We continue to look at some of the biggest ‘what if’s in Chicago White Sox history. In part two of the three part series of stories we’ll concentrate on two situations that dramatically impacted the franchise in the 1960s and 1980s and what might have been. If you missed part 1, you can read it right here.
NOW PLAYING RIGHT FIELD
As the 1960s rolled on, White Sox GM Ed Short and field managers Al Lopez and Eddie Stanky realized the White Sox needed one thing to put them over the top and win at least one championship. Ironically it was some consistent power hitting. Contrary to what some think, the Sox of the 60’s did have some pop, just not enough. Players like Pete Ward, Dave Nicholson, Ron Hansen and Tommie Agee supplied the long ball but in a big pitchers park like Comiskey Park more was needed. To that end Short started on a quest that almost netted the Sox some of the best long ball hitters in the decade. The operative word though was almost.
Carl Yastrzemski – According to Bob Vanderberg, White Sox historian and former assistant sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, who interviewed Stanky before he died in 1999, the Sox made two attempts to pry “Yaz” from the Red Sox in 1965 and 1966. Young fans today may be shocked to learn that the Boston Red Sox weren’t always a power in the American League and Fenway Park wasn’t always considered a ‘shrine.’ In fact for most of the 1960s the Red Sox were a mediocre to bad team. For the home opener in 1965 only 18,000 fans showed up. In 1966 less than 13,000.
The Sox thought they had a shot to get Yastrzemski, who played college baseball for one year at Notre Dame before turning pro in 1958. Stanky told Vanderberg that the Sox offered Bill “Moose” Skowron, still a productive first baseman, and pitcher Johnny Buzhardt, a noted New York Yankee and Red Sox killer to Boston, but were turned down. In 1967 of course, the Red Sox won the pennant, “Yaz” won the Triple Crown and there was zero chance Boston would trade him anywhere.
Frank Robinson – It has recently come out that the Sox were in the hunt for Frank Robinson before the start of the 1966 season as well. Details are incomplete but apparently when the Cincinnati Reds gave notice they were willing to deal Robinson, whom they considered a ‘malcontent,’ Short immediately contacted Reds GM Bill DeWitt with an offer.
Part of the offer was outfielder Floyd Robinson, pitcher Johnny Buzhardt and a third player. The report said that when all was said and done, the White Sox offer was better than Baltimore’s, yet DeWitt sent Robby to the Baltimore Orioles. In return Cincinnati got pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson, one of the worst deals in baseball history.
With those players Cincinnati won 76 games in 1966. With Robinson winning the Triple Crown, the Orioles swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series and their dynasty began.
Ken “Hawk” Harrelson – The Sox had one more chance to grab a power bat, and again they almost did. In 1967 Ken ‘Hawk’ Harrelson started the season with the Washington Senators and after appearing in 26 games was shipped to the Kansas City Athletics. By mid August he had enough of losing and more than enough of A’s owner Charlie Finley. He was hitting .305 for K.C. when he ripped Finley and the A’s organization to the media. Finley then released him making him a ‘free agent’ on August 25.
The standings on that day showed the Minnesota Twins leading both the White Sox and Red Sox by a half game with the Detroit Tigers a game and a half behind. The greatest pennant race in baseball history was shaping up and the four teams were chomping at the bit to get Harrelson. The Sox sent Short and Stanky to meet with Hawk to try to get him to come to Chicago. Desperate to stay in the race, Short had acquired Kenny Boyer in June and Rocky Colavito in July but both were found wanting. Hawk was only 26, in his prime, and could be the difference in the final two months.
Unfortunately Harrelson signed with Boston on August 28. The Red Sox won the pennant and Hawk got his chance in the World Series. Hawk told Rich Lindberg in a conversation discussed in my interview with him that he decided to go to Boston because he thought the Red Sox had the best chance to get into the World Series. Ironically enough, Harrelson went right down the tubes the final two months hitting only .200 with three home runs and 14 RBI’s. In the World Series he hit .077, 1 for 13 and was a non factor in the Red Sox seven game loss.
In fairness Hawk did rebound with a huge year in 1968, 35 home runs, 109 RBI’s, hitting .275 and winning Comeback Player of the Year honors. Looking back, had the Sox been able to get any one of the three mentioned sluggers, history could have been very different in the time period from 1965 through 1967 and ultimately beyond into the 70s when the franchise was struggling to draw fans and generate interest from the media.
ARE THE SOX ON TV TONIGHT?
Twice the White Sox took bold gambles when it came to the broadcasting of their games. They embraced new technology and new avenues, which they should be given much credit for. However the moves came at a very large price with severe repercussions concerning their place in the city and their standing among Chicago sports fans in general.
The first time came after the thrilling 1967 season which saw the Sox blow the pennant the final week with five consecutive catastrophic losses to the lowly Kansas City Athletics and Washington Senators. That off season owner Art Allyn decided not to renew his television deal with WGN instead opting to be the ‘top dog’ at the new station WFLD, owned by Field Enterprises.
