This article was written by Bryan Soderholm-Difatte
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in Chicago (2015)
The 1967 American League race holds the distinction of being The Last Great Pennant Race in major league baseball’s 1901–1968 long-time structure of two leagues with just one pennant race each. During this crazy campaign, four junior circuit teams went into the final weekend of the season with a shot at going to the World Series.
Each team had a fascinating story line. The “Cinderella”/“Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox, who had finished ninth the year before, ended up winning, but perhaps the most interesting story was that of the Chicago White Sox, whose offensive deficiencies paralleled those of their “hitless wonders” namesake from some sixty years earlier.
If such a thing exists as certain teams having a unique Cosmic Destiny—the Yankees as the Bronx Bombers, the Red Sox under the long-time “Curse of the Bambino,” or the Chicago Cubs as lovable, Billy-goat cursed losers ever since World War II—then perhaps that of those White Sox teams was that of Hitless in Chicago.
The Original Hitless Wonders
Although they won only a single pennant—in 1906—the Chicago White Sox between 1904 and 1908 had the best five-year record in the American League. Their .591 winning average, equal to a 91–63 record over a single 154-game season, would have put them five games ahead of the Cleveland Indians (then known as the Naps, after their star second baseman, Napoleon Lajoie) and six ahead of the Philadelphia Athletics, whose winning percentages were the second and third highest during that time. Moreover, Chicago’s overall record from 1904 to 1908 was the best of any American League team in the first decade of the twentieth century, one game better than the 1901–1905 Boston Red Sox (two pennants), two better than the 1906–1910 Detroit Tigers (three pennants) and three up on the 1901–1905 Athletics (two pennants).
Unlike each of those teams, the White Sox were competitive every year, never finishing worse than third. But their offense was an enduring weakness, and indeed their teams of the era would be lost to history were it not for their stunning triumph over the heavily- favored Chicago Cubs in the 1906 World Series.
The 1906 team is remembered in history as the “Hitless Wonders” for becoming World Series champions despite hitting only seven home runs all year and compiling the worst batting average in the American League and the second-worst of all sixteen major league teams.1 Pitching was the foundation to their success. With a staff anchored by Ed Walsh and including Doc White, Frank Smith, Frank Owen, and Nick Altrock, the White Sox were the American League’s stingiest team in giving up runs three years straight from 1905 to 1907, and were second in fewest runs allowed in 1904 and 1908. The White Sox had not only the highest fielding percentage in the league, but by far the best defensive efficiency ratio of making outs on balls hit into play, which was particularly important when strikeouts accounted for only 14 percent of their outs. But it wasn’t all about the excellent pitching and fielding.
If one takes account only of hits and batting average, then indeed “hitless wonders” is an appropriate appellation for Chicago’s White Sox of those years. But it was also misleading, because this was a team—low batting average aside—that could score runs. In 1904, the White Sox were third in scoring despite the fourth-worst batting average in the league, and the next year they had the fourth-lowest average again at .237, but were the league’s second-most prolific team in runs, enabling them to finish second, two games behind the Athletics. The Hitless Wonders of 1906 ranked third in runs despite a .230 average, 19 points below the league average. Their home field at South Side Park had less impact in depressing their offensive output at home, compared to games on the road, than on their pitching staff, which was not nearly as effective in other teams’ ballparks.2
It is worth noting that in their championship season of 1906, the White Sox—”Hitless Wonders” though they may have been—still managed to win 21 games by five runs or more. Only three other American League teams had more “blowouts” victories that year. The White Sox were fifth in the league in being shut out, 16 times, meaning they were not quite helpless. While their reputation for being lightweights at the plate might have been deserved, it cannot be said that the 1906 Chicago White Sox couldn’t score runs.
Explaining The Wonders’ Scoring Proficiency
The secret to Chicago’s success was a very efficient offense. The White Sox averaged fewer than 7.5 hits per game from 1905 through 1908. Yet Chicago’s ratio of one run scored for every two hits over that period is far better than the 2.2 hits for each run scored by AL teams as a whole. More significantly, however, it was also better than the 2.13 hits per run compiled, collectively, by the seven other pennant contenders during those years (the 1905 pennant-winning Athletics; second-place New York and third-place Cleveland in 1906; the 1907 and 1908 pennant-winning Tigers; and 1907 second-place Philadelphia and 1908 second-place Cleveland). For a team that averaged 1.2 fewer hits than the 8.7 hits-per-game average of their seven pennant-race rivals, the White Sox scored 90 percent as many runs on 86 percent as many hits. Or to put it another way (only to emphasize the point), they needed four percent fewer hits per run than their top rivals.
