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In honor of actor Andy Garcia and his (unintentionally) hilarious reaction to Sofia (Mary Corleone) Coppola's death scene in "The Godfather, Part III."
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1976 Offseason

Posted 04-20-2018 at 07:25 PM by TommyJohn

Unable to land any blue chips from the first baseball free agent class of 1976, Veeck decided to turn his attentions to another free agent class-that of 1977.

He decided on a strategy he called "Rent-a-player." If he couldn't sign a top player to a megabucks contract, he would trade for a player entering the last year of his contract, get a financially motivated performance out of him and hopefully convince said player to stay.

Veeck set his plan in motion on December 10. The club's two best pitchers, Rich Gossage and Terry Forster, were traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where they would be reunited with their old manager Chuck Tanner, who had quit the A's and signed on to manage his home town club. To the White Sox came slugging outfielder Richie Zisk.

Zisk had been a part of the Pirates since 1971 and had pounded out 69 home runs in 6 years. As to letting Gossage and Forster go, Veeck explained "fans don't pay to see strikeouts."

He also had another motive besides just acquiring a hitter. Zisk was of Polish ancestry. Veeck knew that if Zisk produced for the Sox, he would go over big with the blue collar fan base, especially in a city that had the world's largest Polish population outside of Warsaw.

Veeck also announced his manager for 1977, now that placeholder Paul Richards went into retirement. Rumors had Tanner coming back after he bailed from Oakland, but his hiring by the Pirates ended that. Another rumor had Larry Doby being hired. Veeck made no secret of his desire to tap into what he felt was an ignored potential revenue stream-the black population of the south side. A black manager might help do this. Doby was hired, but as a hitting coach.

The man Veeck tapped was Bob Lemon, longtime ace pitcher for the Indians, including the 1948 World Series winning team owned by Veeck. Lemon had managed the Royals earlier in the decade and recently had been a Yankee coach. He had an unenviable task ahead of him, to be sure.

Rumors continued to swirl through spring training that Veeck was underfinanced. The news that the Sox had 13 unsigned players going into the spring induced a mild panic amongst the press corps. An annoyed Veeck pointed out that the Yankees had six unsigned players, but no one was asking about them.

A Sports Illustrated bit in March speculated that the Sox were broke and might soon be moving to Washington, DC. The nation's capital had been rebuffed in its bid for a National League expansion franchise and Bowie Kuhn made no secret of his desire to land a team for the city, if only to stop DC politicians from threatening and blackmailing him if they didn't get one.

Veeck again denied all rumors of his imminent bankruptcy. "I swear I don't know where they get these stories" he snapped, before once again assuring folks that he was on solid financial footing.

Robert Markus wasn't so sure. In March he wrote a column on the state of the team and just how many things would have to fall into place for it to be successful. He speculated that Kuhn might want to shift the struggling Sox to DC, and this column may have been the source for the item that appeared in Sports Illustrated. Markus advised Sox fans to get out and see the Sox in the summer of '77, because in 1978 they might not get the chance.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it is because Markus wrote a near identical column in June of 1971 about the Sox' financial struggles, and how 1972 might be their last year in Chicago.

One last bit of drama to play out was the signing of Sox shortstop/dreamboat Bucky Dent. Bucky could realize his freedom after 1977 and Veeck wanted to lock him into a multi-year contract. He realized Bucky's value to the team. At the same time, though, rumors were swirling that Dent was on the trading block.

The Sox owner offered Dent a three year deal worth $104,000 a year. Bucky held fast at a demand of $120,000 a year. At one point Veeck got annoyed at Dent's demands and told him he would trade him even up for any one of the other 13 AL shortstops. This didn't endear him to Bucky or his agent. Meanwhile, Veeck was in negotiations to trade Dent to the American League champion Yankees, who wanted him badly.

Veeck wanted outfielder Oscar Gamble and pitcher Ron Guidry. Billy Martin was willing to deal Guidry, GM Gabe Paul was not, offering Sparky Lyle instead. Veeck pushed for the trade. Bucky knew the Yankees wanted him and the Yanks knew that Veeck couldn't afford to wait, so they were content to sit back and let things play out.

Veeck finally pulled the trigger on April 5. Dent went to the Yankees for Gamble and two minor league pitchers, LaMarr Hoyt and Bob Polinsky, plus $400,000. Dent was so happy he immediately signed an extension with the Yankees at exactly the same amount of money Veeck had offered. Bucky was off to the Big Apple, where in 1978 he would commit the Crime of the Century.

Veeck, clearly miffed at being held hostage by a .250 lifetime hitter, reacted like a guy who had doggedly pursued the woman of his dreams, only to be rejected. He touted prospects Alan Bannister and Kevin Bell, telling the media "I'd say shortstop is a position where we're overstocked."

This would be the second go-round in Chicago for Gamble, who had broken in with the 1969 Cubs. He was another rental who would gain free agency after 1977. Oscar was so taken back by the trade (he had expected to play in another World Series with the Yankees) that he announced that if the White Sox wanted him to play for them, then Veeck would have to come up with some money. He made $75,000 in 1976, he demanded a bump to $100,000.

One factor of the trade wasn't revealed until much later. Veeck later said that the trade of Dent may well have saved the franchise, because the $400,000 that the Yankees tossed in enabled Veeck to pay for the start of the season. Without it, Comiskey Park might not have been able to open its gates for 1977. I guess there was something to all those rumors about Veeck's finances after all.
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