Chicago White Sox

Okay, be quick: Tell me everything you know about the Chicago White Sox. If you’re a baseball fan, you’re probably counting off two items: They nearly ruined baseball by throwing the 1919 World Series, and they’re the other team in Chicago. Those of you who are able to really stretch it may remember that they won the World Series in 2005. More casual fans tend to have a little bit of trouble remembering that Chicago is a two-team city, and those who aren’t in the know at all can never seem to find any separation between the White Sox and the older and much more popular Cubs. No wonder: It’s the Cubs who are the darlings of the national scene in baseball, thanks to an image that projects cuteness and good times which manage to be both drunken and wholesome. Those who know the White Sox at all think about them because of an unfortunate – and completely unwarranted – association with gang culture.

The White Sox are one of the eight charter members of the American league, and the history they’ve built up for themselves is one of, er… Distinction. Yes, the White Sox have a long and rich history, and it’s just as weird and unexpected as it is long. Wikipedia calls the history of the White Sox unusual, challenging, and celebrated. I adopted the White Sox when I moved to Chicago back in 2006 – one of the most unusual baseball loyalty moves a fan can make, since most expats to Chicago adopt the Cubs as their chosen squad – and they’ve taken over the top spot as my favorite baseball team.

The White Sox began life in little, unassuming Sioux City as the Cornhuskers. They were a Western League team, so that gave them an in when Western League president Ban Johnson started reorganizing the league in 1893. Johnson was originally a reporter who plied his trade in a Cincinnati sports section, which is how he came to make friends with the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, a certain Charles Comiskey. Remember that name – it’s going to become important soon. When Comiskey’s managerial contract ran out, he decided to take a shot at team ownership, which was the impetus for his buying the Huskers and moving them to St. Paul, Minnesota. It was Comiskey who vouched for Johnson to be in charge of the Western League, which soon became the most efficient minor league in baseball. Most people would have been pretty satisfied with that, but Johnson was crazy ambitious. He wanted to start a competitor to the mighty National League, so he started shuffling the Western League around before renaming it the American League in 1900. The NL actually gave the AL permission to put a new team in Chicago to avoid a repeat of the near-disaster with the American Association, and the AL cheerfully moved Comiskey’s St. Paul team to Chicago’s South Side, giving them a name once used by the Cubs: The White Stockings. They won the Pennant in 1900, then the AL told the world that it was now a major league, and Major League Baseball was born!

After stealing a bunch of stars from the NL for the next season, the team – soon called the White Sox because it was shorter and easier to write at the top of a scorecard – also won the AL’s inauguratory Pennant as a major league the following season. They built up their team on a philosophy of speed and defense, solidifying a deadly pitching rotation led by Ed Walsh, Doc White, and Nick Altrock. In 1906, the trio helped pitch the White Sox to 93 victories and their first World Series, which happened to be against their cross town rivals, the Chicago Cubs. There were just two problems: The first was that the Cubs posted a video game record; they won 116 games and lost just 36. That record is still the all-time league record in winning percentage – which has never so much as come under serious assault – and regular season victories, a record which was tied only once (by the 2001 Seattle Mariners) but never broken. The second was that the White Sox posted a pathetic team batting average of just .230, which was the worst in the AL that year. That earned them a nickname: The Hitless Wonders. The Series was looking like a gimme for the Cubbies, but when the White Sox batters saw the challenge, damn if they didn’t… Lie down and die. The team batting average for the Sox was .198 for the Series, but you know what? It was still better than the team batting average of .196 the Cubs posted. Yeah, the Sox hurlers shined bright, stymieing the Cubs and leading the White Sox to a 4-2 World Series victory.

