The White Sox’ 10 Greatest Pitchers
Ted Lyons (1923-42, 1946)
To say that the South Side lifer suffered something akin to imprisonment over 21 seasons may not have been too harsh a statement, given that he compiled a lifetime 260-230 record for a team that seldom finished above .500 and rarely contended during his tenure.
Lyons traded in his future as a lawyer for one in baseball during his college days once he switched from second base to the pitcher’s mound and suddenly began turning heads—mostly those of major league scouts. He landed with the White Sox and evolved into a workhorse during the 1920s, winning 20 games three times and leading the AL twice in victories. Relying on a fastball in the early years, he also developed a knuckleball that would become critically useful after tearing his shoulder up in 1931. Used more sparingly but effectively thereafter, it became a custom for Lyons to start little more than 20 games a year; by 1939, the White Sox basically let him pitch every Sunday, on six days’ rest—and Lyons almost always ended what he started. In his final full season in 1942, Lyons started 20 times and went the distance every time, winning 14 and collecting his only ERA title with a 2.10 mark. After serving three years in the military during World War II, Lyons returned to the White Sox in 1946 at age 45, started five games—all complete—and then decided to retire from pitching when he was given the managerial reins from the fired Jimmy Dykes.
Ed Walsh (1904-16)
Confident and remarkably durable in his prime, Walsh was a complete omnipresence during a sensational six-year run that helped shape a career earned run average of 1.82—the best of any pitcher since 1900.
Walsh was not a dominant hurler from the word go, but once he learned the spitball from Elmer Strickland—the presumed father of the pitch—his career soon took off to stratospheric heights that have never been matched, and likely never will be. In 1907, he appeared in 56 games, starting 46 and completing 37 over 422.1 innings, sporting an American League-best 1.60 ERA to go with a 24-18 record. That set of numbers was but mere prologue for what was to follow a year later; over a mind-blowing 464 innings, Walsh in 1908 produced a 1.42 ERA and became the second and last player to date to win 40 games, losing 15. Perhaps the most miraculous aspect of that win total was that they occurred for a White Sox team notorious for shoveling out very little run support; Walsh would feel the hard luck of the Hitless Wonders when, in 1910, he delivered a career-low 1.27 ERA—and yet was strapped with an 18-20 record, as the Pale Hose’s pale bats could only give him 2.5 runs per start.
In his one World Series appearance in 1906 against the crosstown Cubs, Walsh started and won two games, highlighted by a two-hit shutout in Game Three in which he struck out 12 batters—a Series record that would stand until 1929.
In 1913, Walsh’s arm finally gave out; after averaging 370 innings over his previous six seasons, he would never pitch more than 100, fading out for good in 1917 at age 36. In retirement, Walsh advocated the re-legalization of the spitball as hitters took the upper hand following its 1920 banishment. Walsh also left a lasting impression on Comiskey Park; asked to consult on the ballpark configuration while it was being constructed in 1910, he suggested the field dimensions that would help shape the facility into a pitcher’s park for its 80 years of existence.
Billy Pierce (1949-61)
The lightweight (5’10”, 160 pounds) lefty who put his all into a heavyweight fastball suffered from a lack of acclaim in thanks to the dominance of the New York Yankees during his time with the White Sox (who always placed a distant second or third during the 1950s), but those in the know rightfully recalled him as one of the era’s premier aces.
Pierce appeared in seven All-Star Games—getting the starting nod in three of them—and peaked in the late 1950s, winning 20 games in back-to-back campaigns (1956-57) while leading the league in complete games three straight times, from 1956-58; his 1.97 ERA in 1955 was the lowest by any major league pitcher during the decade. When the White Sox finally broke past the Yankees and won the AL pennant in 1959, Pierce—whose record dropped to 14-15—suffered his biggest disappointment by being demoted to the bullpen for the World Series, partly because Chicago manager Al Lopez wanted to stack the rotation with right-handers to combat the Los Angeles Dodgers. After further tailing off in the next few years, the Sox traded Pierce to San Francisco, where he enjoyed one last solid year and a strong showing in the 1962 Fall Classic, starting two games for the Giants.
Red Faber (1914-33)
A long-time member of the White Sox who counted teammates such as Ed Walsh and Luke Appling generations apart, Faber rode a legal spitball all the way to age 45 and finished his 20-year career, all as a member of the Pale Hose, with 254 wins and a future spot in the Hall of Fame.
While a minor leaguer in the White Sox’ system, Faber was asked to join the New York Giants for an overseas tour after the 1913 season, and he impressed to the point that Giant manager John McGraw needled Chicago owner Charles Comiskey for a trade, but Comiskey wisely said no thanks. Faber leveraged his international success to the major league level in 1914, and in his second year with Chicago won 24 games.
