1964: A Pennant Race!

1964: A Pennant Race!
This poor quality newspaper photograph--taken after the Sox were mathematically eliminated by the Yankees on the second to last day of the 1964 season--only helps to emphasize Al Lopez’s managerial grittiness. Source: Chicago Tribune Oct 4, 1964, pC1

Search for Yankees biographies and autobiographies on Amazon, you’ll find 246 books; do the same search for the White Sox, you’ll find 14.  History is written by the victors, or the writers commissioned to prevent the victors from sounding like bumbling idiots.  So tales of Yankees triumphs are part of the documented record, while White Sox lore is more dependent on memories, libations, and bar stools to prop up local bards.  Such is the relationship with the past for the franchise that, for years, played the role of perennial runners-up in the American League.

From 1951 to 1967, the White Sox enjoyed a streak of 17-straight winning seasons.  The American League consisted of 8 teams before ‘61, and 10 after league expansion.  During the streak, the Sox finished second or third 11 times among those teams, and first only once.  But the White Sox weren’t involved in many pennant races at seasons end, almost always trailing many games behind the Yankees, who then too had the league’s highest payroll.  The year 1964 proved the exception to this rule, when the Sox won 98 games and finished a game out of first place; a glorious season largely forgotten.

Few players from the ’59 pennant winning team remained on the’64 White Sox roster.  Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox, and Sherm Lollar were gone.  Pete Ward, Ron Hansen, and Floyd Robinson had arrived.  Jim Landis was still on the team, but his .208/.305/.272 was a far cry from the .272/.370/.379 line he produced as a promising young centerfielder in ’59.    A mostly veteran pitching staff in ‘59 featuring Early Wynn, Billy Pierce, Bob Shaw, and Dick Donovan had been replaced by youthful slingers Gary Peters, Juan Pizarro, Joe Horlen, and John Buzhardt, as well as old reliable Hoyt Wilhelm.

It was a new team for a city immersed in many changes, both social and aesthetic.  Czar Daley I had ushered in a new era of city planning and urban living.  As manufacturing left Chicago for cheaper pastures, Daley built up the Loop in order to attract tourists and businesses in the service and financial industries.  Much was done to combat and oblige “white flight” out of the city; two projects in particular would affect the landscape around Comiskey Park for years to come: the Dan Ryan expressway and the Robert Taylor Homes.

Urban development slowed during the Great Depression and World War II, so by the late ‘50s, state and city brass felt an overdue need to accommodate Americans’ fully developed affection for their private automobiles.  In 1959, local, state, and federal governments contributed over $137 million toward highway construction in Cook County.

The Dan Ryan dissected south side communities, separating Comiskey Park from the African American residential area to the east on the other side of the expressway.  The highway opened in December of 1962, and usage quickly exceeded the estimates of its designers.  The name "Dan Ryan" became synonymous with “traffic jams,” and it soon became one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the nation.

Hurray for “progress”!

The Robert Taylor Homes symbolized the apex of the high-rise era of urban public housing development.  Construction for the massive project began in 1960 and was completed in 1962.  The Taylor homes included 26 sixteen story buildings along State Street from 39th to 54th Streets, immediately southeast of Comiskey Park.  It was the largest public housing project in the United States, containing almost 4,300 apartments and 27,000 people (including, incidentally, a young Kirby Puckett), almost entirely African Americans.

Almost immediately, residents realized that life in the Taylor homes was not going to live up to the promises of the Chicago Housing Authority.  In January, 1964, tenants “rebelled against living conditions” in picket lines outside of the project.  In the fall, they were involved in protests against poor education in segregated schools in and around the homes; an issue that would bring Martin Luther King, Jr. to Chicago in 1965.

This was the tumult that surrounded the opening of the 1964 White Sox season.  But if change characterized recent neighborhood developments around Comiskey Park, continuity defined the ’64 Sox.  The personnel was different, but the team played a White Sox brand of baseball.

As always, skipper Al Lopez emphasized pitching, speed, and defense in accordance with the park’s spacious dimensions.  In ’64, the Sox finished with an average of 3.96 runs scored per game, good for 7th out of 10 teams in the American League.  However, their 3.09 runs per game allowed ranked first.  The team was also third in steals and attempts, first in sacrifice bunts, and tops in the league in defensive efficiency.

