Friday, June 25, 2004

1959 White Sox - The Last World Series Team

In the third installment of my 10-part occasional series on the most memorable White Sox teams of all time, I'll take a look at the 1959 White Sox, who made brought the Sox back to the World Series for the first time in 40 years, only to lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 6 games. These were the "Strength Down the Middle" White Sox of pitching and defense. In fact, there is a Strength Down the Middle Web site that has just about everything you would want to know about the 1959 White Sox. You'd be surprised at how this team had hidden strengths.

The Pitching (and Defense!)

I started the other installments by looking at the Sox's hitting, but it's the pitching of the 1959 White Sox that deserve all the (electronic) ink. They were first in the American League with a 3.29 ERA - about a quarter of a run better than the next closest team, Baltimore (3.56 ERA), and half a run better than the AL average (3.86). They were second in the league in hits allowed per 9 innings (8.3), but were only average in BB allowed (5th), strikeouts (4th), and homeruns allowed (4th).

Given these underwhelming statistics, why did they lead the league in ERA? Well, a little luck and a lot of defense. They turned batted balls into outs - at a pretty good rate. Three White Sox - Catcher Sherm Lollar, 2B Nellie Fox, and SS Luis Aparicio won Gold Gloves. In addition, Jim Landis patrolled centerfield for the White Sox, and would win Gold Gloves from 1960-64. Thus, the White Sox had gold glovers at each of the four most important defensive positions - C, SS, 2B & CF. Hence, the "Strength down the Middle." The defense could only be described as very strong.

The defense helped the pitching staff, which was good but not really great. The leader of the staff was Cy Young award winner Early Wynn, who was 22-10 with a 3.17 ERA and 179 strikeouts. He was the only 20 game winner in the AL, and was 9th in ERA and 3rd in strikeouts. The pitcher with the best year, however, was Bob Shaw, who finished 18-6 with a 2.69 ERA, which was good for 3rd in the league. But he did it by getting hitters to find the defense's gloves - he only struck out 89 hitters in 230 innings.

[Here's an aside. Bob Shaw was an interesting pitcher. Bob Shaw had an ERA of 4.76 in 1958, 2.69 in 1959, and 4.06 in 1960. It's hard to look at his career to that point and not say 1959 was a fluke. But he pulled it together again in 1962-65 with the Milwaukee Braves and San Francisco Giants, only to fall apart at the age of 32 with the Giants in 1966. Even more strange is that Shaw nearly doubled his strikeout rate later in his career - to 148 K's in 235 innings in 1965. Overall, he was an average pitcher - with about 5 very good years and 5 very bad years. There wasn't any in between with Bob Shaw.]

The rest of the rotation was solid but not spectacular. Billy Pierce and Dick Donovan both finished with under-.500 records (14-15 and 9-10, respectively) with league-average ERA's of 3.62 and 3.66. 23-year-old Barry Latman also chipped in with 21 starts, an 8-5 record, and a 3.75 ERA. He'd be shipped to the Indians for Herb Score before the 1960 season.

The bullpen made quite a contribution, with Turk Lown and sinkerballer Gerry Staley going 17-7 combined, both with ERA's in the 2's over about 210 innings of work. That's an enormous contribution from a bullpen - and especially from two guys the White Sox picked up off of waivers. They also "saved" 29 games as a unit. Ray Moore also pitched 89 innings (8 starts), but had a mediocre 4.12 ERA and a 3-6 record.

The Hitting

The 1959 White Sox were not the Hitless Wonders, but the offense was mediocre in comparison to the rest of the AL. The 669 runs they scored were only good for 6th-best in the 8-team AL. That's bit deceiving, though, because they finished with only 18 fewer runs than the Yankees, who were 4th in runs scored. They hit .250 as a team, just a shade below the .253 league average. They were 7th in the league with a pitiful .364 slugging percentage, and managed a league-worst 97 home runs.

One thing the 1959 Sox did do surprisingly well was draw the base on balls. Their 580 walks were good for a tie for second in the AL and, as a result, they were 3rd in OBP at .324.

Once the '59 Sox got on base, they knew what to do with it. They led the league in stolen bases by a country mile with 113 stolen bases - 66% more than the next highest total (Boston with 68). They were caught 53 times, meaning that the stolen bases maybe added a net total of 5-10 runs (and maybe one win) - not exactly a major contribution.