Even for the Dead Ball Era, the White Sox’ “attack” was much more anemic than that of their primary competitors. They were not so much “hitless wonders” as “punchless wonders.” In 1906, only the St. Louis Browns, who finished fifth in the standings, had a smaller percentage of their hits go for extra bases than the Hitless Wonders, and the White Sox were last in extra-base percentage each of the next two years.
Extra-base hits have a huge impact because they both set up and score more runs. Consequently, even for the era, the White Sox needed to be extraordinarily proficient both in creating scoring opportunities and getting the timely hit. They were helped by being disciplined at the plate; Chicago was the only American League team to draw more than 400 walks in 1906, 1907, and again in 1908. And they excelled in advancing the relatively fewer runners they put on base. Chicago led the league in sacrifice bunts every year from 1904 to 1907. (Although officially second in sacrifice hits in 1908, the White Sox probably led the league in sacrifice bunts that year too; that year, sacrifice flies were added to the total for sacrifice hits, and Cleveland—overall league leader—had a much better offense and probably had far more sacrifice flies.) The White Sox never led the league in stolen bases during 1905–1908, but their average of 198.5 steals in those four years trailed only New York and Washington and was 13 percent better than the league average. The statistical data available for these years do not allow for an assessment of “productive outs” that advance base runners, but it seems quite likely this too was a strength of the White Sox’ otherwise famously “hitless” offense. The White Sox’ strikeout ratio, while better than the league average, was not as good as that of either Cleveland or Detroit during these years.
Before long, however, the White Sox had a far more formidable offense. Two of baseball’s elite hitters, Eddie Collins and Shoeless Joe Jackson, helped the White Sox to be consistently at or near the top of the league in runs, batting average, and slugging percentage between 1916 and 1920—the tarnished golden era in Chicago White Sox history—during which they finished second, two games shy in 1916; won the 1917 World Series; tanked the following year on account of key players serving in defense industries during World War I; won the 1919 American League pennant, only to have eight of their players conspire to lose the World Series; and might have won the 1920 pennant as well had not the Black Sox scandal broken with just days left in the season. They also played Dead Ball Era baseball as well as any team, usually being among the league-leading teams in stolen bases and sacrifices. And Chicago had exceptional pitching too.
From The Black Sox To The Go-Go Sox
The “hitless wonders” theme could also be applied to the 1959 White Sox, whose pennant ended 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, perhaps an allegorical penance for the Black Sox scandal. After three decades in the doldrums, the Sox under General Manager Frank Lane and manager Paul Richards in the early 1950s began to build a team around the core principles of pitching, fielding, and speed. Taking advantage of the all-around talent and hustle of Cuban import Minnie Minoso, who arrived via trade in 1951, the White Sox became the most aggressive team in baseball, so much so that the fans at Comiskey Park urged, “Go! Go!” whenever one of their faster players reached base. While Minoso was traded away by 1959, Chicago now had Luis Aparicio, a superb defensive shortstop and speedster on the bases, to carry on the “Go-Go” tradition. Having already led the league in steals since breaking in as Rookie of the Year in 1956, Aparicio broke out with 56 stolen bases in 1959—the most in the majors since George Case had swiped 61 in 1943. 3
Notwithstanding their speed and aggressiveness, the 1959 White Sox were offensively challenged. Their .250 team batting average was only sixth in the eight-team AL and only two teams in the league scored fewer runs. With only a quarter of Chicago’s 669 runs scoring on the strength of a home run—far below the American League average of 32 percent—the Sox relied on small ball strategies. They were by far the most proficient team in the major leagues in advancing base runners on outs,4 and for the ninth straight year the White Sox led the league in steals. Unlike the 1906 Hitless Wonders, the disparity in their offensive statistics between home—Comiskey Park favored pitching—and away was not as great.5
The White Sox, however, were not as efficient in scoring runs in “dead ball” fashion as their “Go-Go” legend might suggest. Unable to rely on power, they needed more than three base runners (including hits, walks, hit batters, and reached on error) for every run scored, whereas the league average was just under three. And while Aparicio’s 81 percent stolen base success rate was impressive, his Chicago teammates—who combined for 57 steals, one more than Aparicio alone—failed 41 percent of the time, costing the White Sox 40 base runners. Moreover, the theoretically ideal scenario of the speedy Aparicio leading off and Nellie Fox, a master at putting the ball in play, batting behind him did not yield the scoring dividends that might be expected, because Aparicio was not proficient at getting on base. His .316 OBA in 1959, for example, rated below the league average on-base average of .340 for leadoff batters.6
Prelude To 1967
The White Sox sagged a bit after their 1959 pennant before re-emerging as a contender, pulling up second in 1963, 1964, and 1965. This run came during a pitchers’ era that would rival that of dead ball times. The 3.57 earned run average of American League pitchers between 1963 and 1965 was appreciably lower than the 3.96 ERA from 1960 to 1962. With southpaws Gary Peters and Juan Pizarro, right-hander Joe Horlen, and virtually unhittable knuckleball relief ace Hoyt Wilhelm, Chicago had the best pitching staff in the league, giving up the fewest runs every year from 1963 to 1967.
