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Billy Pierce vs. Chris Sale

He pitched 18 seasons in the big leagues, winning 211 games of which 189 came in a White Sox uniform. A 20-game winner both in 1956 and 1957, much of the time Billy Pierce finished what he started.

"When they gave us the ball, they expected us to pitch nine innings," Pierce said last week when I called him. "[If] we had a bad day, then somebody would come in in relief. Very rarely did they have someone [come in] for the eighth or ninth inning. Usually you finished."

He did just that to the tune of 193 complete games in his career, including three straight years (1956-58) when he led the American League.

Tonight the Sox are simply encouraged that Chris Sale will start - let alone finish - against the Kansas City Royals. The kid is being treated with kid gloves, having last pitched 10 days ago. On that occasion he wasn't as sharp as usual, yielding five runs to the Texas Rangers. However, Sale did get into the seventh inning to earn his 12th win.

I'm no anthropologist, but I do know that 55 years ago when Billy Pierce was pitching, the human anatomy wasn't much different than today. Homo sapiens sure weren't ambulating on all fours. Yet the approach to pitching has radically changed.

"We never heard of such a thing as a six-inning quality start," said Pierce, who, like Sale, was a lefthander. "There was no such thing as that. A quality start was nine innings or extra innings if it had to be. Nobody ever heard the word '100 pitches' back in those days. I mean sometimes you could pitch 140, 150 pitches. Nobody ever counted pitches.

"There would be a sore arm now and then, but there was no such thing as Tommy John surgery. Very rarely did you have somebody who would have to be out for a couple of weeks or rested for a period of time. It's just the way it was."

At age 22 last season, Sale pitched 71 innings. He's up to 124 so far this year, which is the focus of concern. He's never pitched this much. Yet this guy is a gamer. Back in May he balked at being sent to the bullpen to limit his innings. He is an aggressive competitor who challenges the hitters every time he stands on the mound.

However, consider this: As a 21-year-old in 1948 Pierce pitched 55 innings for the Tigers. Traded during the offseason to the Sox - an exchange that helped solidify the South Siders for the next decade - he started 26 games the following season and hurled 171 innings. Over the next four seasons, the fewest number of innings he pitched was 219.

Pierce wasn't alone. Most teams had pitchers like Whitey Ford, Early Wynn, Warren Spahn, Bob Lemon, Don Newcombe and many more who logged big innings year after year and never visited the disabled list. "I don't think there was such a thing as a disabled list," said Pierce.

Sale and the rest of the Sox staff have the guidance not only of pitching coach Don Cooper and trainer Herm Schneider but six team physicians, an ophthalmologist, optometrist, podiatrist, assistant trainer and director of conditioning.

The White Sox of the 1950s depended on trainer Eddie (Doc) Froelich, who consulted with medical doctors when Froelich felt he needed help. Writing from spring training in 1950, the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune reported, "[Froelich] comes to town with truckloads of liniments, salves, ointments, tablets, oils, and whatnot that keep the clubhouse training quarters smelling like an army field hospital."

But don't be mistaken to think that physical conditioning was akin to lifting a beer mug back in the day.

"We had a different theory back in those days," said Pierce. "The key thing was running and throwing, running and throwing. No exercise or anything like that. Just a lot of running to keep your endurance up. We would run fairly hard from center field to the right field corner. Sometimes the coach would be throwing a baseball to you, and you had to reach out and get it."

Pierce said that he would throw one bullpen session between starts, but added, " I remember [manager] Paul Richards [saying], 'Bill, get your throwing in down in the bullpen the last inning or two because I may use you for an inning.' I pitched quite a bit in relief in the middle 50s."

What about weightlifting? "Never even thought of such a thing," said Pierce. "We were told not to lift weights. In baseball you have long thin muscles. You lift weights you get short, stocky muscles. [If] you expand them, you're going to tear one of them. That was our theory in those days anyway. There are so many more injuries now than we ever had in the 50s and 60s."

Unlike many kids today, Billy Pierce never was a pitcher until he was 15 years old, growing up in suburban Detroit.

"We played in a league in Michigan, and we always played nine innings," he said. "One pitcher would go out and pitch nine innings. Nowadays the little leagues, the pony leagues, the colt leagues play seven innings. Little League is six. So it's a different situation. We started out pitching nine innings. We were used to that. We also played other sports like football and basketball where these fellas now specialize in one sport and one sport alone. So I think there's a little difference in body coordination than what we had back in them days. There's no question it's not the same."

My impression is that Pierce, now 85 and living in a Chicago suburb, is not the kind of guy who thinks everything was better in the old days. He talked about his friendship and respect for Mark Buehrle. Of Chris Sale, he said, "He hasn't pitched as much as he's pitching now, and he's quite a thin fella. He throws a little bit of three-quarters, and you strain your arm a little more at three-quarters than you do overhand.

"I think he's going to be alright. They're just playing it smart. He had a couple of ballgames where he wasn't quite as effective as he was before so they figure maybe a little bit of rest will do him a lot of good. Let's just hope he can come back strong again because they're going to need him."

At the same time, he remembers his childhood when spontaneous play was the norm rather than the exception.

"What gets me sometimes is that I go past all these parks, and there isn't one kid out playing in the park until 5 o'clock when the coach comes out with the balls and the bats," he said. "Everything is organized. We used to make our own games. You go out at 10 o'clock in the morning and maybe go home for a quick lunch then come back and play 'til 5 or 6 o'clock at night."

You think maybe all that unsupervised, creative youthful play years ago might have conditioned kids for the long haul? Obviously it's strictly theoretical. Nevertheless, professional ballplayers today seem more injury-prone than ever while we can all gaze upon the likeness of number 19, Billy Pierce, which adorns the left centerfield wall at the Cell.

Wouldn't it be lovely if Chris Sale joins him out there someday.



Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021