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1977  South Side Hitmen

by WSI editor George Bova

Images by Peter Elliott from his book Park Life:  the Summer of 1977 at Comiskey Park

The Improbable Dream
Of all the seasons that comprise a mostly dark period in Sox history, 1968 to 1980, the 1977 season stands alone.  No other season can compare to the wild, crazy, and near-glorious trip provided by the 1977 White Sox, Chicago's "South Side Hitmen."  Memorable for many reasons, Sox fans appreciate this team even more for the improbable nature of their success.

The upper deck ramp that leads to yet another capacity crowd at Comiskey Park, 1977.    (Park Life, P. Elliott)

Bill Veeck rode to Sox fans' rescue in December, 1975, purchasing the club from John Allyn after he was nearly forced to sell to Seattle interests.  Though Veeck's group was poorly capitalized, nobody could have anticipated the ruinous luck that they would suffer just days later when a federal arbitrator's ruling opened the flood gates to a wave of free agency and an uncontrolled upward spiral in players' salaries.  In the new money war to sign the best players, Bill Veeck and the Chicago White Sox were unarmed.  His first season back as Sox owner was a disaster.  He and Sox GM Roland Hemond engineered several trades but the club only got worse.  They stumbled to 97 losses and a last place finish.  Aging manager Paul Richards resigned and retired in disgust.  For most Sox fans, the season's most memorable event was the first game of an August doubleheader in which the team wore shorts.  It's best to forget the shorts and the 1976 team that wore them!

Veeck unveiled a new idea to compete in 1977.  Since he couldn't afford to pay the best players, he would trade for players one year away from free agency and gamble they might make the team winners before leaving.  This "rent a player" scheme was far-fetched and it ultimately failed, but the illusion had everyone believing in the summer of 1977.

Veeck received Richie Zisk for Rich Gossage and Terry Forster.  He received Oscar Gamble (and a minor leaguer named Lamarr Hoyt) for Bucky Dent.  Rifling through the bargain bin of baseball's free agent market, Veeck found some damaged goods named Eric Soderholm who he signed to a modest contract.  These three players would become the core to a remarkable team.  The new manager was Bob Lemon, the former pitching coach for the Yankees.  Under his quiet leadership the team would soon bloom.  Their early season performance was only a hint of what was to follow.

A Glorious Mid-Summer March
The 1977 White Sox soon showed they were improved over the disastrous '76 club but fans were skeptical.  Richie Zisk hit a home run in his first at-bat on opening day, but attendance was less than 35,000.  The team entered May in fourth place with a 10-8 record.  Chris Knapp had already posted his third victory.  Lemon would coax above-average seasons from several mediocre Sox pitchers.  Zisk already had eight home runs.  Nobody in the A.L. West Division had started quickly and the Sox soon climbed into the race.  Winning six of seven games in early May, the Sox were suddenly in second place and just one-half game off the pace.  They began an unwavering march towards improbable glory.  It would take six weeks to climb that last rung into first place.  A 15-9 record in May left the club six games over .500, still hanging in second place.

Outside the 35th Street ticket windows, waiting anticipating another Sox victory.  (Park Life, P. Elliott)

A June 19 doubleheader sweep of Oakland at Comiskey by Wilbur Wood and Francisco Barrios finally put the Sox in first place.  They scuffled for the next week but broke through with a remarkable 6-1 homestand, June 27 - July 3.  The July 2 game was highlighted by Jim Spencer's hitting performance, driving in eight runs for the second time that season.  A 10-8 Sox victory on July 3 completed a four-game sweep over Minnesota.

Thus began the greatest July in White Sox baseball history.  The 22 victories tell only part of the story.   Sox fans had never seen such a sight at Comiskey Park, for their White Sox were hitting home runs at a record pace.  A barrage of 192 home runs by the '77 South Side Hitmen would obliterate the old franchise record of 138 roundtrippers.  The .444 slugging percentage was 44 points greater than any previous Sox club.  Leading the offensive assault were Veeck's three off-season acquisitions:  Oscar Gamble (31 hr's, 83 rbi's), Richie Zisk (30 home runs, 101 rbi's), and a rejuvenated Eric Soderholm (25 home runs, 67 rbi's).

Every homer was greeted with standing ovations, and dugout curtain calls.  Shelled opposing pitchers were serenaded by Sox fans to the taunting melody of Nancy Faust's organ rendition of  Na Na, Hey Hey, Kiss'em Good bye.  Each seventh inning, Harry Caray led Comiskey's imbibed fans in a rousing chorus of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.  It was wild!  Here Sox fans took a defiant stand against those who charged them and their team with bush league antics.  Hey, Kansas City -- it ain't bush if were kickin' your a**.  A collection of misfits playing for a franchise just 18 months removed from near oblivion was now the terror of the American League.  Sox fans loved them for it.

The Sox split two games with the Royals at Comiskey July 11-12, then peeled off a six game win streak against Boston, Toronto, and Detroit.  With a 4-1/2 game lead, the Hitmen again hosted the Royals for a showdown July 29-31. In Your Face, KC!  The Sox took the series' first two games and the first of the Sunday doubleheader before the "respectable" Royals salvaged the final game.  50,412 Sox fans pushed Comiskey attendance over one million paid.  So capped a 22-6 month, a .785 winning percentage.  The Sox were 24 games over .500 and 5-1/2 games ahead in the division.