Offense continued to be a problem on the south side, this time because the White Sox were inefficient in scoring runs rather than just being a poor-hitting team, at least as far as batting average.
In contrast to the Hitless Wonder years of 1904–08 and the Go-Go year of 1959, Chicago’s team batting averages were fifth, sixth, and fourth in the now-ten-team league from 1963 to 1965, and their .248 average for the three years combined outranked the league average of .245. Consistent with their team batting averages, the Sox were fourth, seventh, and fifth in runs. But they had difficulty taking advantage of potential scoring opportunities; they not only required eight percent more hits per run than their principal rivals for the pennant (New York and Minnesota in 1963, New York and Baltimore in 1964, and Minnesota and Baltimore in 1965), they were worse than the league average in both 1964 and 1965. And the White Sox did worse than the league average each year in scoring total base runners (reaching on hits, walks, and hit by pitch), including by five percent in 1964 when they lost the pennant by one game. The 1964 American League champion Yankees had a base runners-per-run ratio 12 percent better than Chicago’s.
That the White Sox were not more productive in scoring runs is mostly attributable to their relative lack of power and timely hitting. Chicago’s extra base hits as a percentage of total hits—26 percent in 1963, 24 percent in 1964, and 27 percent in 1965—was below the league norm of 29 percent each year. Ranking last in the AL in doubles and next-to-last in homers in 1964 likely cost the Sox the pennant. White Sox power was limited to Pete Ward and Ron Hansen, who hit 23 and 20 home runs, while nobody else had more than 13. The Yankees were also below the league average in extra base hits, but were better than Chicago in extra-base hits with runners on base and hitting with runners in scoring position.7
Chicago’s inability to hit for power meant that both more hits and more runners were required to produce a run. Leading the league with the most walks and the fewest strikeouts, the 1964 White Sox were proficient in advancing base runners. They led the league in sacrifices, hit into the fewest double plays, and had the league’s highest percentage of productive outs to advance any runner with no outs, score a base runner with the second out of the inning, or have a pitcher successfully sacrifice bunt with one out.
The 1964 White Sox were also the most aggressive in advancing base runners on fly ball outs, passed balls, wild pitches, and balks, doing so 191 times compared to the league average of 139.8 These building blocks to scoring runs, however, are not as efficient as having the capability to clear the bases with extra-base hits.
The “hitless wonders” parallel for Chicago White Sox baseball applies best to the 1967 team. Their .225 batting average was the second-worst in major league baseball, eleven percentage points below the league average. They had the fewest hits of all teams in the majors and scored the second-fewest runs in the American League. Yet, in one of baseball’s best pennant races, the 1967 White Sox held first place without interruption for more than two months from June 11 to August 12—leading by 5½ games at one point—before finding themselves in a fierce four-team race with Boston, Minnesota, and Detroit down the stretch. On September 6, the four teams were, for all intents and purposes, tied for first. 9
The White Sox’ prospects seemed excellent at the start of play on Wednesday, September 27. They were in second, only a game behind the Twins, .001 ahead of the Red Sox, and the Tigers 1½ out in fourth. Best of all, Chicago’s five remaining games were against last-place Kansas City and eighth-place Washington, while their top competitors were all playing tougher teams; Boston and Minnesota had two games against each other on the final weekend.
