Saturday, May 24, 2008

My work for hire with the South Side Hitmen

A long courtship need not start with fireworks. That was literally the case on my first visit to Comiskey Park. The exploding scoreboard fired only once before the Chicago White Sox lost to the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 10, 1977. Once was enough. I've been a Sox fan ever since.

There were no home runs to set off the the scoreboard's electronic pinwheels, only an RBI single. But if that night was not an auspicious start, at least I can document it. I was fresh out of college with a PR job, and had written a press release for Coca-Cola's role in Guinness Book of World Records night at Comiskey Park. Sweetheart Cup built a 5-foot-high waxy paper cup at its 75th and Kostner plant, and Coke's local fountain syrup distributor was going to fill it with enough carbonated water to wash down a 22-foot-long submarine sandwich.

This record-setting fast supper was one of the lesser milestones of legendary promoter Bill Veeck, who started his baseball career when his family worked for the Cubs. Forty years earlier Veeck had built the Wrigley Field center-field scoreboard and planted ivy on the walls. Now he was the lead owner of the White Sox and his son Mike was filling the home game schedule with circus acts and other pregame stunts. One went famously wrong two years later, when 24-year-old DJ Steve Dahl blew up a crate of disco records in center field between games of a doubleheader with Detroit. Or what would have been a doubleheader if the field were still playable after riot police cleared out rowdy fans.

My 1977 introduction to Comiskey Park was a much tamer affair. The night before, Steve Stone pitched a 13-3 win over Western Division rival Seattle before 12,294 fans. It was raining the afternoon the the Ruder & Finn publicity team set out for the South Side. Bob Verdi wrote in the Tribune the next day that the infield looked like the paddock at Arlington Park.

After assisting with the pregame festivities from the sidelines, we took box seats on a damp concrete deck. It felt like taking refuge from the summer heat in a cool basement rec room. At this point I had seen the Sox only in day games as a Brewers fan, including one near-disastrous field trip. We took a chartered bus from Madison with a keg of beer, which the bus driver nursed as we watched the game. Our trip home was delayed when the bus ran into a ditch near Delafield.

Some Sox stars were missing from manager Bob Lemon's lineup. Lamar Johnson was at 1st base instead of Jim Spencer and Jack Brohamer replaced Jorge Orta at 2nd. At least Cleveland, aligned then with the Eastern Division, had not played the Sox since May and was on a six-game losing streak.

Wilbur WoodThe pitcher was Wilbur Wood, a 35-year-old knuckleballer. The knuckler is an unpredictable corkscrew pitch that confounds not only batters, but also catchers. Brian Downing took Jim Essian's place in the battery. Wood was in his 16th year in the major leagues and his 11th for the Sox. After years as a reliever, the Sox put him in the starting rotation in 1971. He pitched 20 or more complete nine-inning games in each of the next four years.

In 1977 Wood had a knee ailment and was a year away from retirement, but was the highest-paid Sox starter at $140,000. The two Sox stars of 1977 were just passing through. Veeck traded for right-fielder RIchie Zisk and designated hitter Oscar Gamble even though he could not afford to keep them more than a year, when they would become free agents. At the All-Star Game Zisk played alongside Reggie Jackson, whom the Yankees had hired for five years at $2.9 million.

Cleveland's leadoff man, Duane Kuiper, led off with a bunt single, got to second on a swinging bunt by Buddy Bell, and reached third on an infield out. With bases loaded, ex-Cub Andre Thorton tried a bunt as well. It dropped dead along the third-base line for a single that brought in Kuiper.

Wood never found his knuckleball and Cleveland scored two runs in the third and two in the fifth. Bill Melton, who had spent eight years with the Sox, got his 1,000th career hit in the ninth inning for the Indians, with Jack Kucek in relief.

This was the year of the South Side Hitmen, but not tonight. Pitching for Cleveland was Wayne Garland, a 20-game winner for Baltimore. He signed with the Indians for 10 years at $2.3 million and immediately developed arm problems. They were not in evidence. Garland had a three-hitter going into the ninth.

The Sox made it exciting with a late rally: Lamar Johnson singled, Gamble walked, and Eric Soderholm singled to load the bases with two outs. Orta came in as a pinch hitter and worked Garland to a full count, only to fly out and end the game. Garland pitched a complete game, which means I did not hear Nancy Faust's newest specialty. The organist would grab any song title that came close to fitting the action, and lately she had begun to play a late-1960s pop song when an opposing pitcher was replaced. It was "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)."

Aug. 10 was a 6-1 loss, and likely the beginning of the end for the 1977 Sox. They led Minnesota by 1½ games but would start a slow fade to Kansas City and Texas. Still, this was fun. The Sox had come far with an all-hit, no-field squad of underdog rent-a-players.

Harry Caray was calling play by play on WMAQ — yes, Harry was working on the South Side, and had begun leading the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch. As a Chicago newcomer I was captivated by the city's street life after dusk, and especially a cool night under stadium lights. I became a Sox fan that night, and though I have never lived south of Madison Street I have looked to the South Side ever since. And Guinness Book of World Records night got mentioned in the newspaper game wrapup, which endeared me to the Tribune. But that's another story.

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