News & Politics » Feature

Billy Pierce: Almost Perfect

The difference between a Mark Buehrle and a Billy Pierce? One out.



When White Sox center fielder Dewayne Wise made his perfect-game-saving ninth-inning catch this summer, he leaped straight into White Sox history—and not just figuratively.

Tampa Bay's Gabe Kapler had driven a Mark Buehrle fastball toward the seats in left center. Wise—in shallow center, guarding against a blooper—turned instantly and sprinted for the left-field wall.

The eight Sox players whose numbers have been retired smile out from that wall: Fox, Baines, Appling, Minoso, Aparicio, Lyons, Pierce, Fisk. Buehrle, his teammates and opponents, the ushers and vendors, and 28,000 breathless fans watched Wise track the ball over his shoulder. His beeline brought him to the player second from the right on the wall of fame, a southpaw like Buehrle—Billy Pierce. Wise jumped, and slammed into Pierce's face.

"Lookit, he caught it right on your head!" screamed Pierce's wife, Gloria, in the living room of the Pierces' home in southwest-suburban Lemont. Pierce shook his head and laughed.

Pierce, now 82, was the ace of the Sox staff through the 1950s. In April, when Buehrle started for the Sox on opening day for the seventh time, he tied Pierce's club record. The similarities between the two pitchers are striking. Like Buehrle, Pierce was a fine fielder and adept at holding runners on. Buehrle is the fastest-working pitcher in baseball; Pierce was one of the quickest. "I pitched one game in an hour and 32 minutes," Pierce says. "The next day, a man in a suit walks into the locker room—he was the head of the concession stands. He says, 'Bill—great game yesterday. But I talked to a few of the fellows. Could you do it a little slower next time?'"

Pierce was among the most durable pitchers of his era, throwing more than 200 innings season after season. Buehrle is matching that. Pierce was popular with both fans and teammates, as is Buehrle. Both put in stints as their team's player representative. Buehrle is not a headhunter, and neither was Pierce. Some baseball experts have suggested that had Pierce been willing to dust off a batter now and then, he might have been even more successful. "It's possible," Pierce says. "It wouldn't have been worth it. You don't want to hurt anybody—and you can hurt somebody very easily."

Both Buehrle and Pierce are modest, despite their accomplishments. Pierce tends to talk of his achievements in the first person plural—as if his teammates or his wife were equally responsible: "We had a good career," he says. Buehrle is easygoing and playful; Sox general manager Kenny Williams has had to order him not to slide on the tarp during rain delays. Pierce is straight as a liner—he's never smoked or drank, and he married his hometown sweetheart—but in the important respect his temperament matches Buehrle's. "The things you can't change—don't worry about 'em, you'll drive yourself crazy," he says. "If I threw a pitch and the guy hit a home run, I couldn't take it back. So why worry about it?"

And like Buehrle, who is 30, Pierce, at 31, brought a perfect game into the ninth inning.

That was on a summer evening 51 years ago, on the other side of 35th Street from U.S. Cellular, long before Comiskey Park became Comiskey parking lot.

Inning after inning on June 27, 1958, Pierce set down the Washington Senators: three up, three down, three up, three down. He retired the Senators on just nine pitches in the fourth—and needed only that many again in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth.

In the fourth inning, Rocky Bridges's liner over first fell barely foul. Bridges then bounced one up the middle, headed for center. But Luis Aparicio, the fleet-footed future Hall of Fame shortstop, glided to his left, speared the ball behind second, and "wheeled like the top of a swivel chair, his feet rooted to the ground," to throw out Bridges, as writer Bob Addie described it in the next morning's Washington Post.

The tension grew as the game wore on, with "the little southpaw" disposing of batter after batter, Addie would write.

That description of Pierce reveals a difference between himself and Buehrle: no one would call Buehrle little. At six-foot-two and 220 pounds, he's the size of a typical modern pitcher (the Yankees' C.C. Sabathia is six-foot-seven and weighs 290), but he's burly compared with Pierce, who in his prime was five-ten and weighed 160 pounds. Today's major leaguers, pitchers especially, are bigger: the 1955 Sox roster featured several pitchers under six feet, but not one on the current staff is that short. Players in Pierce's day were less muscular as well; they were dissuaded from the weight training that's now considered requisite. But even for his era, Pierce was small and slight.

Yet Pierce threw harder than Buehrle. Buehrle mixes speeds to fool batters; Pierce blew them away with one of the best fastballs of his day. (There's little evidence that pitchers today, with their greater size and bulk, throw harder than pitchers used to.) Pierce credits his speed to his big, sweeping windup; he got his entire body behind the pitch, he says. Sherman Lollar, Pierce's catcher on the White Sox, once said, "He has wonderful coordination. And he sure is pretty to watch, the way he pumps and rocks and throws." Pierce, who's still frequently asked to throw out the first pitch at games of all levels, from Little League to the majors, allows that with age he's lost a little off his heater. "The arm feels fine!" he says. "I throw just as hard, the ball just don't go anywhere."

