In a perverse way, 1948 was a "miracle season," the White Sox and Cubs accomplishing the unprecedented and uncomfortable feat of both finishing in last place in the same year. The Cubs, however, drew 1,237,972 fans, the White Sox far fewer, a total of 777,844, to witness what a wag dubbed the "Dungeon Derby."
Cub owner P.K. Wrigley reacted in typically eccentric fashion as his team struggled in the latter stages of the campaign by apologizing to the fans in a paid advertisement published in all the Chicago newspapers on August 30, 1948.
Wrigley's statement in part: "The Cub Management wants you to know we appreciate the wonderful support you are giving the ball club. We want to have a winning team that can be up at the top—the kind you deserve. This year's rebuilding job has been a flop. But we are not content to just go along with an eye to attendance. We want a winner just as you do and will do everything in our power to get one."
Unfortunately for Cub fans, notwithstanding Wrigley's promise of better times ahead, the team was merely in the early stages of the most grievous period of its history, two decades of confinement to the lower depths of the National League.
In contrast, the White Sox, after roving in the wilderness of non-contention for almost 30 years since the Black Sox scandal, were about to catch glimpses of the Promised Land. "Moses" was at hand in the form of energetic, even frenetic, new general manager Frank Lane, a minor league front office veteran.
Manager Ted Lyons' resignation on the final day of the disastrous 1948 season brought home to White Sox president Grace Comiskey the team's sad plight. Almost in despair, she gave son Charles "Chuck" Comiskey, only 22, authority to hire a new general manager and a manager. His choice of Lane for the first job was inspired. That of Jack Onslow, a manager in the White Sox farm system, to the latter post fell short.
Lane's "inaugural address" was blunt: "There are no sacred cows on this club!" There seldom were during his seven-year tenure as general manager from 1948–1955. He completed 241 deals involving 353 players in that stretch and even if many of the trades were insignificant, a few were blockbusters.
Especially his first one. On November 10, 1948, Lane sent catcher Aaron Robinson to the Detroit Tigers for left-handed pitcher Billy Pierce. The Tigers even threw in $10,000 to sweeten one of the most important acquisitions in White Sox history. The arrival of Pierce, 21, was the first step en route to the "Go-Go Sox" era of the 1950s. It was to arrive with Lane's further deals, especially those for Nellie Fox, Chico Carrasquel, Eddie Robinson and Minnie Minoso.
Not that Lane's first season of 1949 ended triumphantly. Or that Pierce was an immediate star. He was 7-15, and the Sox finished sixth at 63-91 under Onslow. Cass Michaels (.308) and Luke Appling (.301) led the offense, while Bill Wight (15-13) was the mainstay of the rotation. Rookie outfielder Gus Zernial, .318 in 73 games, was a sensation until he broke his collarbone on May 29.
The fans responded to the turnaround, attendance rising by 160,000, partly because of a record turnout of 53,325 for a doubleheader against the World Series champion Cleveland Indians on May 29. The crowd was rewarded with 10-0 and 2-0 shutouts of the Indians for one of the season's two highlights. The other came when Appling broke Rabbit Maranville's record of 2,153 games played at shortstop.
The Cubs again matched the Sox in one way in 1949 with an identical 61-93 record, but couldn't shed last place though Wrigley replaced Grimm with Frank Frisch as manager after 50 games. Frisch's chief contribution was to recommend a trade in which the Cubs acquired two outfielders, slugger Hank Sauer and speedster Frank Baumholtz, from the Cincinnati Reds. The deal was among the best in the team's uneven record of transactions.
Sauer quickly won the hearts of Cub fans, finishing the season with 31 home runs (27 for the Cubs), 83 RBI, and a team-leading .291. Third baseman/outfielder Andy Pafko completed a decent 1-2 punch by batting .281 with 18 homers and 69 RBI. But the pitching failed, staff leader Johnny Schmitz sinking from 18-13 in 1948 to 11-13.
Wrigley's reaction was to reshuffle his front office. Grimm had replaced Jim Gallagher as general manager during the 1949 season, but declaring, "These hands were never meant to carry a briefcase," quit the Cubs in January 1950 to return to the field in the minor leagues. Wrigley imported Wid Mathews, a Branch Rickey disciple, from Brooklyn to replace Grimm.
The trade for Sauer looked even better during the 1950 campaign but the Cubs didn't. They were last in fielding, last in hitting and next-to-last in pitching as well as in the standings. Schmitz' sad record of 10-16 paled in negative comparison to Bob Rush's 13-20. Sauer, now hailed as the "Mayor of Wrigley Field," drove in 103 runs, hit 32 home runs and batted .274. Pafko led the team in batting at .304, hit 36 homers and drove in 93 runs.
From Baseball, Chicago Style: A Tale of Two Teams, One City by Jerome Holtzman and George Vass.
Copyright © 2001 by Bonus Books, Inc.. Excerpted with permission.