Every major league baseball team has a series of “what if”? moments in time that altered the destiny of that franchise. Sometimes it was a blessing, sometimes it was a curse, sometimes the results felt like the franchise in question was put into the Twilight Zone.
What if the Red Sox never sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees to help finance a Broadway play? What if the Cubs put lights in at Wrigley Field before the Second World War as they were supposed to? What if the Dodgers never moved out of Brooklyn? What if the Phillies hadn’t blown the pennant in 1964? Would the Expos still be in Montreal if the labor unrest in 1994 had not cancelled the last six weeks of the regular season and the postseason? What if Bud Selig’s plans for contraction had been passed in 2002; would franchises in Minnesota and Oakland still be playing baseball?
Its fun to go down the path of alternative history and just wonder…”what if?” So that’s what we are going to do in this three part series of stories on some of the biggest “what if?” moments in the history of the Chicago White Sox.
THE BLACK SOX SCANDAL
White Sox author/historian Rich Lindberg had an interesting take on this event. Lindberg’s contention was that if the White Sox hadn’t “thrown” the 1919 World Series and if eight players weren’t permanently suspended by then Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the fabled New York Yankees dynasty might never have come into being.
Baseball at that time was just beginning to see the value in the crowd appeal of the home run as authored by Babe Ruth but the ‘dead ball’ style of play was still firmly entrenched in the game. The White Sox personified this style with great pitching, blinding speed and slap hitters who advanced runners and scored just enough runs to win games. The Sox were the overwhelming favorites to beat the Reds in the 1919 World Series, and had they done so they could also have repeated in 1920. With less than a week remaining in the 1920 season the Sox trailed Cleveland by a half game for the pennant when the “Black Sox” scandal broke wide open. When detectives from the Illinois State’s Attorney’s office showed up in front of pitcher Eddie Cicotte’s house, owner Charles Comiskey had no choice but to suspend the eight accused players.
The Sox, playing with mostly rookies and some of the “clean Sox” lost two of their final three games of the season to the St. Louis Browns, allowing the Indians to back into the title.
What if the Sox had been clean? Well if the Sox win in both 1919 and perhaps 1920, baseball doesn’t feel as much need to add excitement to the game in order to try to make fans forget the scandal. The baseball isn’t juiced up, clean white baseballs aren’t required (easier to see as a hitter) the ‘dead ball’ style remains played by a number of teams and the White Sox, still with all their stars, like Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson, remain the only team that could have stopped the Yankees in the decade of the 1920’s. Or at least won enough titles to prevent the dominance that developed by New York which would last basically unchecked through 1964.
“MR. CUB” BECOMES “MR. WHITE SOX”
Here’s something that’ll make a Cubs fan choke. Under some circumstances Ernie Banks might never have played a game for the North Side. Instead Banks might have spent his career on the South Side and consequently gotten into a World Series. As to why Banks didn’t become a member of the Sox, details are unclear but some facts are known and it appears the main reason was because of the personalities of two of the leading Sox members of the 1950’s, Frank “Trader” Lane and Paul Richards.
As general manager, Lane executed several brilliant deals netting the Sox All Star performers like Billy Pierce, Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso and Sherm Lollar. Richards, the field manager from 1951 through late 1954, was a brilliant tactician and a tremendous teacher. He had a mind like a chess master, always thinking one or two moves ahead of his opponent. Pierce said he was the best manager he ever had.
Both men were strong willed, and had big egos and that would come into play.
By 1952 Lane was earning $35,000 a season plus a ‘nickel a head’ bonus based on attendance that added an additional $41,000. Richards, who had authored three very good seasons, was getting $25,000 and a ‘nickel a head’ for anything over $900,000 in paid admissions. By August 1954 Richards was looking elsewhere. He couldn’t get a raise from Sox ownership and he couldn’t get a multi-year contract from the team. He was looking for a three year package worth $40,000 and was turned down. On September 13, Richards accepted the role of both field and general manager for the Baltimore Orioles.
So how does Banks come into play?
Fast forward to May 21, 1956. By now Richards is still with the Orioles and Lane is the general manager of the Cardinals. On this day the Sox, led by co-general managers, Chuck Comiskey and John Rigney, traded George Kell to the Orioles for Dave Philley and Yankee killer Jim Wilson. When Lane heard about the deal he told the press, “Comiskey got the best of Richards.”
When Richards heard the comment he exploded, “if you leave Lane alone, he’ll trade a first place club into a sixth place club.” He ripped Lane for every ill advised deal he ever made dating back to the trade of fleet footed outfielder Jim Busby. The he dropped a bombshell.
Richards told the press that the Sox had a chance to sign Banks, whom their scouts had followed extensively, but that Lane wasn’t interested in looking at him! Richards knew about Ernie and pushed for the club to get him but at that time the two men weren’t on good terms and Lane basically ignored most of Richards recommendations.
