"People started winging their records from the upper deck down to the field.”
The 1970s were a wild time in the world of Major League Baseball.
Gone were the days of every ballplayer having a crew cut and no longer did every player look like the All-American kid with a freshly shaven face.
The game was brought to life by unique characters playing in colorful uniforms. Afros puffed out from underneath hats, sideburns came in all shapes and sizes and Rollie Fingers happened. Promotions like Disco Demolition Night couldn’t have happened in any other decade.
That all bled over into the 1980s and there was a certain innocence that went along with the wild times. For the first time in baseball history, players were allowed to have a certain individuality about them.
At BallNine, we love our baseball history and relish the chance to write about any era along the sport’s great timeline. But something about that decade between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s brings out the crazy.
Join us for this week’s Spitballin’ as former White Sox lefty Ross Baumgarten shares his own baseball stories from the era as we relive his journey to the Majors and everything that went along with it.
Thanks for joining us Mr. Baumgarten! I always enjoy talking to guys who played right in the late 70s and early 80s because those are my earliest memories of watching baseball. Let’s go back to when you were a kid too. What was baseball like for you growing up?
I was lucky growing up in Chicago, we had WGN Channel 9 and they televised all the Cubs games. Most of the games back then were during the day. I got to watch games all summer long. The Cubs were always my favorite team. My dad was a White Sox fan, but I was a Cubs fan. I still am. I often tell people that the only time I liked the White Sox was when they were signing my checks.
I liked those great Cubs teams of the late 1960s and early 70s with Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and of course Ernie Banks and Fergie Jenkins. There were a lot of Hall of Famers on those teams even though they never made the playoffs. I can still go through the whole roster. Bill Hands, Dick Selma, Phil Regan. Kenny Holtzman was the one left-handed pitcher in the rotation. I patterned my pitching style after him and almost every team I played on I wore his number 30. I watched at least 140 games of theirs a year. I loved it.
Jimmy Piersall came storming into the locker mad about something and before I knew it, he had his hands around the neck of the reporter, Bob Gallas, right in front of my locker. I jumped on him and I’m sure I had some help other than me, but I got Piersall off him. Jimmy Piersall was a different kind of guy.
Being such a Cubs fan, did you ever end up pitching a game at Wrigley Field?
I believe I only pitched once there. As fate would have it, I broke my knuckle during the game, so it was a short outing. I ended up on the disabled list and it was a mess. But it was a great experience. I actually got just one hit in my career and that came at Wrigley against the Cubs. I have a lot of good memories. I spent so much time in those stands as a kid. My friends and I would go to the games every Saturday and Sunday. You could take a train back then and not worry about getting mugged. We’d get to Wrigley at 10:00am and sit outside to wait for the bleachers to open. We’d go out there when the Cubs were taking batting practice and got all the home run balls we wanted because hardly anyone was there. My best friend John Carmel and I would go and it was a blast. To this day we still call or text to talk about what the Cubs are doing.
You were drafted in the 20th round in 1977 by the White Sox. Even though you were a Cubs fan, what was it like being drafted by your hometown team?
I was pitching for the University of Florida and before the draft there was some thought that the Cubs would draft me pretty high. My last two starts I lost, though. One was in the SEC championship game pitching on two days rest. Then I lost in the regionals to Paul Molitor and the University of Minnesota. Those two results probably caused me to go from a 6th-10th round draft choice to around the 20th round. We had gotten back from the regionals and had a team party on a Tuesday night. I went to bed thinking I hadn’t been drafted, which was very disappointing. All I wanted was a chance to make it to the Major Leagues. In those days you didn’t know. There were no cell phones, no ESPN. I got woken up on Wednesday morning by the Sports Information guy and he asked me if I wanted the good news or bad news. I asked for the good news and he told me I was drafted. I asked him what could possibly be the bad news after that. He said, “It was the White Sox who drafted you.” He knew I was a big Cubs fan and didn’t root for the White Sox. But at that time, I became a White Sox fan real quick.
BALTIMORE, MD - CIRCA 1981: Ross Baumgarten #30 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Baltimore Orioles during an Major League Baseball game circa 1981 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Baumgarten played for the White Sox from 1978-81. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
That 1977 draft year you ended up playing 17 games in A Ball after being drafted. Then in 1978, you played in every level from Single A to the Majors and went 18-8 overall. How did you move through an entire farm system in just your first full season?
