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Bonus Baby Bingo

He was two months short of his 17th birthday when he left his California home and headed to Chicago for what Jim Derrington says was a "dream come true."

Thanks to the Bonus Rule and his electric left arm, Derrington spent the final two weeks of the 1956 season - and the entire 1957 season - as a member of the White Sox. On the final day of the '56 campaign, a year when the Sox went 85-69 and finished third in the American League, manager Marty Marion named Derrington to start against the Kansas City A's. "I was the youngest pitcher to ever start a major league game," Derrington, now 72, recalled in a phone conversation last week.

Derrington lasted six innings in that historic, but long forgotten, game in Kansas City and was tagged with a 7-6 loss.

None of this would have occurred if wealthy, greedy teams like the Yankees hadn't begun to sign and stockpile hot prospects right after World War II, outbidding the competition any time they thought a guy had the potential to become a big leaguer.

Enacted in 1947, the Bonus Rule stipulated that any team signing a player for $4,000 or more would be obligated to keep the player on their 40-man roster for two years. No bonus baby - as they came to be called - could be farmed out to the minor leagues to be schooled in the finer points of the game as they developed their skills. In essence, they had nowhere to go except on the bench of the club that signed them.

Derrington, who graduated a year early from high school, received a $75,000 bonus (about half a million 2012 dollars) and went straight to Comiskey Park.

"The figure I signed for was pretty big," said Derrington. "Mine was the second highest [bonus] at that time if I'm not mistaken. Paul Pettit got something like $100,000 from Pittsburgh."

The youngest player ever to appear in a major league game was Cincinnati pitcher Joe Nuxhall, who was just 15 in 1944, but his was one brief relief appearance. Nuxhall, who was not a bonus baby, didn't return to the majors until he was 23. He went on to win 135 games before becoming a fixture in the Reds' broadcast booth for many years.

So how did the teenaged Derrington react to that game 56 years ago when he stood on the mound in Kansas City, a couple of thousand miles from home, facing major league hitters?

"It was exciting, but intimidation wasn't there," said Derrington. "My uncle [Herm Reich, who played with three different teams in 1949 and was a 16-year minor-leaguer] had been a major league player. My dad played professionally with the Cleveland organization. I started playing semipro ball with my dad when I was 13 so I was comfortable. To say I wasn't excited would be a lie. But I was okay."

There were well over 100 bonus babies during the 18 years of the rule, many of whom had short big league careers. However, four - Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter, Al Kaline, and Harmon Killebrew - made the Hall of Fame. Of those, only Killebrew ever appeared in a minor league game.

I can remember Derrington from the 1957 season. Maybe I should re-state that. I can remember him being on the team, but I can't recall seeing him pitch. He did get into 20 contests - five as a starter - for a total of 37 innings. You might think that because of his hefty bonus - "some of those guys [on the Sox] didn't make $75,000 in ten years," said Jim - and taking up a place on the 25-man roster that teammates resented Derrington. But that wasn't the case.

"Overall I was treated very well," he said. "I got along with the players real well and it really wasn't complicated at all. It was a good bunch of fellas. [There was] Nellie Fox, and Minnie Minoso was really a great guy. He was just a prince. I spent a lot of time with Jim Landis because he was from California, and he was more my age in his early 20s. Sherm Lollar was a wonderful guy, and Walt Dropo and Earl Battey. It was quite an experience for me."

On the road Derrington roomed with veteran pitcher Dick Donovan, who was a reliable starting pitcher for the Sox from 1955 to 1960. "He probably helped me as much as any player," Derrington said.

When the team was home, Jim shared a Hyde Park apartment with another veteran pitcher, Jerry Staley, who is most remembered for throwing the game-ending double play ball in Cleveland the night of September 22, 1959, when the Sox clinched the pennant.

The memory of manager Al Lopez contributed a different perspective. "I didn't have that much communication with him," said Derrington. "In fact, he didn't talk a whole lot with the players period. I can't say that anybody that I knew of was very close to him as far as players were concerned. I spent a lot of time with [pitching coach] Ray Berres. He was a good guy."

Lopez, however, tried his damndest to get Derrington a victory the summer of 1957. On August 10, Derrington was the starting pitcher at Comiskey against Detroit, and he was superb. For seven innings, the Tigers were hitless. But in the eighth Reno Bertoia, another bonus baby, reached Jim for a two-run homer.

At that point Lopez summoned the team's best pitcher, Billy Pierce, whose likeness graces the left-centerfield wall at the Cell today. Pierce started 34 games that year and won 20, but he also relieved on three occasions. Lopez must have figured that Billy gave the Sox the best chance to preserve Derrington's victory. All he had to do was hold the Tigers in check.

It didn't happen. As effective as Pierce was that season - among other accomplishments, he recorded 16 complete games - he yielded four runs to the Tigers, and the Sox lost 6-4. That was as close as Derrington ever got to winning a major league game.

Once the two years were up, Derrington went to the minor leagues where he won 10 games both in 1958 and 1959. But like the story unfolds for many hard-throwing kids, he soon hurt his arm and never reached the potential the Sox envisioned. Furthermore, Tommy John was still four years away from his big league debut, let alone the surgery which bears his name.

"I pulled all the ligament and tendons [in his elbow]," related Derrington. "I was with San Diego, which was the White Sox Triple-A team in spring training in '60. I played that year as an outfielder-first baseman. Then I went to Charleston and played first base. I could always hit real well, but I found out I couldn't hit like [a major leaguer], though. The next year I tried to pitch again, and I could throw, but the doctors told me, 'We'll get you where you can throw again, but you'll never throw like you did before.' They were right."

By the tender age of 22, Jim Derrington was out of baseball.

The Bonus Rule came to an end in 1965 with the advent of the annual amateur draft, which will be conducted once again next week. The Sox pick 13th.

While Derrington's story is buried in White Sox lore, every organization continues to seek young pitchers like the 16-year-old kid out of South Gate, California, who can throw 95 with a sharp breaking ball. In the mock drafts I've seen, Kenny Williams has his eye on Mississippi State lefthander Chris Stratton or righthander Lance McCullers, a high school pitcher from Tampa.

Whoever the Sox select won't find himself immediately at U.S. Cellular among the current crew of Sox. Events will be starkly different.

But looking back, Derrington reflected, "It was irreplaceable. Quite an experience."

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

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