What if the Sox signed Banks and he spent his Hall Of Fame career on the South Side?
There are some interesting scenarios here. Banks broke into the big leagues in 1953. He wouldn’t have produced the same power numbers playing in Comiskey Park as opposed to Wrigley Field, but there’s no question he would have hit enough to supply that missing dimension from the Sox lineups throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s.
He certainly could have been the difference in the 1964 and 1967 pennant races and he might have enabled strong White Sox teams in 1955 and 1957 to win the pennant also. There’s also something else to consider; if Banks signed and was the regular shortstop, do the White Sox even bother signing Luis Aparicio?
Think about how the ‘Go-Go Sox’ would have looked without the fastest man on the team. Aparicio signed with the Sox in 1954, that same season Banks hit .275 with 19 home runs for the Cubs. Luis became Rookie of the Year in 1956. Of course had the Sox signed both they might have moved Ernie to a different position, say first base, which would have really solved an issue on the club that had been lacking for long time.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP OFF-SEASON
After the White Sox won the 1959 American League pennant only to lose the World Series to the Dodgers, owner Bill Veeck made some moves, with the best intentions that haunted the franchise at least throughout the 1960s.
The 1959 White Sox won 35 one run games, an unheard of number. Despite great pitching, great speed and fundamentally sound hitters, Veeck was convinced the only way the Sox could have a shot at repeating in 1960 was to get some power hitters in place to balance the lineup. The Yankees would make a deal that offseason with their “major league farm club” the Kansas City Athletics, getting left handed power hitter Roger Maris and Veeck realized that with Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, Maris would be adding a new dimension to a team that already had Mickey Mantle.
Veeck was also beginning to fall into ill health and by 1961, according to his son Mike Veeck in an interview with me, was convinced that his days on Earth were numbered. With that as a backdrop Bill’s attitude was to ‘win today’ because literally he might not be here tomorrow. In fact manager Al Lopez made a similar statement justifying the deals after the fact.
There has also been speculation from a number of sources that Bill felt the 1959 White Sox won because of the moves made by people like Chuck Comiskey, and Lopez and Veeck wanted to ensure his legacy by winning with ‘his’ players.
The White Sox farm system was among the best in baseball and had been for the decade throughout the 1950’s. Down on the farm were quality kids who had shown something in limited trials with the big club in 1958 and 1959. Among those were catcher Johnny Romano, outfielder Johnny Callison and first baseman Norm Cash. Both Cash and Callison were Opening Day starters in 1959 at Detroit.
Veeck knew a market was developing for these players and went into the off season determined to get the best he could for them. Sox author/historian and former Chicago Tribune assistant sports editor Bob Vanderberg reported in his book 59 – Summer of the Sox that Bill had his eye on some good young power hitters in the beginning.
Veeck talked with San Francisco about getting slugger Orlando Cepeda, part of the reported deal was to include catcher Sherm Lollar, and he talked with the Cardinals about first baseman Bill White to no avail. Veeck simply couldn’t get the young power hitters he wanted so he turned to his only other option, getting some older power hitters.
This he was able to do, as in a span of four months he returned Minnie Minoso to the South Side and then acquired Gene Freese and Roy Sievers. The cost turned out to be higher than anyone could have known at that time.
Gone were Romano, Callison, Cash, catcher Earl Battey, and another first baseman with promise, Don Mincher.
The newcomers did their part in 1960 combining for 65 home runs and 277 RBI’s but the team was weakened defensively and slower on the bases. The defensive slippage also affected the pitching staff. In fairness it must be noted that there are some who feel the real reason the Sox did not repeat in 1960 was because the mainstays from the ‘Go-Go Sox’ like Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio, Jim Landis and Lollar all had off years.
History shows that five traded players would go on to make 14 All Star appearances and hammer 1,036 home runs!
The White Sox would lose the 1964 pennant by one game to the Yankees; they would lose the 1967 pennant by three games to the Red Sox. In 1963 the White Sox won 94 games, in 1965 the White Sox won 95 games.
Think one or two of these guys might have made enough of a difference to win at least one, probably two, possibly three pennants in the time frame?
“(Veeck) traded the cream of the Sox minor league system for a bunch of guys like Freese and Minoso who were done,” Rich Lindberg said when I interviewed him. “The guys who were traded turned out to be some of the biggest stars of the 60’s, like Cash, Romano, Battey, Callison and Mincher. If the Sox had just one or two of them, they would have won pennants in 1964 and 1967. When Bill returned to the Sox in 1976, he basically saved the team from the mess that he created 16 years earlier.”
In the next part of “Biggest What Ifs in White Sox History” we will look at the attempts to get that power hitter for the 1960’s teams and the failed venture known as “SportsVision.”
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