I signed in June of 1977 and went to A Ball in Appleton. I had thrown 116 innings at Florida that season, which was a school record. I showed up in Appleton and they put me in the starting rotation. I was 3-1 and doing well, but the team was horrible. I got to about 200 innings and in this day and age, that would never happen. I got a little tired and lost my last five decisions. The next year, Bill Veeck signed a bunch of AAA free agents and that backed up our whole system. I started the season in Appleton again and was 9-1 by June. I had a whole lot more strikeouts than innings and was dominating. I was friendly with the trainer and he told me the White Sox called and wanted to know if I was ready for the Big Leagues. Here I am in A Ball and I said, “Tell them I’m ready!” They didn’t think I was ready though, but they moved me up a level. In those days, you had to rent apartments, rent the furniture, go get the telephone and electricity on.
I had to shut that all down when I moved out of Appleton and when I got to AA Knoxville, I had to do all of that to get settled. I was there for two weeks and then I got moved up again and had to do that all over. My first appearance in AA I did well then they put me in the rotation. I went 2-1 and before June was over, I went up to AAA. I had to shut off the electricity, return the furniture, leave the apartment and do it all over again in Des Moines. I went in the rotation and did really well and on a pretty average team, I was 5-4 with a decent ERA. Then in mid-August they called me up to the Big Leagues.
NEW YORK - CIRCA 1982: Ross Baumgarten #34 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the New York Mets during an Major League Baseball game circa 1982 at Shea Stadium in the Queens borough of New York City. Baumgarten played for the Pirates in 1982. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Man, you’d never see someone move up through the system that fast today. Even back then it didn’t happen much. What was your first Big League experience like?
My first appearance was a start against the Texas Rangers. I pitched pretty good and got the win. I remember replacing Wilbur Wood in the rotation and he was a very popular long-time White Sox starter. They let me pitch five days later and we got blown out by Kansas City. They gave me another chance five days later and I threw a nine-inning shutout against Cleveland. Then I pitched on September 1 and got blown out by Baltimore. I went 2-2 and was probably over 200 innings for the year and my elbow was hurting a little. They put me in the bullpen for the rest of the season and I made a few more short appearances.
In 1979 Tony LaRussa took over the White Sox and it was the first season of his Hall of Fame managerial career. He was just a young guy then. Could you foresee that he’d have the managing career that he did?
My first year when I got called up the manager was Larry Doby, who had just replaced Bob Lemon. Doby lasted the rest of the year then the next year Don Kessinger was the player-manager. I had grown up rooting for him with the Cubs, so that was a thrill for me that I’d get to know him. Halfway through the season, he decided he had enough so they brought Tony in. I had him in AA for the two weeks I was there. What I loved about Tony was that he had certain theories and different ways of saying things. I knew he was going to be special. Although we didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, I knew he’d be a great manager. He wanted to stay forever, which he did.
I would guess the best game you pitched was the one-hitter you threw in 1980. The only hit came from Rod Carew leading off the seventh. Can you talk about that game?
I had a tough year in 1980. I made 23 starts and I think they got me 25 runs while I was in the games. You can’t win that way. It was very frustrating. I admit that I didn’t act as mature as I could have in the situation. We didn’t have a veteran pitcher on the staff who could school me a little on how to handle it. We were all young. But that one-hitter, we played in California. It was the night Jimmy Piersall attacked a sportswriter in the locker room and I helped break it up. I went out and threw a one-hitter. Made me wish they fought all the time! There are just certain games during the year where you’re just on and everything works. I gave up one hit and it was a lot of fun. I had 22 wins in the Big Leagues and seven of them were shutouts. It has to be the highest ratio of shutouts-to-wins in the history of the game. It all just worked for me that night. They only got me one run but it stood up. I also threw a combined one-hitter in 1979.
NEW YORK - CIRCA 1981: Ross Baumgarten #30 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the New York Yankees during an Major League Baseball game circa 1981 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Wow nice, what do you remember about that game?
Well the Sunday before that, I faced Nolan Ryan in California. My brother was a Hollywood executive and he bought a busload of people to the game. I think we lost 4-0 and I pitched OK, but Nolan Ryan was Nolan Ryan that night. Then we faced each other again the following Friday in Chicago. It was May 25 which is a couple days before my birthday. I’ll never forget it because there was a huge American Airlines crash at O’Hare Airport that day. I gave up one hit in eight innings that night and Randy Scarbery came in and got three straight outs in the ninth. I got back at Nolan in that one!
