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Mudville: October 24, 2021 5:30 am PDT
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Beltin’ Melton

Bill Melton initially viewed baseball as a great summer job opportunity. The thought of making a career of it never really entered his mind when he signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1964.

Melton, 76, had been spending his time at odd jobs in Southern California as a teenager, including working for Avon, driving a forklift and spending time in the boiler rooms of aircraft carriers in the San Diego shipyards. His father was an engineer for Kaiser Aluminum and Melton had hopes of one day becoming an engineer’s draftsman.

So when the Sox signed him for $8,000 he simply viewed it as finding a better paying job than pushing Avon products or wielding a jack hammer in the bowels of an aircraft carrier. That better paying job, however, led him to a Major League career that lasted a decade and enabled him to become one of the most popular and beloved players in White Sox history.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Melton becoming the first player in franchise history to ever lead the American League in home runs. He hit 33 homers in 1971 and remains one of just two South Siders to ever lead the American League – Dick Allen also did it in 1972 and 1974. Melton’s 33 homers that season also equaled his then-franchise mark that he had set in 1970.

Though Allen [37] would go on to break the mark in 1972 – the year he won the AL MVP – Melton remains an integral part of Chicago history, not only for what he did on the field but for the two decades he spent with the club as a broadcaster following his retirement.

And it all seemed to happen almost by accident.

“The thing I remember most about Hawaii is acid reflux. You were always eating pineapple. “

YOU WANT ME TO PLAY BASEBALL

Though Melton was athletic, baseball wasn’t part of his world. He played in little league but not in high school and was more a football and basketball guy. He was an athletic kid but playing a sport – any sport – professionally or seriously at the collegiate level wasn’t on Melton’s mind.

While Melton tried out for and made the baseball team at Citrus College – he was kicked off the team briefly for smoking – he is quick to admit that he didn’t follow baseball while growing up. His limited experience of the sport consisted of going to a 1959 World Series game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the White Sox in what was a bit of foreshadowing. His father had gotten the tickets from his company.

“We got tickets underneath the big clock at the [L.A.] Coliseum,” Melton said. “I watched Wally Moon. And I remember names like [future teammate Luis] Aparacio. It was the first game of the ’59 World Series. It was coincidence.”

Melton would go on to work at the ship yards in San Diego, using a jack hammer as a 16- and 17-year-old, a task which ultimately gave him strong wrists, hands and forearms, all attributes that would soon make him a feared slugger.

“I was living with my sister and I had to work,” Melton said. “I was working for Avon and basically a friend of mine asked me to go to Los Angeles and play pickup [baseball] games on Saturday. He pulled me out of my apartment and said c’mon, let’s go play. Hollis Thurston was there watching one of the games and he was a White Sox scout. He asked me if I ever thought about playing baseball and I was very honest with him and told him not really.”

July 10, 1971-Chicago: Bill Melton, one of the Chicago White Sox players to be selected for the 1971 American League All Star team, is currently leading the American League in home runs with 20, as of July 10th. Melton, who broke a White Sox record last year with a total of 35 homers, is currently ahead of last year's pace. The other White Sox headed for the All Star team is Wilbur Wood, who will replace the ailing Sam McDowell of Cleveland.

Thurston, whose nickname was Sloppy, played baseball professionally from 1920 to 1938 and spent nine of those years in the Major Leagues with the Browns, White Sox, Senators and Dodgers. He was the second pitcher in the American League to throw an immaculate inning [striking out the side on nine pitches] and also had a keen eye for recognizing hitters. Thurston was credited with discovering Hall-of-Famer Ralph Kiner two decades earlier, so when he saw Melton’s power potential he was intrigued.

“He told me ‘I want to sign you but I can’t give you more than $8,000’,” Melton said. “I thought I could play ball in the summer and that it was a great job opportunity more than anything else. I had no desire about signing a pro contract other than having a job. I was getting $500 a month and I was thinking I don’t have to go back into boiler rooms and engine rooms.

“After that, it was just a lot of work listening to the coaches. I was 6-foot-1, 190 pounds and I guess they thought they could have coaches work with me. I had a good arm and I ran really well for my size. It was just my lack of experience. That’s how they looked at it. For $500 a month they would send me to Florida and maybe something would happen.”

The Sox sent Melton to the Sarasota Rookie League, a four-team circuit that included the Braves, Cardinals and Yankees. He acquitted himself well in 39 games, hitting .286, driving in 10 runs and stealing a pair of bases. The following season [1965] proved to be a bit of a reality check for the budding slugger, though. He hit .196 in 393 at-bats for Sarasota of the Class-A Florida State League while striking out what would be a career-high 123 times.