That was the highlight for the earliest years of the White Sox. You have to admit, winning the Series was a pretty damn good one, but as with most unexpected post-championship teams, a drop off occurred. The Sox spent the next decade in that weird little hell where a team alternates between being mediocre and never-quite-good-enough. In 1915, though, the Sox landed a huge coup: They added outfielders Happy Felsch and Joe Jackson and second baseman Eddie Collins, who got them into third place. The addition of Lefty Williams the following year pulled them into second. Then, by adding Chick Gandil and Swede Risberg, the White Sox finally came in first, entered the World Series again, and beat the New York Giants 4-2 for their second title. And with that, the Sox officially sealed their status as a dynamo in the American League. Although they had an off year in the war-shortened 1918 season, the White Sox ran through everyone they faced in 1919. They captured the Pennant quite easily and were heavily favored to destroy the opposing Cincinnati Reds. The Reds, though, met the challenge. It shouldn’t have been the surprise that it was – the Reds did have the better record, after all, and their pitching rotation was also better that year. It didn’t help that Sox pitcher Red Faber was knocked out with the flu and couldn’t play. The Sox did their best, but ended up losing the Series to Cincy in eight games.

There’s a saying in Chicago: There’s always next year. And in 1920, it looked like next year had arrived. The Sox steamrolled right through the season, fighting neck and neck with the Cleveland Indians for the Pennant. Their pitching rotation had FOUR pitchers who won 20 games. But during the season, someone found out that there was something a little… Off… About that 1919 Series. It started when it became known that there were make-you-stupid amounts of money being wagered on the Reds for the Series. People usually don’t throw that kind of money on a World Series bet unless it’s a sure thing. In other words, anyone who placed big money on the Reds either didn’t know how to gamble or they had an agent with the White Sox which allowed them to play puppet master and fix the Series so the Reds would win and anyone who bet on them would be in for a massive payoff. And the players weren’t exactly lacking for cause. Remember our good friend Charles Comiskey? Yeah, he was one of baseball’s legendary assholes. See, ballplayers back then weren’t making A-Rod megabucks. Even the best players had to take jobs during the offseason, and Comiskey was very stingy even by those standards. He made players launder their own uniforms, which the players once tried to protest by playing in dirty uniforms; that’s the REAL reason this team first got the Black Sox nickname. He also gave his players less of a food allowance than other teams. At one point, he promised star pitcher Eddie Cicotte a cool $10,000 bonus if he could win 30 games during the 1919 season, and by all accounts Cicotte looked for all the world like he was going to reel it in. But with two weeks left in the season and an otherworldly 29-7 record, Comiskey told manager Kid Gleason to bench Cicotte. The excuse? Save him for the World Series. Since there was no free agency back then and the players were basically owned by their teams, players had no real options besides either grudgingly taking what Comiskey gave them or retiring. But as it turned out, eight players for the White Sox decided on a third option: They accepted payments from professional gamblers to throw the World Series. Most accounts of what happened trace the blame to gamblers Arnold Rothstein and Joseph “Sport” Sullivan. The extent of the players’ involvement is questionable in some instances, but when news of the fix broke during the final leg of the 1920 season, the team suspended all eight players who were suspected: Cicotte, Felsch, Gandil, Jackson, Risberg, Williams, Buck Weaver, and Fred McMullin. Comiskey initially just suspended the eight of them, despite knowing that it could cost his team the 1920 Pennant (which it did).

Karma came and punished the White Sox for that one. Chicago and New York City have always had a little bit of a rivalry, and baseball is the local sport in both cities. So it would make karmic sense that after the White Sox wrecked the World Series, the New York Yankees would nab Babe Ruth and get credit for bringing baseball back from the brink of extinction. And that it would be the Yankees who went on to win 40 Pennants and 27 titles. As for the Sox, losing their best and brightest hurt. In 1921, with a commissioner now in charge of the sport, all of them were banned from baseball for life. After having won the Pennant five times going back to 1900, they took a spill, finished seventh in 1921, and weren’t really a factor in another Pennant race until 1936. Hell, only the teams in 1925 and 1926 were able to so much as finish with winning records. And even those weren’t that impressive – they were 79-75 and 81-72 respectively. To really rub it in, Ruth very nearly ended up in Chicago when the Boston Red Sox put him on the market – they offered Harry Frazee $60,000 cash plus the services of Joe Jackson. But Frazee accepting the $100,000 all-cash offer the Yankees offered turned out to be prophetic after Jackson was banned for life in 1920.

