MAY 13, 1957
Asked in 1953 by Chicago White Sox general manager Frank Lane why he didn't brush back plate-hogging Philadelphia A's second baseman Cass Michaels, Chicago lefthander Billy Pierce replied that he and Michaels used to bowl together. Despite being too nice to throw chin music at Michaels or almost anyone else, Pierce won 211 games and was by far the American League's winningest southpaw of the 1950s—Whitey who?—yet never received more than seven Hall of Fame votes from the baseball writers. Maybe there's truth to that adage about guys like Pierce and where they finish. "They always criticized me," he says, "but it just wasn't the way I played the game."
In 1957, during Pierce's second straight 20-win season, Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich wrote that anyone who doubted that Pierce was the league's best lefty "is risking committal as an incurable psycho who can neither read the figures nor respond to reason." Called Billy the Kid because of his youthful face, adolescent build (5'11", 175 pounds) and high-pitched voice—he also neither drank nor smoked—Pierce lost the fizz on his fastball in the late '50s and early '60s and retired as a San Francisco Giant after the '64 season.
Pierce, 73, has worn many caps since, as part owner of an Oldsmobile and Cadillac dealership for two years, working briefly as a stockbroker and informally scouting talent for the White Sox. (He found 1983 AL Rookie of the Year Ron Kittle playing semipro ball in '78.) Finally he became stuck on envelopes, working as a salesman and p.r. man for the Continental Envelope Company in Chicago for 23 years before retiring in '97. Selling and promoting were ideal pursuits for him. "You use the same competitive drive getting a customer as you do playing baseball," Pierce says, "and being nice doesn't hurt."
Pierce lives in the Windy City suburb of Lemont, Ill., with Gloria, his wife of 51 years. (They have three grown children and five grandchildren.) He spends much of his time working for the Chicago Baseball Cancer Charity, which has raised $9.5 million for research at two area hospitals. Pierce, who has been president of the organization for nine years, has been giving time to the cause for 29 years. He increased his involvement after Nellie Fox, his roommate for 11 seasons on the White Sox, died of skin cancer in 1975.
Lobbying by Pierce and other members of the Nellie Fox Society helped Fox get inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997. The group is now called the Billy Pierce Society, but Pierce realizes it's unlikely he'll be voted into Cooperstown. "If you can look back and have very good memories," he says, "what more can you ask?"