Fighting Down the Stretch
The Royals had been taunted and were mad.  They would be waiting for the Sox in a week's time.  First the Sox traveled to Texas where the Rangers took 3 of 4 games.  It was a bad omen for the future.  The Royals were sure to make this series different than the one just completed in Chicago.   Royals catcher Darrell Porter came to blows with Sox reliever Bart Johnson in the first game August 5.  The Royals went on to win that game and the two that followed for the sweep.  The Sox' lead was down to one-half game.  The team would fight on valiantly and Sox fans continued to support them in numbers unseen at Comiskey since the Go-Go era.  Still, a 4-2 loss to Milwaukee on August 20 dropped the South Side Hitmen out of first place for the last time.  The team could only manage an 11-18 record in August.  The 4-12 streak they suffered August 1-16 had broken their back.  By Labor Day the Sox were 5-1/2 games off the pace and fading.

20,953 Sox fans attended the last game of the season at Comiskey, a loss to Seattle, pushing the season's total to 1,657,135.  In a season filled with superlatives, here was the final one.   The '77 South Side Hitmen team broke the 1960 franchise attendance record, set in the afterglow of the '59 World Series appearance.  Though the 90 wins were only good enough for third place in the division, it was the most achieved by the franchise in twelve seasons.  As Sox fans were soon to find out, the 1977 season was a fleeting bit of glory.

The Dismantling and Near-Death (Again)
Bill Veeck had no money to pay anybody.  Richie Zisk left for bigger paydays in Texas.  Oscar Gamble took a similar trip to San Diego.  Neither of them would ever again approach their career-best seasons achieved with the '77 White Sox.  Eric Soderholm won the Comeback Player of Year award and put up similar numbers in 1978 but it wouldn't be enough.  Bob Lemon was named Manager of the Year by the U.P.I., but a slow start by the 1978 Sox got him fired by Veeck.  George Steinbrenner promptly hired Lemon, who then led the 1978 Yankees to their second consecutive world championship in dramatic come from behind fashion over Boston.  Veeck promoted Larry Doby to the Sox's managerial position, but he too would be dismissed in less than one year.

Stroh's or Schlitz, Comiskey's beer vendors weren't selling any effete brands in 1977.    (Park Life, P. Elliott)

Veeck planned to replace his team's lost offense by trading Brian Downing, Chris Knapp and Dave Frost to California for Bobby Bonds, Thad Bosley, and a minor leaguer named Rich Dotson.  Bonds was a bust and himself was traded just one month into the season.  Free agent acquisition Ron Blomberg was a similar bust.  After the near-glory of 90 wins in 1977, the '78 Sox stumbled to 90 losses.  Veeck's curious choice of Don Kessinger as manager for the 1979 club was doomed to failure.  The team finishing fifth for the second consecutive season, this time with 87 losses.  Meanwhile a riot of disco-hating fans destroyed most of Veeck's remaining credibility with the media and the fans.  More ominously, attendance fell to 1,280,000 and Bill Veeck started shopping around for a buyer.

His travels took him to Denver where he and millionaire Marvin Davis nearly came to terms on a deal to move the club into the city's Mile High Stadium.  Davis took a trip to the stadium with Barnum Bill to demonstrate how the football stadium's stands automatically moved back to accommodate baseball.  It was just five years earlier that the Sox were all but shipped to Seattle.  Now Denver appeared the likely destination.

 As the 1980 club stumbled to a 90-loss season, Veeck came to terms with Ed DeBartolo to buy the Sox.  The Ohio real estate tycoon promised to leave the club in Chicago but the American League owners refused his offer, for reasons that appeared less than noble.  These events opened the door for the purchase of the club by another ownership group headed by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn.

The minor league toss-ins Veeck acquired in his rent a player schemes, Hoyt and Dotson, joined other young pitching talent the Sox developed.  They became the key to a resurgent period of success in the early 80's.  You know the rest of the story.

Hey Sox Fans!  For more images by Peter Elliott from the 1977 season, visit this link.  Another exclusive to White Sox Interactive!

1977 Chicago White Sox
90-72, .556,-20 games
(Third Place, A.L. West)
Manager:  Bob Lemon

                       Everyday Line Up

Position   AB BA HR RBI
1B Jim Spencer 470 .247 18 69
2B Jorge Orta 564 .282 11 84
3B Eric Soderholm
Also Jack Brohamer
460 .280 25 67
SS Alan Bannister 560 .275 3 57
LF Richie Zisk
Also Wayne Nordhagen
531 .290 30 101
CF Chet Lemon 553 .273 19 67
RF Ralph Garr 543 .300 10 54
C Jim Essian
Also Brian Downing.
322 .273 10 44
DH Oscar Gamble
Also Lamar Johnson.
408 .297 31 83

                       Pitching Staff

Francisco Barrios 33 231 14 7 0 4.13
Steve Stone 31 207 15 12 0 4.52
Ken Kravec 26 167 11 8 0 4.10
Chris Knapp 27 146 12 7 0 4.81
Wilbur Wood 24 123 7 8 0 4.98
Lerrin LaGrow 66 99 7 3 25 2.45
Bart Johnson 29 92 4 5 2 4.01
Ken Brett 13 83 6 4 0 5.01
Dave Hamilton 55 67 4 5 9 3.63

BOLD led the team

Individual Honors
Gold Glove       Jim Spencer
Manager of the Year     Bob Lemon
Comeback Player of the Year    Eric Soderholm


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