Thursday, September 27, 2012

Down to the Wire

The addition of a second wild-card team has brought increased complexity to Major League Baseball. With five teams playing in each three-division league, a team like the Milwaukee Brewers – who were playing .500 ball until just recently – is still in the hunt for a post-season spot.

Things were far simpler 45 years ago to the day, when each league had 10 teams (up from 8 in the early 1960s) and no divisions. Two teams saw October, while the other 18 went home. In 1967, the American League in late September was looking at a 30,315,229 to 1 chance for a four-way tie for the pennant. It truly was Down to the Wire, the title of a 1992 book by former Dallas Morning News sportswriter Jeff Miller that chronicles the race between the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins.

 Jeff Miller's definitive book on the 1967 AL pennant race

The 1967 White Sox were the reincarnation of The Hitless Wonders. The team, managed by Eddie Stanky, ended the season with a batting average of .225 (ironically, not the league’s lowest) and 89 homers, almost half as many as the league-leading Tigers. Don Buford and Ken Berry shared the team leadership with a .241 batting average, while Pete Ward led with 62 RBI, followed by Tommie Agee with 52 and Ron Hansen with 51. Since they were just an average fielding team, the Sox were carried by a pitching staff with an astounding ERA of 2.45; no team was lower than 3.14. The leading starting pitchers were Gary Peters (.2.28), Joel Horlen (2.06) and Tommy John (2.47). Bobby Locker (20 saves, 2.09) and Hoyt Wilhelm (12 saves, 1.31) anchored the bullpen. Desperate for hitting, the Sox traded for 36-year-old Ken Boyer from the Mets and 33-year-old Rocky Colavito from the Indians in July. Smoky Burgess, now age 40, was in his last season as what amounted to a designated pinch-hitter.

 Pete Ward and Don Buford

The surprising White Sox held first place from June 11 to August 12, regaining it for one day, September 6. Before the next night’s game, the American League sent former umpire Charlie Berry to inspect the condition of the infield, following complaints by Angels manager Bill Rigney. Head groundskeeper Gene Bossard, father of current head man Roger “The Sodfather” Bossard, was well known for keeping the home-plate area slightly less arid than a swamp and, under the league’s direction, Bossard’s crew steered a one-ton roller over the area. It was later confirmed that the Sox indeed put baseballs in a freezer before the games, thus helping negate opponents’ power. The Sox lost the next two games to the Tigers and would bounce between third and fourth place but still very much in the running.

Two surprises characterized the season. The 1966 World Champion Baltimore Orioles, who swept the Los Angeles Dodgers 4 to 0 in the Fall Classic, fell 21 games to finish 76-85 in 1967. The Boston Red Sox, 72-90 and only two games ahead of the last-place New York Yankees in 1966, were in fifth place as late as August 13 before storming into the pennant race, thanks in part to Carl Yaztremski’s Triple Crown season and the mid-season addition of present White Sox announcer Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. The Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers, second and third in 1966 with a one-game difference, had solid line-ups. Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva led the Twins in hitting, and Dean Chance joined Jim Kaat, a 25-game winner in 1966, on the mound. The Tigers were led by Al Kaline, Willie Horton Norm Cash and Bill Freehan, with star pitchers Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich and Earl Wilson.

 Ken "Hawk" Harrelson

The White Sox seemly had no business being in such company but with only five games remaining, they stood only 1 game out. The schedule was in their favor, with a double-header vs. the last place Kansas City A's on the road and eighth-place Washington Senators for a weekend series at home. The Twins were in first place, the Red Sox in second, one game back and percentage points ahead of the White Sox, and the Tigers were 1.5 games back in fourth. Because of a rainout, the Tigers would have to play back-to-back doubleheaders with the Angels in Detroit, while the Twins and Red Sox eventually squared off for the final two games in Boston.

A’s manager and Hall of Famer Luke Appling, a career White Sox player, would have liked to see the Sox win the pennant but sent two of his best pitchers, Chuck Dobson and Catfish Hunter, to face Peters and Horlen. The first game was a disaster for the Sox, scoring 2 runs (in the 9th inning) on 4 hits while committing two errors, a wild pitch and passed ball on the way to a 5-2 loss. The second game was worse, blanked 4-0 on three hits by Hunter. Some 5,325 fans witnessed the meltdown, the last A’s games in Kansas City. They moved to Oakland the following season. (My blog post on the A's is
Chuck Dobson and Catfish Hunter

The Sox limped back to Chicago, now 1.5 games back in fourth place. A win on Friday night was a must. Only 12,665 showed up to watch the Sox stay in the race. Anticipating a possible World Series appearance, the Sox built a fenced-in area for photographers on the far side of the 1st-base dugout. The Senators put runners on first and second vs. John in the 1st inning, thanks to two errors. Fred Valentine then lofted a pop foul behind 1st base that Tommy McCraw would have caught if the photographers’ area hadn’t been built. Valentine then singled to drive in a run, which held up thanks to 4-hit pitching by Phil Ortega, and the Sox’s 1-0 loss eliminated them from the pennant race. They then lost the final two games, 4-0 and 4-3, the Saturday game witnessed by 4,020 die-hard fans.

 Fred Valentine

So down to the wire it was, as the Tigers split their first doubleheader and the Red Sox beat the Twins on Saturday. The winner of Sunday’s Red Sox-Twins game was assured at least a tie for first place, while the Tigers needed a sweep to force a one-game playoff. The Red Sox defeated the Twins, 5-3, setting of a wild celebration resulting in the shutdown of the Kenmore T station for fear the mob would spill on to the third rail.

In the meantime, the Tigers won game 1 of the doubleheader, and somehow I found myself on the second floor of the D wing of Dravo Hall at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where I was a freshman, at about 7:30 EDT. Somebody had tuned in Ernie Harwell’s call of game 2 from WJR in Detroit. I arrived just in time to hear Dick McAuliffe ground into a Knoop-to-Fregosi-to-Mincher double play, thus ending the Tigers’ hopes with an 8-5 defeat.

 Ernie Harwell

It took the White Sox five years to recover from the disappointing ending. Attendance for the season was only 985,634, as the mid-summer shooting of a motorcycle policeman fueled increased fears of safety in the Comiskey Park neighborhood. The team and attendance got progressively worse, bottoming out in 1970, finishing 56-106, 42 games behind the division-winning Twins, before a total of 495,355 fans. I was not one of them, for the only season since my first game in 1953 or 1954, although my streak of seeing the Sox every year is intact by attending a game in Boston.