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White Sox Magic

Billy Pierce on 1959— the Sox’s most memorable year

By CARL CURRY
    This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1959 White Sox team, the one that electrified the city of Chicago by winning the American League pennant and going on to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series—their first visit since the infamous “Black Sox” series in 1919. The Go-Go Sox were exciting to watch because of their base running, great defense and propensity to win tight games, many by just one run.
    While I was only eight years old and a huge fan of one of their archrivals, the Cleveland Indians, I did get the opportunity to see the Sox win the seminal game against the Tribe in Cleveland the evening of September 22, which secured the pennant. My heart was broken, but even then I appreciated the great talent the Sox possessed in players like Minnie Minoso, future Hall of Famers Early Wynn, Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio. And then there was Billy Pierce, arguably the greatest lefty not to make the Hall of Fame. His statistics tell of his greatness. As the Sox star pitcher between 1952 and1961, he was recognized as the American League’s top pitcher twice and runner-up two other times. A seven-time All-Star, he struck out 1,999 batters in his career—the 10th most by a left-hander. His 211 lifetime wins is also 10th in left-handed career wins. Had he been a New York Yankee, it’s almost certain he would have been enshrined in the Hall, probably on the first ballot.
    Recently, I had the good fortune to catch up with Billy, and we talked about the ’59 team and his overall career. As he approaches 83, he looks 10 to 15 years younger and seems to possess the memory of a 20-year-old. He discussed important games like they’d just happened, readily recalling the score, innings pitched, key hits and other crucial facts.
    Billy talked about joining the Sox in November, 1948, when he was traded by the Detroit Tigers, then a promising 21-year-old. It would later become known as the worst trade in Tiger history. Pierce heard about the deal over the radio and was less than enthusiastic. The White Sox were not a good team, had lost more than a 100 games, and he disliked playing in Comiskey Park because of the terrible smells associated with the stockyards. Those would last a few years more until the houses were shut down. In the meantime, the Sox were in the process of building a winning team by adding new players like Jim Rivera, Sherm Lollar, Norm Cash and Johnny Callison and, of course, their famous double-play combination. Their winning record was steadily improving each year, and they approached the 1959 season with high hopes.
    The starting pitching staff consisting of Pierce, Dick Donovan, Wynn and Bob Shaw was as good as any in baseball; Wynn would end up winning 22 games, as well as the Cy Young award as the best pitcher in baseball. Billy did not have a banner year, 14-15, but a number of his losses were by one run in low scoring games. His fastball was still lethal coupled with a solid curve ball and a marvelous slider developed six years earlier. Joe DiMaggio said about Billy, “So little, yet all that speed—and I mean speed.” Although less than 150 pounds, Pierce’s strength came from his windmill type delivery, which involved his entire body. He believes that many of the arm problems plaguing contemporary pitchers could be avoided through his style of pitching.
    Billy’s roommate for 11 years, Nellie Fox, had his best season, culminating with the most valuable player honor. “Nellie was a great competitor who wanted to win at whatever he was playing,” Pierce recalls. They would play gin rummy in their hotel room, and “he would scream bloody murder even if he lost one hand.” Fox started the season with a bang. In the opener, he collected a record 5 hits, including the game-winning home run. It would take 40 years for someone to match his five hits in one game.
    Right from the start, the Sox and Indians were in a seesaw battle for first place. On July 22, the Sox moved in front for good, but the Indians were never far behind. When the two teams met on September 22, it was a must-win for Cleveland. The game was being made up as the original was rained out earlier in the season. Billy recalls Rivera and Al Smith powering the Sox to a 4-2 lead; the Indians were held in check until the ninth inning, when they loaded the bases with one out. On the mound was the reliever Jerry Staley, facing one of the Indians best hitters, Vic Power. Normally a starter, Billy was sent to the bullpen to warm up. The plan was to bring him in to pitch if Power got on base. I remember the excitement in the stands as the sold-out crowd screamed with every pitch and collectively held their breath. Never in my life had I been so nervous.
    On the next pitch, Power hit a scorching line drive to the hole in short; Aparicio miraculously speared the ball, pivoted and threw to Fox at second, who then relayed to first for a game-ending double play. Suddenly, the stadium went stone silent, with everyone in the stands in shock. Within 15 minutes, the Sox were celebrating in their locker room, which Billy remembers as a great party. Back in Chicago, Mayor Daley had ordered the sirens to go off for five minutes in honor of the accomplishment. This caused considerable fear because of the late hour, with America in the midst of the Cold War and many people still unaware that the Sox had just clinched the pennant. By the time the heroes arrived back in Chicago later that night, the news had spread, and 50,000 adoring fans were waiting at Midway airport. Once inside his car, Pierce fondly remembers “driving down Garfield Boulevard at 2 a.m., seeing throngs of people celebrating in their front yards, lighted by flares and candles.”
    The White Sox finished the season with a record of 94-60. As a team, they led the league in stolen bases, had more triples than any other American team and won 35 one-run games and lost only 15. To great fanfare and media attention, the World Series with the Dodgers began in Comiskey Park on October 1. The Sox won 11-0, and it seemed apparent that the South Siders were the better team. Billy still believes so today, despite the fact that they then went on to lose four of the next five games, ending the magical season. Unlike the regular season, “the breaks stopped going our way and the hits didn’t fall.”
    After 1959, the breaks stopped going the White Sox way for decades. It would take 46 years to get back to the World Series, but when they did in 2005, they took revenge and won 4 straight games. A parade beginning at Cellular Field and ending in downtown Chicago was arranged for the champions—making sure to stop by the site where old Comiskey Park once stood. It was fitting and right to pay tribute to a place where most of White Sox history was created, where so many memories, including those of ’59, rest.

Published: October 12, 2009
Issue: November 2009 Sports Issue