The Chicago White Sox have had some pretty fair hurlers in their history—from Big Ed Walsh to Ted Lyons to the Big Four of 2005. During the Fabulous Fifties, the go-to lefty on the South Side was Billy Pierce. What he lacked in size he made up for with a darting fastball and hard-biting slider, both of which exploded from behind his signature leg kick. "Billy the Kid" won 211 big-league games, including 186 for the Pale Hose. He was known for finishing what he started, leading the A.L. in complete games three years in a row and pitching a three-hit World Series gem for the San Francisco Giants in 1962 at the age of 35.

Award-winning sports journalist Mark Liptak interviewed Pierce for the website White Sox Interactive, and with his permission, we have transformed their conversation into a JockBio Classic.

Walter William "Billy" Pierce was born on April 2, 1927 in Detroit, Michigan. His family owned a drug store close to Briggs Stadium, and Billy got to meet several players while working as a clerk. A superb all-around athlete, he set his sights on a pro baseball career while still in high school—- though Billy always believed he would end up a doctor.

 


How did your involvement with baseball begin?

   

Like with most kids in those days, we played in the schoolyards, played in the alley, played all the time. Nothing was organized, we just played. The old cliché is true, when we broke a bat, we’d nail it back together. When the ball blew apart, we’d wrap tape around it and keep playing, even though the ball looked like a football. We’d play wherever we could. If we couldn’t play baseball, we’d play softball. We just had fun playing. It wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 that I finally played on an organized team.

 

When did you realize you were good and could perhaps play at the pro level?

   

Playing in the pros never entered my mind. I played a lot and was pretty good. You know how when kids get together and play, they choose up sides? I was always one of the first kids picked.

I was a first baseman when I was 14, and the kid who was a pitcher on our team left and went to another club because they had better looking uniforms. We were only about a week from starting play in our league and I threw hard, so I became the pitcher. I was wild in those days! When I was in high school, the scouts came around to see me but I wanted to be a doctor. My dad was a pharmacist and I took a lot of classes to get ready for medical school. I had a scholarship, but I thought I’d try to play for two or three years and if it didn’t work out, I’d use the scholarship and go back to school.


Despite his erratic control and his 5-10, 165-pound frame, Billy was one of the best left-handed prospects in the Midwest. He signed with the hometown Tigers in 1945 and began his pro career with the Buffalo Bisons of the International League. He made 15 appearances in his first pro season, posting a 5–7 record with 5.42 ERA. In 83 innings, Billy walked more hitters (71) than he struck out (57).

Nevertheless, he was promoted to the big club for the September pennant drive, as the Tigers battled the Washington Senators for the American League title. Several rainouts at the end of the month left the Tigers a game ahead of Washington but still with a doubleheader to play against the St. Louis Browns. The Senators had concluded their schedule with 87 wins, one behind of the Tigers.

Detroit faced St. Louis—the club that had edged them for the flag in 1944 by one game. If the Browns swept, the Tigers would finish second. Detroit won the first game on a dramatic ninth-inning grand slam by Hank Greenberg, making the second game unnecessary. Billy, who pitched just 10 innings that fall, was not on the World Series roster. Detroit defeated the Chicago Cubs in seven games.


Billy Pierce,
1957 Sports Illustrated
   

You were a hometown kid playing for the hometown team. How did it feel the first time you pitched in the big leagues?

   

It was very exciting. It was in Boston—I’ll never forget it. I was 18 years old. The bullpen in those days was a long way away from the mound and as I walked in our right fielder, the center fielder and second baseman were shouting encouragement to me as I passed them. In those days, the veterans weren’t that hard on us rookies.


Billy returned to Buffalo the following season and spent two full years with the Bisons honing his craft. In 1947, he went 14–8 but still walked a ton of batters. The Tigers, meanwhile, slipped into mediocrity. One of their problems was behind the plate, where 33-year-old Bob Swift wasn't getting it done.

 

On November 10, 1948, you were traded to the White Sox for catcher Aaron Robinson. How did you hear about the deal and how did you feel?

   

I was at my girlfriend’s house—she’s now my wife—and we heard it over the radio. A DJ came on with a sports bulletin that said I was traded to Chicago. I wasn’t very happy about it because it was just in the paper about two weeks before that the Tigers were going to rebuild and give all of us kids a chance to play.