In 1917, Faber starred in the Sox’ World Series conquest over those same Giants, winning three games—including the decisive Game Six. Two years later, a late-season collection of illnesses and injuries kept him from participating in the infamous 1919 Fall Classic; even members of the Black Sox cabal admitted that it would have been a difficult challenge to fix the Series had Faber been available, healthy—and honest.
Faber won 20 games four times during his career, including a team-leading 23 on a 1920 White Sox rotation that boasted four 20-game winners, a major league first. Grandfathered into using the spitball legally after its banishment paid immediate dividends for Faber, who led the AL in ERA and complete games in both 1921 and 1922. Faber’s dominance slowly wilted through the late 1920s, but he remained a solid contributor in the rotation and, at career’s sunset, in the bullpen. In his final, unofficial appearance for the White Sox in 1933 during the annual postseason series against the crosstown Cubs, Faber tossed a five-hit shutout.
Eddie Cicotte (1912-20)
A serious man who never sought trouble, Cicotte found it anyway throughout his career—most notoriously as a central figure in the Black Sox Scandal. His infamy from that event obscured the fact that he was a premier pitcher who, had it not been for the ill-fated fix of the Fall Classic, might have made it to the Hall of Fame.
Cicotte came to Chicago in 1912 after enduring a turbulent early tenure with Boston, where he often sparred with Red Sox owner John Taylor—who felt Cicotte wasn’t fulfilling his potential. It wasn’t until the late 1910s that Cicotte’s career exploded, collecting nearly half of his lifetime win total over what would become the final four years of his big-league career. Cicotte baffled opponents with a repertoire of pitches that included a knuckleball and a “shine ball,” in which he would rub half the ball with talcum powder to make the ball appear as if it was wobbling its way to the plate. Hitters hated it and complained to the league, but it remained legal until all trick pitches (including the spitball) were banned in 1920.
Twice, Cicotte came perilously close to 30 wins, and it has been written (though not proven) that some of the fuel that sparked his fire to help fix the 1919 World Series came from being benched late in the year on orders from White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who didn’t want to pay Cicotte a fat bonus for reaching the milestone. Volunteering for the fix tortured Cicotte from the start; he always considered himself an honest man, but he felt he’d been dealt with dishonestly by Comiskey, who always lowballed him (and everyone else on the White Sox) on salary. Cicotte ultimately received $10,000 for the fix, double his season earnings.
When the lid was blown off the Black Sox Scandal in late 1920, Cicotte was among the first to confess in front of a grand jury; although exonerated in court, he and the seven other Black Sox members received a lifetime ban from baseball. It was hard to say how much Cicotte, 36 at the time, had left in him anyway, but no one probably felt the pain and remorse of participating in the scandal more than he.
Gary Peters (1959-69)
The southpaw from Pennsylvania took over for Pierce during the 1960s as the White Sox’ long-term staff ace, but it took him awhile; after four separate cups of coffee at the major league level in as many years, Peters entered his fifth year still holding rookie eligibility—and finally made good on it, capturing the AL ERA title (at 2.33) and contributing a 19-8 record which earned him AL Rookie of the Year honors. He followed that up a year later by winning a league-high 20 games, and two years after that (in 1966) won his second ERA crown with a magnificent 1.98 mark, in spite of a standard 12-10 record. It was that lack of offensive support—a constant theme throughout much of the White Sox’ history—that unwillingly placed Peters in the center of a controversy when, in 1968, manager Eddie Stanky batted him sixth in the lineup, riling teammates who believed they were being embarrassed by their boss. (In truth, Stanky was trying to fire up the offense; instead, he got fired.)
After five solid campaigns in Chicago, Peters petered out in 1968—ironically, during the Year of the Pitcher—struggling to a 4-13 mark and 3.76 ERA thanks to a back injury; along with arm problems the following spring, Peters never regained his stature, posting 4.00+ ERAs for the remainder of his career, much of which was spent in Boston with the Red Sox.
Wilbur Wood (1967-78)
Unexpectedly, Ed Walsh nearly met his match generations after the deadball era’s demise thanks to Wood, who thrived on the knuckleball with the White Sox—first as a reliever, then as a starter who made a habit of pitching on three days’ rest thanks to the lack of stress the knuckler placed on his arm.
