Looking Back: The 1977 White Sox
'South Side Hit Men' gave Chicago quite a ride
By Brett Ballantini / Special to MLB.com
The 1977 Chicago White Sox broke the mold. And for those used to the team's 90-win seasons and winning ways of late, it's not in the way you think.
After 17 consecutive winning seasons (still the second-best stretch in Major League history) and 12 finishes of third place or higher from 1951-67, the White Sox snapped their streak in spectacular fashion with 95 and 94 losses in 1968 and '69. Then came 1970, when the White Sox began the decade by recording the most losses (106) in team history.
The White Sox would manage one winning record in the first nine seasons after their stellar 1950s-60s run. In team history, only eight times have the White Sox finished with a winning percentage worse than .400, and twice it happened in this stretch: .346 in 1970 (third-worst) and .398 in 1976 (eighth-worst). In fact, the 1960s-70s run of futility was surpassed only by a stretch of nine straight losing seasons from 1927-35.
The 1976 season marked the return of owner Bill Veeck to the Sox. But fielding a team that would be shut out an astounding 21 times, wheezing to the finish line with losses in 16 of their last 17 games and ending up in last place in definitive fashion -- 11 games short of fifth place -- must have made some White Sox fans wonder if the team had any hope at all. Some sportswriters were so unimpressed by the White Sox prospects that they tabbed Chicago for seventh place in 1977, behind even the expansion Seattle Mariners.
Enter the team that would come to be known as the South Side Hit Men.
Veeck was nothing if not innovative, and as 1977 dawned, he and general manager Roland Hemond hatched a plan that they thought could keep an underfinanced team viable in the free agency era. Unable to afford to pay the best players, Veeck instead would field a team made up of hungry youngsters still some seasons away from a big payday, as well as veterans playing for a lucrative future contract. Perhaps their hunger would drive the White Sox to a winning season, and that success might be enough to keep breakout players in Chicago.
The concept was dubbed "Rent-a-Player," and while the constant state of flux it thrust the White Sox into ultimately spelled failure, the first astounding club it produced was enough to convert even the skeptics in 1977.
Veeck debuted the strategy with two free agent signings in November 1976, both of the bargain-basement, damaged-goods variety. Former White Sox hurler Steve Stone returned to the South Side from the Chicago Cubs after missing most of 1976 with shoulder injuries. Third baseman Eric Soderholm missed the entire previous season with the Minnesota Twins after two major knee surgeries. At the time, Veeck famously noted, "Sooner or later, the lame, the halt, and the blind all seek refuge with us."
But he wouldn't stop there. In December 1976, Barnum Bill dealt the quality arms of Rich Gossage and Terry Forster to the Pittsburgh Pirates for veteran right fielder Richie Zisk, figuring that one free agent would be easier than two to hold on to in 1978. And on April 5, two days before the start of the season, squeaky-wheel shortstop Bucky Dent was sent to the New York Yankees for designated hitter Oscar Gamble.
Capping off the major additions was a new manager, former Major League hurler Bob Lemon. As a disciple of Al Lopez --the manager who last brought a pennant to the White Sox --the straight-shooting rookie manager looked to be a perfect fit for the ragtag bunch sporting softball-style uniforms.
The season began April 7, when the White Sox braved 32-degree temperatures and a snowstorm to play the first game ever in Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. They lost to the expansion Blue Jays, 9-5, but Zisk had a home run in his first White Sox at-bat and four hits total in a glorious debut.
Bolstered by a five-game sweep in their first homestand, the White Sox finished April with a 10-8 record, tying them for fourth place in the AL West, one game out.
The team won seven of eight games in early May, including an 18-2 win over the Cleveland Indians on May 14 in which first baseman Jim Spencer tied a team record with eight RBIs in one game. Chicago continued to hang around in a wide-open division race and ended the first third of the season 25-19 and in second place, 2 1/2 games in back of the Twins. And by June 19, when hurlers Wilbur Wood and Francisco Barrios paced a doubleheader sweep of the Oakland A's, the White Sox were atop the AL West at 35-27.
