|.||.||.||WHERE ARE THEY NOW
By Dan Rafter
November 15, 2005
During his 18-year Major League career, pitcher Billy Pierce tossed more than 3,300 innings. He won 211 games, and compiled a sterling 3.27 career ERA. But even he admitted to a case of the nerves when he walked to the mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch of the opening game of this year’s American League Division Series between the White Sox and Red Sox.
The nerves showed. Pierce’s pitch at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field bounced before reaching home plate and White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle’s glove.
“I wasn’t happy with that pitch. But that happens sometimes,” said Pierce in a telephone interview. “I’m a bit older now and I haven’t pitched in a long time. I was standing around for a couple hours before the game, too, and I didn’t have a chance to warm up. That’s my excuse, anyway.”
It’s fitting that White Sox officials tabbed Pierce to throw out the first pitch of the team’s first successful postseason run since 1959. Pierce served as the pitching ace of the Go-Go White Sox of the 1950s and early 1960s, a daring, pitching-and-defense-centered team that routinely challenged, and mostly fell short of, the powerhouse New York Yankees in the American League.
The Sox broke through just once, going to the World Series in that magical year of 1959. The team lost in six games to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but Chicago fans, even after the 2005 White Sox capped an 11-1 postseason run to win the World Series, will always remember that 1959 squad with fondness.
So will Pierce, who spent 13 years pitching for the White Sox. His visit to U.S. Cellular this year for the playoff opener brought back a host of World Series memories for the 78-year-old, both from that 1959 Sox team and for the 1962 San Francisco Giants, who lost in seven games to the Yankees.
That ‘59 squad gave Pierce his first taste of postseason baseball. And he remembers instantly realizing that the World Series was nothing like the regular season.
“I remember going into the Coliseum in Los Angeles. There were 92,000 people there. It was amazing,” Pierce said. “That big bowl filled with all those fans, that was really something different. You knew right away that this was no ordinary game. I remember shagging flies before the game and just looking at that multitude of people. There were all these white shirts in the stands. It made it hard to hit and to catch. It made it hard to do anything.”
Not all of Pierce’s memories of the ‘59 season are as pleasant. Though the White Sox had a fantastic season, riding the double-play combination of Nellie Fox and Luis Aparacio to 94 regular-season wins, Pierce actually had one of his weaker years. He missed six weeks of the season with a hip injury, and finished with a 14-15 record. He didn’t make a start in the World Series, though he did pitch in relief in three games.
Pierce’s results were better in the ’62 Series. In that series he started two games, with a 1-1 record. Overall, in 19 World Series innings pitched, Pierce compiled a 1.89 ERA.
Pierce put together a career of nearly Hall-of-Fame quality. He led the American League with a 1.97 ERA in 1955, threw four career one-hitters, and in 1953 notched seven shutouts, at one point throwing 51 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run. He tied for the league lead in complete games from the 1956 season through the 1958 campaign.
Pierce tossed 38 shutouts lifetime, 193 complete games and was All-Star seven times.
Pierce retired from baseball after the 1964 season. By that time he was living in the Chicago area, the city he would call home from 1963 on.
He worked until 1998 at Continental Envelope before officially retiring from the working world. Today he lives in the Chicago suburb of Lemont with his wife, Gloria, and spends much of his time as head of Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities, an organization that raises money to help fund the research and treatment of cancer. Pierce has served as the leader of the charity since 1993, when Marv Samuel, a former pitcher who founded the organization, died of leukemia.
“It’s a wonderful organization,” Pierce said. “All the money we’ve raised, through golf outings and other events, has all gone to a good cause. It’s been extremely rewarding to work with the organization.”
Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities has since its founding in 1971 donated more than $11 million to fund cancer patient care, education and research programs at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Children’s Memorial Hospital.
When he’s not planning fund-raisers or holding golf outings for the charity, Pierce devotes much of his attention to his five grandchildren. It’s no surprise that he’s especially active in his grandchildren’s sporting life, cheering them on at their football, baseball and basketball games. He coached two sons through their Little League days, spending 15 years, teaching youngsters how to slide into second base, throw strikes and hit the cutoff man.
During the 2005 season, more than a few reporters compared the current White Sox team with the 1959 version. The comparisons made sense, as both teams won with strong pitching and defense and annoyed other squads with their aggressive base running. Pierce says the comparisons are valid.
“This current team hit more home runs than we did,” Pierce said. “But both teams won more than their share of one-run ball games. And you do win those one-run games with pitching and very good defense. This year’s team was strong up the middle, and so were we. We had Jim Landis in centerfield, Nellie Fox at second base, Luis Aparacio at shortstop and Sherm Lollar at catcher. We were very solid, very good up the middle.”
Will the 2005 White Sox repeat? That’s a tough task in today’s game. Pierce’s advice: The players should savor their off-season as World Series champs, because you never know if or when you’ll get another opportunity.
Pierce is a good example. His 1950s and 1960s White Sox were loaded with pitching talent, great defense and smart base runners, but competed in a league ruled by the New York Yankees. The Yankees won the American League every year but two from 1949 until 1964. Only the ‘59 Sox and 1954 Cleveland Indians could loosen the Yankees’ stranglehold on the AL.
“The Yankees were always the best team we played against. They were the best team everyone played against,” Pierce said. “They had the superstars. They had a good bench. They had everything. That’s why they won. There were always a little bit above all the other ball clubs in terms of personnel.”
The Yankees continued to haunt Pierce even after he moved to the National League to pitch for the Giants. “Who do I meet up with again in the 1962 series? The Yankees,” Pierce said with a laugh.
Now that another baseball season has ended – albeit one Pierce says he will never forget – the former star pitcher will go back to doing what he likes best: playing with his grandchildren and raising money to fight cancer, the disease that took his former teammate, second baseman and Hall-of-Famer Nellie Fox.
“I really do like the Chicago area,” Pierce said. “It’s a wonderful city and a wonderful place to live. It’s home.”
Dan Rafter is a baseball fan Chesteron, IL, and works as the Editor of Metro Chicago Real Estate Magazine (www.mcre.com).
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