Lefty Pierce, ace of '50s Sox, to be honored Saturday
Former All-Star, 18-year veteran now raises money for cancer research in Chicago area
The White Sox have had their fair share of great left-handed pitchers over the course of their history.
Great southpaws like Doc White, Reb Russell, Jack Harshman, Gary Peters, Tommy John, Jim Kaat, Britt Burns and Mark Buehrle have taken the hill for Chicago over the years. But the greatest left-handed pitcher may have been Billy Pierce, the kid from Detroit who led the Go-Go White Sox of the 1950s.
On Saturday, the 86-year-old legend will be introduced during a pregame ceremony to honor him for his career on Chicago's South Side. This is the man who was the ace of the 1950s pitching staff. From 1949 to '61, Pierce compiled a record of 186-152 with a 3.19 ERA. He was a two-time 20-game winner (1956, '57), named to the All-Star team seven times and earned the honor of starting the game three times. He was also named the Sporting News Pitcher of the Year in the American League twice.
"When I came here in '49, this team lost a lot of ballgames," said Pierce, who was traded to the White Sox by his hometown Tigers for catcher Aaron Robinson, a move that was later considered a steal for the Sox. "We had some older gentlemen on the team back then, and Frank Lane came in and made wholesale trades all the time, which turned out very well most of the time.
"We got Nellie [Fox], Louie [Aparicio] and Minnie [Minoso], and they stayed for years. Lane was really responsible for the transformation of the White Sox from a team that was really down in the '30s and '40s, to a team that was a contender with the Yankees every year."
For more than a decade, Pierce was the anchor of a pitching staff that changed nearly every year, but was always good -- good enough to compile a record of 874-666 from 1951 to 1960.
"We had Early Wynn, Dick Donovan and Bob Shaw on that '59 team," said Pierce, still beaming with great pride in his former teammates. "Before that, there was Joe Dobson, Jack Harshman, a lot of good pitchers over the years. Fortunately, most of the changes worked out pretty well."
Anyone who has attended a White Sox game in the past decade knows the Go-Go Sox from the familiar song played after the home team scores, or from the vintage footage on the scoreboard showing outfielder Jim Rivera dancing in the dugout.
"We had a good, fast ballclub -- made contact, not a lot of home run hitting," said Pierce, who was called upon to shut down the opposing team each time out to give the low-scoring White Sox a chance to win.
"There was one time when I entered a game after our team had been shut down three games in a row. Early in the game, Louie got a hit, stole second, Nellie bunted him over to third and someone knocked him in. We scored our first run and Nellie, who was my roommate on the road, came over to me and said, 'OK roomie, you got your run, now hold it.'"
It was a different era for players, who lived in furnished hotels during the season. Some had their families with them, while others couldn't afford it.
"Nellie lived in the Piccadilly Hotel most of the time, and I lived in the Flamingo," said Pierce, describing hotels that were located at 55th Street and the lakefront on the South Side. "You see, times were a little different back then. There was no such thing as a millionaire playing in those days. Up until the mid-60s, no one was making over $60,000. I mean, when we won a pennant in '59, we had a few guys making $10 and $15 thousand a year. There were some fellows that didn't bring their wives to Chicago, because it was too expensive. Nobody had the money."
It was a different era for fans, as well.
"Back in those days, there were fan clubs organized for players on the team," said Pierce, who was one of six Chicago players to have a fan club. "They were teenage kids, and they would invite us over to their homes for dinner. They were really gung-ho fans.
"When Gloria and I had our first child, they threw a shower for my wife. We even came in one time during the winter when one of the boys was being ordained a priest. It was a really closely knit fan-player association -- all on the South Side."
The winning also resulted in more fans in the stands.
"When I first got here in '49 and '50, I don't know how many people we drew here, but it wasn't too many," said Pierce. "After the changes in 1951, we started drawing really well. Sometimes, when the Yankees came to town, we drew 50,000 people. One time we had 55,000. I mean, the attendance grew, and our fans really took our team to heart. White Sox fans were very supportive."
