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Owner Bill Veeck called Smith the "greatest .237 hitter I've ever seen." To shake the nonchalant leftfielder out of a slump in '59, Veeck held Al Smith Night. Any fan named Smith was admitted free. With the leftfield grandstand full of his cheering namesakes, Smith struck out, hit into a double play and a dropped a fly ball that gave Boston a 7-6 win. Perhaps the most enduring image of the '59 World Series, which Chicago lost to Los Angeles in six games, is that of Mr. .237 getting doused with beer as he watches a Dodgers homer sail out.
They say that only God can make a pitcher, but the devil makes knuckleballers. So credit Satan for Wilhelm and Wood. Their fiendish pitches took wild dives and unplanned detours. Hitters couldn't hit them, and catchers couldn't catch them. But everybody cursed them.
On the theory that the only way to beat the damn Yankees was with a dependable bullpen, Chicago sent Smith and Aparicio to Baltimore for three players and Wilhelm. The presence of the 39-year-old righty knuckleballer wasn't enough to break up New York's pennant monopoly, but it did keep the Sox within a flutter or two of first. Over a five-year-stretch the game's preeminent mop-up man posted ERAs of 1.99, 1.81, 1.66, 1.31 and 1.73. If he hadn't been picked--at 45!--in the '69 expansion draft, his ERA might have been a minus.
Wilhelm's disciple, Wood, was also a reliever. The lefthander became a full-time starter only in '71, when he went 22-13 and pitched 334 innings. The following year he went 24-17 in 377 innings, the most in the league since Walsh in '12. Wood seemed on his way to 30 victories when the team's hitters reverted to Dead Ball era form. Seven times he tried for his 25th, and seven times he came up empty. Wood won 57 games over the next five seasons. He also lost 60.
RON KITTLE, 1982-86, '89-90, '91
The big, luggable son of a Gary, Ind., ironworker was discovered playing semipro ball in the Windy City. After undergoing spinal surgery for a neck broken by unknown causes ("It must have been playing baseball, because I don't remember being hit by a car"), he reached the majors at age 25. In '83 the rookie leftfielder propelled the Sox to victory in the AL West. Chicago may have built its 99-63 record by "winning ugly," but losing 3-1 to Baltimore in the ALCS wasn't any prettier.
An all-or-nothing slugger, Kittle from '83 to '85 averaged 31 home runs and 126 strikeouts. In '86 his homer total dropped to 21, and Chicago finished the season in fifth; Kittle finished it in New York--traded to the Yankees. No Sox outfielder has made it to the Hall of Fame. Kittle won't be the exception.
FRANK (THE BIG HURT) THOMAS, 1990-2005
After Kittle went off the boil, Chicago didn't make another title run until August 1990, when the 22-year-old Thomas was called up. In 60 games the 6'5", 240-pound first baseman hit .330. The Sox landed in second that year and in '91, when Thomas hit 32 homers. Seventy-nine more over the '93 and '94 seasons carried Chicago to back-to-back division crowns. The Big Hurt established himself as the greatest hitter in franchise history and one of the greatest of his generation. In '97 he became the only player in history to hit .300 with at least 20 homers, 100 RBIs, 100 walks and 100 runs scored through seven consecutive seasons.