In the game against the Senators, Pierce, a good hitter for a pitcher, had helped his own cause, doubling in the third and scoring the game's first run on a single. The Sox added two insurance runs in the eighth.

In the ninth, with the crowd of 11,300 on its feet and roaring, Aparicio snared a smash up the middle and threw out the first batter, and Pierce fanned the second. One more out and he'd have the eighth perfect game in big league history and the first by a left-hander since 1880.

The Senators' pitcher was due up. Washington manager Cookie Lavagetto sent in a pinch hitter.

As a player, Lavagetto's most famous moment had come 11 years before this game, during another budding no-hitter—in game four of the 1947 World Series between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers, trailing both the game and the series 2-1, were hitless with two out in the last of the ninth, but Yankees starter Bill Bevens hadn't exactly been flirting with perfection; he'd walked ten, a World Series record. Two of those runners were on base when Lavagetto came up to pinch-hit. He sliced Bevens's second pitch into the right-field corner, scoring both runners; that quickly, Bevens had lost his no-hitter and the Yankees had lost the game. (They rebounded to win the series in seven.) It was Lavagetto's only hit of the series and the final hit of his career.

Now, as manager, Lavagetto chose right-handed hitter Ed Fitz Gerald to face Pierce. For the entire season to that point, Fitz Gerald, a backup catcher, had collected ten hits. "He was a first-ball fastball hitter, so we threw him a curve," Pierce recalls. Swinging at the first pitch, Fitz Gerald sliced the ball down the right-field line. It zipped just beyond the reach of first baseman Ray Boone toward the outfield. Fair or foul?

Fair, by a foot. The crowd "let out a dismal wail of the doomed," Addie would write in his Washington Post account. Fitz Gerald, standing on second with his first extra-base hit of the season, was booed lustily. Though "a kindly, family man," Fitz Gerald "will be remembered in Chicago with such All-Star villains as Hitler, Benedict Arnold, Rasputin and the income tax collector," Addie predicted.

Pierce fanned the next batter on three pitches for his 29th career shutout and his third one-hitter. Police officers escorted Fitz Gerald into the dugout.

"I don't blame Fitz," Pierce told reporters in the locker room. "That's his job. More power to him. We won. That's the important thing."

In 1972, Chicago Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas would also lose a perfect game with two outs in the ninth, when a borderline 3-2 pitch was called ball four. Still today he complains bitterly about how the umpire robbed him of immortality. Still today Pierce declines to grouse about his near miss. "What are you gonna do?" he says. "Those things happen. We won the game."

Soon after the game, Pierce's teammates were telling reporters that Fitz Gerald's hit probably cost Pierce $15,000 in endorsements. "And that was more than a third of my salary then," Pierce says.

Pierce's highest salary was $41,000. Buehrle is in the second year of a four-year contract that pays him $14 million a season. He makes more in nine innings than Pierce made in his 18-year career.

Pierce retired from baseball at 37, declining offers to coach because he wanted to quit traveling and spend more time with his family. Buehrle has talked about retiring early for the same reason; but after leaving baseball he is unlikely to, say, work 22 years in public relations and sales for an envelope company, as Pierce did.

The almost-perfect game was one of several close-but-no-cigar experiences for Pierce. He finished his career with four one-hitters and seven two-hitters, but never threw a no-hitter. Buehrle now has two. Pierce likely would have won the American League Cy Young award in 1956 and 1957 if there'd been one—the Sporting News named him the AL's best pitcher both years, but until 1967 only one Cy Young award was given each season, for the best pitcher in all of baseball, and in '56 and '57 it went to a National League pitcher. He retired with 1,999 career strikeouts.

The esteemed baseball historian Bill James has ranked Pierce among baseball's all-time best southpaws, better than several Hall of Famers—but Pierce hasn't been voted into Cooperstown and isn't likely to make it now. "Naturally, it would be nice" if that happened, he says, "but if it doesn't the world will not come to an end. We've got the number retired, we've got the picture on the wall. What more can you ask for?"

For the last 16 years he has directed Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities, raising money for cancer research. He enjoys his family, which includes three children and five grandchildren, and he looks and feels healthy for his age. "I don't think there's anybody 82 don't take some pills, but I feel good," he says. "We're in extra innings."

After Wise crashed into Pierce's mug to keep Buehrle's perfect game alive on July 23, Buehrle fanned Tampa Bay catcher Michel Hernandez. Now only Jason Bartlett stood between Buehrle and baseball's 18th perfect game. Bartlett, who owned one of the highest batting averages in baseball, at .340, had the chance to join the ranks of Hitler, Benedict Arnold, Rasputin, the income tax collector, and Ed Fitz Gerald. But he grounded out to short. Buehrle was mobbed by teammates. He got a call from President Obama. He went on Letterman and the cover of Sports Illustrated.

"I'm just happy for Mark," Pierce says.

Comments (10)

Showing 1-10 of 10

Add a comment

Add a comment