I did not want to go to Chicago. It’s not that I didn’t like Chicago, but in those days the stockyards were going full force and when you played in Comiskey Park, especially at night, the smell was unbelievable! It turned out to be a great break for me—the Sox had lost like a hundred games the year before and they were going to give everybody a chance.



Billy joined Chicago in 1949 with a new manager, Ted Onslow, and the league’s most punchless offense. Billy was the third arm in a rotation that included Bill Wight, Randy Gumpert and Bob Kuzava. In his first season, he made 26 starts, went 7–15, and led the club in both strikeouts and walks. The White Sox still improved by 10 games, winning 63 times.

After a disastrous start in 1950, Onslow was canned and Red Corriden took the helm. He made Billy the staff ace, and the lefty responded with 12 victories and 118 strikeouts. Although the White Sox won just 60 times, Nellie Fox and Chico Carrasquel were now ensconced as the team’s DP duo. (Billy and Nellie would room together for 11 years). Minnie Minoso, meanwhile, would arrive the following spring. The Go-Go Sox were beginning to take shape.


Billy Pierce, 1955 Bowman
   

In 1951, Paul Richards took over as manager, you had your first winning season and the White Sox started to take off. What was it about Richards that helped you personally and the team collectively?

   

Paul was the best teaching manager I ever had anywhere, without question. Frank Lane made all the trades and brought the players in, guys like myself, and Nellie Fox. But Richards was always working with us. Paul, for example, changed the bat that Nellie was using to that "bottle" style and turned him into a great hitter.


The White Sox posted winning records in each of the next four seasons under Richards, who left the club in September of 1954. During those years, Billy flourished. From 1951 to 1953, he won 48 games and led the A.L. with 186 strikeouts in the '53 campaign.  A sore arm and an off-year in 1954 (9–10) was merely a prelude to the young pitcher’s prime seasons. Billy had learned how to pitch effectively in the majors, and he was no longer hurting himself with walks. The key was abandoning his curve and replacing it with a slider.

   

Richards left to take over the Baltimore franchise, but your career continued to prosper under Marty Marion, an underrated manager. What was it like to play for him?

   

Very good. I was surprised when he was left out and the Sox replaced him, because we played well under him. He wasn’t as good a teacher as Paul was, but then nobody was. Still, he was very, very good.


Over the next four years, Billy won 15, 20, 20 and 17 games, respectively. He led the A.L. with a 1.97 ERA in 1955 and tied for the lead in victories in 1957. That same year he was a Sport Magazine and Sports Illustrated cover boy.

In 1958, Billy took a perfect game into the ninth inning. In 1959, he pitched hurt again and posted a 14-15 record, but the White Sox outdistanced the Cleveland Indians for the pennant. In the World Series against the Los Angels Dodgers, manager Al Lopez opted to go with a three-man rotation of Early Wynn, Bob Shaw and Dick Donovan, leaving Billy to join Turk Lown and Gerry Staley as the main guys out of the bullpen. After demolishing the Dodgers in Game 1, the Sox lost three straight and never recovered, bowing out in six games to Los Angeles.


Billy Pierce, 1957 Sport
   

Your career continued to roll along culminating with the pennant year of 1959. For the city and the team, it was the pinnacle of success, but for you personally, it wasn’t your best season. You missed six weeks with a hip injury and when it came time for the World Series, Lopez passed you over for a starting assignment. Older Sox fans still insist that, if you pitch Game 2, instead of Bob Shaw, and win, the Sox take the Series. How difficult was that for you, being relegated to only four innings of relief work?

   

It was very tough. It was a real hard thing. I appeared in three games and pitched well, but it was a disappointment. I still wanted the Sox to win—after all, they were my teammates. But I was very glad when it was over. Let’s put it this way, I left town pretty quickly to try to forget about it all.

   

Did that affect your relationship with Lopez, and what did you think of him as a manager?

   

Al was a real good manager. His record shows that. He was a solid percentage baseball guy. I honestly think the controversy affected Al more then me. I wasn’t the culprit—all I could do was what he told me. He had to listen to the fans who wanted me to pitch, but I couldn’t do anything about it.

   

Still clinching the pennant had to be exciting.

   

It was tremendous, the crowd that we had at Midway Airport! The toughest part about the trip was getting back home because so many people were out. I remember Earl Torgeson and I were in a cab and we were going down Garfield Boulevard, it had to be one or two o’clock in the morning, and fans were everywhere. They had flares lit up on the front lawns, everyone was outside their homes talking and celebrating.


