Who really saved the White Sox? | Bleader

Who really saved the White Sox?


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Harry Caray netted fans for the White Sox as much as Dick Allen did.
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Harry Caray netted fans for the White Sox as much as Dick Allen did.
Dick Allen is slated to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at White Sox Park Sunday, as the Sox honor their 1972 American League Most Valuable Player.

It's certainly overdue recognition for Allen, who as I wrote a couple weeks ago was really the most beautiful, well-rounded player I'd ever seen to that point in '72—and would retain that status until Ryne Sandberg fully developed a dozen years later.

Yet I want to revisit the notion that Allen single-handedly saved the franchise, something even the Chicago Baseball Museum seems to be backing off on as it joins in honoring Allen "and the team that saved our Sox" with a fund-raiser Monday at Sox Park.

First, a little historical context: Yes, the Sox were a moribund franchise in the late 60s and early 70s, especially when they opened the 1968 season with ten straight losses after competing down to the wire the previous year. The Sox didn't even draw 500,000 people to Comiskey Park in 1970, the year Chuck Tanner took over as manager.

Allen followed him to town two years later, and it was a controversial move—at least at first. Not to take anything away from Allen, but he arrived with a certain amount of baggage. He had a reputation of being remote and recalcitrant, and that was reflected in his preference to be called Dick rather than Richie Allen, the name he originally came up under with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Remember, Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color barrier only 25 years before, and African-American ballplayers were still striving for full equality. Roberto Clemente was still called "Bobby" in some circles—including the broadcast booth with Bob Prince.

So Allen had an implicit black pride thing going on, which was cool, and an I-gotta-be-me attitude equally in tune with the 70s. They met their match in Tanner, a "player's manager" (who'd now be termed an "enabler") who let Allen live by his own rules—like taking batting practice when he felt like it. It worked until it didn't, and Tanner went on to enjoy even more success on the same basic arc, only writ larger, with the "We Are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates. Tanner led them to a championship in 1979, but also laid the loose foundation for their cocaine scandal in the 80s.

But back to Allen. He gave the Sox a certain respectability right away, as well as the offense to complement their young pitchers fresh from the farm, like Bart Johnson, Terry Forster, and Rich Gossage. The Sox won 87 games in 1972, finished second, and drew over a million fans.

Here's the thing, though: Allen suffered a broken leg and didn't play half the team's games the following year, yet attendance climbed again to more than 1.3 million. What was going on?

I've always felt the X factor was Harry Caray, who came to the Sox as a radio play-by-play man in 1971, and who added TV duties in 1973, when the team moved from pre-Fox WFLD Channel 32 to WSNS Channel 44.
Caray had his salary tied to attendance incentives, and he was an unremitting ambassador for Chicago baseball, even as he was sometimes an outspoken critic of the players. He was doing his "there's nothing like fun at the old ballpark" shtick for the Sox long before he took it north to the Cubs.

So I maintain that Caray saved the Sox as much as Allen did, but they probably did it together. Allen gave the team credibility on the field until he wore out his welcome and left after 1974. Caray sustained the momentum in the media, but couldn't keep attendance from falling below a million in the mid-70s, until Bill Veeck returned. He saved the franchise for a few years, and even outdrew the Cubs with the South Side Hit Men in 1977. But that's the subject of another blog post.

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