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Shortly after White Sox reliever Jerry Staley threw a game-ending double-play ground ball at Cleveland's mammoth Municipal Stadium, preserving a 4-2 White Sox victory to clinch the 1959 American League pennant, the fun began in the White Sox clubhouse.
And for good reason. The Sox hadn't won a pennant since the infamous 1919 season. Only home day games were telecast in those days, but WGN made an exception on that particular September 22. Signing off, the venerable Jack Brickhouse used his signature closure, "That's it for a little while," adding, "But what an 'it.'"
Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn infamously set off the air raid sirens in celebration. Please remember: Nikita Khrushchev was the Russian tyrant in those days at the height of the Cold War. Vladimir Putin is Snow White in comparison. Sox fans might have understood the origin of the sirens, but Cub diehards and those uninterested mistakenly headed for their basement bunkers.
And there was Jungle Jim Rivera, by that time a 37-year-old reserve outfielder for the South Siders, cavorting in front of his teammates, a fedora atop his pate, in a one-man conga line. After chasing the Yankees for a decade, the Sox had finally come out on top.
Rivera died last week at age 96. He came to the Sox via a trade in 1952 and managed to hang around for 10 seasons, primarily because he hustled and was the epitome of intensity and effort. The over-used phrase, "He's good in the clubhouse," could have been invented for Jim Rivera.
He never occupied the star-studded status of guys like Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio and Minnie Minoso, but he was an exciting, endearing presence. Rivera led the league in triples one year with 16; he quite possibly was the first player to use the head-first slide - the sabermathematicians don't keep track of such things; his 25 stolen bases were tops in the American League in 1955. And he could track down a fly ball better than most.
Inserted as a defensive replacement in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the '59 Series, Rivera ranged far into right center to snag Charlie Neal's long drive with two men on, preserving the Sox's 1-0 triumph over the Dodgers and Sandy Koufax.
Rivera gained attention off the field as well. He was renown on the ballclub as the most astute devotee of the cinema. Rumor was that on some days on the road, he would take in two films. He was the Roger Ebert of the Chicago White Sox.
He also told the story, apparently witnessed by teammates, when the Sox were playing in Kansas City, about when he came upon former president Harry Truman outside the ballpark after the game. "Hi, Harry," said the affable Rivera. "Where's Bess?"
On another occasion, he chided John Kennedy for poor handwriting on a baseball that the president threw out in Washington to kick off the season against the White Sox. Rivera caught the ball and asked JFK to sign it. Rivera preferred more legible penmanship and told the president so.
Yet other off-field events were far less amusing and have been conveniently omitted from Jungle Jim's obituaries. In fact, had he been a potential major leaguer today, Rivera might never have donned a big league uniform.
Rivera joined the Army in 1942, and two years later, he was charged with the rape of an Army officer's daughter. Even though the charge was reduced to attempted rape, Rivera was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
As implausible as it sounds, baseball literally saved the man's life. Playing on prison teams against outside competition, Rivera attracted attention as a very talented athlete. So much so that the owner of the independent minor league Atlanta Crackers - how's that for a nickname? - engineered Rivera's release with the promise that he would be signed to a contract. In three seasons of minor league baseball, Rivera hit .341 before the St. Louis Browns purchased the 30-year-old's contract before the 1952 season. That July, White Sox general manager Trader Frank Lane brought him to the South Side in one of the many deals he made as he built the Sox into a contender in the '50s.
Rivera's troubles, however, followed him to Chicago. Near the end of the 1952 season, another rape charge was lodged against him, although Rivera contended that the sex was consensual. He even took a lie detector test, which he passed, and all charges were dropped.
In the absence of registries for sex offenders - it wasn't until 1990 that that information was made available to the public - Rivera was able to escape the scrutiny, shame,and restrictions that he would encounter today. You might argue that, given a second chance, he made something of himself. I suspect his alleged victims wouldn't agree.
How would the commissioner's office handle a player like Rivera today? No doubt quite differently.
In 1984, I traveled to Angola, Indiana, where Rivera lived with his second wife, who was a native of the small Northeastern Indiana town near Fort Wayne. Jungle Jim was the proprietor of Captain's Cabin, a lovely little bar and restaurant overlooking a scenic lake. I was there to help tape a segment for a WGN-TV show called Once A Star.
My memory was that Rivera was very much in his element - relaxed, telling stories and reminiscing about his teammates and days on the South Side. Years later he appeared with other players from the '59 club for a pre-game ceremony during the 2005 World Series.
Rivera at Captain's Cabin.
When he died last week, the Sox website proclaimed, "It was amazing to see the friendship and camaraderie among those men whenever they gathered together at a Sox game, even if it was decades after they last played together. We imagine they are having quite a clubhouse meeting today. We extend our condolences to . . . the entire Rivera family on his passing."
And there you have it. But what an it.
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Posted on May 13, 2021