Billy played two more seasons for the White Sox, going 14–7 and 10–9. Advancing age and a couple of ill-advised trades crippled the club, resulting in third- and fourth-place finishes.


 

After the 1961 season, you were traded to the Giants for pitchers Eddie Fisher, Dom Zanni and outfielder Bob Farley. As a Chicago baseball "institution," were you shocked by what happened or did you look at it as a fresh start with a good San Francisco team?

   

Truthfully the way things were going the last few seasons, I expected it. All I did was ask [Sox GM] Ed Short that if something happened that he please call me first before he told the media. Remember, the last time I was traded I heard about it over the radio.

Short did call me one day and said he made a deal with San Francisco. I thanked him for letting me know and that was it.

I was really worried about how I was going to tell my son about it. He was nine or ten at the time and grew up around Louie Aparicio, Nellie Fox and the guys. So my wife and I told him, and he looked up and said, "Great, now I get to meet Willie Mays!" So that was it, we got his seal of approval and moved on.


 


Billy had a nice year for the Giants in 1962. He won 16 times in 23 starts as the staff’s elder statesman, but it was his final start of the year that was his best. The Giants and Dodgers completed the regular season with 101 wins each, necessitating a best-of-three playoff. Billy pitched Game 1 and allowed just three hits, as San Francisco won 8–0. The Dodgers took the next game and led the rubber match after eight innings. However, the Giants pushed four runs across the plate in the ninth to capture the pennant.

Billy started Game 3 of the World Series and blanked the New York Yankees for six innings. The Giants could not score against Bill Stafford, either. The Yanks got to Billy in the seventh and ended up claiming a 3–2 victory to grab a 2–1 lead in the series. The teams split the next two games, and manager Alvin Dark handed the ball to Billy for Game 6. He responded with a three-hitter and a 5–2 win to force a seventh game. The Yankees won when Willie McCovey lined out in the ninth inning with the bases loaded.


Billy Pierce,
1963 Topps World Series
   

You finally got a chance to start in the ’62 World Series against your old friends, the Yankees. Did you at least get a measure of personal satisfaction out of that?

   
Without question. That whole period coming so late in my career—the playoff games against the Dodgers and then the World Series with the Yankees was very special. It was an exciting ten-day period especially, like I said, because it came so late for me.
   

After the 1964 season and with eighteen years of service, you retired. Was that an easy decision for you?

   

After the 1963 season, I decided with my wife that the ’64 season would be it. In the fall of ’63, we moved to Chicago, where we’ve been ever since. This is where we wanted to be. Once I had made up my mind to retire, it was easy to accept. I was very willing to leave. It was much easier because it was on my terms.


   
Looking back, which year was your best season?
 

I’d have to say 1955. I led the league that year in ERA at 1.97. It had been like twenty years since anybody ended a season with an ERA under 2.00. I only went 15-10 that season, but I lost four games by the score of 1-0. I think I pitched as well as I did in 1956 when I won twenty games, but I just didn’t get some breaks. I also think that was my best year because in 1954 I was a little sore, so in 1955 the Sox gave me a little more rest between starts.


   
What was your best pitch and how hard did you throw?
   
 

I wish I could tell you. I know I read where Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams both said I threw very hard, but we didn’t have radar guns in those days. At first my best pitch was my fastball, but then about 1953 to 1955, I developed a good slider—a real hard slider that would break in on guys six or seven inches. It would dart in on fellows.

   
Today many scouts simply look at how fast kids throw, but pitching is more then just raw speed isn’t it?
   

Without a doubt. Speed is important, certainly that would be the first thing I looked for, but you’ve got to have some movement on a pitch. A straight fastball doesn’t do you any good. You have to have some natural movement on it. You also have to stay ahead of hitters. If you keep falling behind 2-0 in a count, you’re going to get hurt.


 

What was the secret to your success, especially for a guy your size?

   

At em’ balls! Seriously, I worked hard when I pitched. I never believed in that approach where you’ve got to pace yourself. The first inning was just as important as the others. I also felt I had to get the weak hitters out. You couldn’t afford to give up hits to the eighth- or ninth-place hitters. Those three-four-and-five guys were just too good to come up with guys on base.


   

You’ve lived in Chicago year-round for forty years. Today’s White Sox have myriad problems. Do you ever worry about the future of the franchise?

