Friday, July 31, 2015

Billy Pierce, 1927-2015


Because Chicago hasn't seen too many Pennants -- the Cubs haven't won one since 1945, and the White Sox only 2 since 1919 -- great Chicago players tend to get short shrift. It's a wonder that Ernie Banks became so beloved, especially since he played for the Cubs before WGN became nationally-broadcast cable "superstation."

But this has been a bad year for Chicago baseball, and we're not even out of July yet. Not because of how the teams are doing -- the Cubs are doing decently, 7 games over .500, and just 2 games out of the 2nd National League wild card; while the White Sox are 2 games under .500, and 3 1/2 games out of the 2nd American League wild card -- but because 3 of their legends have died in this calendar year. First Banks of the Cubs, then Minnie Minoso of the White Sox, and now another White Sox great, Billy Pierce.

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Walter William Pierce was born on April 2, 1927 in Detroit, and grew up in neighboring Highland Park. (New York -- in New Jersey -- Chicago and Dallas also have suburbs named Highland Park.) Upon graduating from high school, the Tigers signed him, and, with big league rosters still depleted due to World War II, he made 5 appearances for the Tigers in 1945.

He made his debut on June 1, 1945, at Fenway Park, wearing Number 12, pitching 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief, in a 6-4 win by the Boston Red Sox. The Tigers were merely slowed down by this loss, and won the World Series, but Billy was not included on the Series roster.

With the veterans of both baseball and war coming back, Pierce spent the 1946 and '47 seasons in the minor leagues. He was brought back up to the Tigers in 1948, but they made a big mistake, trading him, and including $100,000, to the White Sox for catcher Aaron Robinson. From this trade onward, Pierce wore Number 19. The Tigers could surely have used a good lefthanded starter during the next few years, particularly in 1950, when they finished only 2 games behind the Yankees, and in 1961, when they finished 8 games behind the Yankees.

Pierce's 1st 2 seasons on the South Side were a bit rough, not helped by the team's overall weakness. But he found his rhythm in 1951, at age 24: Over the next 3 seasons, he won 15, 15 and 18 games for a team that was nowhere near contention. Typically, to save money, the perennially penny-pinching Pale Hose would have sold a player this good to a contender and gotten cheap prospects in return. But they hung onto Pierce, and got 20-win seasons from him in 1956 and '57, as they built a contender.

Like Ron Guidry, Pierce was a lefthanded pitcher listed as 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, but won anyway. Unlike Guidry, he did not rely on speed or a nasty slider, instead possessing the best curveball of any lefty of the 1950s and the early 1960s. He was similar in style to the best righthanded curve specialists of the time, Carl Erskine of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Camilo Pascual of the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins franchise.

In 1959, Bill Veeck, having previously built winners with the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers and the Cleveland Indians, and nearly having driven the Cardinals out of St. Louis with the Browns, bought the White Sox from the Comiskey family (who still, to this day, retain a small percentage of the club), installed the legendary Hank Greenberg as general manager, and made the last few tweaks necessary to become a champion.

It helped that the Yankees were in a bit of a transition, and finished 3rd. It was the Indians who battled the Sox for the Pennant, and with a pitching rotatoin of Pierce, 39-year-old Cy Young Award winner Early Wynn, Bob Shaw and Dick Donovan, the Sox had just enough pitching to give their offense a chance to win.

That offense wasn't a powerhouse; instead, they relied on contact hitting and speed, becoming known as "the Go-Go White Sox," after hearing fans shout, "Go, go, go!" when the players ran the bases, even basing their theme song on the nickname. It was made up of scrappy players like the double-play combination of Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox, and swift outfielders Al Smith, Jim Landis and Jim Rivera, with the occasional pop provided by former Cincinnati Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski. the White Sox beat the Indians out by 5 games, and it was in Cleveland on September 22 that they won the Pennant, their 1st in 40 years, since the team was broken up after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919-21.

Oddly, 1959 was not one of Pierce's better seasons, going 14-15. He did not start in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching 3 innings of relief in Game 4, being brought in by manager Al Lopez solely to intentionally walk a batter in the 8th inning of Game 5, and pitching the 8th inning of Game 6, when the Dodgers clinched.

He bounced back with good seasons in 1960 and '61, but Veeck sold the team in '61, and the new owners, the Allyn brothers, never should have bought the team, as they never had enough cash. After the '61 season, they traded Pierce and Don Larsen -- yes, Yankee Fans, that Don Larsen -- to the San Francisco Giants for 4 players who never amounted to much.