Several players led the charge on offense - Sherm Lollar led the team in homers and RBI with 22 and 84. He had a .265 batting average, but a .345 OBP (he drew 55 walks). Nellie Fox, the AL MVP, hit .306 with a .380 OBP, drawing 71 walks. He also clubbed 34 doubles. Jim Landis hit only .256, but drew a team-high 78 walks and hit 26 doubles and 7 triples, managing a .256/.370/.379 line. The rest of the line-up was below average, with the possible exception of Earl Torgeson, who managed a .359 OBP because of 62 walks. He hit only .220, though. Ted Kluszewski, who the Sox picked up late in the season, contributed with a .297/.351/.396 line in 31 games. A backup catcher named Johnny Romano (later traded with Norm Cash to the Indians for Minnie Minoso) was .294/.407/.468 in 126 at bats - arguably the best performance on the team.

[Johnny Romano was a pretty good hitter for a catcher in the 1960's, and I probably never heard of him until looking at the 1959 Sox. He had a career OPS+ of 122 - pretty astounding considering that he was a catcher. He performed poorly for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968 and was out of the league.]

The Season

The 1959 Sox jumped out to a solid 11-6 start before losing 5 in a row and sitting at 11-11 on May 8th, 4 1/2 games back of Cleveland and in 4th place. They then turned hot, winning 12 of their next 14 (mostly on the road), climbing to 23-13 and only 1/2 game back on May 22. They treaded water through the end of June, winding up with a 39-33 record on June 30th, although winning three of four from the Yankees in late June had to be a morale booster. That 39-33 record was still good enough for 2nd in the AL, 2 games behind the Indians, who had been playing mediocre ball themselves. The dreaded Yankees were uncharacteristically playing .500 ball at 37-35, but were well within striking range at 4 games off the pace.

Then the Sox went on a tear that would last two months. They were 20-6 in July, completing home sweeps of Boston (2 games), Kansas City and New York (2 games), and winning every July series. Of those 20 wins, 11 came by 1 run, again highlighting the contribution of the bullpen. By the end of July, the Sox were in 1st place by a game over the Indians at 59-40 (the Indians, too, had a good July, going 19-12). August was almost as hot, with the White Sox running a 21-9 record, which concluded with a four-game sweep of the Indians in Cleveland on August 28-30. The effect of that sweep was monumental in the playoff race - going into that series, the Sox had a 1 1/2 game lead over the Indians. They left Cleveland with a 5 1/2 game lead and command of the American League. A 14-11 September sealed the deal, and the White Sox wound up 94-60, 5 games ahead of Cleveland.

The World Series

Thanks largely to a 11-0 spanking in Game 1, the Sox outscored the Dodgers 23-21 in a pitching-dominated series. 3 games were decided by 1-run, including the Sox's only other victory, a 1-0 shutout win over Sandy Koufax in game 5 at the LA Coliseum.

The Sox "choked" in games 2 and three. In the 8th inning of game 2, the Sox down 4-2, Kluszewski singled to lead off the inning. Lollar followed with his own single, and Earl Torgeson ran for Klu. Al Smith then doubled to right, scoring Klu, but sloooooooow Sherm Lollar was thrown out at the plate with the tying run - making the first out of the inning at the plate. With tying run Al Smith on third (advancing on the throw) and one out, Billy Goodman struck out, and Jim Rivera popped to the catcher. In game 3, the Sox collected 12 hits, but could only convert those hits into a single run. (among other things, Sherm Lollar popped out in the first with the bases loaded an 1 out, Al Smith grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and no one out in the 8th)

Charlie Neal killed the Sox with 2 homers in game 2, and hit .370 for the series with a team-leading 6 RBI. Ted Kluszewski put up good numbers for the White Sox with 3 homers and 10 RBI, but he did most of his damage in the Game 1 rout. Nellie Fox played like an AL MVP, hitting .375 and getting on base at a .464 clip, and Luis Aparicio actually hit well himself, accumulating a .308 average with 2 walks. The normally larcenous Sox, however, stole only 2 bases the entire series, and were caught stealing 3 times in the fateful Game 3 alone. Had they stayed planted on first base, they would have won the game.


Kind of. This was a good Sox team - they finished 2nd for a number of years in the 50's and 60's behind the dynastic Yankees of Mantle, Maris, Berra, Ford and the rest of the Hall of Fame. It was a competitive Sox team that broke through only once - when the Yankees fell flat in 1959. Makeup wise, this team would rank in the middle of the great White Sox teams of all time. But they made it to the World Series, giving them a special place in the Pantheon of White Sox history.

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