Say It's So: The Chicago White Sox's Magical Season

Say It's So: The Chicago White Sox's Magical Season

by Phil Rogers
     
 

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The Chicago White Sox's march to the 2005 World Series title was as surprising as it was dramatic, and in Say It's So: The Chicago White Sox's Magical Season, Phil Rogers delivers the inside story of how it came about. Rogers, senior baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, describes the gamble general manager Ken Williams took in breaking up a powerful but plodding

Overview

The Chicago White Sox's march to the 2005 World Series title was as surprising as it was dramatic, and in Say It's So: The Chicago White Sox's Magical Season, Phil Rogers delivers the inside story of how it came about. Rogers, senior baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, describes the gamble general manager Ken Williams took in breaking up a powerful but plodding team in favor of one built around pitching, speed and defense. A team, in other words, that could play the game the way manager Ozzie Guillen wanted it played. In Guillen, the Sox found themselves a charismatic, live-wire leader whose every move seemed golden.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781572438705
Publisher:
Triumph Books
Publication date:
03/28/2006
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.04(h) x 0.99(d)

Read an Excerpt

Say It's So

The Chicago White Sox's Magical Season


By Phil Rogers, Dan McGrath

Triumph Books

Copyright © 2006 Phil Rogers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62368-726-7



CHAPTER 1

Thrifty business

Operating on a shoestring for decades, Sox watch other teams win it all


If you were a White Sox general manager back in the day, you were multitasking before the expression had been invented.

Roland Hemond, the Sox GM from 1971 through '85, was in charge of a whole lot more than providing a 25-man roster for one of the most intriguing casts of managers known to man. In those years Hemond worked with Chuck Tanner, Paul Richards, Bob Lemon, Larry Doby, player-manager Don Kessinger and Tony La Russa, who was 34 when he was given his chance in 1979. Hemond also was in charge of Comiskey Park, a jewel at one time that was in irreversible decay, as well as elements of marketing, media relations, ticket sales and, on a given day, plumbing and groundskeeping.

A scene at Comiskey on a weekend in late August 1979 would seem out of place in the $4-billion industry that major-league baseball has become, but it was not that unusual at the time, especially not in Chicago.

Bill Veeck had twice come forward to rescue the White Sox franchise from ownership crises, first putting an end to fightingamong the Comiskey family heirs in early 1959, when the team was coming off a second-place season and would wind up in the World Series, and again in 1975, when John Allyn wanted out and it appeared the team could wind up in Seattle.

Veeck was many things. A robber baron with bottomless pockets wasn't one of them.

Money was always an issue with Veeck, as it was with the White Sox owners who preceded him and those who would follow him. This was a working-class franchise without an O'Malley or a Steinbrenner, one that had to make a dollar before it could spend one. Consider it the legacy of Charles Comiskey, the Old Roman.

Comiskey had the vision to build Comiskey Park, which, when it opened in 1910, fit its billing as "the Baseball Palace of the World." But he ran his operation on a shoestring. The Sox often played in dirty uniforms as Comiskey saved on laundry bills. He gave his players only $3 a day in meal money, $1 less than the standard. He was notoriously tight-fisted in salary negotiations with his players, even stars like Buck Weaver, Joe Jackson, Lefty Williams and Ed Cicotte. He had promised players bonuses if they won the World Series in 1917 but delivered only a case of inexpensive champagne at the team party. His payback would come two years later, when a gambling syndicate got the ear of first baseman Chick Gandil and hatched a plot to have the Sox throw games in the 1919 World Series.

While it was the players who ultimately paid the price for baseball's most disgraceful chapter---eight players, including Jackson, Weaver and Cicotte, were banned for life by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis---the stain clung to the franchise, which stayed in the hands of the Comiskey family for almost 40 years after the Black Sox scandal.

Chicago had two major-league teams, sure, but never an ownership group that would or could outspend rivals to build a championship club. The Cubs had the more stable ownership, with the Wrigley family running Chicago's National League team for 65 years before selling to the city's largest media group, Tribune Co., which owned WGN-TV and WGN Radio in addition to its newspaper. Fans could complain about the teams that were put on the field, but there was never a question about opening the door.