The Sox managed to unearth a few outstanding players during this dry era – most notably Luke Appling and Ted Lyons – but a real team never developed. It took the rise of manager Jimmy Dykes to make them competitive again when he was signed in 1934. His tenure ran from 1934 to 1946, which is still the longest in the team’s history. Although he was combative as hell – and frequently fined and suspended – he proved to be pretty popular. Dykes was the first manager to win over 1000 games and evade the Pennant anyway. Comiskey died in 1931, but his family kept operating the team, although whether or not they emulated dad’s stinginess is up for grabs. It wasn’t until the 50’s that the Sox started playing respectable baseball again. It started with another manager, Paul Richards, using a speedy offense and spectacular defense while the team started signing players like Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox, Billy Pierce, Early Wynn, and the immortal Minnie Minoso. Their style was a factor in the Sox leading the AL in stolen bases every year from 1951 to 1961. When Al Lopez became the manager in 1957, the White Sox were finally pushed over the top; or at least as over the top as a bridesmaid team can be. While the Sox posted winning records regularly in the 50’s and 60’s, there was always one or two teams which were just a wee bit better. The Yankees were at their dynastic best in those days, and so the White Sox were often left in second or third place. The one year they managed to bat away all their competitors was 1959. Fox was the AL MVP, and Wynn lived up to his name when he took home the Cy Young, and the Sox nabbed slugger Ted Kluszewski for the final push. Upon the Pennant-clinching victory – their first Pennant since the Black Sox scandal – Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, a diehard fan, ordered the city’s air raid sirens to be set off. You can imagine what a wonderful idea that was, with it being the height of the Cold War and everything. No matter, though; in the only World Series between 1949 and 1964 which didn’t feature a team from New York City, the Koufax/Drysdale/Snider Los Angeles Dodgers won decisively in six games.

It was also in 1959 that Bill Veeck arrived. Veeck wasn’t a ballplayer or a manager, but he’s an important component in the development of the team’s quirky identity. The White Sox under Veeck’s ownership began a long era of tradition-beating and establishment-rankling. It was Veeck who introduced the famous exploding scoreboard, something the team kept as a holdover when it moved from Comiskey Park into New Comiskey Park in 1991. It was also Veeck who introduced the concept of players’ names on the backs of their uniforms. Although owners hated Veeck because he didn’t conform to stodgy traditions, Veeck ended up owning the White Sox at two different points, and the players and fans loved him because he performed the rebellious act of believing baseball games should be fun. He also championed some of baseball’s more progressive ideas, like free agency, which really pissed off the Old Guard when he performed four trades in a public hotel lobby and later testified in support of Curt Flood when Flood challenged the reserve clause.

The Sox went through the 60’s continuing to have close calls and near misses, most notably in 1964 and 1967. In 1964, the team won 98 games but couldn’t get by the Yankees (what? You were expecting the California Angels?) after their 11-game charge tin win the Pennant. 1967 was one of the closest Pennant races in history. They led the AL for most of the season, but a mid-August loss to the Minnesota Twins knocked them into second, which turned the rest of the season into a four-team war between the White Sox, Red Sox, Twins, and Detroit Tigers. It was the Red Sox who pulled away in the final weekend and won the Pennant with 92 wins. The White Sox finished fourth with 89 wins. The next few years brought constant threats of a move, as well as hitting rock bottom. The White Sox managed to stay in Chicago because the AL wasn’t going to sell them to anyone who wanted to move them – it wasn’t going to simply walk away from the second-largest city in the country. The 1970 White Sox went 56-106, which was worse than every other team in the league – even the second-year Milwaukee Brewers and first-year San Diego Padres.

