.
Things could not have been worse when Tanner returned to manage the Sox near the conclusion of the 1970 season. The team lost 106 games and drew 495,355 people that year. Together with Roland Hemond, who is presently Chicago's director of player personnel, Tanner had led Hawaii, a team of supposed troublemakers, to a Pacific Coast League pennant earlier in the same season. Sensing that both Tanner and Hemond were unafraid of a little adversity, General Manager Stu Holcomb hired the two of them to take on the most troubled franchise of all.
"Many things about the White Sox had to be changed," says Holcomb. "We weren't selling many season tickets, and even the people who bought them couldn't give them away. We had a terrible image, and the Cubs were drawing big crowds on the North Side."
Another of Holcomb's moves was to hire Announcer Harry Caray. Caray brings to baseball the revivalist sounds of Marjoe as well as a wardrobe Mick Jagger might have worn—had he performed in the '30s. "Harry is one of those announcers you either love or despise," says Holcomb. "He gives everybody hell and there doesn't seem to be anything anybody can do about it."
Each Wednesday afternoon Caray takes his microphones into the center-field bleachers to broadcast the game surrounded by an adoring audience constantly hounding him with questions. Last week Harry, sweating profusely, did his play-by-play in a pair of pink double-knit shorts, knee-length, black support hose, white shoes and—in the late innings—no shirt. One of the questions asked of him was why Dick Allen seems incapable of hitting a homer after nine p.m.
Of all the nonsensical baseball statistics in recent seasons, Allen and his Nine O'clock Shadow is one of the most absurd—and most fascinating. Allen's 30 home runs break down to 17 hit during day games, five at twilight and eight at night. Of those last eight, all have come prior to nine p.m., on his first or second times at bat. One evening last week he put on a fine display of his pre-nine p.m. prowess. The biggest night crowd in nine years, 42,001, jammed White Sox Park for Dick Allen Mug Night. Each youngster under 14 accompanied by an adult was given a plastic drinking cup with two pictures of Allen on it. As the real Allen mug made its first appearance at bat in the bottom of the first, the organist played Jesus Christ Superstar and the crowd roared. The Sox trailed Boston 1-0 at the time, but Chicago had two base runners. On the second pitch from Sonny Siebert, Allen pounded a majestically high home run over the fence in center field. The next time he came to bat it was still before nine p.m., and Siebert gave him a timely walk. For Allen, it was his 79th base on balls.
In the past few weeks Allen, who leads the American League with his 30 homers and 87 RBIs and ranks third in batting with a .313 average, has been moving in the direction of the triple crown won most recently by Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, Frank Robinson in 1966 and Mickey Mantle in 1956. "Dick Allen is the best player in the American League and maybe in all of baseball," says Tanner.
The manager also feels that the Cy Young Award should be voted to Wood, who has won 21 games to lead the majors. Over one stretch Wood started 10 games in 30 days and already he has pitched 286‚Öî innings.
For years Wood struggled along in the Boston and Pittsburgh organizations with a fastball and a curve as his primary pitches. They were, quite plainly, not good enough. "I had fooled around with the knuckleball from time to time," he says. "Still I wouldn't use it as an out-pitch. I always wanted to know more about it. In the spring of 1966 I was one of the first men cut by the Pirates and thought about quitting baseball, but my wife encouraged me to try one more time. I went to Columbus, and the following fall the White Sox bought me. Eddie Stanky was managing the team at that time, and the first day of spring training he told me I was not going to start or be used in long relief, but work as the mop-up man. Hoyt Wilhelm was with the White Sox then and I went to him right away and asked him if he would explain more to me about the knuckler. We both gripped it the same way. He kept helping me and helping me and I began to build up confidence in it. Now I throw it maybe 80% of the time."
Unlike some knuckleball pitchers, Wood is able to get the pitch consistently over the plate. Last season he walked only one out of every 21 batters he faced. "I try to challenge the hitter with the knuckler," he says. "I get it over and if they are good enough to hit it, O.K. I'm not after a lot of strikeouts. The job is much easier when you can get the leadoff man with one pitch rather than stringing it out to 3 and 2."
Growing up in New England, Wood remembered when Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain, the present Sox pitching coach, worked with two days' rest. Because he is willing to do the same, the White Sox use basically a three-man starting rotation, with Stan Bahnsen and Tom Bradley following Wood. "I don't tell them they have to pitch with two days' rest, I ask them," says Tanner. "One of my theories of managing is that instead of having old, hard-line rules, you have 25 different rules for 25 different players. One of the biggest jobs a manager has is to keep the pressure off the players as much as he possibly can. The season is long, and it has to be fun to play the game well. Look, if a player makes a physical mistake I will never criticize him. When a pitcher hangs a curve and somebody hits a homer off him some managers will jump all over him. I find that style absurd. How could anyone think the guy wanted to give up the homer?
"I find it thrilling to watch major league players perform at their best. When Dick Allen digs into that batter's box it's just a world with Allen and the pitcher in it. The concentration and physical action is such that when Allen misses a pitch I often hear him screech with the effort he has put into swinging."
Chicago's resurgence comes at a time when the American League most needs it. In order for it to be able to compete for publicity and money with the National League, it needs vibrant franchises in New York and Chicago as well as in California. And the White Sox and their park have been sources of concern for a long time.
Back in 1967 and 1968 snipers picked two policemen off their motorcycles near the ball park and another sniper sprayed bullets at cars in the adjacent parking lot. Lights were installed outside the park to help deter crime, but the danger was as much imagined as real. According to a police survey compiled during the Sox' worst days, both Chicago Stadium, the usually jammed home of the Black Hawks and Bulls, and Wrigley Field, where the Cubs have drawn over a million fans for the fifth straight year, are located in higher crime areas than Sox Park. Word of mouth about the area plus a bad team drove attendance down to 390,000 in 1969, excluding the 11 home games they played in Milwaukee that year. The revival of the White Sox also is a revival for a baseball axiom: "Give the fans a winner and they will come out to see it."