Two days later, t he four teams were still separated by only a game-and-a-half going into the final weekend—beginning Friday, September 29—each with a chance to go to the World Series:
Minnesota (91-69) was in the best position, one game up on both Boston and Detroit with two to play at Fenway Park on Saturday and Sunday. If they won both games, the only team that could possibly tie them would be Detroit, and the Tigers would have to win all four of their remaining games against the California Angels, which ended up as back-to-back doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday because of a Friday rainout.
In an ironic counterpoint to 1949—when the Yankees had to win both weekend games in their home stadium to beat out the Red Sox for the pennant—Boston (90-70) was in the same position—having to win both games at Fenway to finish ahead of the Twins. To avoid a playoff, they had to count on the Tigers doing no better than splitting their final four games and for the White Sox to lose at least one of their last three games.
Detroit (89-69) could win the pennant outright only by taking all four of their remaining games and Minnesota splitting its weekend series in Boston. A Twins sweep at Fenway, on the other hand, would require the Tigers to win all four of games just to tie for first and force a playoff. If the Twins won one or the Red Sox won both games, the Tigers would need at least three wins to force a playoff.
Having been stunned by last-place Kansas City sweeping them in a September 27 doubleheader, 5-2 and 4-0, beating Chicago’s two best pitchers, Peters and Horlen, the White Sox (89-70) faced the biggest challenge going into the final weekend. With Minnesota and Boston also both losing that day, it would have been the White Sox in first place by half a game had they swept the doubleheader. Now, however, they needed to win all three of their remaining games, and for the Red Sox to sweep the Twins, and for the Tigers to win no more than three of four—and that would only give them a tie for first with Boston and maybe also Detroit, if the Tigers did indeed win three of four.
As it happened, no playoff was needed. The demoralized White Sox were shut out 1-0 by the Senators on Friday, eliminating them from contention. The Tigers split both doubleheaders while the Red Sox swept the Twins to end a 20-year pennant drought.
Chicago’s difficulty in scoring runs caught up with them at the worst possible time. They scored only five runs in their final five and were shut out three consecutive games—in the second of their losses to the Athletics and their first two games against the Senators. Chicago ended up three games behind Boston.
It was predictable, however, that with by far the weakest lineup of the contenders, the White Sox would not be able to pull out the pennant, even with the league’s best pitching and fielding. It says something about their resilience that they remained in the race until the final weekend.10 Only ninth-place New York scored fewer runs—just nine fewer—than Chicago’s 531 in 1967, and only Washington had a lower team batting average than Chicago’s .225 in a league that hit .236.
While Chicago’s 1906 Hitless Wonders were better than league average in runs-to-hits ratio, the 1967 White Sox were seven percent worse than the league average in that important indicator of offensive efficiency. Posting a 16–14 record in the season’s final month, the Sox had just a .214 batting average, had an awful on-base average of .276, and had just 47 of their 218 total hits go for extra bases…that doesn’t even average two extra-base hits per game.
While the White Sox hit eight percent below the league-wide batting average for September, their pennant-race rivals all hit much better than the league average for the month—the Twins by seven percent, the Tigers by nine, and the Red Sox by 10. Only two teams had a worse batting average and on-base average in the final month than the White Sox, neither of them in the pennant race, and no AL team had a lower percentage of extra-base hits.
While Chicago’s pitchers had a superb 2.17 ERA—by far the best in the league—in September, and allowed fewer than one base runner per inning after September 1, a team still needs to score runs. Chicago scored two or fewer runs in 12 of their final 30 games, during which they averaged 7.3 hits per game compared to 8.5 per game by their three pennant rivals.
Hitless Wonders Times Two?
Just as the 1904–08 White Sox had the best record in the American League over that five-year span, but with only a single pennant (and a shocking World Series championship) to show for it, so too did the franchise have the AL’s best record from 1963 to 1967—except without a single pennant. Applying their five-year winning percentages from 1963 to 1967 to a single 162-game season, the White Sox would have finished one game ahead of the Twins and two ahead of the Baltimore Orioles, both of whom won only a single pennant and had a losing season in the mix.11 And just like the 1904–08 White Sox, Chicago’s 1963–67 teams had a historically weak offense for a contender.