Melton would begin to come into his own in 1966, though, helping Class-A Fox Cities to a Midwest League title. He hit a homer in the second game of the three-game championship series and had an RBI in the title-clinching game. He finished the season with 12 homers and 67 RBIs while batting .284. He also cut his strikeout total nearly in half, whiffing 63 times. Melton then hit .331 in the Florida Instructional League.

“I guess I didn’t feel until after a year or two in the minors that I could actually be a pretty good player,” Melton said. “I was getting a lot of instruction and adapting to it pretty well.”

Melton’s arrival in the Double-A Southern League in 1967 would prove to be significant for several reasons. First, he played in a career-high [to that point] games [134], had a career-high [to that point] 494 at-bats while striking out only 62 times. He had lowered his strikeouts per at-bat from a whiff every 3.2 at-bats in 1965 to one every 7.7 at-bats in 1967.

Additionally, he also received his first taste of third base. Melton had split the previous three seasons between the outfield, first base and second base. Former White Sox skipper Al Lopez told Melton that if he was going to reach the Major Leagues it would be as a third baseman. He made 29 errors that season but the foundation for his success in Chicago was put down.

SARASOTA, FL - CIRCA 1973: Bill Melton #14 of the Chicago White Sox poses for this portrait during a Major League Baseball spring training baseball game circa 1973 in Sarasota, Florida. Melton played for the White Sox from 1968-75. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

ALOHA AND HELLO TO THE WINDY CITY

If 1967 was important to Melton’s development then 1968 was probably the most unusual. He played in three different cities for two organizations – yes he was a Yankee for a while that summer – making his Major League debut in the process.

Melton began the season at Hawaii of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He would appear in 63 games overall for Hawaii, batting .257 with 10 homers and 30 RBIs.

“I had never been to a big-league camp before and I was a nervous wreck,” Melton said. “It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. Everyone in there looks like your father. Talk about being a nervous person. But in 1967 and ‘68 we had no offense. So that opened a shot for me to get looked at.”

The Sox called Melton up at the beginning of May and he made his Major League debut on May 4, going 1-for-2 with an RBI against the Yankees at Comiskey Park. He drove in his first run with a second-inning sacrifice fly in his first at-bat off Fred Talbot. After popping up to short in the fifth Melton singled to center in the seventh and was promptly caught stealing.

Melton stayed with the Sox until May 21 and was hitting .204 with three RBI when he was sent back to Hawaii.

“Of course they sent me back to Hawaii after about 30 or 40 days,” Melton said. “The thing I remember most about Hawaii is acid reflux. You were always eating pineapple. You walked into the clubhouse and it was stuffed with pineapple. There also weren’t many days off. You’d play for 10 days straight and then go across the water to California and Seattle.

“So that’s what I remember the acid reflux and the fact that we never took batting practice because of the rains, the Mona Mist. Every night between four and five it would pour so we never took BP. That and [23-year-old] Al Michaels was the team’s broadcaster.”

The season took another interesting turn that summer when the Sox “loaned” Melton to the Yankees Syracuse farm team in the Triple-A International League. In a bizarre twist, the Islanders needed a left-handed outfielder to take advantage of the short porch in right field and Syracuse was in search of a third baseman. So, Melton went to upstate New York and the Yanks send Steve Whitaker to Hawaii.

“They wanted a left-handed hitter because of the short porch in the Hula Bowl,” Melton said. “The right field there was like left field in the Coliseum when the Dodgers were there. It was a monster to dead center and left because it was a football stadium but in right it was like the Coliseum with the Wally Moon net.”

Melton hit .279 with five homers and 32 in 45 games for Syracuse before returning to the White Sox and the Majors that September. He closed out the season in fine fashion for Chicago, hitting .317 [19-for-60] in September with a pair of homers and 13 RBI. His first big-league homer came on Sept. 11 at Yankee Stadium off Fritz Peterson.

Lopez told The Sporting News after the season that he liked Melton’s aggressiveness at the plate. And, while he was “a little green” on the field, he had shown improvement from his early-season stint with the club.

“He has some things to learn … [but] I believe he will catch on easily because he moves well enough, has a strong, accurate arm, which can help overcome occasional mistakes,” Lopez told TSN. “One reason that I am confident that he will keep progressing is the tremendous improvement fellows like Luis Aparicio told me the kid has made since he was with the White Sox earlier in the season.”

