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Sox & the "A" Word

Attendance. Mention this word to a fan of or anyone connected with the Chicago White Sox and youíll be sure to hit some kind of nerve. Fans have been accused of being fly-by-nights who donít care about the team even when it is winning. The team has been accused of a lack of commitment to that very concept. Over the past few decades, these negative feelings had fed on themselves creating an aura of bitterness, and the overall effect on the team has not been healthy.

Short term successes like 2005 helped revive the team attendance-wise, but it is my opinion that a solid fan-base is built over a generation or two, not with a memorable season or two. (And not even a World Series championship can solve everything.) The problems with the White Sox attendance stretch back to the late Sixties when drawing fans to the park was becoming a bigger problem. Even with one winning season after another, including three straight 90-win years, attendance went on a steady decline as the decade progressed. Some of the causes were:
  • A lack of a superstar as a drawing card
  • A poor offense that totally lacked power. Bill Melton told me years ago the Sox organization didnít try to get home run hitters because of the expansive Comiskey Park
  • Comiskey Park itself. Although loved by many, it was also looked upon as outdated
  • The perception of a bad surrounding neighborhood, especially during the racially charged atmosphere of the late Sixties
  • Being totally overshadowed by the 1969 Cubs and the TV exposure the North Siders used to create interest in their team
  • The 106-loss 1970 season that can be kindly described as an embarrassment
  • An overall lack of team identity.

And if people think that the White Sox have attendance problem now, they should look back to how things were in 1970.

It was news that the team drew 18,145 for a May 17 doubleheader against the Royals. (At least in a Chicago Sun-Times headline on May 18.) The White Sox had gotten off to an awful start and fans had little interest. For the game the day before, the attendance was a mere 3,655. The May 17 attendance was the largest of the season at that point, even outdrawing the home opener by about 7,000.

But the team had actually rebounded some after a 1-5 start and pulled its record to 15-17. The weather was pleasant for the Sunday doubleheader, and owner John Allyn was in a sunny mood as well.
ďI hope we can give them a good show,Ē Allyn said before game one. ďIf we play well, weíll draw well, Iím certain of that.Ē

They didnít play well, and they didnít draw well. They lost the doubleheader, one of many twin bills they would lose that year. The team drew over 20,000 only twice all year, with the largest crowd coming on June 28 when 24,288 showed for a doubleheader against the Twins. In September, the team actually played in front of two crowds under 700. The attendance for the year failed to hit the half million mark, and it was the worst total year attendance since 1942, the first full calendar year of World War II.

The team recovered somewhat the next year by winning 79 games, and Bill Melton won the American League home run championship on the last day of the season. Dick Allen had his MVP year in 1972 and the Sox attendance went over the 1,000,000 mark for the first time since 1965. Things looked bright again.

But the teamís promise faded. By 1975 Allen was gone, Melton was on the downside of his career and the attendance that year barely inched past 750,000. After the season it was feared or hoped that the team would move to Seattle.

The 1983 Division Title

Almost all White Sox fans of a certain age will always remember September 17, 1983. That was the night the Sox beat Seattle 4-3 and clinched the American League Western Division title. It was the first venture into the playoffs for a Chicago baseball team since division play began in 1969.

There was another historic accomplishment that night. The 1983 White Sox became the first Chicago baseball team to draw over 2,000,000 in a season.

Skeptics thought it was doubtful that the Sox could ever draw 2,000,000. Part of the logic was the uneven performance of the team and nasty Chicago Aprils. But the skeptics were proven wrong and it appeared that the Sox would finally build a strong fan base.

There was good reason for this optimism. Although the White Sox lost in the playoffs to Baltimore, the team still appeared to be on the rise. The roster had veterans like Carlton Fisk and Greg Luzinksi and would even add Tom Seaver, but there was plenty of youth there as well. The American League West still looked weak. And as far as competing with the Cubs for the attention of the Chicago baseball fan? At that time, Cub fans and the Tribune Company were ready to beat each other up. The team itself just had its sixth consecutive losing season.

The 1984 White Sox outdrew the 1983 team, but all was not well. Not only did they not repeat as division champions, the White Sox could not even play .500 ball as they won only 74 games. It was the hapless Cubs who went to the playoffs and won the attention of the city again. Sox fans searched for answers.

The long term future for the Sox didnít pan out, either. Greg Luzinksi, who provided such hope when he came to the team in 1981, was practically booed out of Comiskey by the end of 1984. LaMarr Hoyt, 1983 AL Cy Young Award winner, was traded after the 1984 season for Ozzie Guillen. Richard Dotson hurt his arm and was never the same again. Britt Burns retired at a young age. Ron Kittle and Greg Walker didnít anchor the Sox offense like most thought they would.