   

I did a few years ago, when you had all the talk about the Sox moving to Seattle or to Florida. I don’t now. I have confidence in current ownership. They do want to win. They got a new stadium built. I am disappointed in the attendance though. I remember before the ’94 strike when the Sox would draw at least twenty thousand a game. The strike was very detrimental to the fans, and a bad thing for the team. Chicago never recovered from it.


 

If you had the power and could change one thing about baseball today, what would that be?

   

I think ballplayers today don’t exert enough control over themselves. Today it’s all about the agents and the Players Association. I think free agency has also hurt fan interest. In the old days, teams would field the same guys year after year, and fans automatically knew who was on Boston or the White Sox. Today there’s so much movement the fans don’t know from one year to the next who’s playing where.

   

You were named to seven All-Star teams, started three of those games, appeared in four and pitched eleven innings, giving up two runs. This was when playing in the All Star Game meant something and you were facing the best hitters in the game.

   

It did. You basically pitched three innings. They’ve changed that philosophy over the years. It wasn’t considered an exhibition game back then, you played to win, you took it seriously. Just being there was an honor.

I remember the 1953 game. My wife was in the hospital, my son had just been born. I was starting the All-Star Game in Cincinnati thinking about both of them. What a gift. I also remember the 1955 game in Milwaukee. Mickey Mantle hit a ball into the trees outside of the stadium.



Billy Pierce, Exhibit
   

You also threw four one-hitters, the best remembered coming on the night of June 27, 1958. You took a perfect game into the ninth against the Washington Senators. You got the first two outs, then gave up a double just fair, to a guy named Ed Fitzgerald. What goes through a pitchers mind when he gets that close to the ultimate game?

   

At the time, I didn’t think it was that important. I was a team guy and we wound up winning the game. Sure I wanted to get him out. He was a first-ball, fastball hitter. We threw him a low breaking ball that he hit off the end of the bat. I won the game, though, and that was more important to me at the time. Over the years, however, I’ve had so many people tell me they were listening to the game on the radio or were at the park watching that I’ve wanted that one pitch back more now then I ever did then.


   

You also threw one-hitters on June 15, 1950 [against the Yankees], April 16, 1953 [against the Browns], and June 11, 1959 [at Washington]. Do you remember anything specific about those games, like who got the hit and in what inning?

   

The Yankees game, I remembered it rained a couple of times. Billy Johnson got a single to right field in the fifth inning. The St. Louis game, a guy named [Bobby] Young got a hit—a double I think— to right-center in the sixth. I don’t remember anything at all about the game at Washington. Whoever got the hit must have done it very early in the game.


   

Ted Williams was a friend of yours. Tell me, how did you pitch to him?

   

VERY carefully! He would absolutely kill a fastball. And if you should make him look bad on a swing and he’d grab his cap and pull it down tighter, you better be careful on your next pitch.  I faced a lot of great hitters but I don’t know of anybody who was better. He’s the only guy I know, who, when he came up to bat, the other guys would be watching him from the dugout and not going inside or using the restroom. I know he didn’t get along with the media, but he was well liked by the players. He was always helping guys, whether it was his teammates or guys on the other club.


   

You spend a lot of time now doing charity work for Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities. Tell us about that organization.

   

It was started more than 30 years ago. It does a tremendous job. During that time we’ve raised about ten and a half million dollars. Sixty percent of the funds go to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the other forty go to Children’s Memorial Hospital. We also sponsor Camp One Step At A Time, which is where kids go for a few weeks a year. The children who go have cancer or are getting over cancer. They have a great time. I actually got involved one year when I was invited to their golf tournament. Then Nellie Fox passed away because of cancer and I really got into it, I’ve been involved ever since. I’d also like to thank the Sox for all of their support over the years. Mr. Reinsdorf has been very generous with contributions to help the kids.


   

If someone reading this would like to make a contribution where can they send it?

   

They can send it to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Developmental Office, in care of Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities. It will go to the right place and I’d like to thank them for their help. Everyone has been affected by cancer in one way or another.


   

From talking with you, and from everything that I’ve read or heard about you, you are a very modest man. What would it mean to you and your family for you to get a call from Cooperstown saying you are now in the Hall Of Fame?

   

It would be a tremendous thrill, the culmination of my life, no question about it. My family and I would appreciate it very much. You have no way of knowing how the people vote, I’m sure all of them have their favorites, so we’ll just have to see.



Billy Pierce, TCMA card
   

Wrap up your career for me, will you

   

I had a wonderful career. The fans in Chicago couldn’t have been nicer to me and my family. I am very thankful to them.

 

     

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