Veeck, who left the White Sox in 1961 due to bad health, returned in 1975. The team was rather up and down for most of the decade; Dick Allen’s MVP season took them to second in 1972; they won 64 games in 1976; the South Side Hitmen finished third in 1977. Veeck continued to pull his wild promotions and stunts, things like the team wearing shorts and Disco Demolition Night. The Sox finally saw postseason action again in 1983, under a young manager named Tony La Russa, winning their division through a little bit of grit and determination rather than strong hitting or pitching. The manager of the Texas Rangers was dismissive of the team’s success, though; he referred to the team’s style as “winning ugly.” He meant it as a sort of insult, but fans latched onto it and turned it into a slogan. Their spunky play didn’t pass through the postseason – the Baltimore Orioles stomped the White Sox on the way to a World Series victory. Even La Russa’s genius couldn’t get them to contend again, though, and the Sox were suddenly mediocre after that until winning 94 games in 1990. The Sox of the 90’s, led by Frank Thomas, were usually talented but could never seem to achieve beans. They did make the ALCS in 1993, losing to the Toronto Blue Jays, and they were leading their division in 1994, with a possible Pennant in the works when play suddenly stopped and the players went on strike.

In 2005, the Sox poked their heads out of the house in a big way. Now, they weren’t really expected to do very much that year. They had just unloaded longtime stars Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee, manager Ozzie Guillen was only in his second year, and they signed troubled closer Bobby Jenks and asshole catcher AJ Pierzynski. That went about as well as you might expect: The White Sox only… Led MLB for most of the year before being overtaken by the St. Louis Cardinals – who won 100 games as opposed to the White Sox’s 99 – and took their division by six games. In the ALDS, the White Sox took on their Sox counterparts from Boston, the Red Sox; yes, the same Boston Red Sox who won the World Series the year before. Chicago emerged the victor in just three games. In the ALCS, the White Sox faced the powerful Los Angeles Angels. The Angels won the first game, but the Sox bounced back as pitchers Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia, and Jose Contreras all pitched victories in complete games. Vaulted into their first World Series since 1959, the White Sox faced off against the Houston Astros, who won their first Pennant since their 1962 creation in part because of a rotation which featured Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt. In four suspence-filled games which were in doubt right until they ended – including a 14-inning third game – the White Sox swept the Astros. There was something weird about the White Sox’s 2005 World Series victory. First of all, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 1918, then endured an 86-year drought which finally ended in 2004. The Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 1917, but never won it again until 2005. The weird bookending didn’t go unnoticed, although the Sox’ drought did until then. The White Sox also lost only one game during that entire postseason run, and four pitchers pitched increasingly rare complete games. Most of the games the Sox played were very close, and could have been taken by either team. The famed third game of the World Series featured the Astros running off to a 4-0 lead before the Sox scored five runs in the fifth inning, then the two teams exchanged a lot of small ball and blown opportunities.

The suddenly damage-and-destroy White Sox entered the following season as an invincible dynamo, looking like a sure-thing repeat… Right until the All-Star break. Then things went south, and the Sox seemed to lose their rudder and sense of purpose. Although they won 90 games, they finished in third behind the Minnesota Twins and recently-rejuvenated Detroit Tigers. Since then, there was a surprise division title in 2008, but the White Sox have generally landed back into their accustomed spot: Inauspicious and overshadowed by their brothers in cursedom and former cursedom, the Red Sox and Cubs. This year, the White Sox seem to be doing pretty well, although the Cubs have spent the last couple of years becoming one of the best teams in baseball, which means the White Sox are still overshadowed by them.

There’s a weird sort of anonymity which goes with being a White Sox fan. The Cubs, of course, are the proud owners of the longest title drought in baseball history – it’s 107 years as of the end of last season. The Red Sox put their fans through 86 years which alternated between abject futility and coming second to the Yankees, but in 2004 they were finally able to put all that behind them and take a title. (They’ve since won it twice more, in 2008 and 2013.) Right in the middle was a drought by the White Sox which ran for 88 years, combining the futility of baseball teams named Chicago with the futility of baseball teams named Sox. Yet, no one picked up on that until the White Sox burned through the 2005 postseason, knocking out the 2004 Champions along the way. Fans of the White Sox imagine their team to be a primary foe to the Lovable Losers on the North Side of Chicago, but Cub fans think differently: They know the White Sox are a sideshow to their team’s main rivalry, the all-time great baseball war between the Cubs and Cardinals. It doesn’t help that the White Sox ply their trade in the AL Central, perhaps the worst division in baseball. At different times, the team’s antagonism will be pointed at the Twins, Tigers, or Indians. They’ve been in some thrilling divisional races – the legendary Blackout game between the Sox and Twins in 2008 is embossed in South Side lore forever – but rivals seem random in a division which rarely produces a true contender.