Those real-world realities of business were among the harsh facts of life for the White Sox, however.

So it was that Hemond found himself sweating a major financial crisis late in the 1979 season, which had been a lean one. Harry Chappas, a 5-foot-3-inch infielder, had made it onto the cover of Sports Illustrated in March but into only 26 games at shortstop. That was fewer than Kessinger, who served as player-manager until La Russa was promoted from Triple-A Iowa on Aug. 3, after a seven-game losing streak dropped the White Sox 14 games below .500.

Veeck, like every owner before and after him, understood the importance of maximizing revenues in the summer. Chicago's weather often limited crowds in the spring, and only the heartiest fans turned out to see the Sox play out the string in September. But there was a way to make money when the team was out of town: renting out the ballpark for concerts and other events.

The Beatles' visits to Comiskey Park in 1965 and '66 are still among the most talked-about concerts in the history of a city with a rich musical history. But Veeck didn't care if the acts were groundbreaking; he just needed them to be money-paying. In the summers of 1978 and '79, concerts called the Summer Jam series drew many more fans to Comiskey than the Sox did. The stage was generally set up at the edge of theinfield, with fans allowed to sit or stand in the outfield grass, as well as the two decks of seating.

Rock bands had played at Comiskey while the White Sox, in their first month under La Russa, were off on a trip to Baltimore, Boston and Milwaukee.

Downpours, however, plagued the concerts. There was almost no grass left in the outfield, which more closely resembled a mud bog than a baseball field after the final loadout of the music series.

Downpours, however, plagued the concerts. There was almost no grass left in the outfield, which more closely resembled a mud bog than a baseball field after the final loadout of the music series.

Veeck, who had lost his right leg while serving with the Marines during World War II, was expecting good crowds for a weekend series against the Baltimore Orioles, who featured young hitting star Eddie Murray and were on their way to an AL pennant and the World Series. Hemond understood that this was a time when the most important thing was that the games be played, not how his team played in those games.

"When I went out on the field that afternoon, there was Bill in center field," Hemond said. "He had his shirt off, like he always did, and he was using a rake on the field. There were shovels, all kinds of tools all around the field. There was no grass on the field, none, not anywhere. It was just mud. Everywhere you looked there was mud. I went out there knowing we were in big trouble.

"Bill said to me, 'Roland, we've got to get the game in tonight. If we don't, I can't make the payroll.' He told me to go to the clubhouse and make sure none of the players came out on the field, to keep Tony [La Russa] and the players from seeing it for as long as I could. So I head back toward the dugout. When I looked back, I saw Bill's wooden leg was sinking into the mud. He was getting shorter and shorter, and I had to go back out there and help him get out of that hole. That's so funny now, thinking about it. But at the time I'm thinking I can't laugh, I can't even smile, because he'll kill me."

An owner stuck in the mud. What a fitting analogy for the White Sox franchise.


* * *

As dire as the straits in which Veeck and Hemond found themselves during the late 1970s, there would come a time a couple of decades later when some would look back on those as the good old days for Chicago baseball.

The White Sox, at least, would provide periodic excitement for their fans. And as bad as things tended to be for them, they were often worse on the other side of town.

After the big tease of 1969, the Cubs wasted the opportunity they were given by the confluence of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins under manager Leo Durocher. Those teams had six consecutive winning seasons from 1967–1972, but there wouldn't be another one at Clark and Addison Streets until 1984.

Phil Wrigley, king of the gum empire, and later William Wrigley, his son, didn't seem interested in competing with Walter O'Malley, August Busch, John Galbreath and other NL owners. But a lot can change in 20 years.

Or nothing at all.

When Tribune Co. purchased 81 percent of the Cubs from Wrigley in the summer of 1981, Mike North made a living out of a hot dog cart. He worked ballgames in the summer, always rooting for his home team.

