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Allen a powerful difference in pivotal season

Allen a powerful difference in pivotal season

The 1972 baseball season on the South Side of Chicago didn't culminate in a long-awaited World Series title. It didn't even produce an American League West Division crown, as the White Sox finished in second place behind the eventual world champion Oakland A's. But the excitement that built over the course of that summer holds a very special place in the club's history, and very well might have saved the team from leaving its long-time home in the Windy City.

In a very real sense, the magic of 1972 -- which saw the Sox finish 87-67 and just 5 1/2 games behind the powerful A's of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Joe Rudi and Sal Bando -- began growing its roots during the season before. That's when general manager Roland Hemond and manager Chuck Tanner collaborated for their first full year in an effort to rescue a franchise that lost 95 games in l968, 94 in 1969 and 106 in 1970.

The '71 campaign was a welcome development, since disheartened, frustrated Sox fans had stopped coming out to the ballpark. They posted a woeful attendance mark just below 500,000 in 1970, about 600,000 fewer than the AL average. The team finished in third place, four games below .500 (79-83) and 22 games behind the A's, but it was an exciting, hustling team that gave the fans hope as they watched their Sox perform in the spirit of their ultra-enthusiastic and positive thinking manager.

Bill Melton led the offense with 33 home runs and 86 RBIs, becoming the first White Sox player to lead the league in homers. Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood was the ace of the pitching staff with 22 victories and a sparkling 1.91 ERA. The fans responded, as attendance increased by almost 340,000.

Now, seemingly headed in the right direction, the Sox were looking for a piece or two to take the next step. The team's identity began to take shape on December 2, 197l, when that "piece or two" was added. On that date, the Sox traded promising infielder Rich McKinney to the New York Yankees for right-hander Stan Bahnsen. And, in one of most pivotal deals in Sox history, Hemond dealt talented left-hander Tommy John and infielder Steve Huntz to the Dodgers for slugger Dick Allen.

Though Bahnsen was a terrific addition to the pitching staff, becoming a 20-game winner, it was Allen who vaulted the Sox into contender status and brought the buzz back to the stadium.

Though controversial, outspoken and often misunderstood, Allen was a proven force in the National League for eight full seasons from 1964-71 before he suited up for the White Sox from 1972-74. He played six years with the Phillies, and one year each for the Cardinals and Dodgers, with stints at third base, first base and in the outfield.

During his tenure in the NL, he hit .300 or higher four times, drove in 85 or more runs in seven seasons (with two 100-plus RBI campaigns) and averaged nearly 30 home runs per year, highlighted by the 1966 season when he smashed 40 homers. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1964, when he led the league in runs scored (125), total bases (352) and triples (13). On top of those stats, he was a four-time NL All-Star.

"He was as gifted a ballplayer as there ever was in the Major Leagues," said the late Hall of Fame baseball writer and official baseball historian Jerome Holtzman.

"Allen was scary at the plate," said former Major League pitcher Mickey Lolich. "When he came up there, he had your attention. I want to forget a couple of line drives he hit off me, but I can't because they almost killed me."

The great Willie Mays quipped that Allen, with his enormous power and lethal 40-ounce bat, hit the ball harder than anyone he'd ever seen.

There was no confusion as to why the Sox thirsted to acquire Allen. They were hoping to get lightning in a bottle. They got it, and then some.

Playing for family friend Tanner, who grew up near Allen's hometown of Wampum, Pa., the slugger settled in nicely at first base and responded beautifully to the skipper's easy-going style. He had a season for the ages, the likes of which White Sox fans had never witnessed from a hometown player.

Allen won the 1972 AL Most Valuable Player award, and led the league in home runs (37), RBIs (113), walks (99), on-base percentage (.420), slugging percentage (.603) and was named to the league's All-Star squad.

Those numbers speak for themselves, but there was much more to his season when witnessed on a daily basis. Some of his exploits were the stuff of legend. His mammoth home runs, whether they reached Comiskey Park's distant bleachers or traveled over the roof, drew oohs and aahs from the fans. On July 31, 1972, he became the first modern-day player to hit two inside-the-park home runs in the same game -- accomplishing the feat in Minnesota against future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven.

Perhaps the most memorable moment that year came on June 4 at Comiskey Park. Allen was called on to pinch-hit with two outs and a man on in the bottom of the ninth inning, with the White Sox trailing the New York Yankees, 4-3. The slugger proceeded to clout an upper-deck shot off Yankee reliever Sparky Lyle to win the game and give the Sox a rare doubleheader sweep over New York.

The Sox made a major step toward respectability in 1971 without a host of star offensive players, and apart from Allen, the same held true in '72. The lineup had defensive stalwart Ed Herrmann behind the plate, Mike Andrews at second and Rich Morales and Luis Alvarado sharing the duties at shortstop. The outfield had the likes of Carlos May, Jay Johnstone, Rick Reichardt and Walt "No Neck" Williams. Ed Spiezio played the most games at third with Melton limited to 57 games and seven homers due to a ruptured disc in his back.Statistically, Allen led the team in virtually all the major offensive categories, and tied May for the highest batting average at .308. The lone exception was the speedy outfielder Pat Kelly, who was the team's stolen base leader with 32.

Without question, Allen's arrival and a solid pitching staff, highlighted by the continued brilliance and endurance of Wood, were the team's strengths.Wood returned with his second consecutive 20-win season (24), while making 49 starts and pitching 376 2/3 innings, leading the league in all three categories and compiling an outstanding 2.51 ERA.

Behind Wood was the newly-acquired Bahnsen, who won 21 games in 43 starts. Tom Bradley was the third starter in the rotation, winning 15 with a 2.98 ERA. Dave Lemonds, who saw action as both a starter and reliever, posted a 2.95 ERA in 31 appearances.

The bullpen was manned by 20-year-old Terry Forster, who saved 29 games to rank second in the American League that year. It is also interesting to note that a rookie by the name of Rich Gossage, also 20, had a 7-1 record and appeared almost exclusively in relief, chalking up a pair of saves. Better known later in his career as "Goose," he holds the distinction of being the lone Hall of Famer among the '72 White Sox.

Beyond all of these facts, it may not be an exaggeration to say that the '72 team could have saved the White Sox for Chicago. During this time, word was that both Seattle and St. Petersburg were possible destinations for the franchise, which had hit rock bottom in 1970 on the field and at the gate.

But 1972 happened. The transformative Allen came on the scene. Wood, Bahnsen and Forster bolstered the pitching staff. Almost 1.2 million fans were enjoying themselves again, and happily, four decades later, the White Sox remain a proud and iconic presence in the city of Chicago.

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