The White Sox have retired 11 numbers: Those of Nellie Fox, Harold Baines, Luke Appling, Minnie Minoso, Luis Aparicio, Paul Konerko, Ted Lyons, Billy Pierce, Frank Thomas, Carlton Fisk, and Jackie Robinson. Robinson’s number doesn’t count, since the entire league retired it. Fisk’s number is sort of an odd man out; Fisk played for 23 years, 10 for the Red Sox and 13 for the White Sox. Although the White Sox got more years out of Fisk, he arguably gave his best years to the other Sox team in Boston. He was prolific for both teams, but his accomplishments were more visible with the Red Sox, where he got to be a part of the 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and Reds. One number which the White Sox should have retired but didn’t is that of Shoeless Joe Jackson. Now, I’m hardly a member of the Jackson-is-innocent club – I’m willing to admit his part in throwing the 1919 World Series is murky at both the best and worst scenarios, and that he may or may not have been innocent. His teammates in the fix have mostly testified to his innocence. His reputation as a sweet, naive country hick was largely bolstered by the movies Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams. Field of Dreams basically made an entire mythology out of the fact that he was illiterate, and turned him into a character who competed out of pure love for baseball and was far too dumb to really grasp what was going on. Eight Men Out was a bit more realistic, but it still portrayed Shoeless Joe as sympathetic solely on the fact that Jackson was illiterate. But Jackson was an indisputable part of White Sox lore and a great player. He still holds the third-highest career batting average ever with .356, behind only Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. Babe Ruth modeled his batting stance after Jackson’s. Jackson is, however, a member of the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals, an organization whose stated mission is to foster appreciation for American art and culture through the context of baseball history. Which you have to admit, Jackson certainly has. (And no, the Hall of Fame will never be a part of this blog. Since it’s voted on by groups of petulant sportswriters who worry about the legacies of their childhood heroes and sets of sports ideals which never existed, the Hall of Fame doesn’t fucking count for anything.)

For more knowledgeable people, the White Sox have an enduring legacy as the team which pulled some of baseball’s wildest stunts. You can credit – or blame if you’re a traditionalist screaming at the n00bs to get off your lawn – Bill Veeck for that. Veeck was a true showman who believed in baseball as a form of entertainment which should be fun, not as some joyless tribute to Americana or a substitute parent used to teach kids about sportsmanship. As mentioned, Veeck was the one who created the whole concept of players wearing their names on the backs of their uniforms. Veeck created the exploding scoreboard, a fun little device which shoots off fireworks whenever a player hits a home run. For a few games, Veeck had his team wear shorts. That idea was quickly regarded as a big joke and scrapped, but as with many things Veeck did, no one ever forgot it. (And hey, while the Sox were wearing those shorts, they had a stolen bases average of 1.000 – eight for eight!) Although most of Veeck’s stunts were all in good fun, but one promotion in 1979 stands out for all the wrong reasons. Disco Demolition Night was the brainchild of Veeck, his son Mike, and popular Chicago radio deejay Steve Dahl, who once lost his job when his radio station switched to a disco format. The ruse was for fans to buy tickets for under a dollar if they brought along a disco record to blow up between the two games of a doubleheader. Most of the sellout crowd went because they were fans of Dahl, and a lot of fans jumped turnstiles, climbed fences, and leapt through windows after the park was closed to newcomers for the night. That created the first big problem for the night: Not every record was collected, and fans soon began to notice how much of a resemblance a record had to a frisbee. The rain of records was accompanied by liquor bottles, lighters, and firecrackers tossed onto the field, and the first game between the Sox and Tigers was stopped at a few points to clean up the field. Then-Sox broadcaster Harry Caray reported seeing a lot of people wandering through the Comiskey Park mezzanine who didn’t know what to do with themselves. Mike Veeck said he smelled weed and later said Disco Demolition Night was the Woodstock they never had. After the Tigers won the first game, Dahl led the crowd in a “disco sucks” chant, and once the crate full of disco was lit up on the field, it became clear that no one had a plan for either cleanup or crowd control. The records blew up, the outfield grass also blew up, and nearly 7000 potheads lost their minds and took the diamond. The crowd climbed the foul poles, stole all four bases – in the literal sense, not the baseball sense – destroyed the batting cage, and ripped up the grass. The second game was cancelled as the Sox made a futile try at crowd control, first by flashing a “please return to your seats” message, then through Caray singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I can only imagine what a surreal sight it was. Police in riot gear had to restore order.