July was a month to remember. Hot hitting by left fielder Ralph Garr, (who would go on to lead the team with a .300 average) combined with a continued power surge and timely pitching, sent the team on a blistering hot streak. When the smoke cleared, the White Sox ended the month 22-6, tied for third-best month in team history. July started with the White Sox in second place at 40-32, one game behind Minnesota, and ended 62-38, 5 1/2 games in front.
The blistering pace had been set right away, when an early-July homestand resulted in a four-game sweep of the Twins, with the White Sox outslugging Minnesota, 34-18. (In the second game of the series, Spencer again drove home eight runs, accomplishing in the span of less than two months something that has only been done three other times in team history.) The division lead was extended at the very end of the month, when the Kansas City Royals came to town and dropped three of four games.
By that time, the 1977 White Sox were dubbed the "South Side Hit Men" for their prodigious offensive attack, led by Zisk, Gamble and Soderholm. The three would combine for 86 of a team-record 192 home runs, which crushed the old mark of 138 (their total stood until 1996). The team's .444 slugging percentage also crushed the previous White Sox mark by 44 points.
A late July series vs. Kansas City was witnessed by 131,276 fans, pushing the season attendance past one million. It also marked the debut of Nancy Faust's chiding organ version of Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)." That song, along with a constant parade of home run curtain calls, made the defending AL West champion Royals livid.
"The crowd pumped us up," Gamble said. "It was a loud crowd, too. Every time you'd come to bat or took the field, you'd get a standing ovation."
Unfortunately, as fast and decisively as the White Sox ascended to a first-place lead, they lost it. The team traveled to Texas and lost three of four, in one game losing a 7-0 seventh-inning lead. Then the White Sox dropped three straight in Kansas City, reliever Bart Johnson lost a fight with Royals catcher Darrell Porter, and the team lost its grip on the AL West.
In a week, the White Sox's cushy division lead was trimmed to a half-game. Aggravated by ill-timed slumps from Zisk and shortstop Alan Bannister, by the third week of August the Hit Men would see their 66th and last day of first place.
"We started doing some things differently than we did earlier in the season," Orta said. "I don't know why, but we seemed to lose confidence in August."
The White Sox managed to avoid a complete free-fall, finishing at 90-72 (although 90 wins was good enough to win the West in 1976, a year later it meant third place, 12 games back), their best season since 1965. The team set an all-time attendance record of 1,657,135, nearly doubling the total of the previous year.
Spencer won a Gold Glove, while Soderholm was the Comeback Player of the Year and led AL third sackers in fielding percentage (.978). Gamble led the team with 31 homers and his .588 slugging percentage was the third-best in team history and remains 10th-best today. Lerrin LaGrow, a surprise closer who had registered only five saves in 124 career games before 1977, finished third in the AL with 25 saves. His 89.3 save percentage is still the second-best in White Sox history. Off the field, United Press International named Lemon its Manager of the Year, while Veeck was Executive of the Year.
By 1978, Zisk, Gamble, and team wins leader Stone had left for free agent riches, the magic had burned away, and the strain of extending the Rent-a-Player concept to a logical limit saw the White Sox fall to 72-90.
The memories of 1977 still burn bright -- seeing a South Side Hit Men T-shirt these days is no mere nostalgia. If not the last White Sox team before 2005 to capture fans' imagination, it was the most improbable run for the franchise in decades, perhaps in all of White Sox history.
Veeck recalled that the 1977 team was even more satisfying to him than the pennant-winning 1959 White Sox "because of the fans. I have never seen anywhere the kind of enthusiasm that was engendered in [Comiskey Park] in '77."
"What happened to the club is pretty much what happened to me," Soderholm said. "We both went from the depths of despair and came out smelling like a rose. And we did it for the best fans in the world, by far."