06/22/12 12:19 PM ET
Allen and White Sox made memories in '72
By Ed Sherman / Chicago White Sox
It isn't just Allen. Why is it I know Carlos May hit .308 without having to look it up? Or that Stan Bahnsen went 21-16 and Pat Kelly had 32 stolen bases?
What was the White Sox record in 1972? C'mon, that's easy: 87-67.
Forty years later, all of those numbers and more are easily retrieved from a vault that occupies some deep cranny in my brain. I can't do the same thing with the 2005 White Sox, a team of much more recent success, that had the ultimate ending in winning the World Series.
Obviously, there is a big difference. When you're a 12-year-old kid in the process of forging his love affair with baseball, there's usually a first team that grabs your heart and never lets go. For one blissful summer, with nothing on the agenda such as a job or real life, you and your friends become consumed by a group of larger-than-life players. You absorb their statistics like a sponge during the day, while counting the minutes until the next game.
The 1972 White Sox were that team for me, and I suspect they are that team for many Sox fans of my 50-something generation.
Even though I grew up on the North Side, I was destined to become a Sox fan. I was born on Sept. 25, 1959, three days after the Sox clinched their first American League pennant in 40 years. Immediately after my birth, the Sox went on to lose the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and for most of my life, I joked that I brought bad luck to the franchise, until the 2005 team took me off the hook.
My father, Jerry, was a passionate, diehard Sox fan. It's still mind-boggling that the last Sox games he saw in person were Games 1 and 2 of the 2005 World Series. Makes you believe in a baseball god.
Through him, naturally, I began to develop my relationship with the Sox. I have some fleeting memories of the good-pitch, no-hit 1967 team that nearly won the pennant. However, as my baseball roots were being formed, the Sox fell into a deep abyss from 1968-70. The 1970 team went a franchise worst 56-106, drawing only 495,000 fans to old Comiskey Park.
Then the fortunes of the franchise changed when the Sox hired Roland Hemond to run the baseball operations, and hired an unknown in Chuck Tanner to be their manager. There was immediate improvement as the '71 Sox went 79-83 with Bill Melton becoming the first player in Sox history to lead the league in home runs.
In the offseason, Hemond made a defining trade. He dealt veteran Sox lefty Tommy John and reserve Steve Huntz to the Dodgers for Allen. The deal had plenty of risk for the Sox. Allen was an enigma dating back to his days in Philadelphia, and with this trade, he would be playing for his fourth team in four years. Despite putting up solid numbers, it seemed nobody wanted him.
Allen wasn't even sure he wanted to play for the Sox. He held out and eventually signed on April 2, the same day the players went out on strike, which delayed the start of the season. Eventually, everything was resolved, and the Sox opened at Kansas City on April 15.
I have vivid memories of watching the opener with my Sox fan pal, Eddy. The game was scoreless in the ninth when Allen came to the plate. He promptly hit a rocket to give the Sox a 1-0 lead. Whoa, did you see that? We were in awe. We never had seen a player in a Sox uniform hit a ball that hard. Even though the Sox went on to lose the game 2-1 in 11 innings (Bob Oliver blew the perfect ending with a two-out homer off Wilbur Wood in the ninth), Allen's blow set the tone for the season.
The Sox actually lost all three games at Kansas City. Then they came home and went on a roll. A 14-0 victory over Texas in the home opener started a seven-game winning streak. They won 12 out of 13 from May 10 to May 24 and soared into first place in the American League West.
Allen led the charge. On April 26, he hit a two-run homer in the 10th to give the Sox a 7-5 victory over Cleveland. In back-to-back games against California in May, he had two homers and seven RBIs.
Allen was nothing short of spectacular. He had such an intimidating presence at the plate, waving his 40-ounce bat like it was toothpick. The notion that a player could turn on a pitch swinging a tree trunk is still staggering.
Allen had a majestic quality during that season. Ask a true Sox fan what he remembers about him in 1972 and invariably Allen's baserunning slips into the conversation. He had 19 stolen bases, a big number for a power hitter, but there was more to it. On July 31 against Minnesota, he actually hit two inside-the-park homers in one game. Nobody was ever quicker going from first to third on a single, seemingly gliding as his foot touched second. He was a sight to behold on the bases.