One of the more unique things about the White Sox is their lack of a truly distinctive uniform identity. Well, okay; they seem to have found one NOW, but it took them until the 90’s to get one that stuck. But that’s part of the reason the Sox are stuck for a brand – they’ve changed everything about their basic logo a LOT. In the 80’s, they famously went with a red and navy getup which said “Sox” in what would have looked like a futuristic type font back then. They had a classic logo with the “ox” inside a giant “s.” And god help their uniforms, which were changed more often than the average ballplayer’s underwear. That’s just one of the reasons why the White Sox have lost the branding war against the Cubs. The other is that, despite the White Sox finally finding a brand which they’ve been able to use for the last 25 years, that brand has taken on some nasty connections, and it’s hardly the team’s fault. The colors the White Sox currently wear are black, white, and grey. They have old English scripture heading down diagonally and minimalist aesthetics with an emphasis on the black. Looking around in a lot of different cities, you’ll see a lot of people wearing Sox gear, but you’ll be hard-pressed to believe the White Sox have such a strong brand. So who’s wearing the gear? People for whom looking tough has become a survival mechanism. I don’t believe everyone in White Sox gear is a gang member; I’m certain 95 percent of them aren’t. A book I once read about the NFL said that the league’s Oakland Raiders were a go-to brand for young folks in poor areas who didn’t want to join a street gang but needed to look tough. The White Sox have become the baseball equivalent to that. Incidents at their field where fans have punched umpires aren’t helping that image.

In an unusual way, the White Sox offer a fan a lot to be proud of. Three World Series titles doesn’t look like a whole lot, but there are several teams older than the White Sox that have fewer – one of which is the Cubs. But what the Sox have to offer is a legacy of weird and wild innovations and stunts which have all influenced baseball in ways which are obvious and not so much. Names on uniforms? That was the White Sox. The term “winning ugly?” Coined as a description of the White Sox. Even their darkest hour made one of the biggest and most important contributions to baseball history: The Black Sox scandal resulted in the creation of the office and role of the baseball commissioner. And the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was the man who created the rule that any ballplayer who bet on baseball would be banned for life. As far as we know of, he succeeded in cleaning up the sport and protecting it from seedy underworld types. In all the years since its inception, the only undiscouraged gambler was Pete Rose.

Yeah, it’s a weird and wild ride being a White Sox fan. But this image tells you one thing: The Sox embrace change and progress. They’ve done daring things in trying to improve the sport. Hell, even the Black Sox were only trying to get a fair deal.

Pros

Team has an interesting history; has committed the cardinal sin of trying to make baseball fun; have a sort of roguish, piratical charm

Cons

Having to explain that you’re not a fan of the Chicago Cubs; having to explain that you’re not a fan of the Boston Red Sox; knowledgeable fans don’t know anything about them except the Black Sox; casual fans don’t know anything about them

Should you be a fan?

That depends on how many other teams’ shadows you can take living in.

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