Remembering “Pork Chop” Whitehead

Remembering “Pork Chop” Whitehead
A photo of John Whitehead being hawked on ebay for tens of dollars. //http://www.ebay.com/itm/1930s-John-Whitehead-Chicago-White-Sox-Original-Photo-/170673948729

Here's something completely different from Chris, to spare you the autopsy this team's collapse deserves for a few hours...

On Wednesday evening, “Porkchop” Whitehead was the subject of a trivial scoreboard graphic at U.S. Cellular Field, serving to distract White Sox fans from a brutal display of baseball.  The player’s ridiculous nickname prompted the commissioning of a post on the hurler by WSO brass, ASAP and at double the usual rate for the writer.

John Whitehead began his career with a Van Alstyne, Texas semi-pro team before playing minor league ball in Sherman and Dallas.  An unheralded prospect when he arrived in Chicago to pitch for the White Sox, Whitehead reeled off eight straight wins in his first eight starts for the Pale Hose in 1935, raising expectations for the rookie.

The excitement was short lived, however.  Whitehead lost his next six starts and fourteen of his next twenty.  His ERA rose from 2.99 to 3.72 during that span.

The Texan was not overpowering and had some control problems, so he was probably due for some regression, but the press saw things differently.  They attributed the slide to overindulgence in “viands,” and bestowed upon the big right-hander an unfortunate moniker: “Pork Chop Johnny.”  In previewing a mid-August double header during which Whitehead and the equally hefty Ray Phelps were scheduled to pitch, the Chicago Tribune scoffed: “This afternoon is to be celebrated as ‘Pork Chops day’ at Comiskey park [sic].”

John Henderson Whitehead was born on April 27, 1909 in Coleman, Texas, seat of Coleman County.  In the mid-1920s, if living in Coleman you were very likely to be a poor tenant farmer and a lot less likely to be an oil tycoon, reaping the rewards of 400,000 barrels of oil yielded annually by the county.

Persons numbering 23,669 resided in Coleman County in 1930.  A small town kid, perhaps John Whitehead was a little homesick in the big city, or worse, depressed.  This may explain his “fondness for sleep and victuals” and why he often appeared disinterested during his seasons with the White Sox.  If this was the case, Whitehead didn’t talk much about it.  His aversion to conversation earned him another lasting nickname: “Silent John.”

White Sox owner J. Louis Comiskey reportedly hired agents during the offseason in 1935 to shadow Whitehead.  Edward Burns of the Tribune explained: “When they see him reaching for a third steak, a ninth pork chop or a sixth dish of potatoes the agent on duty will step up, saying: ‘Come, come, now John, you've had enough of them viands.’”

Whitehead’s weight was a point of contention between the pitcher and manager Jimmy Dykes.  In May of 1937, Whitehead was reportedly suspended “indefinitely” for “lack of physical condition” (he missed a month).  A short time later, the Tribune labeled Whitehead “the problem right-hander of the pitching staf [sic],” for his blasé attitude and voluminous appetite.  At the opening of spring training in 1938, the Tribune jokingly celebrated “Pork Chop Johnny” weighing in at 207 pounds, after finishing the previous season at a reported 230.

Before the start of the 1939 season, Marty Stratton, another White Sox right-hander from Texas, lost his leg in a hunting accident (Jimmy Stewart later played Stratton in the schmaltzy Hollywood biopic).  Stratton was a poor shot but a good pitcher, probably the best on the Sox staff in ’38.

Whitehead came to camp in 1939 assuring reporters that he would pick up the slack for the absent Stratton.  The four-year veteran claimed to have been training for two weeks prior!  Irving Vaughan of the Tribune was not convinced, writing of Whitehead, “he remains portly,” prompting the headline “Whitehead Is, [sic] as Usual, Big Sox Problem.”

1939 didn’t go so hot.  After sustaining a knee injury early in the season, no wins in four starts and an 8.13 ERA over 32 innings prompted a trade to the St. Louis Browns for Johnny Marcum on June 2.  In St. Louis, the embattled Whitehead never could find his rookie form.  Although he did throw a shortened no-hitter in 1940.

Whitehead’s major league career ended in 1942.  He returned to Texas, where he died after a brief illness on October 20, 1964 at the age of 55.  He is buried next to his wife Winnie in Fannin County, TX; a ball and baseball glove adorn his headstone.  Death certificate information suggests that Whitehead worked in road construction after baseball.

Later in his life, John Whitehead lived and passed away rather innocuously.  While in his youth the White Sox pitcher was a controversial figure who many believed never reached his full potential as a ballplayer.  But now, for me, Whitehead has attained superstar status almost fifty years after his death.   Only a story like Pork Chop Johnny's could divert my mind from the 2012 White Sox--whose demise now feels inevitable--for an entire afternoon.  So here's to you John, relishing in victuals at the great clubhouse buffet in the sky.

 

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

 

Whitehead and Phelps to Pitch for Sox Today

Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Aug 18, 1935;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. A2

 

SOX SHELL OUT SIMMONS CASH--FOR SAUSAGE!: Comiskey Hints Rest of It May Go for Burns, Edward

Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Dec 17, 1935;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. 25

 

DYKES SUSPENDS WHITEHEAD FOR INDEFINITE TERM: Sox Pitcher Fails to Get Into Condition.

Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); May 1, 1937;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. 21

 

Sox See Whitehead and Cheer; Collins Picks Cubs' First Sacker: Pork Chop Johnny Is a Mere Shadow ...

Burns, Edward

Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Mar 7, 1938;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. 21

 

Whitehead in Line; Nine Sox Still Unsigned

Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Jan 14, 1938;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. 23

 

Cubs and Sox Officials Go South with Wallets Ready

Vaughan, Irving

Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Dec 5, 1938;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. 21

 

Whitehead Is, as Usual, Big Sox Problem

Vaughan, Irving

Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Feb 27, 1939;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. 17

 

WHITE SOX JINX BEGINS STRIKING; WHITEHEAD HURT: Left Knee Reinjured by Bejma's Vaughan, Irving

Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Mar 8, 1939;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. 19

 

EX-WHITE SOX PITCHER DIES AT 55 IN TEXAS

Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Oct 21, 1964;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. C3

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