Rob Neyer is on vacation this week. Three guest columnists will fill in for him this week with columns on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
In his Big Book of Baseball Lineups, Rob Neyer observed that many White Sox fans remember 1977 as the most exciting summer of their lives. The Sox have won four division titles since then, but none of those clubs is as beloved as the 1977 team. And unless this year's model wins the AL Central and the World Series, those '77 Sox will remain the most beloved.
And you know, the Sox didn't even win their division in 1977. They finished third, 12 games behind the Royals. Chicago loves its also-rans, but there are sound anthropological reasons why Sox fans identify with the 1977 team. Back then the Sox were the Hitmen, not the Good Guys, and that went for the fans, too. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass put it this way:
In those days, Comiskey wasn't a family place. It was for guys after work. It was full of beer and smoke -- cigarette smoke in most places and funny smoke in the upper deck. It was a place of serious drinking and loud mouths and extreme hatred for Whitey Herzog and the Kansas City Royals in doubleheaders late in July.
The Royals and White Sox are fighting it out for the division again in 2003, and they conclude their seasons with a series against each other in Kansas City. So it's a good time to recall that the rivalry goes back a generation.
In 1976, Kansas City was on the field when Bill Veeck had his players wear shorts for the first game of a doubleheader. Afterward, John Mayberry called the Sox "sweet."
In 1977, the Royals visited Comiskey for a four-game set at the end of July. The White Sox took three out of four, all by comebacks. Throughout the series, when Herzog removed his pitchers Sox fans taunted them with choruses of "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)." That season, White Sox fans also demanded a curtain call after each home run at Comiskey Park. The Royals thought the Sox and their fans were bush league, and when the Sox came to Kansas City in August there was a brawl in the series opener.
That late-July series against the Royals was the high point for the White Sox. After the clubs split a doubleheader on July 31, the Sox owned a five-and-a-half game lead over the Royals.
And then they crashed. Between August 1 and October 2 (the last day of the season), the Sox gave up 17 games in the standings to the Royals. But the Sox didn't so much lose the AL West as Kansas City won it. On August 17, with the White Sox still in first place, the Royals began a 10-game winning streak. They caught the Sox on August 20, and from August 17 through the end of the season the Royals went 38-9. In the last 30 years, only three teams have finished stronger than the '77 Royals.
The White Sox helped the Royals by having a terrible August. They had gotten to first place on the strength of a July in which they went 22-6, but they lost six of their first seven games in August, swept a two-game series at Seattle, and then lost six of seven again.
They went 11-18 for the month, but over the two-month span they still came out ahead. In July and August their winning percentage was .579, compared to .543 in their other 105 games.
Before August 17, the Sox were on a pace to win 92 games. From that point, the Sox went 24-21 and finished with 90 wins. Even if they had stayed on course and won 92, it wouldn't have mattered. They still would have finished 10 games behind the Royals. Even if they had kept up their July-August pace, they would have finished eight games out, tied with Texas for second place.
But what went wrong in August?
The pitching. White Sox pitchers allowed 6.38 runs per game in August, nearly two full runs worse than what they gave up in their other games. In seven August games against the Rangers they gave up 63 runs. In 29 August games, they gave up at least 10 runs eight times. In the previous three months, that had happened only three times.
It was the fielding, too. Chicago's pitchers were backed up by the worst keystone combination in modern times. Alan Bannister's performance was one of the worst defensive seasons for any shortstop of the 1970s, and Jorge Orta is the only second baseman in history to get an F for his defense in Bill James' book, Win Shares. Clay Davenport figures that Bannister and Orta were 80 defensive runs below average -- for 1977 alone. As a team, the White Sox turned the fewest double plays in the American League that year.
The Sox gave up 30 unearned runs in August, twice as much as any other month. They also allowed 319 hits, far more than in any other month. Balls were slipping through and dropping in, double plays weren't being turned -- the pitchers were under constant pressure, and under duress they allowed 33 home runs, again the worst of any month.
The Royals were better a lot better, but the Sox were worth remembering, in spite of their August. The Southside Hitmen were the most explosive lineup Sox fans had seen in years, and it was a good lineup by sabermetrics standards as well, the kind of offense Earl Weaver could love. Noted for breaking the franchise home run record, it was a station-to-station club that stole by far the fewest bases in the majors and had by far the worst stolen base percentage (42 stolen, 43 caught stolen). They didn't run, nor did they bunt; their 33 sacrifice hits were the least in the majors.
Balanced between power and patience, the Sox were second in the league in slugging percentage and tied for third in on-base percentage. They had the league's best strikeout-walk ratio, finishing fourth in walks and first (best) in strikeouts. They were remarkably consistent, even in August:
Month Walks Strikeouts
April 79 77
May 92 106
June 99 139
July 98 117
August 91 111
Sept/Oct 100 116
Five regulars had more walks than strikeouts, and the other four all had a strikeout-walk ratio better than two-to-one.
It was a fun team suited to its time and place, and it was a team that's been underappreciated by analysts as much as it's been overappreciated by Sox fans. But it was not a team that could survive a historic performance by the Royals.
Special thanks to Keith Woolner for his study on Winning Percentages after August 15.
Keith Scherer lives in South Dakota, where he is an attorney with the Air Force JAG Corps. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.