Intent on revenge, confident of success, the Chicago White Sox swept into New York last week to challenge the Yankees for the American League lead. For three days they poked singles over and through the Yankee infield. When throws came in high, they took an extra base. They bunted. They played hit-and-run. They forced the Yankees into errors. They won three of four games, and when they left New York they were in first place.
One month earlier the White Sox were barely breathing. They had just lost four games to the Yankees—making 19 losses in 31 games—and they had fallen into the second division.
Such sudden reversals of form are not rare in baseball, but they frequently are hard to explain. Not so in the case of Chicago. At the bottom of their dreary plunge, the White Sox suddenly lost their confidence. Then they began to win.
There is nothing mysterious about this seeming paradox. During the off season Owner Bill Veeck, seeking to strengthen the Chicago attack, had bought Washington's home run hero, Roy Sievers, and had traded for Minnie Minoso and Gene Freese, both power hitters. For the first two months of the season the Sox suffered the delusion that they could win on this purchased muscle. The corollary conviction, of course, was that they no longer needed to play the smart, savvy, something-out-of-nothing baseball that brought them the 1959 pennant.
Thus it is fair to say that Chicago's recovery began when its players finally lost confidence in the long ball as the sure route to victory. One reason for the loss was the shocking realization that Messrs. Sievers, Minoso and Freese had produced no more home runs than last year's hitless champions. Confronted with the necessity to play ball, the players made a surprising discovery—they could still do it. The team had not really sacrificed defense to get the sluggers, as everyone believed. The statistics say the White Sox are fielding better than last year, and they are stealing more bases than any other club in the league.
The illusion of power had made the White Sox a careless team. "We were playing sloppy baseball," said Earl Torgeson last week. "We relaxed too much, waiting for someone to win the game for us with a home run. Last year we were always tight, that is, alert, careful. Runs were scarce, so we made certain we didn't give any away. We're playing that way again now."
The problem was not, of course, entirely mental. Chicago pitching was not up to expectations, and still isn't. Both Early Wynn and Bob Shaw, who between them won 40 games last year, started poorly.
"Wynn has had control trouble," said Manager Al Lopez in New York. "I don't mean he has walked a lot of batters. He's been missing with the important pitch, the 2-2 pitch for instance, and that has forced him to make the 3-2 pitch too good. He's been hit hard. Shaw has been getting the ball too high. He's a low-ball pitcher. Last year he'd go out there and simply fire the ball. This year he's thinking too much."
During the Sox' descent, Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox were not hitting and therefore were not getting on base as often as they did last year. It was said that Fox was making bad plays at second base.
"That's not quite true," said a teammate. "Nellie's never been a top fielder, but because he's always hit .350 in the spring no one mentioned his bad plays. This year he's hitting .260. That makes his fielding look worse."
Sherman Lollar, the catcher, who hit 22 home runs last year, high on the team, has hit only two this year. "That's because Sherm has been trying to hit to right," said Lopez. "He hit into a lot of double plays last year, so he's been trying to drive the ball through the right side where they give him more room."
Gene Freese was fielding poorly at third base. "It's a funny thing," said Lopez. "When he makes one error, he gets to brooding about it. The next thing you know, he's made another." Against Baltimore one day Freese brooded hard and made three errors to cost the Sox the game.
Not all the Sox have been affected by the long-ball psychosis. Billy Pierce, who had an off season in 1959, has been winning and his fast ball is as good as ever. Gerry Staley and Turk Lown have saved many games in relief, especially Staley, whose earned run average is the lowest in the league. Two new men, Frank Baumann of Boston and Russ Kemmerer of Washington, have pitched effectively and both are pleased to be with the White Sox.
"I learned more with Chicago in four days than I did during my five years with Boston," said Baumann. Kemmerer was surprised the White Sox wanted him. "I wasn't sure Lopez would even use me," he said. "I got off the plane in Chicago at 7:30 and an hour later I was pitching. Lopez has given me a lot of confidence."
Two good hitters
In the bad early days Minnie Minoso and Al Smith carried the team at the plate, each of them hitting well over .300. Minoso, who played for Chicago for seven years before being traded to Cleveland, won the opening game of the season for the White Sox with two home runs, one of them a grand slam. Smith was less spectacular but effective. Despite the efforts of these two, however, the White Sox were still a fifth-place club until they faced the fact that their best defense was not necessarily a good offense.
As so often happens, the sharpening up afield also produced a sudden surge at the plate. It—or something—triggered Roy Sievers into a remarkable burst of base hits.
Sievers started his binge shortly after the White Sox lost the four games to the Yankees. He hit safely in 21 straight games—over .400 during that stretch—and he drove in important runs. The White Sox beat the Orioles twice to climb out of the second division, then won four straight from Boston. When they won five out of six from Cleveland they moved up to third, then up to second with three more wins over the Red Sox. Things were going well again. Aparicio, Fox and Jim Landis were getting on base. Lollar and Gene Freese were hitting better. Wynn pitched three complete games. Shaw pitched two. As the White Sox began the big series with the Yankees, they were playing their best baseball of the season.
The Sox won the first three games of this critical series in 1959 style, scoring 22 runs on 40 hits—only one of them a home run and 32 of them singles. Roy Sievers hit the home run, Gene Freese a triple. Nellie Fox got five singles, one of them the 2,000th hit of his career. Minnie Minoso drove in six runs. Luis Aparicio stole two bases. Sherm Lollar avoided hitting into double plays and had a double to right.
If the White Sox hitting was a little more consistent than it was in 1959, the pitching was a little less effective. None of the starters in the first three games could finish: Early Wynn went out in the fourth inning, Bob Shaw went out in the ninth, Billy Pierce went out in the eighth. But in all three games the relief pitching was good. Frank Baumann got credit for the first game and relieved again in the third. Gerry Staley saved the second game for Shaw.
When the Sox left town they looked like the pennant-winning team of 1959. And maybe—if they don't regain their confidence—they will win the pennant again.
WITH GRACEFUL SLIDE, CHICAGO'S LUIS APARICIO, SHOWING HIS 1959 FORM, STEALS SECOND AS CLETIS BOYER TAKES LATE THROW
...BUT WHEN THE YANKS' HARD-SLIDING MICKEY MANTLE ATTEMPTS APARICIO'S ART HE IS TAGGED OUT BY LITTLE LUIS HIMSELF
ROY SIEVERS TRIGGERED THE SOX RISE