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If Only We Had Billy Pierce

In the week that former Sox pitching legend Billy Pierce died at age 88, it was fitting that the Yankees were in town.

When "Little" Billy Pierce, the 5-foot-10, 160-pound lefty, led the White Sox staff throughout the 1950s, it was a big deal when the New Yorkers invaded. Between 1949 and 1964, the distasteful, despised, agitating Yanks were American League champions all but two seasons. Cleveland interrupted the streak in 1954 but had to win 111 games to do it. And, of course, in 1959 the White Sox went to the World Series while the Yankees finished third.

But throughout the decade the White Sox fought to remain in contention, which created high expectations and anticipation and huge crowds almost every time Casey Stengel led his crew to the South Side.

Sox broadcaster Bob Elson would preview a Sox-Yankee series at Comiskey Park by saying, "That whole gang will be here. Mantle, Berra, Skowron, Ford, Bauer, Howard. They'll all be here. Get your tickets now."

He knew about which he was talking, but the outcome - with a few notable exceptions - was pretty much predictable. In the days of an eight-team American League, each team played the other seven 22 times. So the Yankees paid three visits to Chicago every year. They most often left town a bit healthier than when they entered, while the Sox licked their wounds and regrouped.

In the entire decade, the Sox enjoyed a season's edge over the Yankees just once, in the pennant-winning season of 1959 when they beat the Bronx Bombers 13 times. That was an anomaly. For the 10 years (1950-59), the ledger favored the New Yorkers by an astounding 132-88. Stated simply, the Sox got their ass whipped soundly over a long period of time.

Nevertheless, Billy Pierce won more games (186) in the American League between 1949 and 1961 than any pitcher except Early Wynn, who pitched nine seasons for Cleveland and four more for the White Sox with 220.

However, beating New York was another matter for Pierce, who had a losing career mark of 25-37 with an ERA of 3.94 against the Yanks. This from a lefthander who made seven All-Star teams - starting in three of those games. However, the numbers say more about the unparalleled talent and power of the Yankees rather than the ineptitude of the White Sox star.

Despite losing to New York more often than not, some of the greatest match-ups during the 1950s were between Pierce and the Yankees' Whitey Ford, a Hall-of-Famer who won 236 games with an astounding winning percentage of .690.

Pierce and Ford opposed one another 15 times as starting pitchers between 1953 and 1960. The Sox actually won eight of those contests while Pierce posted a 7-7 record with an ERA of 2.49. Ford went 5-7 with a 3.42 ERA.

Don't be misled. Whitey Ford mastered the White Sox over a 16-year career, beating our fellows 39 times while losing just 21. But when he went head-to-head with Billy Pierce, the White Sox more than held their own.

Pierce - who experienced success although he was reluctant to pitch inside; he almost never brushed back a hitter - competed furiously when facing Ford, pitching eight complete games, while Ford completed five. On September 18, 1956, Pierce pitched all 11 innings in a 3-2 Yankee win when Mickey Mantle homered in the top of the 11th. Another classic was played on June 5, 1955, when the Yankees' Billy Hunter circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run in the top of the 10th for a 3-2 Yankee win. Again, Pierce pitched a complete game.

Pierce never received more than 2 percent of the votes for Hall of Fame election in the years when he was first eligible. I certainly can understand a lack of a plurality for the Sox lefthander - a standout to be sure, but arguably not in the league of Wynn, Ford, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller or National Leaguers Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts. But 2 percent? What a travesty!

The Sox surely could have used a pitcher of Billy Pierce's stature over the weekend in losing two of three games to the hated Yankees. All three were blowouts, the New Yorkers winning Friday 13-6 and Sunday 12-3 while our athletes played splendidly Saturday evening in an 8-2 victory behind John Danks and three relievers.

While the Yankees may not have the likes of Mantle, Roger Maris or Berra, they rank second in the majors both in runs scored and home runs. Rookie Carlos Rodon found himself in a 6-0 hole Friday after yielding a grand slam to Mark Teixeira in the second inning, while Jeff Samardzija was solved for nine runs in less than five innings on Sunday.
Of course, Samardzija was spared the chore of packing his bags due to a trade deadline deal since the White Sox completed a 7-1 road trip in Boston by winning three of four to creep within striking distance of the second American League wild-card berth.

Is it Bud Selig we have to thank for giving us hope that our below-.500 ballclub has a chance to advance to the postseason? In Billy Pierce's day, games in August and September would be meaningless as the team would be playing out the string.

Not so today. The Yankee series drew some of the largest crowds of the season - a total of 103,578 - including Yankee fans Spike Lee and Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy. And despite the two lopsided losses to the Yankees, the White Sox are just 3 1/2 games out of the wild card even though they are 50-53.

Another seven-game winning streak like the one completed last week would put our favorite team right in the hunt. That means sweeping Tampa Bay in the three-game series beginning Monday evening at The Cell before traveling to Kansas City for the weekend.

One positive note is that the team, led by Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton, is scoring runs while the defense continues to showcase some spectacular plays while making the routine ones look easy. The recent steak featured stingy starting pitching, but Chris Sale got slammed around last Thursday in the 8-2 loss at Boston followed by Rodon and Samardzija's maltreatment by the Yankees.

Those three are going to have to rebound to match what Danks and Jose Quintana - a 9-2 winner in Boston last Wednesday - accomplished in their last starts. If only we had someone like Billy Pierce.

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

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