The White Sox would need all the pitching they could muster to counter manager Yogi Berra’s mighty New York Yankees, with sluggers Roger Maris, Elston Howard, and Mickey Mantle.  The pitching staff was led by veteran Whitey Ford and young starters Jim Bouton and Al Downing.

The Yankees had won every AL pennant since the Go-Go Sox grabbed the flag in ’59, by an average margin of victory of 8 games.  Going into the ‘64 season, Al Monroe, sportswriter for the Chicago Defender, felt that an aging lineup and a relatively unproven pitching staff made the Yankees vulnerable, but doubted that the White Sox would be the team to unseat them.  "Stopping the Yanks is one thing,” wrote Monroe, “the Sox turning the trick is another."  Monroe questioned whether a White Sox team that had overachieved in 1963, winning 94 games, could repeat the magic in ’64.  "[T]he Sox," contended Monroe, "have their own ifs.”

Spectators numbering 20,766 came out to cheer the White Sox at Comiskey Park on Tuesday afternoon, April 14, 1964.  No beer was sold at the yard during the opener, since it was election day in Illinois.  This was probably some kind of statute following the era of Gilded Age politics in the late nineteenth century, when candidates offered complimentary hooch for campaign support.  Finding this in the record is a little disappointing however, since I can no longer speculate that the history of Illinois political buffoonery is attributable to drunk voters.

Anyways, the White Sox lost the game 5-3 to the Baltimore Orioles, after squandering the lead in the late innings.  Undoubtedly, everyone left feeling like they could use a drink.

Not that the Os were a bad team.  In fact, the American League in 1964 would be a three team race between Chicago, New York, and Baltimore.  Manager Hank Bauer’s Orioles would win 97 games behind Boog Powell's 39 HRs and Brooks Robinson's best offensive season.  White Sox legend Luis Aparicio stole 57 bags for Baltimore during one of his better years at the plate.  The pitching staff included a young Milt Pappas and 37 year old Robin Roberts, who would throw 200 innings for the final time in his career (though a far cry from the 346.2 he threw in 1953).  The Birds led the standings in ’64 as late as September 19.

The Sox went on to drop four of their first six games, but then turned things around, winning ten of their next twelve and finding themselves tied for first place on May 6.   That month, the Sox went 19-7 and led the AL by a half game on May 31.

Then came the proverbial “June swoon.”  The Sox lost three more games than they won in June, a month that included two devastating home and away series sweeps at the hands of the Yankees.  The Sox scored 17 runs in those 9 games.  They were five games back on June 30.

In an attempt to inject some vigor into an anemic offense, the White Sox traded for former Yankee great and Chicago softball hero Bill Skowron on July 13.  Not that Moose likely minded much returning to his hometown, but in the era before no-trade clauses and ten-and-five rights, it’s also likely that he didn’t have a choice.

These were also the years before free agency, when Major League Baseball as a de facto legal monopoly was more effectively able to suppress player salaries.  1964 players’ union representative Jim Landis claimed the White Sox were so cheap that he spent the season in the doghouse after he told management that the players wanted $50 for radio and TV appearances.  Full player contract data is not readily available, but after the trade, Moose’s $45,000 annual salary probably made him the highest paid player on the White Sox.

With Moose’s help the Sox righted the ship in July, going 22-11 and climbing back into the race.  In August, the White Sox served up a cold dish of revenge, sweeping the Yankees at Comiskey Park in what would be the last meeting of the season between the two teams.  When the Yankees left town on August 20, the White Sox had a half game lead in the American League.

The final game of the August White Sox/Yankees series probably appeared on local television.  By 1962, WGN was broadcasting every White Sox home day game, and some road night games.  In 1964, the network aired 64 total Sox games, with Jack Brickhouse and Vince Lloyd on the call, in an era before Major League Baseball had harnessed the power and profitability of television, later pioneered in some ways by White Sox ownership.

Over the next month, the AL pennant race remained tight, with no team pulling away.  On September 16, the Sox owned a share of first place.  Then the Yankees went on a tear, ripping off eleven straight wins in eleven days, their longest winning streak of the season.

The Sox lost two of three at home to the lowly Washington Senators, and then lost the opener of a set in Los Angeles.  On September 23, the White Sox were suddenly 4 games back.  It was a lackluster month for the White Sox to that point; the team had gone 9-10 over the first three weeks of September.  The Tribune’s Richard Dozer wrote after the Yankees' streak that "American league constituents [had] conceded the Yankees another championship.”  The reporter admitted on September 29 that "[t]he margin now is 'only' three, but the Sox . . . seem to be in futile pursuit."