The 1986 Ken Harrelson experiment, to put it kindly, didnít pan out. A long and painful rebuilding process began after Harrelson left, and the Sox had four consecutive losing seasons from 1986-1989. Drawing 2,000,000 didnít come close to happening. Things bottomed out when the Sox finished last in 1989. That year they had the lowest full season attendance of the decade.

I was one of the 6,670 who went to the September 26, 1989 White Sox game against Minnesota. The White Sox gave little competition as they lost 7-1 on a 40-degree night. In a game against the Expos in Montreal, the Cubs clinched their second National League East division title in five years and once more all the Chicago baseball attention centered on them. Comiskey Park, with one season left in her, had become a dark, empty and lonely place.

1994 and the White Flag Trade

It would be an understatement to say the 1994 strike hurt baseball. It can also be said that the strike hurt two teams more than any other: the Montreal Expos and the Chicago White Sox.

Montreal, with the exception of the strike-shortened 1981 season, had never made it to the playoffs much less get into the World Series. On what turned out to be the last day of the 1994 season, they sat in first place with a 74-40 record, six games ahead of the Braves. With players like Pedro Martinez and Moises Alou, it appeared their fans would finally see a World Series. Obviously that didnít happen and we all know what happened to that franchise since.

The White Sox were also in first place when the strike occurred. They were only one game ahead of Cleveland, but with the new Wild Card system in place, it appeared the Sox would get into the playoffs one way or another. Would they have gotten to and won the World Series? No one knows and that is the whole point. We were never given the chance to find out.

Many fans were more than disillusioned and angry. In May, 1995 Sox catcher Mike LaValliere on one occasion didnít get a fan letter. He received an envelope full of ashes from burnt tickets. Earlier Ozzie Guillen lashed at fans saying that the players didnít owe them anything. He was actually responding to fans hurling racial slurs at Frank Thomas, but somehow that got lost in the headlines. In 1993, the average attendance for American League teams stood at about 2.3 million. In 1995, it dropped to 1.8 million. The White Sox were not an exception to this trend.

It would have helped if the White Sox put together a winning season when baseball resumed in 1995. Instead, they posted a 68-76 record and finished a whopping 32 games behind the Indians. From appearances, the window of opportunity to the World Series had been shut with the strike of 1994.

I attended the August 10, 1996 game against the Orioles. In the top of the eighth the White Sox led Baltimore 4-3 with Wilson Alvarez on the mound. Jeffrey Hammonds and Cal Ripken ripped doubles to tie the game. Alvarez looked spent to me, and I waited for Manager Terry Bevington to pull his starting pitcher while the game was still tied. Instead he let his left hander in to face left handed hitter Rafael Palmeiro. The percentages didnít work and Palmeiro ripped the third consecutive double of the inning to give his team the lead. Bevington finally came out to get his pitcher. He was greeted by a stadium full of angry boos that probably were rooted in the backlash of the 1994 work stoppage.

As with the start of the 2011 season, the White Sox bullpen fell apart in the ninth, giving up eight runs and turning a close game into a rout. Baltimore ended up winning the Wild Card while the Sox stayed home. Fan alienation mounted.

Slightly less than a year later, Alvarez was the center piece of what has to be the most controversial trades in White Sox history.

Most fans have memory or knowledge of the July 31, 1997, swap that sent Alvarez, Danny Darwin and Roberto Hernandez to the San Francisco Giants for six unknown and young players. Jerry Reinsdorf felt that the White Sox had no chance of catching the first place Indians even though the White Sox were only 3 Ĺ games out and had rehabbing third baseman Robin Ventura returning to the lineup. The deal became known as the ďWhite Flag Trade.Ē Shortstop Ozzie Guillen smashed a TV with a baseball bat. Many fans had similar emotions.

In a baseball sense, was the White Flag Trade a bad deal? In some ways, it wasnít. Wilson Alvarez had wanted big money from the White Sox, but after leaving he won only 31 games in a 7 Ĺ year span. Danny Darwin didnít lead anyone to a World Series. In a separate deal made a day earlier, old time favorite Harold Baines was sent to Baltimore. Baines was on the downside of his career as well.