The White Sox, however, played in Comiskey Park, the AL’s most difficult park for hitters during the 1960s. They had a more potent offense on the road in 1967, scoring 288 runs away compared to 243 at home. They had a.241 batting average on the road and an amazing .208 at Comiskey and had 25 percent more total bases, 960, on the road compared to only 765—the fewest of any American League team playing at home—in Chicago.
Despite their better statistical numbers, however, the weakness of the White Sox’ offense was still apparent on the road. They were only a .500 club away from Chicago at 40–40 (compared to 49–33 in Comiskey Park), and were far less efficient in their ratio of hits to runs, needing 2.3 hits for each run scored in other teams’ parks compared to 2.25 at home. (Both figures were substantially worse than the average for all ten American League teams. Big park or not, this offense was just not good.)12
Just as the White Sox hit better on the road, the Red Sox and Twins, both teams whose lineups were suited to their hitter-friendly home stadia of Fenway Park and Metropolitan Stadium, did not hit nearly as well and scored many fewer runs away from Boston and Minnesota. In fact, the White Sox’ 1967 OPS (.650) on the road was better than that of the Twins (.641), taking into account that the Twins’ total includes some games at Comiskey. Both Minnesota and Boston, because of their more potent line-ups, were more efficient in hits-to-runs ratio than the league average.
Unlike their “hitless wonder” Chicago ancestors from half-a-century before, the 1963–67 White Sox did not have an efficient offense. In contrast to the 1904–08 White Sox, whose ratio of runs-to-hits was substantially better than the league average, from 1964 to 1967 the White Sox required significantly more hits per run than the league average even though their team batting average was above the league average in the first two of those seasons.13 And unlike half-a-century before, when the White Sox had a better runs-to-hits ratio than most of their pennant-race contenders, all the other teams competing for the American League pennant between 1963 and 1967 had a much better such ratio than did the White Sox.
As were their early predecessors in Chicago, the mid-60s White Sox were hobbled by their lack of extra-base clout. Extra-base hits accounted for 26 percent of Chicago’s total hits between 1963 and 1967, far below the league average of 29 percent, and all the other contending teams except the 1964 Yankees had at least 30 percent of their hits go for more than one base. Lacking a potent offense, the mid-1960s White Sox gave relatively greater emphasis than other teams to small-ball. They led the league in sacrifices twice those five years, and they were among the top three teams in steals three times, leading the league once.
Perhaps, however, because even mediocre teams had 30-homer sluggers in the 1960s, reliance on such strategies could not compensate for a lack of big hits. A more damaging lineup probably would not have been sufficient for the White Sox to overtake the Yankees in 1963 or the Twins in 1965 because those teams dominated the league, and in 1966 they finished fourth and were never in the race, but almost certainly would have given Chicago pennants in 1964 and 1967.
BRYAN SODERHOLM-DIFATTE is a frequent contributor to the “Baseball Research Journal” and presenter at SABR conferences. He also writes the blog Baseball Historical Insight. The 1967 American League pennant race was the first he followed closely through day-to-day perusal of the box scores and standings. He rooted for the ’67 White Sox because he liked the excitement of close, low-scoring games.
A different Sox coda to 1967 pennant race
As Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Gene Mauch had done with Jim Bunning and Chris Short during his team’s epic collapse in the last 12 games in the 1964 National League pennant race, Boston manager Dick Williams relied primarily on Jim Lonborg and Gary Bell as his principal starters down the stretch in 1967.
Lonborg and Bell started half of Boston’s final 28 games. Lonborg, his best pitcher, was pitching consistently every fourth day, but with three games left on Boston’s schedule on September 27, Williams worked him on two days of rest, at home, against eighth-place Cleveland. The Red Sox trailed the Twins by one game but with two off-days before the final series with Minnesota, Williams probably felt it was a necessary gamble to ensure his ace pitched twice in the last five days of the season.
Had Lonborg not started against the Indians, he would have pitched on Saturday game against the Twins, six days removed from his previous start because of the two days off. Pitching against Cleveland on two days of rest left Lonborg available to start against Minnesota on Sunday—the season finale— with his typical three days of rest. And Williams helped set up Lonborg’s start on short rest by removing him in the seventh inning of his previous start, September 24, when Boston held a 7–0 lead.
As it turned out, Lonborg lost on short rest to the Indians, lasting only three innings, but pitched a complete game 5–3 victory over the Twins on the final day of the season to send Boston to the World Series—where they (and he, in Game 7) ran into Bob Gibson.
— Bryan Soderholm-Difatte