Tony LaRussa is most identified with the St. Louis Cardinals in his Hall of Fame managerial career. Some might remember him with the Oakland A’s. But it was the 1983 Chicago White Sox that was LaRussa’s first team to reach the postseason. The White Sox won 99 games and pulled away from the rest of the old AL West before dropping a tough ALCS.
Chicago led the American League in runs scored, with an offense built around three highly productive veterans and one good newcomer. Carlton Fisk, the 35-year-old catcher, finished with a .355 on-base percentage and hit 26 home runs. First baseman Tom Paciorek, 36-years-old, hit .307. Greg Luzinski, the DH, and a key part of the Philadelphia Phillies’ playoff teams between 1976-81, had a .352 OBP and popped 32 home runs.
The up-and-comer was Ron Kittle, a 25-year-old leftfielder, who hit 35 home runs and finished with 100 RBI. Further support for the offense came from Harold Baines, with his 20 home runs and 99 RBI, and centerfield Rudy Law, who swiped 77 bases.
In spite of these players, the White Sox’ offensive production was a case of the whole exceeding the sum of the parts. They finished 8th in the 14-team American League in on-base percentage, sixth in slugging percentage, ninth in batting average and third in home runs. It’s hard to see how that equates to the best offense in the league, but that’s what they were after 162 games.
It’s less difficult how the Chicago pitching staff put together the third-best ERA in the AL. LaMarr Hoyt won 24 games, posted a 3.66 ERA in 260 innings of work and won the Cy Young Award. Richard Dotson won 22 games with an ERA of 3.23 in 240 innings of work. Floyd Bannister was a 16-game winner and also went over 200 innings. Britt Burns chipped in 173 innings and a 3.58 ERA.
LaRussa made the bullpen work with a combination of Dennis Lamp, Salome Barojas and 36-year-old Dick Tidrow, a part of the New York Yankee bullpens that won the World Series in 1977 and 1978. Barojas in particular, was highly effective, with a 2.47 ERA.
Chicago was sluggish out of the gate, splitting their first 24 games. Then they hit the skids, losing eight of nine, including series against AL East contenders in the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles. The White Sox stumbled into Memorial Day with a record of 19-24 and were seven games back of the defending AL West champion California Angels, and also had to climb over the division’s perennial power, the Kansas City Royals.
The summer started better, as Chicago took three wins out of a five-game set with Kansas City, and then went 12-7 in a schedule stretch of mostly division rivals. When the All-Star break arrived, the baseball world was converging on the South Side for the Mid-Summer Classic. The White Sox had climbed over .500, to 39-37 and were within 4 ½ games of first place. Chicago had Kansas City, California and Texas to climb over.
LaRussa’s team went 7-5 out of the break, and the other contenders struggled so badly that this was good enough them into a tie for first. Then, from July 25 to August 17, playing the best teams out of the superior AL East, the White Sox went 17-7 and by the time it was over, they were up six on the Royals, up eight on the Rangers and the Angels had collapsed.
August 19-24 was the key point when the race could have still tightened. Chicago would play seven games at Texas and at Kansas City. The White Sox were ready. They took the opener of a Friday doubleheader from the Rangers when Baines and Paciorek each had RBI singles in the 11th inning.
Chicago took the nightcap when Tidrow came on in the sixth inning with a 3-1 lead and worked four shutout innings, while the offense pulled away to a 6-1 win. Texas won on Saturday, but Chicago took the finale 3-1 behind a two-run shot from Fisk, a strong outing from Bannister and two-plus innings of good work from Barojas.
It was on to Kansas City, and Hoyt took the ball for the opener and threw a complete-game five-hitter. The Royals bounced back from that 3-1 loss with a blowout win on Tuesday night, but on Wednesday, this key road trip ended as it had begun. Dotson, as he had on Friday in Texas, worked nine innings, and the game went extras, this time tied 3-3. The White Sox also won this one, 4-3, with third baseman Vance Law getting three hits.
The progress the White Sox had been showing under LaRussa was finally coming to fruition. He had been hired late in the 1979 season, taking over a team that had just one winning season since the expansion of 1969 that split both leagues into two divisions apiece. LaRussa had nudged them over .500 in both 1981 and 1982, and as they cruised home in September of 1983 to clinch the AL West, the building was complete.
Chicago took the opener of the ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles, but that was their last win of the year. They lost the next two games and then dropped a tough Game 4 (the LCS round was then best-of-five) on an extra-inning home run that broke up a scoreless tie.
Given the preponderance of veterans of this team, maybe it’s not surprising that this was the only high point for the Chicago White Sox in this era. LaRussa would be in Oakland by the end of the decade and riding the PED power wave of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire to three straight AL pennants and a World Series title, and would move on to St. Louis after that for three NL pennants and two World Series wins.
Chicago would wait until 1993 to again win the AL West, and their baseball fulfillment finally came in 2005, when they again won 99 games, and this time finished it off with a dominating run to a World Series victory.