The Most Disappointing Season For…The Chicago White Sox

The 1974 Chicago White Sox

Record: 80-80 (4th in the AL West, 7th out of 12 in AL)

Pythagorean Record: 76-84

Runs Scored: 684 (4th in the AL)

Runs Allowed: 721 (11th in the AL)

Prior Season Record: 77-85

Manager: Chuck Tanner

Hype: Dick Allen is healthy. We’ve now got Ron Santo, too. We’ve got Wood, Bahnsen and Kaat. Chuck Tanner seems to know how to get the most out of fringe players. What’s not to love?

The Gory Details: When Dick Allen played in 1972, the White Sox were 83-65. When he broke his leg in 1973, the White Sox were 37-32 and just one game behind Oakland. Here’s 1974, and Allen is healthy, and the South Siders made a big move.

Ron Santo switched sides of the city in 1974, and was ready to contribute to what could be a pennant winning team. Santo was turning 34, and had a reasonable season for the Cubs, with 20 home runs and a .348 OBP.

He was slowing down a bit defensively, but still was an asset on the field. Santo cost the White Sox three young players, two pitchers (Steve Stone and Ken Frailing) and catcher Steve Swisher. Still, the Sox felt that was a price to pay for a team leader and a solid player that could only help their offense.

Dick Allen was indeed back and healthy for 1974, and though he was still a lightning rod for controversy, he was productive on the field when he was healthy. Allen, Santo and holdovers Bill Melton, Carlos May and Ken Henderson would make a powerful lineup on the South Side.

All in all, the presence of those veterans gave the White Sox the highest payroll in the majors, with Allen’s $200,000 being the alleged highest salary in baseball. But Allen also put fannies in the seats. In 1970, the White Sox didn’t draw 500,000 total to their park. That more than doubled in 1972 and in 1973 they got 1.3 million to show up.

There were plenty of youngsters around for Chicago as well. Jorge Orta debuted full-time at second in 1973, and while he was defensively challenged, offensively he had potential. Bucky Dent solidified shortstop the year before when he was called up in late season.

Youngsters Brian Downing and Jerry Hariston were players who could float among several positions – Downing was especially valuable as he could catch as well as play the outfield which made him a good platoon partner for Ed Herrmann behind the plate.

But where would Santo play? Third base was the purview of Melton, who was fairly adequate there but not spectacular.  Orta struggled at second at times, but had looked better with Dent as his partner. Allen was a liability at first, but they had Tony Muser as his caddy there. Santo could also start at DH as well.

The White Sox had no issues with their starting staff. Wilbur Wood, Jim Kaat and Stan Bahnsen were iron men. Wood started 48 games in 1973 thanks to his knuckleball. Bahnsen started 42 and Kaat was a vet who could handle a workload.

The plan was that those three would start in a rotation and the others on the staff could fill in as the fourth starter when warranted. Early in the season, with several off days and potential rain delays, the Sox could maximize the starts of those three.

That left kids Terry Forster, Rich Gossage, Rule 5 pickup Bugs Moran and Skip Pitlock in the bullpen, along with relief ace Cy Acosta and vet Wayne Granger, who was a late spring pickup from the Yankees.

The Sox were geared up and ready to go with great optimism, but early April was a mess. They lost their first two games of the season to the Angels when Forster, in relief of Wood, lost all semblance of control after two infield hits. They then lost two at Minnesota, and also had games declared as ties in the first six games of the season.

Traveling to Anaheim, the White Sox were skulled by California 15-1 as Forster and Granger were victims of a rare offensive explosion by the Angels. They finally won a game on their eighth attempt, but still struggled after that and limped home after the road trip with a 2-8 record.

Something started to click, as the White Sox put together four and five game winning streaks over the next couple of weeks. After Forster’s debacle in California, the iron trio of Wood, Kaat and Bahnsen started the next 18 games until Stan Perzanowski was called up to pitch against Detroit.

Tanner seemed content to just let one of the relievers start if needed, and not use a set fourth starter. He also moved Forster into the fireman role as Acosta struggled early in the year.

Tanner also settled in a lineup where Santo played second more often than not, with Orta being the DH and Pat Kelly alternating with Buddy Bradford in right field. That ended on May 17th when Bradford ran into a wall chasing a fly ball and was knocked out for two months. He was hitting slashing .308/.395/.523 and playing a decent right field at the time. That put a little bit of a damper on the Sox’ first two months.

