1977 Chicago White Sox: A Sizzling Summer Raises False Hopes

The 1977 Chicago White Sox made a managerial change coming into the season. The fortunes of the South Side franchise had started to collapse in 1968 and it had been a decade since the team had even won more than it lost. The White Sox hired Bob Lemon, former ace pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Chicago saw immediate success in a sizzling summer, although in the end that only served to raise false hopes.

Start reading today. 

Scoring runs was the key to the White Sox’ success for much of 1977. They ranked third in the American League in runs scored, with two big trades serving as the lynchpin. Chicago acquired power-hitting rightfielder Richie Zisk from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage, and another reliever in Terry Forster.

The inclusion of Forster in the deal undoubtedly enraged this writer’s great-aunt, an Irish lady on the South Side who loved the White Sox and made her way down to the bullpen to start chatting with the pitchers. Forster ended up signing a baseball for her and even sending a Christmas card. I trust that Aunt Julia found some solace in the fact Zisk hit 30 home runs and had 101 RBIs for her beloved team in 1977.

In the first part of April, the White Sox’ front office struck again. They dealt shortstop Bucky Dent to the New York Yankees and got designated hitter Oscar Gamble in return. Gamble hit 31 home runs and had 83 RBIs. Chicago also got a young pitcher in Lamar Hoyt, who was not ready to contribute at the big-league level in 1977, but eventually won a Cy Young Award for the White Sox six years later.

Zisk and Gamble were the cornerstones of the offense, and they had good supporting pieces. Catcher Jim Essian had a .374 on-base percentage, and third baseman Eric Soderholm had a .350 OBP. Chet Lemon (no relation to the new manager) was a good all-around player in center, a .343 OBP/.459 slugging percentage, and Lamar Johnson provided some serious pop in a more limited role. In 400 at-bats, Johnson hit 18 home runs and posted a .342 OBP.

Pitching was more problematic, and that’s being kind. The White Sox ranked 10th in the league in ERA and did not have a single starter with an ERA under 4. Lerrin LaGrow had a good year out of the bullpen, saving 25 games with a 2.46 ERA, but his was the only notable performance.

Chicago’s rotation was populated by three young arms—Francisco Barrios, Kevin Kravec and Chris Knapp that took the ball regularly and were going through growing pains. Wilbur Wood was the other end of the spectrum, now 35-years-old and his former effectiveness gone. And Steve Stone may have won 15 games, but the ERA was 4.51.

In spite of the pitching issues, Chicago spent the first three months playing very steady baseball. There were no dramatic streaks, good or bad, and at the end of June they were 40-32. The White Sox were a game back of the Minnesota Twins, where first baseman Rod Carew was making a run at the .400 mark (he would settle for .388 and the MVP award). The Kansas City Royals, who had won the AL West in 1976, were 3 ½ games off the pace.

Summertime in Chicago saw the White Sox start to sizzle. They won nine in a row, split a pair with Kansas City and when Minnesota begin what would be a sharp fall from grace, the White Sox suddenly found themselves with a  four-game lead. Kansas City was coming to town for a four-game set that would bring July to an end.

The most consequential teams and each postseason series

It would be an electric weekend on the South Side, complete with a Sunday doubleheader. The White Sox trailed the opener 8-6 I the seventh, but behind a balanced offensive assault led by three hits apiece from Chet Lemon and the speedy Ralph Garr, Chicago won 11-8.

Another comeback was ahead on Saturday. The bats were quiet for six innings and the Royals were up 3-0, but once again the final three frames were big. Soderholm’s three-run blast was the key blow in a 6-4 win.

Sunday’s first game was Chicago rally again, and not once but twice. Stone and KC’s Marty Pattin were hooked up in a pitcher’s duel that the Royals led 2-1 in the ninth. An error set up a game-tying single from Chicago infielder Jorge Orta. Kansas City scored twice in the tenth. Chicago opened their half of the 10th with first baseman Jim Spencer drawing a walk and Chet Lemon homering to tie it. Soderholm drew a walk, was bunted over and scored on a single by Garr.

Chicago lost the nightcap, but they concluded the series and the month of July with a 5 ½ game lead on Kansas City. As it turned out though, the rally of Sunday’s early game would be the final real high point of 1977.

The White Sox came out of that series and dropped three of our at home to Texas, giving up 32 runs in the three losses. Chicago then paid a return visit to Kansas City for a three-game weekend set.

Knapp had lost the finale of the previous series to Royals’ ace Dennis Leonard. The two pitchers picked up where they left off to open this series and Kansas City jumped all over Knapp for a 12-2 win. On Saturday, the White Sox led 3-1 after seven innings, but the bullpen collapsed in a 6-3 loss.

On Sunday, Chicago attempted to bring back their comeback mojo. They were trailing 2-1 in the ninth, in the game thanks to a great outing from Ken Kravec and then Gamble tied it up with a home run. Kravec came out for the ninth and walked Royal centerfielder Amos Otis. The pitcher was pulled, but Otis was bunted over and singled in.

That healthy lead Chicago had enjoyed in the AL West (prior to 1994, the leagues were split into just two divisions with no Central in existence) was all but gone, down to a half-game.

The Royals had a head of steam and they wouldn’t look back, barreling down the stretch and winning 102 games, the most in major league baseball. The White Sox didn’t collapse, but nor did they play particularly well, and were helpless in the face of the KC freight train. Chicago lost eight of their next twelve, but stabilized and split their next fourteen games.

Chicago trailed by five games on Labor Day and went 16-14 during the month of September, but it was still a good 12 games behind Kansas City.

There was still plenty of reason to be optimistic. The White Sox had won 90 games and by the standards of today, would have been in contention to the very end (the sixth-best team in the AL, they would have been barely nipped for the last playoff spot). What’s more, they had done it with young pitchers who would presumably get better.

That didn’t happen. By the time the White Sox enjoyed real success, in the division title year of 1983 all of Barrios, Kravec and Knapp were out of the organization. Bob Lemon would taste success sooner—but only after the White Sox fired him midway through 1978, and he was promptly picked up by the New York Yankees, who immediately began a legendary rally from 14 games back to catch the Boston Red Sox and go on to win the World Series. The fans of the South Side, including Aunt Julia, had longer to wait for playoff baseball.