Friday, January 07, 2005

The rotation that time forgot

With the Yankees recent potential trade that has almost gone through for Randy Johnson, many folk, including, have been proclaiming the Yankees as having one of the best rotations ever. Johnson will be joining Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown, Catfish Hunter, a robot clone of Whitey Ford and Tommy John, who in an effort to revive his career, had Curt Schilling surgery performed on his ankle.

ESPN went so far as to list some of the all-time great pitching rotations ever. While actually touting a White Sox rotation (the 1964 staff of Gary Peters, Juan Pizarro, Joel Horlen and John Buzhardt) one of the more historic staffs garnered nary a mention.

The 1920 White Sox were a talented team. After dominating the American League in 1919 they lost the World Series in what soon became known as the Black Sox scandal. The Sox would continue their dominance in 1920 but late in the season, owner Charles Comiskey benched several players involved in the scandal which led to the White Sox finishing two games behind the Cleveland Indians in the standings.

The rotation that season set a mark that has only been equalled once in history. The four members of the rotation each won twenty games apiece. The 1971 Baltimore Orioles would also match that mark. Furthermore, the staff was poised for even greater success if not for the suspensions of the eight members of the team accused of being involved in fixing the World Series.

The 1920 staff was led by Urban "Red" Faber. Faber had established himself as one of the top pitchers in the league but was limited in role during the 1919 season because of injuries. In 1920, he started more games than any pitcher in the league and was one of the top pitchers, going 23-13 with an ERA of 2.99. Faber continued on as a successful pitcher, spending twenty seasons in all with the White Sox, winning twenty games four times before being elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.

The number two man was young southpaw Claude "Lefty" Williams. Despite an ERA near the league average, Williams posted a 22-14 record at the age of 27. The diminutive pitcher (a listed 5'9", 165 pounds) had established himself as one of the premiere control pitchers in baseball, throwing a difficult curve that was able to drop in at the batter's knees. After his suspension from baseball, Williams operated a bar in Chicago where he played semi-pro baseball for many years. His 82-48 record is the highest winning percentage of any White Sox pitcher in history.

Whereas the career of Lefty Williams was shortened and the potential greatness unrealized, the same can not be said of Eddie "Knuckles" Cicotte. In 1920, at the age of 36, Cicotte went 21-10, winning 20 games for the third time in four seasons. He also three 300 innings for the third time in four years. With his advanced age (he would have been the second oldest pitcher in the league in 1921), there is a question of how much longer the chronically sore-armed pitcher would continue. Cicotte's success was as much psychological as physical, though. Cicotte was one of the last pitchers who legally threw a "shineball", a pitch where the application of shoeshine to the ball would cause the ball to move with an unexpected trajectory. Like the legendary Hall of Famer and spitballer Gaylord Perry, Cicotte was as successful not throwing the pitch as he was doctoring the ball. With feints and gestures Cicotte would keep opposing batters guessing as to whether or not the shineball was being thrown. Add in the knuckleball which earned him his nickname and Cicotte had a reperotire that did not involve taxing his arm. He may have been able to post several more years which may have made him a candidate for the Hall.

The fourth and final member of the rotation was Dickie Kerr. Kerr is known mostly for winning the third and sixth games of the 1919 Series and wreaking financial havoc amongst those involved in the fixing of the Series. Kerr, 26, went 21-9 in 1920. In 1921, with Williams and Cicotte gone as well as star players Buck Weaver, Joe Jackson and Hap Felsch, Kerr was thrust into the role of the number two starter behind Faber. With a decimated defense and a lack of offensive punch, the Sox finished seventh in the league with a 62-92 record. In the offseason, Comiskey offered Kerr a new contract with a five hundred dollar paycut (in a time when a pitcher of Kerr's service likely earned about $2000 annually). Kerr refused to sign and sat out the season. Despite not being involved in the Black Sox scandal, Kerr still found himself blacklisted for his refusal to sign. He played semi-professional baseball for several years before negotiating a return to the White Sox in 1925. Kerr appeared in twelve games before retiring.

It's difficult not to wonder the what-ifs of this group. Faber, one of the Clean Sox, followed the management line and found himself in the Hall of Fame (although his lack of involvement in the scandal may have aided in his selection. It's not unreasonable to think that Cicotte could have won 92 games over the next four or five seasons which would have given him three hundred career victories and guaranteed a spot in Cooperstown. Williams, given his young age and track record to that point, seems as if he, too, could have had a Hall-worthy career. And Kerr, if able to pitch in the fourth position on the team, could surely have been successful for years to come.

What-ifs aren't what happened and the group without Faber had one full season in the major leagues after 1920. Still, the 1920 season was a great one for the White Sox, and provided baseball with one of the best rotations ever.


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