Of course, it was Allen's power that made the biggest impression. He didn't hit any cheap homers. In fact, most of his blows were massive, laser shots to center or right-center field. On Aug. 23 against the Yankees, Allen exploded on a Lindy McDaniel pitch and reached the center-field bleachers at old Comiskey Park, clearing a wall that was 20 feet high and 445 feet away. Harry Caray, who was broadcasting in the bleachers that day, was stunned. "Nobody has ever hit a ball any further," he screamed.
My most vivid Allen memory occurred during the second game of a doubleheader against the Yankees in June. After winning the opener 6-1, Tanner rested Allen in Game 2. However, with the Sox trailing 4-2 in the ninth with two runners on base and one out, Tanner summoned his slugger as a pinch-hitter. Facing Sparky Lyle, one of the best relievers in the game, Allen waved his 40-ouncer to produce a dramatic, three-run, game-winning homer.
I can remember jumping all over the house with my brothers and feeling a sense of exhilaration that lasts a lifetime. In fact, the only other time I really felt that way from a Sox game was Paul Konerko's grand slam in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series.
Allen simply put the team on his back. No offense to two-time MVP Frank Thomas, but Allen's MVP run in 1972 was the greatest season by a player in Sox history.
The Sox didn't have another player in the lineup with more than 68 RBIs. They were dealt a big blow when Melton was lost to a back injury for the season after playing in only 57 games.
Meanwhile, they were battling an eventual Oakland A's dynasty team that had future Hall of Famers in Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers, as well as perennial All-Stars like Sal Bando and Joe Rudi.
Allen, though, kept the Sox on Oakland's heels with his bat, and the Sox pitchers gave them a chance. Tanner basically used a three-man starting rotation, with Wilbur Wood, Stan Bahnsen and Tom Bradley starting 130 of 154 games, an inconceivable notion in today's game. Wood, with his wicked knuckleball, took the term "workhorse" to another level. Occasionally working on two days' rest, he compiled a 24-17 record in 49 starts and 376 innings. By comparison, Detroit's Justin Verlander led the Majors with 251 innings pitched in 2011.
Tanner also relied heavily on a couple young relievers named Terry Forster (2.25 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 100 innings) and Rich "Goose" Gossage, who went 7-1 to start his Hall of Fame career.
The entire package had the Sox in a pennant race for the first time since '67. After falling 8 1/2 games behind Oakland on July 18, the Sox mounted another surge. The A's held a mere one-game lead when the Sox arrived in Oakland for a pivotal four-game series on Aug. 10. The opener was a 19-inning marathon that had me glued to my old clock radio until 3 a.m. Chicago time. Alas, it wasn't sweet dreams as the A's, who walked Allen five times during the game, prevailed 5-3.
The Sox, though, bounced back to win the next two games, highlighted by Ed Spiezio, the Joliet native who replaced Melton, hitting a dramatic two-run homer in the 11th to give the Sox a 3-1 victory. The win vaulted the Sox into a tie for first place.
The Sox and A's stayed neck-and-neck through the end of the August. A 3-1 win at Milwaukee gave them their biggest lead at 1 1/2 games on Aug. 26. I can recall my father taking us to County Stadium for the final game of that series, a major road trip for us at the time. They held a 3-2 edge in the ninth, but Forster blew the save, and the Sox lost 4-3. It wasn't a happy ride home.
The defeat was part of a skid that saw the Sox lose six of seven games. The A's, meanwhile, started to flex their muscle, going 20-11 after Sept. 1. The Sox tried to hang tough. A crowd of 29,000 went crazy as Allen's three-run homer off Fingers and Wood's knuckler propelled the Sox to a 6-0 win on Sept. 7, cutting Oakland's lead to three games. But ultimately, the Sox didn't have enough to go to the wire. In the end, Oakland won the West by 5 1/2 games.
Still, it was a thrilling season that left an indelible impression on a 12-year-old kid from the North suburbs. When I see the current team dressed in those red pinstripe uniforms on Sundays this year, I'm certain to have flashbacks to the days when my love affair with the Sox was truly forged.
It's hard, if not scary, to imagine that 40 years have passed. Yet I haven't forgotten.
The name of my fantasy baseball team says it all: Dick Allen-'72 MVP.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.