You mentioned the Jimmy Piersall incident, which my buddy Jonathan Daniel still brings up on Twitter. Can you fill us in on that crazy event?
I was the only one in the locker room because I was the starting pitcher. When you’re pitching, you typically don’t go out for batting practice. Jimmy Piersall came storming into the locker mad about something and before I knew it, he had his hands around the neck of the reporter, Bob Gallas, right in front of my locker. I jumped on him and I’m sure I had some help other than me, but I got Piersall off him. Jimmy Piersall was a different kind of guy.
In 1979 you went 13-8 with a few shutouts and finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting in the American League. What do you think about looking back at that great season?
It was a lot of fun. I was in the Big Leagues as a rookie and having a lot of success on a team that was 20 games under .500. I was 13-8 with a 3.54 ERA. I pitched a lot of good games and had a lot of fun. Actually, the guy who tied for the AL Rookie of the Year in ’79, John Castino, was a high school teammate of mine. I was glad he won it. You’re only a rookie once, so it was a nice rookie season. The irony of it was that I thought I pitched better the next year, but I was only 2-12.
You mentioned Bill Veeck earlier and I know you were on the White Sox when his ownership came to an end. What was your relationship like with Mr. Veeck?
I always tell people that if I had to pick the three most impressive people I’ve ever met in my entire life, Bill Veeck would probably be number one. Marvin Miller would probably be number two. I have two stories about Bill Veeck. When they took me out of the rotation after my first four starts in 1978, I was mad. I finally got to the Big Leagues and wanted to do my thing. But I had over 200 innings and my elbow was starting to hurt and they wanted to be cautious with me because at the time, I was a hot commodity. I had mouthed off and let people know I was mad. Rollie Hemond, the GM, came to me and said Mr. Veeck would like to see me. I figured he was going to yell at me because I was just some young punk. But he calmly sat me down and told me the reasons why they took me out of the rotation. He was very sensitive about it. He understood that I was hurt, but he made me understand why they did it. That was an amazing thing that he took the time and was very reasonable about a young kid shooting his mouth off.
The other story came after I was done playing and he was done as owner of the White Sox. I was starting my money managing career and I called Mr. Veeck for advice. He was a marketing guru. I asked if he could sit down with me and toss around some marketing ideas as I got started on my new business. We met at this BBQ rib place called Miller’s Pub and he spent five hours with me. He didn’t have to spend a minute with me. I played for other owners who didn’t give me five seconds of their time and he gave me five hours. I wasn’t a player and he wasn’t the owner, but he took the time to help me out. I never forgot it and to me those are two very important stories that show what a great man he was.
Wow, that’s incredible. I never get tired of hearing Bill Veeck stories and those two are awesome to hear. Since we’re on Bill Veeck, you were on the White Sox for Disco Demolition Night. What was your experience with that?
I was in the dugout and you could start to see at the end of the first game that a lot of the people started to throw records onto the field like Frisbees. After the game ended, the DJ, Steve Dahl, set up a can in the outfield with a fire going. He was burning the records which he accumulated. Then it became a free-for-all. People started winging their records from the upper deck down to the field. Then people started rushing the field and the players ran to the locker room. We literally barricaded ourselves in until police got a hold of the situation. I remember walking out onto the field thinking there was no way we were playing the second game. The field was just a mess. Sure enough, the game got cancelled.
This has been awesome and like I said, I always love being able to relive that time period of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with guys who played during that era. Thank you for sharing your stories. My last question for you is open-ended. Just wanted to ask your reflections on your own career as you look back at what you did as a Major League Baseball player.
I wished it lasted longer, but I was very fortunate to have had that experience. I love baseball and still watch the Cubs 140 times a year thanks to streaming. I wish I had an opportunity to play on more successful teams because everyone likes to win. But I am very grateful for the experience and am still very grateful to the White Sox for brining me up and having me as a part of their organization. I am proud of myself because I had a goal and I stuck to it through a lot of ups and downs. My junior year of high school I broke my elbow and didn’t play at all. My junior year of college I was ruled ineligible and didn’t play at all. The NCAA wanted me to take a class on the two-year level where I was, but I took it at a four-year school. I actually sued them in Federal Court. They showed up with eight attorneys and I had some guy right out of law school. So I missed my junior year of college. But I fought through it and made it. I’m grateful to the White Sox and proud of myself for hanging in there.