The 1959 team went 94-60 to finally beat out the Yankees for their first pennant in 40 years, a historic moment for the White Sox and the city of Chicago. To celebrate the pennant, Mayor Richard J. Daley, an ardent Sox fan, set off the air raid sirens. Unfortunately, this came during the Cold War and scared many Chicagoans, who thought the city had come under attack.
Pierce grew up in Detroit and was signed right out of high school by the Tigers in 1945. There were other Major League teams that knew about his talent and wanted to sign him, but Pierce's father wanted him to stay with the home team. Due to World War II, many players were overseas, so he immediately found himself on the Major League club -- the team that beat the Cubs in seven games to win the World Series. Although he didn't pitch in the Series, he is the proud owner of a World Series ring.
Eventually, the Tigers general manager traded him to the White Sox due to concerns about his control.
"I was very wild when I first started out, but eventually I got more control," said Pierce, who started with just two pitches, but after a few years added a slider and changeup. "When I came up with the slider, I could throw it for a strike at any time, even if the count was two balls and no strikes. So adding that slider really helped my control."
Pierce's left-handed delivery came right over the top, which a scout told him to never change. He was known as a hard thrower, but they didn't have radar guns back then, so his velocity was all guessing.
Speculation aside, for any pitcher to be successful in that era, they had to be good.
"I faced some great hitters over the years -- [Joe] DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline," said Pierce, who was always matched up against the ace pitcher for the great Yankees, Red Sox or Indians teams of the 1950s.
"The best hitter I ever faced though, and the hitter every ballplayer considered the best hitter, was Ted Williams. He never swung at a bad pitch. If I tried to nibble at the corners, he wouldn't swing. If I threw a ball for a strike, and Ted didn't like it and didn't swing, the ump would call it a ball," said Pierce laughing fondly at the memory.
After 18 seasons in the big leagues, Pierce retired in 1963 with a final record of 211-169, the 10th-most wins for left-handed pitchers in Major League Baseball. He holds White Sox records for a southpaw for most wins with 186, most innings with 2,931 and most starts with 390. He also holds the franchise record for career strikeouts with 1,796.
After retiring from the game, he returned to Chicago, residing in Evergreen Park, where he coached his son's youth baseball team. He worked for Continental Envelope in sales and promotions for 21 years.
Pierce is also the president of the Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities, which he has been involved with for more than four decades. The organization raises money for cancer research through an annual golf outing, in addition to donations from organizations including the White Sox, Chevrolet, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Walgreens. Pierce and his wife, Gloria, have both been affected by cancer and fully appreciate the importance of research.
"The advances they have made in cancer research are remarkable," said Pierce, who is currently working on this year's 44th Annual Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities All-Star Invitational, to be held on July 8 at Twin Orchard Country Club. "A doctor told me they are now curing more forms of cancer than ever before. But the problem is, they are now treating more cancer than ever."
The donations made to Chicago Baseball Charities benefit Northwestern Memorial Hospital for cancer research, and since 1984, a portion of the money has been sent to help children's cancer research at Children's Memorial Hospital, now Lurie Children's Hospital. Since 1984, they have raised $3.5 million for hematology and oncology for pediatric cancer research.
"Billy Pierce is one of the most remarkable individuals I have met in my lifetime," said Dr. Steve Rosen, Director of the Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern Hospital. "He is someone who has empathy and compassion for those who struggle with an illness or significant medical problem. He has devoted himself to helping others."
When Billy Pierce steps onto the field at U.S. Cellular on Saturday, White Sox fans will know that this is a man who made a contribution, not only to sports, but also to business, family, helping others and cancer research.
"I'm very satisfied with my career, my life," said the smiling legend. "I've been very fortunate. I've had a wife for 63 years, three children, five grandchildren and two weeks ago, my first great granddaughter. And fortunately, everyone has been pretty healthy."
John Ruane is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.