Chicago could never get more than three games over .500, but even that kept them right in contention. Oakland didn’t look as formidable as they had been, and Texas and Kansas City were right there with them.

In fact, on May 31st the entire AL West was separated by just 4 ½ games, while the AL East were all within four games of each other. The Yankees 23-27 was the worst record in the league!

Santo, though, was struggling mightily. He was slugging just .289 and looked uncomfortable at second, and said he didn’t really like to DH. He was benched for a few games while Orta got more time at second, and Kelly moved DH as his right field defense was getting untenable. Bill Sharp, squeezed out of the outfield and demoted to Iowa to begin the year, came up to become the regular RF for the rest of the year.

There were also rumblings that Santo and Allen didn’t get along.

May turned to June. Sox pitchers greeted the month by giving up 68 runs in the first 10 games. Everyone struggled at times, especially Bahnsen, and the bullpen guys like Gossage and Pitlock. But no Sox pitcher was immune. That led to a 5-9 start in June and a drop to fourth place, though they were still hanging close.

Chicago righted itself a bit, and finished June at 36-36, still only three behind Oakland. It was now a four team race with the upstart Rangers and the Royals also battling the A’s.

Allen was almost single-handedly keeping the Sox viable. His OPS was .951 at the end of June and already slugged 18 home runs. Henderson was also having a fine year in center field, and Orta was hitting .332 despite playing off and on earlier in the year thanks to Santo’s presence.

There were some issues on offense. Melton’s average dipped under .200, while Santo was still struggling. Yet the offensive issues hoped to be temporary. The pitching problems needed a solution.

Since his full-time debut at age 23 for the Yankees, Bahnsen had never pitched less than 220 innings in a season. He had made 83 starts total in 1972 and 1973 and by June 30 had already racked up 20 in the first 72 games. There were signs he was tiring thanks to the workload. Kaat also had struggled and was put in the bullpen for a few games to get himself right.

During the Spring the White Sox sent down Bart Johnson. Johnson dazzled as a 21-year old in 1971, but ran into knee problems in 1972 and 1973. Now healthy, he was not happy about being sent to Iowa and almost quit the team. The Sox needed him now, as their idea of relievers starting when they needed a fourth starter was not working.

Through July 9th, those relievers (Moran, Pitlock, and Gossage being the ones called on the most) started 17 games, threw just 64 2/3 innings, gave up 101 hits, 57 runs, 54 earned runs, and 30 walks for a tidy 7.52 ERA.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s first start was July 7th, a two hitter against Detroit where he stymied the Tigers after a Norm Cash home run in the second.

With the pitching right, the White Sox started to roll a bit, though Oakland also heated up. A seven game winning streak in mid-July put them at 49-44, firmly in second place. As soon as they were up, they went down, though, and lost seven of nine to fall back to .500 to end July, and they were back to fourth place and nine games behind Oakland.

August was a critical month. The White Sox didn’t pay Allen, Santo and the rest not to win. They needed to get out of the .500 rut and start to win games. The way the team was constructed, though, was problematic.

Bahnsen still suffered the effects of his previous workload and struggled. Kaat was alternating good games and bad games. Wood was steady, but the knuckleball is cruel and every once in a while he was whacked all over the yard.

Tanner seemed to only trust Forster in key games, and it showed. He averaged over two innings an appearance and was used in all crucial moments.

Melton was getting back on track, thankfully. Santo was still hopeless, and they needed one more bat to click besides Allen, Henderson and Orta.

Allen’s home run rate slowed a bit in August. On the 15th, he went 0-4 with three strike outs against Mike Cuellar. The next night the Sox traveled to New York for a double-dip against the Yankees. Allen didn’t start game one, but came in late and hit a go-ahead home run off of Sparky Lyle, his 32nd of the season.

The Sox lost the game though when Forster, in his SIXTH inning of relief, gave up a two-run home run to Thurman Munson.

Allen didn’t start the nightcap or Saturday. He did start Sunday, the 18th and went 2-5 with a double. The first baseman had been fighting a back problem and was being spelled by Tanner. Without Allen at full capacity, though, it was a struggle to stay over .500.