However, from the public relations standpoint, the trade was deeply harmful. From posts I have read on WSI and fan opinions expressed in other media, it was obvious to me that the White Sox lost its credibility with a good portion of the local baseball public. Many believed that Jerry Reinsdorf didnít care about winning. The feeling with some fans was that if Reinsdorf could keep the salaries down and the team drew between 1.6 and 2 million, he would happily make his profits. The Chicago sports media and the White Sox stringently denied this, but the perception was strong and attendance suffered. This is not to say that every White Sox fan disapproved of the 1997 trade. A good number agreed with the concept of rebuilding by getting rid of over paid and underachieving veterans. I have never heard of fans clamoring for Wilson Alvarez to attend SoxFest. However, the overall damage of the White Flag Trade cannot be ignored. Its effects still dog the team today. Kenny Williams doesnít even want to use the term ďrebuild.Ē

1999 Ė The Crosstown Classic

The 1999 team was at least entertaining. Some young players were developing and there was some hope that the team had a bright future. But no intelligent fan expected anything special from 1999 squad. This was especially tough to swallow since 1999 was the 40th anniversary of the last White Sox appearance in the World Series.

Interleague play. It was still a new thing in 1999, and Chicago fans were hyped for the three game series between the Cubs and White Sox on the weekend of June 11-13 at Wrigley. And this was a case of the White Sox players being more psyched than their fans. When Ray Durham approached the plate to lead off in game one, he actually ran to the batterís box. As Jose Valentin would tell me years later, the White Sox wanted to show that there was more than one team in the city. (Valentin didnít join the Sox until 2000 but still had similar emotions.)

The White Sox thrilled their die hard fans with a three game sweep. It was all so unexpected since the Cubs were looked upon as the better club with Sammy Sosa and a wild card entry the previous year. Was this a turning point in reviving interest in the club?

The short answer is no. The next Sox home game against Tampa Bay, which came immediately after the sweep, drew 11,347. The next game drew 10,903. And the rest of the home stand was hardly any different. The organization was perplexed. The 1999 team was developing, they had beaten their cross-town rivals, yet no one was interested. What did the team have to do?

Although the team was making some strides, it still won only 75 games in 1999 and finished 21 Ĺ games out of first. Attendance was the lowest in the entire decade.

The 2000 Division Title

While attending SoxFest in January 2000, I went to a seminar where manager Jerry Manuel spoke of his expectations for the team that year. He said he didnít want to hear talk about the White Sox being young. He said it was time they all step up, perform and produce results.

There was nothing wrong in the message he was sending his players. Manuel didnít want to hear the youth excuse. But while raising the bar was a good idea, I was one fan who still didnít expect more than 84 wins for the 2000 season. And I thought that was an optimistic expectation.

To the surprise of most fans, the White Sox got off to a fast start. At the end of April, the club was on top on the American League Central with a 17-8 record. On April 22, the team brawled with the Tigers, but won 14-6 on the strength of 14 hits. But was this team good enough to actually make a run at things? Or was Manuel expecting too much?

The White Sox answered this question during a June road trip where they went to face defending Central Division champion Cleveland and defending World Champion New York. Chicago won every game, taking three from the Indians and four from the Yankees. The White Sox outscored these two opponents by a combined 65-32. In the final game at Yankee Stadium, the White Sox won 17-4 after exploding for 9 in the first inning. Yankee fans booed the hell out of their team. Yes, it looked like the 2000 Chicago White Sox were for real.

And the attendance issue? 43,062 were on hand when the Sox returned home. But there was more to the story than that. One fan told me that he never was able to make it to the game even though he had tickets at the Will Call window. Traffic was so intense he couldnít make it to the stadium for game time because of the onslaught of people besieging the ball park. There were many more people than tickets available. When he was finally able to get off the expressway, the game had already started and he couldnít find a lot to park his car. He had to be content in watching the game at a bar.

So did the given wisdom that Ďwinning solves everythingí mean that the White Sox attendance problem had finally been solved? Again, the simple and short answer was no.

One true measure of a team is where it stands on September 1. Many teams contend in June and July. But the mark of a real contender is a teamís record as it heads on into the last month of the season. Going into the September 1 game against the Angels, the White Sox were solidly in first place with a 79-54 record, 7 games ahead of second place Cleveland. Now consider this past history: September attendance in 1983 and 1993 averaged over 34,000 per game during those division winning years. What about 2000?

For the last month, the White Sox averaged over 21,000 and had only two crowds over the 30,000. The team clinched the division in Minnesota and were disappointed that relatively few fans showed to greet them at Midway Airport. Bobby Howry, one of players who came to the Sox as part of the White Flag Trade, lashed out at fans for lack of support. It was even reported in the Chicago media that opposing players were asking White Sox players where their fans were. Others were stumped at this apparent apathy for a first place team.

