View Full Version : Richard Roeper on Al Smith and the White Sox

01-07-2002, 03:27 PM
An excellent column.



Picture lasts longer than 1,000 words, too

January 7, 2002


Former major league outfielder Al Smith died last week at 73, but the lead for his obituary had been set in stone for more than 40 years.

He was the guy who got doused with a beer in the '59 World Series.

Harsh as it may seem to begin the summation of a man's life with a blooper mention, that's easily the most memorable anecdote known about Smith. Yes, he had a lifetime .272 average, 164 home runs, 676 RBI, two All-Star appearances and a single-season high average of .315 in 1960, good for second in the league. But when was the last time you saw a picture of Smith swatting a homer or making a play in the field? It's the spilled-beer photo that makes him an immortal.

For years I've made room for two sports-related pictures on the walls of various offices and dens. One is a Sports Illustrated cover from June 12, 1972, with the caption: "Season of Surprises. Chicago's Dick Allen Juggles His Image." The photo captures a heavily sideburned Allen in the Sox dugout, juggling three baseballs--while a cigarette dangles from his mouth. I've always loved that shot because it marked perhaps the first time in my life that I realized guys like Dick Allen can be supremely cool--but that they're hardly role models, nor should they be held up as such.

The other photo: Al Smith, Comiskey Park, Oct. 2, 1959.

But it's not just the cascading beer that makes the photo significant. It's the circumstances surrounding that moment.

For one thing, there's the game itself. In 1959, the White Sox had returned to the World Series for the first time since the "Black Sox" of 1919. In Game One the Sox had trounced the Dodgers 11-0, and they were nursing a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning of Game Two when Chuck Essegian was tabbed to pinch-hit for Los Angeles. Essegian's home run tied the game--and two batters later, Charlie Neal hit the homer that gave the Dodgers a 4-2 lead--and caused a fan to jump up and knock over his beer in an effort to catch the ball.

In the eighth, with Ted Kluszewski on second and Sherm Lollar on first, Smith came to the plate, still smelling of hops and grains. He bunted foul twice and then had to swing away. POW! A long drive to left, not that far from the beery incident. It caromed off the wall, and Klu scored easily from second to make it a 4-3 game. But the lead-footed Lollar was also waved home--and the throw home beat him by so much that he didn't even bother to slide.

That was it. The Sox lost, went out to L.A. and dropped two out of three, and were routed at home 9-3 in Game Six.

I was born a short while later. The White Sox haven't been back to the World Series since.

It wasn't Al Smith's fault that Neal hit that home run, and it wasn't Al Smith's fault that the Sox didn't pinch-run for Lollar, or that third base coach Tony Cuccinello waved him home. Nevertheless, that photo of Smith standing at the base of the wall came to represent the way White Sox players and fans have felt for more than four decades now.

Beyond that, I love the picture because it shows how fans used to dress up for games. The guy who knocked over the beer--one Melvin Piehl, a sales manager who by the way did not catch the ball--looks like J. Edgar Hoover with his suit and tie and fedora.

And the pic reminds me of the relatively cozy, albeit dank and smoky, feel of old Comiskey. Years after Smith got soaked, I was one of the fans who used to show up batting-practice-early for games in order to grab one of those front-row seats in the outfield. (Come to think of it, I might have even placed a beverage or two on that ledge.) But there came a time when the first several rows in the outfield were turned into reserved seats. And then, years later, the park itself died and gave way to Comiskey Park II. Sigh.

Al Smith was a great athlete. Not only did he play 10 seasons in the big leagues, he was 9-0 as an amateur boxer, played with the Harlem Globetrotters and was invited to try out for the Cleveland Browns.

He was also said to have a sense of humor and grace about the novelty element of his enduring fame. May he rest in peace.

E-mail: rroeper@suntimes.com