The last day of August, Kaat, Bahnsen and the bullpen were humiliated by the Yankees at home 18-6.  The White Sox were 65-68, 11 games behind and in fourth place. They were done.

Santo and Allen were feuding. Santo came in thinking he was going to be the team leader. Allen was torqued that Santo wasn’t trying to help the team, especially the young players, and selfishly grousing about playing second or DH.

Allen, though, never started at DH in 1974 even though his defensive skills were sub-par. Tanner had to call a meeting and tell them both that HE was in charge. Allen also had been playing through pain and was missing more games as the season went on.

On September 8th, 1974, Allen went 0-3 against Andy Hassler and the Angels in a 1-0 Sox win. That was the last game he played that season. His back and shoulder were sore, and Tanner held him out. But he still dressed and took some batting practice. In fact, that’s what he did six days later, on the 14th as the Sox were prepping to face Frank Tanana and the Angels.

He took BP, went to the clubhouse, called the team together, and retired, on the spot, during the season, while dressed for the game.

The shit, it hit the fan. Now, things were out in the open. Allen was leading the league with 32 home runs and slugging .563. He was in pain, and couldn’t handle ‘not playing the right way’ anymore, a barb directed at Santo more than anything. The clubhouse rifts were exposed wide open, providing columnists with material for the rest of the year.

Chicago played out the string, finishing at 80-80, mostly thanks to an incredible September by Kaat. He threw 60 2/3 innings, went 7-0 and had a 0.30 ERA. This coming off of an August where he was 2-6 with a 4.47 ERA. Baseball.

Allen, even though he hadn’t hit a home run since mid-August, led the AL in home runs, slugging and OPS and was seventh in RBI. Henderson had a fine year as well, as did Orta. Melton did get on track, but the Sox missed Bradford, who never really did recover from slamming into the wall, and Santo was just a mess, slugging under .300 and hitting only .221.

The real culprit, though, was the pitching staff, or the handling of it. Bahnsen threw 216 1/3 innings but was just messed up all year due to overuse. Forster threw 134 1/3 innings in making just that one start, saved 24 games, but was 7-8 with 10 blown saves as well. Overall, White Sox relief pitchers blew 16 saves and had just seven holds (with Forster netting three of those!)

The White Sox were in such need for pitching help they promoted their second round draft pick in 1974, Jack Kucek, to the bigs even though he had just pitched nine games in Appleton after being signed. Kucek never really panned out, and was out of baseball by 1982.

Tanner kept his job. Santo retired. Allen, after resting his back and shoulder, thought about returning, but was placed on the disqualified list and shipped to Atlanta, where he firmly said he’d stay retired if he had to play for them.

In 1975, the White Sox management washed their hands of everything. Attendance plummeted to just 750,000 fans. Tanner moved on to Oakland. The team was sold to Bill Veeck. This incarnation of the White Sox were done.

It was a frustrating year for all involved. A year that started out, on paper, with promise ended in turmoil with clubhouse feuds, retirements and poor management of talent. Baseball fans in Chicago, who had turned to the White Sox thanks to Dick Allen, were left adrift again with two mediocre franchises and no one that grabbed attention.

Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Jim Kaat’s tremendous September pulled him up to a 7.1 WAR. Yes, Kaat had a September for the ages, but the rest of the year he was just average at best. Allen, because he missed time and was an atrocious defender using advanced metrics, finished fifth in WAR behind Kaat, Wood, Henderson and Orta.

Honorable Mention Team: When the strike was called in 1994, the White Sox were in first place in the AL Central.  Jack McDowell, though, was always at odds with management and was traded to the Yankees before baseball resumed play in 1995.

No matter, since there were plenty of young pitchers ready to supplement him. Hah. Chicago used 12 different starters, and let Jason Bere start 27 times even though his ERA was 7.19. Gene Lamont was fired and over-his-head Terry Bevington replaced him, leaving the White Sox at 68-76.

Bad Blast from the Past: You know about the 1919 Sox. The 1917 Sox were probably a better team, as they went 100-54 and won the World Series. The Great War shortened the 1918 season, and the Sox were thankful as it ended their misery. They lost several key players to the military (more so than other teams – as they lost Shoeless Joe, Hap Felsch and Red Faber, among others) and finished 57-67.

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