Rich Lindberg interviewed Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Brickhouse about this before Jack passed away in 1998. Lindberg related what Jack told him in my interview with him. “I talked with Jack about it in an interview in 1996,” Lindberg said. “Jack told me about the time he, Arnie Harris and Sox owner Art Allyn sat down for lunch. Jack expected the Sox to agree to another extension on WGN after their agreement expired after the 1967 season. He was shocked when Allyn told him that the Sox were moving to a basically brand new UHF outlet WFLD, channel 32 in Chicago.
“Brickhouse, whom I consider a giant of the broadcasting industry, said he felt sure that something would happen to the industry in the future that would make it possible for WGN to be shown not only in Chicago but around the Midwest, he strongly urged Allyn to reconsider. Allyn wouldn’t but he had the best interest of the team at heart. You have to look at why the Sox wanted to move in the first place. WGN was basically showing Sox day games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, they weren’t showing night games because they didn’t want to disrupt their evening schedule. Very few road games were shown and those were only from the East Coast, New York, Cleveland and such. Allyn wanted all Sox road games shown and at least WFLD tried to do that. The trouble was UHF technology was very new. You had to have a converter box to be able to get the channels on your old TV and it didn’t work very well. The picture was snowy, grainy and unreliable. The other problem was that WFLD decided to have Jack Drees do the games. Dress was an East Coast horse racing guy who wasn’t known in Chicago. Bottom line the experiment just didn’t work.”
Allyn’s move was based in part on the broadcasting situation in Chicago. Unlike New York and Los Angeles, Chicago simply didn’t have a number of channels available that Allyn could negotiate with. In 1968 Chicago TV was made up of channel 2 (CBS), channel 5 (NBC), channel 7 (ABC), channel 11 (PBS) and channel 9 (Independent.) The national networks weren’t going to take the Sox because they weren’t going to disrupt their prime time September schedules. Public TV wasn’t a player either for obvious reasons.
That left Allyn with only two choices, go back to channel 9 or take a shot at channel 32.
In the late 60s, early 70s WFLD programming from Marina City included ‘pro’ wrestling from Minnesota led by promoter Bob Luce, Jerry G. Bishop as Svengoolie, host of ‘Screaming Yellow Theater’ and the first TV job for a young Chet Coppock who did the hourly news cut-in’s. In the short term, until the technology caught up with the times, the move was a disaster much like the team itself.
1968, 1969 and 1970 was the worst three year stretch in history for the franchise, on the field.
The Sox drew less than a half million fans in 1970. Had the Sox stayed on WGN, they at least could have had more of their fans and baseball fans in general watch them, as bad as they were. Also had they stayed on WGN television, more fans would have had access to the remarkable turnaround started in 1971, engineered by GM Roland Hemond and manager Chuck Tanner.
Finally had the Sox stayed on WGN they may have had more clout in getting another mainstream station to take their radio rights.After 1970, no recognized station in Chicago would touch the White Sox. When 1971 started, Sox games were on WTAQ and WEAR, two suburban stations. A radio station could say (and probably did) why should we take the Sox? Nobody cares anymore; nobody can even see them in the first place.
And then came ‘SportsVision’ in May 1982. Vice President Eddie Einhorn’s idea for the first pay cable station devoted to sports was brilliant and ahead of its time, but like the WFLD fiasco it turned out bad for the Sox. Baseball fans in Chicago had been getting numerous games on free television since 1948 and with a recession going on in the country and in Chicago in the early 80s, many fans couldn’t afford the $50 hook up / converter box charge plus the monthly fee charged by cable outlets around the city. Most if not all considered SportsVision, a ‘premium’ tier channel charging higher rates.
Despite the new energy and excitement produced by the team in 1982 and 1983 few fans were watching. WFLD was still showing roughly 30-35 games a year but for many Sox fans that was all they could get for a season. That’s a pretty big drop off from the 125 or so games shown in the 1970s when WFLD and WSNS were actually watchable. Making matters worse was that the Cubs were still showing about 100 games a year for free on WGN.
In addition the move caused popular broadcaster Harry Caray to leave for the Cubs and WGN after the 1981 season. In the TV documentary ‘Hello Again Everybody’, a look at the career of Caray, produced by Noel Gimble, the statement is made that the Sox offered more money to Caray to stay for 1982 then the Cubs offer but Harry left anyway.
In Bob Logan’s book, ‘Miracle On 35th Street’ Caray was quoted extensively as saying he left because, instead of being seen on 22 million homes via ‘Superstation’ WGN, the Sox would be lucky to have 50,00 fans watching on SportsVision. Logan wrote that the actual number of fans who bought ‘SportsVision’ was closer to 20,000.
If the Sox had stayed on WGN and had more games on free TV, their popularity, especially in the “Winnin’ Ugly” season of 1983, would have been much greater and possibly blunted the surge in fan interest in the Cubs which started the very next year, 1984. As recently as 1983 Wrigley Field was closing their upper deck for home games due to lack of fans. By staying away from ‘free TV’ Chicagoans, especially kids, with no direct ties to either club became Cub fans because they could actually watch them play. That helped cause a massive imbalance in fan support and team generated income as the 80s moved along, despite the fact that Cub teams were generally worse on the field then the clubs the Sox were producing.
In the final part of our series we will see how close the Sox came to signing a kid named Fernando Valenzuela and other potential “what if?” topics.
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