By George Castle – CBM Historian on January 30, 2018
Rick Hahn could have experienced a far worse reaction during SoxFest, and it would be understandable. Human nature prompts impatience.
But the pride of Winnetka and cerebral Sox GM had properly communicated from Day One that annual patchwork simply would not suffice anymore, and a total teardown-and-rebuild would be the only way for his listing franchise to proceed. That’s why Hahn was cheered and backslapped wherever he went.
Just be upfront and open about your intentions. Don’t hype it up with “all-in” proclamations. And some of sports most discerning, if not outright critical fans, will cut you plenty of slack.
Fans would not take to middling free agents brought in for hole-plugging and money-wasting. But the best prospects in baseball? Now, that will go a long way.
Two historical precedents show how the Sox handled rebuilding in different ways, and got different fan reactions. Nobody but the most avid senior fans are left from the first example, but fortunately Hahn figured it out on his own with support from chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
Finishing the team record 106-loss season in 1970, the Sox were irrelevant in Chicago. They drew fewer than 500,000 fans in ’70. Only the semi-senile Leo Durocher-fueled Cubs collapses that year, and the doozy in 1969, prevented the Sox from moving through sheer lack of interest. Fortunately, in his first year as owner, John Allyn realized the pitch-and-putt style favored by his brother Arthur of the past decade just could not continue.
John Allyn thoroughly cleaned house. Gone were GM Ed Short, manager Don Gutteridge, longtime radio play-by-play voice Bob Elson and other symbols of boring, losing baseball. Swept in were de facto GM Roland Hemond, positive-mental-attitude manager Chuck Tanner and broadcaster Harry Caray. Allyn let all know he was not in it for incremental change.
More importantly, Hemond shook up the roster. He was not trying to stay a bottom feeder to get top-draft position or acquire even more young players beyond the small core of third baseman Bill Melton, pitcher Wilbur Wood, and outfielders Carlos May and Walt “No Neck” Williams. The Sox couldn’t get any worse, anyway. But Hemond just simply tried to get better and play competitive baseball. He sacrificed a Hall of Famer Luis Aparacio, but got competitive veterans Rick Reichardt, Jay Johnstone, Mike Andrews and pitcher Tom Bradley, among others.
Allyn and business chief Stu Holcomb also changed Sox players’ looks. Gone were the plain, Detroit Tigers-style home uniforms, replaced by red pinstriped home duds. Red was a “hot” color anyway, and the same shade as worn by the up-and-coming Big Red Machine powerhouse in Cincinnati.
The fans responded immediately. After a shocking sweep of a rare, rare Opening Day doubleheader, the 1971 home opener drew a raucous, overflow crowd of 43,253 to old Comiskey Park. Previous Sox “lid-lifters” had trouble attracting 10,000. So the shock treatment worked. Despite a jerry-built network of suburban AM and one metro-covering FM station in an era when few cars had FM receivers, the Caray-fronted broadcasts sold the Sox. Attendance dramatically increased and Caray practically busted his $30,000 attendance bonus. The Sox fell just short of finishing .500. A man on a mission, Hemond then made perhaps the greatest blockbuster trade in Sox history to land Dick Allen at the ’71 winter meetings to vault the Sox into serious contention in 1972.
Contrast this upfront upswing with the negative aura of the “White Flag Trade” in 1997 and subsequent rebuilding into a contender.
Sox fans were sour after the 1994-95 strike, of which Reinsdorf was perceived as an instigator, wrecked a strong contender full of home-grown stars. The Felipe Alou-managed Montreal Expos were also a powerful team whose momentum was destroyed by baseball’s longest, most damaging labor action. By 1997, the Sox seemed to be filtering in some young home-grown players like second baseman Ray Durham. But Reinsdorf sent mixed messages and seemingly went against his own philosophy with the free-agent acquisition of slugger Albert Belle for ’97.
The Sox played middling baseball, but were just still 3 1/2 games behind the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians at the July 31 trade deadline. Reinsdorf correctly figured the loaded Indians, the eventual AL World Series representative, would be tough to catch.
But the aesthetics looked bad when he pulled the plug on the season with the “White Flag” deal that dispatched veteran pitchers Danny Darwin, Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez to the San Francisco Giants, landing youngsters Keith Foulke, Bobby Howry and Mike Caruso, among others, in return. The chairman pronounced the Indians nearly untouchable despite so many instances in baseball history of far larger leads overcome in far less time. Reinsdorf could not soon forget his beloved 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers giving up a 13 1/2-game August lead to the Giants. Meanwhile, the Sox still had Belle and Frank Thomas in their primes.
The Sox finished out of the money in ’97, and further out the next two seasons. But they slowly rebuilt into a contender. Foulke and Howry established themselves as bullpen mainstays. Homegrown pitchers like James Baldwin, Mike Sirotka and Jim Parque worked into the rotation. International signees like Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee became run producers as corner outfielders. And the Sox traded one promising young center fielder, Mike Cameron, to the Reds for another, even better power guy and clubhouse man in Paul Konerko. Presiding was new low-key manager Jerry Manuel.
The team coalesced into a 95-win runaway division winner in 2000. With long memories due to the strike and the trade-deadline deal in ’97, they never caught the fever for a dominant regular-season team. Sox fans were perceived as willing to support a winner, but 2000 may have disproved that dictum. Attendance was decent at just under 2 million, but really should have been hundreds of thousands higher. A bad Cubs team eight miles north far outdrew the entertaining South Siders. The front office performed all kinds of verbal gyrations to explain tons of empty seats over the Labor Day weekend.
Fittingly, the 2000 Sox were swept three-and-out by the Seattle Mariners and crafty (??) manager Lou Piniella in a non-competitive Division Series. Going back years, the fans simply were not communicated with properly.
But better late than never with the Hahn-led teams. Absolute proof will be when the ballyhooed kids reach the majors, succeed and the Sox are in contention. Reinsdorf must do his part by not jacking ticket prices as he’ll have a moderate payroll due to all the youth on hand.
Will the fans trade their SoxFest enthusiasm for occupied seats? The countdown begins.
Category Baseball Under Glass Blog Tags Chicago White Sox, Dick Allen, Paul Konerko, Rick Hahn, Roland Hemond