At 35, Pierce seemed reborn with the Giants in 1962, going 16-6 and helping them win their 1st Pennant on the West Coast. He started and lost Game 3 of the World Series against the Yankees, but also started and won Game 6, forcing a Game 7, which the Yankees won. It was the closest he came to winning a title.

In his last season, 1964, he was 37, and made 34 appearances for the Giants, all but 1 in relief. He was 3-0 with a 2.20 ERA. It didn't help the Giants win another Pennant, but the White Sox finished just 1 game behind the Yankees, so not having Pierce may well have cost them the Pennant. And, having won just 5 Pennants in 64 seasons, they couldn't afford to lose that one. They came close again in 1967, at which point Pierce was 40 and could still have been pitching. But he was tired of pitching in Candlestick Park, and retired after the 1964 season.

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From the '59 Go-Go Sox, Aparicio, Fox and Wynn are in the Hall of Fame. From the '62 Giants, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry are.

Does Billy Pierce deserve enshrinement in Cooperstown? His career record was 211-169, a winning percentage of .555 -- his wins and percentage higher than some pitchers in the Hall, but not most. His career ERA was 3.27, and his ERA+ 119 -- good, but not great. He had 1,999 strikeouts, good enough for 5th all-time among lefthanders when he retired (trailing Warren Spahn, Rube Waddell, Lefty Grove and Eddie Plank), but the only thing eye-catching about the total now is that he just missed 2,000. He had 2 20-win seasons, led the AL in ERA in 1955, in wins in 1957, and in complete games 3 times. He made 7 All-Star teams.

Using the results of Most Valuable Player voting, historical surveys and sabermetric analysis, baseball historian Bill Deane projected in 1989 that Pierce would have won the AL Cy Young Award in 1953 and 1956 if it had been given at the time. He finished 5th in AL MVP voting in 1956, and 3rd in the overall (not yet for each League) voting for the Cy Young in 1962. That was as close as he ever got to a major award.

Baseball-Reference.com has a Hall of Fame Monitor, on which 100 equals a "Likely Hall-of-Famer"; they have Pierce at 82. They have a HOF Standards, on which 50 equals the "Average HOFer"; they have him at 35. Each means he falls a bit short.

They also have Similarity Scores, showing which 10 players are the most statistically similar. Pierce's 10 are, in order: Vida Blue, Luis Tiant, Hal Newhouser, Jim Perry (Gaylord's brother), Catfish Hunter, Milt Pappas, Bob Welch, Hooks Dauss, Orel Hershiser and Mickey Lolich. Newhouser and Hunter are in; Dauss missed by 1 vote in the Veterans' Committee once; Tiant, Hershiser and Lolich have their advocates; Blue might have made it if he hadn't decided that cocaine was more important than baseball; and Perry, Pappas and Welch don't have much of a chance. Based on these comparisons, it's hard to say Pierce belongs.

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Billy married high school sweetheart Gloria McCreadie in 1949, and they stayed married for the rest of his life. They had sons William and Robert and daughter Patti.

His father ran a pharmacy in Detroit, and he helped run it in the off-season. But he moved to Chicago, and stayed there permanently, even after being traded to San Francisco. He spent most of his post-baseball working life with the Continental Envelope Company.

He returned to the White Sox as a broadcaster, a scout (he discovered Ron Kittle), and a public-relations official. The team retired his Number 19, and dedicated a statue to him, placing it on the center field concourse of U.S. Cellular Field. He was named to the White Sox' Team of the Century, and to the Michigan Sports and Chicagoland Sports Halls of Fame.


In 1999, National Public Radio host Scott Simon wrote Home and Away, a memoir of his sports experiences, in which he calls sports "a romance language." He mentioned that, as a boy growing up in Chicago, he wanted to be Billy Pierce. When he finally got to meet Pierce and tell him this, Pierce offered to spend the next few years wanting to be him. That was nice.

Billy Pierce died this morning, from gall bladder cancer. He was 88 years old.

With Pierce's death, there are 7 members of the 1959 Chicago White Sox World Series roster still alive: Starting shortstop Luis Aparicio, starting center fielder Jim Landis, starting right fielder Jim Rivera, backup 3rd baseman Sammy Esposito, backup right fielder Jim McAnany, backup catcher John Romano, and pitcher Omar "Turk" Lown.

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