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McGRATH: 1983 White Sox don’t get the respect they deserve

Chicago White Sox' LaMarr Hoyt is congratulated by Richard Dotsleft manager Tony LaRussafter he beBaltimore Orioles 2-1 Wednesday Oct. 6

Chicago White Sox' LaMarr Hoyt, is congratulated by Richard Dotson, left, and manager Tony LaRussa after he beat the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 Wednesday, Oct. 6, 1983 in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

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Updated: February 28, 2013 7:07AM



A question for Tony La Russa’s consideration as he awaits the invitation to Cooperstown that’s almost certain to arrive next winter: Which cap to wear? The Hall of Fame makes the call, but the honoree has some input.

History suggests the Cardinals. La Russa spent 16 of his 33 managerial seasons in St. Louis, collecting 52 percent of his 2,728 victories, three of his six pennants and two of his three World Series crowns.

But there are enough Cardinals in Cooperstown to field a team or two, with Whitey Herzog and Red Schoendienst available to manage. Oakland, La Russa’s base for 10 years, isn’t nearly as prominent. Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley were inducted wearing Athletics caps, but Reggie Jackson went in as a Yankee and Catfish Hunter as a Generic, unable to choose between the Yankees and A’s.

La Russa’s success and longevity elsewhere obscure the origin of his road to Cooperstown: Chicago. In 1979, Bill Veeck and Roland Hemond hired him to manage the White Sox at age 34. He had them in the playoffs four years later. His 1983 team was saluted at SoxFest this weekend and will be celebrated throughout the coming season in honor of its 30-year anniversary.

Fine idea. In ending a 24-year playoff drought in the city, the
’83 White Sox stamped themselves as one of the strongest teams in Chicago history. They were 46-15 from Aug. 1 till the end of the season, finishing with 99 victories and a 20-game bulge on the Royals in the American League West. They had a plus-150 run differential, outscoring their opponents 800-650. They offered an ideal balance of power (157 home runs) and speed (165 steals). Starters LaMarr Hoyt, Richard Dotson, Floyd Bannister and Britt Burns were an inconceivable 42-5 after the All-Star break. The Sox claimed the AL Cy Young Award winner (Hoyt), Rookie of the Year (Ron Kittle) and Manager of the Year (La Russa) and drew 2 million fans (2,132,821) for the first time in franchise history.

‘‘Tony had really grown into the job by then and had a fantastic year,’’ Hemond recalled. ‘‘We had a good club.’’

But it’s rarely cited as being among the best in Chicago.

‘‘We got off to a slow start — 16-24 — and the fans might have been skeptical,’’ Hemond said. ‘‘Plus, Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall had really been hard on us when they were the broadcasters, especially on Tony. That might have turned some people against us.’’

La Russa wasn’t afraid to surround himself with smart people: Dave Duncan (pitching), Charlie Lau (hitting) and Jim Leyland (third base) were on his coaching staff that season.

Hemond also came into his own. In its third year of ownership, the Jerry Reinsdorf-Eddie Einhorn group gave Hemond resources he never had known while overseeing Veeck’s patchwork product. Hoyt, Dotson, Kittle, Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski and Rudy Law all arrived via Hemond-engineered deals, along with a deep supporting cast.

‘‘Having the flexibility to make moves made a big difference,’’ Hemond said modestly. ‘‘Jerry and Eddie were very supportive.’’

But it all came apart in a four-game loss to the Orioles in the AL Championship Series. The Sox managed only three runs in the four games, and the immortal Tito Landrum sent them home for the winter when he crushed an upper-deck homer against Burns to break up a scoreless game in the 10th inning of Game 4.

Wait till next year turned out to be a hollow promise, as Hoyt’s personal life veered off the tracks and injuries beset other stars, resulting in a fifth-place finish in 1984. Nine years would pass before the Sox would revisit the playoffs. La Russa, who was fired three months into the disastrous Year of the Hawk, by then had banked three pennants and a World Series title as the A’s manager.

‘‘Tony was always a tough guy, but Chicago made him tougher,’’ Hemond said.

The ’83 Sox were built to win but not to last. Thus, they’re something of an afterthought in Chicago baseball lore. They’re not nearly as revered as, say, the ’77 South Side Hit Men, who didn’t win anything, or the ’84 Cubs, who gave birth to an enduring North Side phenomenon.

Or even the ’69 Cubs, whose epic collapse remains the standard by which Chicago sports failures are measured.

‘‘The ’64 Phillies are despised in Philadelphia; the ’69 Cubs collapsed just as badly, and they’re beloved here,’’ said Steve Stone, a 35-year observer of the Chicago baseball scene. ‘‘Fans are funny.’’



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