Wood was active and effective out of the bullpen in the late 1960s, leading the AL in appearances for three straight years; converted to a starter in 1971, he became a workhorse of almost freakish proportions. He constantly racked up 20-plus wins and well over 300 innings, peaking in 1972 when he labored for 376.2 frames over 49 starts—both numbers accounting for the most seen in the majors since Walsh ruled the mound 60 years earlier. Taking another cue from deadball times, Wood in 1973 became the last pitcher to date to start both ends of a doubleheader; throwing on two days’ rest, he didn’t last long in either game and lost both.
The accumulation of innings appeared to catch up to Wood as his ERA steadily rose from year to year, yet a terrific start to 1976 suggested he had rejuvenated himself—only to suffer a broken kneecap after being nailed by a line drive in May. He missed the rest of the year and would never be the same, pitching ineffectively over the next two years before retiring.
Thornton Lee (1937-47)
Dealt to Chicago from Cleveland as part of a three-team trade in 1937, Lee was the classic case of a very good pitcher who managed to punch out one great year. Through his first four years with the White Sox, Lee never gained ace status but nevertheless was a solid component of the Chicago rotation; suddenly, in 1941, he broke through with a 22-11 record and AL-best 2.37 ERA in 300.1 innings, starting 34 games and finishing all but four of them. Lee stuck around during World War II, but rather than build off his sensational 1941 effort and feast on weakened competition, his career collapsed—starting just 45 games between 1942-44 and compiling a poor 10-21 record, thanks to continuous injuries. In 1945, a 38-year-old Lee rebounded with a 15-12 record and 2.44 ERA, but it would be his final hurrah; he struggled through four more years, playing little, before calling it quits. With the bat, Lee seemed to save all of his thunder for the 1938 season, hitting all four of his career home runs while knocking in 16 runs in just 97 at-bats.
Reb Russell (1913-19)
As a 24-year-old rookie in 1913, Russell arrived onto the major league scene poised as the second coming of Ed Walsh, amassing 316.2 innings over 52 appearances (including 36 starts) with a 22-16 record and 1.90 ERA; his eight shutouts that year tied an AL rookie record which still stands. But the workhorse ethic failed to stick; a year later, Russell’s season was disrupted by ankle and hip injuries resulting from a nasty infield collision with the Yankees’ Les Nunamaker, and in 1915 was nearly released from the team when he showed up grossly overweight. Injuries and weight issues would continue to hamper Russell’s tenure in Chicago, but through it all he produced solid numbers, registering a career 2.33 ERA with an 80-59 record over six years and change for the White Sox. Certainly his biggest disappointment was his one and only World Series appearance in 1917, starting Game Five but getting replaced after facing just three hitters (all of whom reached).
Released after 1919, Russell converted himself into an outfielder and made a return to the majors in 1922 with Pittsburgh—where he would hit .323 with 21 home runs and 133 RBIs in just 154 games over two years; despite such inspiring numbers, Russell displayed subpar defense and was let go, spending the rest of his career in the minors.
Chris Sale (2010-16)
Tall, lanky and temperamental, the Florida-born southpaw made a stunning ascent in 2010 when, just two months after being drafted and with only 10.1 innings of minor league work (striking out 19) under his belt, he was called up to the White Sox at age 21. Sale quickly showed that he deserved to stay—first as a set-up reliever, and then as a member of the rotation starting in 2012.
In each of his first five years as a starter, Sale made the All-Star team—earning the start for the AL in 2016 and gaining credit for a 3-0 win in 2013 with two perfect innings. With the White Sox, he was often robbed of more victories by substandard support—and he was arguably robbed of the 2014 AL ERA crown, given instead to Seattle’s Felix Hernandez after a scoring change in a late start turned four of his earned runs into unearned tallies.
As frustrated as Sale might be from such events, he clearly baffled opponents more with a sharp fastball and wicked slider that evolved him into a strikeout machine, the likes of which the franchise had not seen in ages. In 2015, he set a club record with 274 Ks and tied Pedro Martinez’s 1999 MLB mark by racking up at least 10 strikeouts in eight straight starts. In 2016, he recorded 200-plus strikeouts for the fourth straight year, breaking another White Sox record.
Sale emerged as a defiant defender of the clubhouse and its code—sometimes to a fault. In 2016, he took the lead for White Sox players upset over the handling of a spring training edict barring Adam LaRoche’s son from the clubhouse, at one point reading the riot act to team executive Kenny Williams in full view of his teammates. Later in the season, he was so angry about having to pitch in collared White Sox “throwback” jerseys from the 1970s that he sliced up every uniform in the clubhouse with scissors, earning a five-game suspension. Such antics exhausted White Sox management to the point that the team traded him to Boston after 2016—even as he still had three years left on a team-friendly contract.
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