Melton’s days in the minors were now behind him. He would begin the 1969 season as Chicago’s starting third baseman, appearing in 148 games. While the Sox would flounder, finishing ahead of only the expansion Seattle Pilots in baseball’s newly created West Division, Melton would thrive. He hit .255 while leading the team in homers [23] and RBIs [87].

Defensively, Melton committed 22 errors on the kooky new field at Comiskey Park. The Sox installed artificial turf in the infield and foul territory only prior to the 1969 season and kept that setup for seven seasons. That Melton was essentially still learning the position was difficult enough but when your throw in the rough, early version of turf it made for quite the challenge.

“It was a lot of adjustment,” Melton said. “They had a lot of wet ground and they were losing a lot of games in April and May to rain. It is cold in Chicago and the fields were always wet so they put in turf so they could play it rained. You had to play a lot deeper on the turf. The ball skims a lot. It takes a lot to play at a different depth but I had Aparicio alongside me. He helped me in the infield, where to play, how to take the bunt away with the turf and the weird hops. They got there really quick. They used to eat you up.

“You really had to adapt by position and the visiting players had more problems. I was listening to the coaches about everything. I was pretty studious. I wasn’t intense but I was studious about studying ways to play third base.”

Melton was entrenched in the lineup and in 1970, with a full season on his resume, he began to blossom. He hit a then club-record 33 homers, drove in a career high 96 and hit .263 despite spending half the season as Chicago’s right fielder. It set him up, however, for what would be a special 1971.

NEW YORK - CIRCA 1970: Bill Melton #14 of the Chicago White Sox bats against the New York Yankees during an Major League Baseball game circa 1970 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Melton played for the White Sox from 1968-75. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

A RECORD YEAR AND A FALL, LITERALLY

Melton homered in each of his first two games in 1971 – an April 7 doubleheader in Oakland – collecting six RBI. He would go homerless, though, for the rest of April and drive in only two more runs, hardly giving the impression that he would lead the league in anything. His homerun drought would last until May 15 in Minnesota, at which point he started to get hot, hitting three more homers before the end of the month.

He hit 12 homeruns in June, twice connecting for round trippers in four consecutive games [June 14-17 and June 28-30] and was tied for the league lead with Minnesota’s Tony Oliva heading into July. Melton, who made his only All-Star team that season, had seven homers in July but dropped to only two in August. Still, he began September tied for the league lead [27] with Detroit’s Norm Cash and Boston’s Reggie Smith.

“It was a big deal in the papers,” Melton said. “We had three writers. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it, though. I never thought about what was going on. The last two weeks, though, Chicago got behind me. The biggest battle had always been between me and [Cubs Hall-of-Fame third baseman Ron] Santo but now I was going against Reggie Jackson and Norm Cash. I never thought about leading the league. All I thought about was having a good year and getting a raise.”

Melton hit three homers in the first two weeks of September but then went homerless until the final two games of the season. He hit a pair of homers against Milwaukee on Sept. 29 at Comiskey Park on the season’s penultimate day, tying him with Jackson and Cash for the league lead.

Both Jackson and Cash had finished their season, leaving Melton as the only one with an opportunity to grab sole possession of the title. Manager Chuck Tanner had moved him into the leadoff spot in the Sept. 29 to give Melton as many at-bats as possible and the switch paid off so that’s where he would stay for the season finale. Melton responded in his second at-bat of the game, connecting for his 33rd homer of the season, this one coming off Bill Parsons, leaving Melton with a piece of White Sox history on his resume.

“Tanner led me off and when I hit that home run I thought I was just going to go up into the clubhouse but he made me go out to third base the next inning so the fans could cheer for me,” Melton said. “It was good for the organization; a little more publicity for the Sox. We were young and just coming up with guys like Bucky Dent, Carlos May, Wilbur Wood.

“We got Dick Allen the next year and that really changed the focus. Oakland was a good team and then there was Baltimore. We were just an up-and-coming team so it feels good when you go to other parks and writers and announcers want to talk to you.”

Melton wouldn’t be able to bask in his accomplishment for too long, though. He fell off a ladder two after the season ended and suffered a back injury that would change the course of his career trajectory. Melton ruptured a pair of disks and would miss most of the 1972 season. He would never be the same kind of power hitter again.

“I was putting on a small patio roof in Mission Viejo and I had my son up there with me,” Melton said. “I was pounding in shingles and it was wet and he slipped. I was on the ladder and I caught him and we went back. It was only about five or six feet but I landed on my tailbone and I had a hard time getting up. For a day or two, I couldn’t move.