Like many of his friends, the opinionated vendor was excited when one of Chicago's most powerful companies put its financial might behind a franchise that had become synonymous with losing.

"We had been through so many years of the Wrigleys," said North, who finagled his way onto the air at WSCR Radio and has become the city's top sports-talker. "With the Wrigleys gone, we thought they would win."

That widely held assumption was reinforced when the Cubs got within three innings of a pennant in '84, the third season of Tribune Co. control. Between them, though, the Jerry Reinsdorf and Tribune Co. ownership groups would go a combined 47 seasons without getting to the World Series, let alone winning one.

Between them, the two franchises had a collective losing streak of 183 seasons through 2004: 96 for the Cubs, who last won the World Series in 1908, and 87 for the Sox, who hadn't won since Pants Rowland's team beat the New York Giants in the 1917 Series.

Through 2004, 45 years had passed since the last World Series appearance by a Chicago team, that by the Go-Go White Sox in 1959. In the intervening years, when America's sweethearts went from Ingrid Bergman and Olivia de Havilland to Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie, 22 different franchises went to the Series, including eight that didn't exist in 1959 and two others that had moved between '59 and their World Series appearances.

The Red Sox and the so-called Curse of the Bambino? Sorry, Boston had been to the World Series in 1967, '75 and '86 and to the league championship series in four other seasons before winning it all in 2004. Chicago fans could only wish for that kind of drought.

And what about all those expansion teams that swept in and did what the White Sox and Cubs couldn't? The Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and '93. The Mets, supposedly New York's laughable franchise, won the World Series in 1969, only their eighth season in business, and again in '86. They lost the Series in '73 and 2000.

Most galling of all for Chicago fans was the instant success of the Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks. Buying up proven free agents with a reckless abandon that was unimaginable for fans of the Sox and Cubs, the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in 2001, their fourth year of operation. Their ownership group was headed by Jerry Colangelo, a Chicago Heights native. The long-suffering Arizona fans had endured only one losing season, the very first.

Then there were the Florida Marlins, who created the short-sighted model Colangelo followed to give his fans instant gratification. The Marlins won in 1997, only their fifth season, stealing Game 7 from the long-suffering Cleveland Indians. In 2003, when the Marlins used an eight-run eighth inning to beat Mark Prior and the Cubs in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, there were 5-year-olds in Ft. Lauderdale who had never seen the Fighting Fish win in their lifetimes.

Imagine the inestimable disgust of Chicago fans watching the World Series in 1997, '01 and '03. Hard-core fans on both sides of town had given the Reinsdorf group and Tribune Co. their hearts, hoping, in some cases praying, that the end of their one-sided love affair would finally come to an end. Yet through 2004, when the Sox finished second for the seventh time in the last nine years and the Cubs stumbled down the stretch to miss a chance at back-to-back postseason appearances, the civic losing streak stretched to a combined 183 years.

"I'm disappointed we couldn't have won more," former Tribune Co. Chief Executive Officer John Madigan said. "We have the ingredients to win [the World Series]. I'm disappointedthat we haven't."

Reinsdorf, partner Eddie Einhorn and their group of investors purchased the Sox from Veeck before the 1981 season. They got the team on the rebound, after American League owners had rejected Edward J. DeBartolo, paying the same $20 million price DeBartolo had agreed to.

At one point, when it looked as if the DeBartolo deal might fly, then-Sox President Andrew McKenna told Reinsdorf that Chicago's other team might soon become available. He knew Reinsdorf had grown up following his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers before attending Northwestern University Law School. He was a National League man, and he lived in NL territory. In those days, if Reinsdorf wanted to take in a baseball game, he usually did so at Wrigley Field.

So McKenna wondered if Reinsdorf would be interested in the Cubs. "I said to Jerry, 'You know, there's another team in town,'" McKenna said. "I had no knowledge at the time. I said that half in jest, not expecting anything could happen."

