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Even This Team's Injuries Are Boring

The discussion focused on Pete Reiser and Tony Conigliaro, two talented ballplayers of bygone eras, whose careers were cut short by injury.

I was privy to this conversation last winter as an old Dodger fan talked about Reiser, who broke in with Brooklyn in 1941 as an outfielder at the age of 21. The next season he led the National League with a .343 batting average while legging out 17 triples, 39 doubles, and scoring 117 runs.

In 1942 he was sailing along at a .388 clip when he had his first encounter with an outfield wall. Reiser, you see, gave chase to deep flies the way Joakim Noah approaches loose balls. And in those days there was no padding on the bricks.

Reiser suffered untold concussions. His skull was fractured on one occasion. He holds the unofficial major league mark of being carried off on a stretcher 11 times. And according to his Wikipedia entry, he once had last rites said over his prone body while still at the ballpark. After age 28, he never played in more than 84 games in a season and was finished when he was 33.

Meanwhile, an erstwhile Red Sox fan described the injury that Conigliaro suffered in August of 1967. I remember this one. Tony took a pitch square in the face, suffering a broken cheekbone, dislocated jaw, and damage to his retina. Three years later Sports Illustrated featured Conigliaro's own telling of the story on its cover complete with a gruesome photo taken soon after the injury.

Before being hurt, Conigliaro began his career in the Red Sox outfield when he was just 19. By the time he was 22, he had hit 100 home runs, the second youngest player ever to reach that plateau. (Mel Ott was the youngest, 65 days younger than Conigliaro. A Hall-of-Famer, Ott went on to hit 511.) He was just 20 in 1965 when he led the American League with 32 homers.

Like Reiser, Conigliaro came back although he missed all of the 1968 season. He managed another 56 round-trippers in 1969-70 before double vision plagued him, and his career ended at the age of 30.

That both Reiser and Conigliaro would have had possible Hall-of-Fame careers was a distinct possibility had they remained healthy.

Staying healthy is just one of the problems of this year's White Sox. But bizarre and tragic events haven't figured in the least when it comes to the shelving of Gordon Beckham and Dayan Viciedo. Both were injured doing something they do a few thousand - counting batting practice - times each season: swinging the bat.

It's not news that Beckham broke his wrist and Viciedo strained a now-prominent oblique in the most basic of baseball's actions. No running into walls or being hit by a pitch. The Sox have severe problems with the basics: catching the ball, throwing strikes, making contact, and apparently swinging the bat without injury.

Players like Reiser and Conigliaro are remembered decades later not only for their talent but the manner in which their abilities were extinguished by injuries. Years from now, no one will say, "Gee, that sure was something when Beckham broke his wrist swinging and missing back in '13."

Beckham and Viciedo are not the only ones. Gavin Floyd marched off the mound 10 days ago without drama. We found out later that his elbow may be turning to mush. Who knows when and if he'll return?

And Jake Peavy, someone whom the team really will miss, went into back spasms last week simply by bending over.

When Minnie Minoso played for the Sox in the '50s, the first black player in franchise history, he frequently had to duck pitches thrown at his head. A few times he didn't move fast enough, and he got rocked. Those were injuries you remember, especially because it usually was only a matter of days before Minnie was back in left field.

Then there was Ferris Fain, a first baseman for the Sox in 1953-54. General manager Frank Lane should have known something was amiss when the Philadelphia A's were willing to part with Fain even though he led the American League in hitting in 1951 (.344) and 1952 (.327). Needless to mention, as soon as he donned a Sox uniform, his average plummeted to .256.

I seem to remember an instance when Fain grounded out and kicked first base in anger, breaking his foot. I have found no documentation of that self-effacement, but Fain did break a finger in a barroom fight outside of Washington in 1953 and missed a few weeks.
In addition, there was a locker room incident in 1953 when a row of lockers fell on diminutive second baseman Nellie Fox, resulting in Fox sitting out a couple of games. A few teammates indicated that Fain pushed over the lockers in a fit of temper because he - Fain, not Fox - wasn't hitting.

Talking about Nellie Fox, he played 14 seasons for the Sox and rarely missed a game, logging at least 150 games in 11 of those seasons. Then again, Nellie was strictly a contact hitter - he averaged just 15 strikeouts a season - so pulling an oblique or breaking a wrist while swinging was virtually impossible for the guy they called the Mighty Mite. I'm not even sure he had an oblique.

Another infamous Sox injury involved Carlos May, who blew off part of his right thumb swabbing out a mortar launcher while on reserve training with the Marines during his rookie season of 1969. (During the Vietnam War, many players were absent for a few weeks during the season to fulfill their duties in the reserves. That sure was better than going away for a couple of years.)

May healed and came back to play seven more seasons on the South Side. He even slammed 20 home runs and drove in 96 in 1973. Think of what he might have accomplished with two full-sized thumbs.

And arguably the most famous injury to a Sox player also came off the field. Right-hander Monty Stratton went 30-14 over two seasons in 1937-38 with a mediocre ballclub. However, the 26-year-old hurler suffered a hunting accident - he accidentally shot himself - after the '38 season and wound up losing the lower part of his right leg.

So ended a promising major league career for Stratton, but he soon made adjustments, and, after all, there was nothing wrong with his arm. Stratton pitched for a number of seasons in the minors, even going 18-8 in the East Texas League at the age of 34 in 1946. Hollywood got a hold of the story, and Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson starred in The Stratton Story. I've never seen it listed in a Top Ten of sports movies, but I recall enjoying it as a kid.

I'm confident that Beckham, Viciedo and Peavy will bounce back. In Saturday's 2-0 loss at Kansas City, the Sox started four guys hitting .192 or less. Catching and throwing the ball appear to be genuine problems, and those relief pitchers make more trouble for themselves by walking guys at the most inopportune times.

Heal quickly, fellows. The ship is taking on water.

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

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Posted on Jun 24, 2017

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