Attendance actually improved over 600,000 from the previous year. Yet the 2000 team remains the only division winning White Sox team that didnít draw over 2,000,000. One reason for this was that many wrote off baseball after the 1994 season. The White Flag Trade didnít help matters much. But what was the reason for the continued fan alienation of successful 2000 season? That is difficult to explain since analyzing the actions of hundreds of thousands of people is hard to do. Two things could be said: The team had an attendance problem and anyone who didnít face up to that fact lived in an extreme case of denial.

The Brooks Boyer Era

When a politician seeks his or her partyís nomination for office, that person will concentrate on appealing to the party base. After all, the overwhelming number of primary voters can only be considered as true believers or party activists in one way or another. Only after winning this base does the politician reach out to cross-over and independent voters to win a general election.

In June 2004, new marketing man Brooks Boyer reached out to his base of White Sox fans. He wasnít concerned about offending Cub fans or their sports media supporters, nor should he have been. The base had strayed and the organization needed to bring them back into the fold.

Of course, I am referring to the commercial that pointed out the differences between Cubs and White Sox fans. The commercial was meant to hype the upcoming Crosstown Classic, but it accomplished a lot more than that. The commercial demonstrated that the organization understood the viewpoint of its own fans. We didnít like human mascots, pie-in-the sky optimism or century-long losing streaks. For better or worse, we had our own identity.

Boyer did get the expected backlash from various circles. Why was he knocking Cub fans? Why were White Sox fans so jealous of what was happening on the North Side? Why did everyone connected with the White Sox, from front office to fans, seem so bitter?

None of this mattered. From what I saw on this Web Site and in other media, the overall response to the advertisement was very positive. From appearances, it seemed that Sox fans could have cared less about the criticism.

More importantly, Boyer was putting a friendlier face on the team. I mentioned to a Chicago sports media member that preceding PR man Rob Gallas didnít connect with White Sox fans. He told me that I had put it nicely. He thought Gallas was a ďclown.Ē Regardless, Boyer had connected with the fan base where Gallas hadnít.

But can the commercial really be called a success? From the hard numbers of the 2004 season, a small case can be made that it was.

The White Sox drew 1,930,537 in 2004. That was slightly less than the 2000 division winning team and a little down from the year before. Yet in 2003, the White Sox were in first place on September 1, two games ahead of Minnesota and Kansas City. On the September 1 game, 2004, the teamís record stood at 65-66, 8 Ĺ behind the Twins. The Sox sat in third. They moved up to second by the end of the season but that was deceiving. The White Sox ended up 9 games out, so they actually lost Ĺ of a game to the first place Twins during the last month. In doing so, they had not seriously contended for anything and ended up winning three less games than the year before. And it is always tough to draw in September when there is little chance of making the playoffs. I have been to meaningless games in September. They are no fun.

So at least it can be said that the commercial didnít hurt attendance any.

In 2011, can it be said that the White Sox have rid themselves of the attendance problem? From the relatively low interest in the late season series against Twins last year, it can be said the problem has not gone away. White Sox fan bashers came out in full force, lashing at the teamís faithful with an intense anger practically demanding fans show for the Twins-Sox showdowns. It seemed as if all the bitterness of the 1990ís was playing itself out again. But looking at the larger picture, just how is bad is the problem?

In 1999, at the height of the Strike-White Flag Trade backlash, the team drew 1,349,151, its worst season mark in 10 years. Even in the strike shortened 1994 season, the White Sox drew 1,697,398. The league average in the American League in 1999 was 2,286,874.

Now letís look at 2009, 10 years later when the team won only four more games than in 1999. Attendance stood at 2,284,164 with the league average 2,305,178. The White Sox may have been disappointed in this considering the division had been won the year before. Yet these numbers also illustrate how far the team had fallen in 1999 and how much progress it made a decade later.

This little piece Iíve written cannot be looked upon as a definitive study of the White Sox attendance issues. It would take more research and space to accomplish that. It can be said that the team has struggled with these problems for the better part of the last three and a half decades.

Yet, for six straight seasons, the White Sox have drawn over 2,000,000, the first time that has happened in team history. In some other ways, fan support is better than most believe. Yes, many still say that attendance can be better and that the fan base is either too small and sometimes is apathetic. However, I still believe a real following takes a long time to build. The White Sox may be closer to creating a truly strong fan base than they think even with the multiple problems the team is experiencing in 2011.

Dan Helpingstine is the author of The Cubs and the White Sox - A Baseball Rivalry, 1900 to the Present.

Editor's Note: Dan Helpingstine is the author of The Cubs and the White Sox - A Baseball Rivalry, 1900 to the Present.

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