All seemed lost.  But in an act of unbridled heroism, our White Sox pursued with such vitality as to restore hope to a fan base mired in the dread of impending futility.*

Note: I have no idea what this sentence means but it sounded pretty gallant so I left it in.

After taking the second game in Los Angeles, the White Sox faced the Athletics in Kansas City, where the Sox won all three.  Then they met the Angels again in a make-up game at Comiskey Park.  The Sox won that game 2-1 behind an impressive Bruce Howard start and 2 2/3 innings by Hoyt Wilhelm in which the cagey veteran did not allow a hit.

Kansas City arrived in Chicago on October 2 after the Yankees had dropped both games of a doubleheader against Detroit in New York the day before.  The Yankees’ lead had dwindled to 2.5 games.

In a Friday doubleheader against the A's, the White Sox won two squeakers, 3-2 and 5-4, but the Yankees beat Cleveland in New York.  The league lead was two games with two to play.  On Saturday October 3, the White Sox had to win and the Yanks had to lose or else the Sox would be mathematically eliminated from pennant contention.

Joe Horlen pitched brilliantly in a two-hit, one-walk, complete game shutout, and the White Sox hitters rose to the occasion, scoring 7 runs on 5 walks and 10 hits, including Pete Ward’s 23rd home run.  As the Sox left the field following their 7-0 victory, the Comiskey Park out-of-town scoreboard read New York 3-Cleveland 3.  The game was deadlocked headed into the later innings.

I have some friends from Cleveland.  I don’t have time to go into it but let me just say, if there is a city in which sports fans have a more enduringly wretchedly abusive relationship with their sports teams than Cleveland, it’s not in this galaxy.  It goes without saying that you can never count on a Cleveland sports team to do you a solid, or to fail without absolutely breaking your heart; Saturday October 3, 1964 was no exception.  Tribe pitching coughed up 5 runs in the bottom of the 8th inning, Cleveland hitters predictably went down in order in the 9th, and the Yankees won 8-3.

The pennant race was over.  The Yankees won again.

Just to be jerks, the Yankees lost their last game of the season.  Just to show their true character, the White Sox won theirs.  Lopez & Co. had won nine straight to end the campaign.  The ‘64 Sox finished 98-64, one game back.

In his column on October 4, Dozer lauded a "season of spectacular pitching, gritty comebacks, and brilliant direction of the field by [Al Lopez].”  For the sportswriter, there was no reason for the White Sox to hang their heads.

Maybe so, but in hindsight, this great team has faded from our collective memory.  If they had gotten a lucky bounce in one lousy game, things could have been different.

I’ll tell you what else is aggravating: looking at the Pythagorean W-L records on Baseball Reference for the 1964 season.  You know, the estimate of a team’s winning percentage given their runs scored and runs allowed, developed by Bill James and all that.  Well . . .

1964 New York Yankees Pythagorean W-L: 98-64

1964 Chicago White Sox Pythagorean W-L: 99-63

Lucky bastards.  That’s right, it was pure luck!  Anyways, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!  Now get me another drink and prop me up with that bar stool!

 

 

Additional Sources (newspapers accessed through the Chicago Public Library website with a valid library card):

 

Chapter 10, “Daley’s City,” in

Chicago : a biography / Dominic A. Pacyga.

Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2009.

 

Taylor Homes Hit By Tenant Revolt

Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973); Jan 14, 1964;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975)

pg. 1

 

Public 'Schools' In Taylor Homes Called Shameful

BOSSETTE, SKIP

Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973); Sep 30, 1964;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975)

pg. 3

 

Can White Sox Toss Yankees For A Loss?

Monroe, Al

Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973); Mar 16, 1964;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975)

pg. 28

 

Hot Dogs, But No Beer At Sox Opener

Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973); Apr 15, 1964;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975)

pg. 31

 

Sox Must Get Chance, Dean That Is: Sox Must Get Chance, Dean That Is

Dozer, Richard

Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Sep 29, 1964;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. B1

 

Remember When...?: Sox Go Down with a Flourish Horlen Dazzles A's, 7 to 0 Sox Win on 2-Hit Gem by...

Dozer, Richard

Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Oct 4, 1964;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. C1

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