Less than six months after Reinsdorf's purchase of the Sox closed, control of the Cubs passed from the landmark building on the west side of North Michigan Avenue to the tower across the street. Estate taxes and the advent of baseball's free-agency era contributed to William Wrigley's decision to sell the ballclub he had inherited from his father, Phil. Tribune Co. paid $20.5 million.

"The afternoon the Cubs sale was announced, I got a call from Jerry," McKenna said. "He said, 'You were right.'."

McKenna now says there was no way Reinsdorf could have wound up with the Cubs. Published reports indicate that Reinsdorf owns only 12 percent of the Sox, which means he would have put in no more than $2.4 million when he assembled his investment group.

"The Wrigleys were very private people," McKenna said. "If they were going to sell, they would only sell to somebody who could put down a check for the entire team."

Both purchases have proved to be wise investments. In April 2005, Forbes magazine estimated the Cubs' value at $398 million, the sixth highest figure in baseball behind the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Dodgers and Seattle Mariners. The Sox, who had slipped from 16th in 2002 to 20th, were estimated to be worth $262 million.

When Reinsdorf and Tribune Co. joined the major-league fraternity, it consisted of 26 teams. The only other franchises not to win a pennant between 1981 and 2004 were Houston, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Texas, and each of those franchises has had at least one ownership change in the last two decades.

Thus it could be argued that none of baseball's ownership groups had been as unsuccessful for as long as the two in Chicago.

Before the Cubs beat Atlanta in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, they and the White Sox had somehow combined to lose their last 14 postseason series, another mark of futility that caused Chicagoans to lose their lunch when New Englanders moaned about the Curse of the Bambino.


* * *

Other than their proximity to Red Line "L" stops about 70 blocks apart, there is no common thread to the ownership groups behind the Cubs and White Sox.

Madigan says the Cubs have been run "like any of our subsidiaries." That puts them on the same level as the television stations and newspapers in a media conglomerate that has annual revenues in excess of $5 billion. The team's baseball executives currently report to Tribune Co. general counselCrane Kenney, whose existence is barely documented in the team's media guide. Dennis FitzSimons, Madigan, Don Grenesko, Stanton Cook and Jim Dowdle preceded Kenney in the role of overseer of the Cubs.

North calls it a faceless ownership. "The Tribune Co. becomes like Oz, like the wizard of Oz," he said. "They never knew there was really a man behind it."

Reinsdorf, on the other hand, had always been the face of his ownership group, the man clearly responsible for all that is right or wrong with the White Sox. He is a fist-pounding, cigar-smoking overachiever who sometimes has been longer on passion than resources. His appetite for success hadn't been sated by the six NBA titles that his Bulls won behind Michael Jordan. He wanted to somehow wring one trip to the World Series out of the Sox before selling them or turning them over to his four children.

"Ninety-five percent [of the investors] want to sell, but he doesn't want to sell," Jimmy Piersall, the former big-league outfielder and broadcaster, said in 2002. "He wants to stay in the limelight."

Reinsdorf picks and chooses his times to be interviewed. When the Tribune devoted its 2003 baseball preview section to a comprehensive examination of Chicago's two ownership groups, he was absolutely delightful company for a Tribune reporter at a Scottsdale, Ariz., restaurant. His passion for the sport was as evident as the rising price of beef and fine wine, and his encyclopedic knowledge of baseball's history was on full display.

But Reinsdorf had done what he often does: set ground rules for the meeting. He would not be quoted in any article. He felt he had been burned by reporters more than once, and in the process he had gone from being one of baseball's mostaccessible owners to one of its barely visible men.

That always changes when a team is winning, of course. At times like those Reinsdorf can't help himself. But on a daily basis, pity the poor reporter who needs a quote.


* * *

While neither franchise had done enough winning before 2005, Reinsdorf and Tribune Co. had been responsible stewards for Chicago's two-team tradition, which dates to the founding of the American League in 1900. Reinsdorf preserved that heritage by putting it to its biggest test.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Say It's So by Phil Rogers, Dan McGrath. Copyright © 2006 Phil Rogers. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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