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HIGHLAND: Local author details pivotal Sox season
By JOHN BURBRIDGE   - 03/09/2006


HIGLAND | In the perfect Cub parallel universe, Bartman's a Sox fan, Sosa's as clean as Mister Rogers and 2005 and 1977 didn't happen.


Put it this way, if 1977 didn't happen -- or just unfolded as expected -- 2005 doesn't occur. And the lyrics "Nah, nah, nah, nah ... hey, hey, hey ... goodbye" are morphed into a mocking North side chant.

Longtime South side fan Dan Helpingstine remembers that tenuous juncture.

"People were picking the Sox to finish lower than the expansion team (Seattle Mariners) in their division," said Helpingstine of Highland. "And at the time, though many fans didn't know it, the team was going broke."

After the 1976 season which drew abysmal attendance, the Sox unloaded the popular and all-star-agile shortstop Bucky Dent, and intimidating reliever Rich Gossage, whose violent whip-strength motion and near-triple-digit heater sparked fear in even Cub fans. Both players would later become World Series heroes for the New York Yankees.

"Bill Veeck (who formed and headed the group purchase of the team in 1976) knew he couldn't sign those players when they became free agents the following year," Helpingstine said. "So he basically traded them for some more future free agents he wouldn't be able to sign."

Another troublesome thing for Sox that year was the upstart spring out of the gate by the Cubs. The Cubs also lost some fan favorites that offseason ... Rick Monday and defending batting champ Bill Madlock ... yet managed to lead their division by as many as 14 games by June. The Cubs were taking over the city, and Sox were on verge of getting their walking papers.

But then some of Veeck's "gambles" and "zisks" ... eh ... make that risks began to pay off.

"They began hitting the ball the way Sox fans have never seen," Helpingstine said. "Two-run rallies were now four- ... five- ... six-run rallies."

Leading the offensive onslaught were former National League vet Richie Zisk and left-handed freeswinger Oscar Gamble. In a home ballpark that could turn some of today's steroid junkies into warning-track wimps, Zisk and Gamble slugged 30 and 31 homers, respectively. Eric Solderholm added a career-high 25 helping the Sox attain a team record in home runs as well as first place in the American League West going into August.

Though lack of pitching, oft-shaky defense and the Kansas City Royals eventually caught up with the Sox, 1977 was an important and pivotal year in team history as Helpingstine illustrates in his new book South Side Hitmen: The Story of the 1977 Chicago White Sox.

"All of a sudden, it was fun to go to the ballpark," Helpingstine said. "And it was a turning point. Ten years before (1967), the Sox got eliminated the final weekend of the season when they couldn't score any runs against the Senators. They had great pitching ... played a lot of small ball. That was the White Sox, scrappy but boring.

"In 1977, they went with another approach and they did it at the right time."

It's the third book by Helpingstine, which include Hope and Despair: A Fan's Memories of the Chicago White Sox (2002) and Chicago White Sox: 1959 and Beyond (2004).

His latter two books have been published by Arcadia Publishing, which specializes in local and regional history books.

"They (Arcadia) are big on visuals, and like my last book, there are plenty of rare photos," Helpingstine said.

Indeed. Though people may associate spilt beer and disco demolition with Sox vintage photos, South Side Hitmen is graced with sharp-constrasted black-and-white ghosts ... including many of the Old Comiskey Park. And if baseball photos are defined by their backgrounds, you can't helped but feel the sublime nature of Jim Essian and Solderholm trapping vanquished former Sox star Bill Melton (then an Indian) in a rundown with an empty upper-deck looming in the distance.

Many of the flicks are compliments of Leo Bauby's vast collection.

South Side Hitmen is plotted like a novel -- the history that proceeded the team, the team itself and the subsequent yet unavoidable dismantling. The latter pages pay homage to Veeck, whom Helpingstine aptly describes as "a man who lived a full life."

With a little luck and a lot of thunder, Veeck kept the Sox in Chicago long enough for a group headed by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn to take the reins in January of 1981.

Will Helpingstine -- who is working on two novels: one based on his published short story Angel Face -- join the bandwagon ranks of other writers who are chronicling the 2005 World Series run?

"Maybe 10 years from now," Helpingstine said. "That will give me a chance to step back and better examine what had happen ... to witness its true impact on history."

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