“It was a disappointment for me and the Sox, no doubt. I made it to Spring Training and then [on June 23] in was in the on-deck circle in Texas and I got up and then fell over from the pain in my leg. They had to do the surgery.”

Melton was placed on the disabled list on July 4 and missed the rest of the season. He finished with seven homers and 30 RBI in 208 at-bats. While Melton’s injury didn’t cost the Sox a chance at a West Division title – they finished in second place, 5.5 games behind Oakland – it didn’t help. Chicago acquired slugger Dick Allen prior to the season and he would go on to win the American League MVP that season, leading the league in homers [37], RBIs [119] and OBP [.420].

The following season Allen would break his leg on June 28 in a first base collision with California’s Mike Epstein. The collision was a result of Allen reaching for Melton’s poor throw from third. Allen was hitting .310 with 16 homers when he got hurt with the Sox just a game out of first. Allen missed almost the entire remainder of the season as Chicago slid to fifth place, 17 games back.

“Dick carried the club all the way through [1972],” Melton said. “We were in Anaheim the following year and to make a long story short, I made a throw to first that Dick had to leave the bag. He [Epstein] put his shoulder down and broke Dick’s leg. He went on the DL and Oakland won, two years in a row. Oakland probably would have beat us [anyway] but we would have given them a challenge.”

NEVER THE SAME

Melton’s 1973 comeback season was solid – 20 homers, 87 RBIs and a career high .277 batting average – but it wasn’t enough to overcome the loss of Allen. His production began to decrease in 1974 despite the fact that he had 21 homers. He hit .242 with 63 RBIs followed by a 1975 season in which Melton hit 15 homers and batted .240. Though he did drive in 70, the White Sox traded Melton to California in Dec. of 1975. He finished with 154 homers [160 total] as a member of the White Sox, which was tops in franchise history at the time of his departure. He remains ninth on the club’s all-time list.

His lone yearn in California was disappointing. Melton hit .208 with six homers and 42 RBIs and was traded to Cleveland after the season. His time with the Indians was worse. He appeared in only 50 games, didn’t hit a homer and drove in 14 runs. Melton called it a career following the season.

“I never had a thought about my back once the pain subsided,” he said. “I was cautious taking grounders in the beginning but nothing after that. My numbers went down but it wasn’t because of pain. Something had changed in my swing. I went to the Indians and I had no more power and no pain.

“That was pretty much my demise. I was going to retire [after 1976] but [Cleveland manager] Frank Robinson talked to me. I always admired him. That last season with Cleveland was brutal. I had a big spring training and I thought everything was coming together but it just didn’t work. I was pinch-hitting and DHing quite a bit. I knew it was gone when I couldn’t reach the warning track in batting practice. Something was missing.”

He did have some positive moments with Cleveland. Melton went 3-for-5 and scored a pair of runs in his first start of the season and had hits in each of the subsequent games. There were a trio of three-hit games in August, the last of which was in the second game of a doubleheader against Milwaukee on Aug. 14. Melton’s last Major League hit was a sixth-inning double in that game. He would go 0-for-23 over the remainder of the season, playing his last game Aug. 30.

Melton went into business with his uncle after retiring making polyurethane wheels for skateboards.

“That was the beginning of the skateboard era,” Melton said. “I put some money in, did a little advertising. The polyurethane wheel was pretty popular. I was hanging out at skateboard parks and talking to young people. I was doing stuff like that but then I thought ‘this is ridiculous’ so I became a broker in Newport Beach and I worked for Coldwell Banker doing industrial and commercial real estate.

“Then in 1980, interest rates were so high and real estate was zilch. The Sox came to California and I went to a game. They wanted me to talk on the radio and I did. I talked to [Chicago owner] Jerry Reinsdorf about doing broadcasting and said I have announcers but if you want to work for the club you can and I started doing pre- and post-game and all of a sudden it turned into working for NBC for 20 years.”

Melton retired a few years back after spending four decades in baseball. He’s working on a golf course and still fills in occasionally on Sox broadcasts. He isn’t a fan, though, of what the game has become.

“I don’t like seven-inning games and no fans in the stands last year,” he said. “This year is a little is a little better but I think all these new things they implemented, everything stinks. Pitchers go five innings, there are too many strikeouts. There are a lot of strikeouts; it’s all or nothing. There is no hitting and running, they don’t bunt. Most of the games are kind of boring.”

Boring is one thing that Melton never was. He was an integral part of an exciting time in White Sox history and remains popular in the city, enjoying a long association with Chicago when he was just looking for a summer job.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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