Gary Peters and A Golden Age Pitching Duel in Chicago
by Cory Franklin
February 5, 2023
When Bobby Hull died in January it marked the passing of one of the last great figures of the mini “Golden Age of Chicago Sports”, the period from roughly 1958-1964. During that time, the White Sox wrested the 1959 pennant from the New York Yankees (more on that below), the Bears won the 1963 NFL Championship, Loyola University won the 1963 NCAA Basketball Tournament and the University of Illinois, led by surviving Golden Ager Dick Butkus, won the 1964 Rose Bowl . There was even a week in 1962 when Northwestern was the #1 ranked football team in the country.
In 1961, the tandem of Hull and Stan Mikita helped break the Montreal Canadiens stranglehold on the Stanley Cup. The old Chicago Stadium was a raucous place when Michael Jordan played for the Bulls, but it was never louder than when Bobby Hull started behind his net, skated up the ice and launched a booming slap shot from the blue line at a hapless opposing goalie.
Bobby Hull’s death overshadowed the recent death of another Chicago sports figure of that era, one who might have become a star but for circumstances. Gary Peters, a slick lefthander, came to the White Sox in their pennant-winning season of 1959, but because of the strength of the Sox pitching staff, he did not break into the rotation until 1963. When he did, he was fantastic; as a rookie in 1963 he led the league in ERA, won 19 games, and was voted American League Rookie of the Year. Only a single Cy Young Award was given for both leagues in those days, and had it not been for the preternatural Koufax in the National League, Gary Peters might have been the winner.
Following that, he won 20 games in 1964, led the league in earned run average in 1966, and was a two-time All-Star. Among the best hitting pitchers in baseball, he was Shohei Ohtani before there was Shohei Ohtani. He was so good that he became the Sox’s primary left-handed pinch hitter, a decade before the designated hitter rule. In 2000, Peters was named to the White Sox All-Century Team, one of nine pitchers representing the first 100 years of their existence.
I have a personal connection here – a game I attended against the Yankees with my father on a Saturday afternoon in June 1964 with Peters pitching at Comiskey Park. I forget whether it was for Father’s Day or for my birthday but it remains one of the most memorable baseball games I ever saw. (Though I recall it vividly, I have supplemented some of the details with the New York Times account, which it described the game as a “Rembrandt.”)
The White Sox had been the #1 baseball team in Chicago since the end of the war. Starting in 1951, they drew over one million fans every year but one; the Cubs, by comparison, had drawn one million fans only once in that interval. In 1964, the Sox would outdraw the Cubs by nearly half a million fans. And the highlight of the season was when the Yankees came to town.
Since 1949, the Yankees had won 13 pennants in 15 years and the 1959 Go-Go White Sox were the last team to dethrone them. In those days, a four-game series with the Yanks at Comiskey Park would easily draw more than 100,000 fans, including a Friday night game with a full house. Everyone came to see Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and the Bronx Bombers. In 1964, the two teams, one pitching laden and the other stocked with sluggers, were fighting for the pennant.
The Yankees were still the class of American League but the cracks in the façade were beginning to show. Koufax and the Dodgers had shut them down in four games in the 1963 World Series, and injuries began taking their toll on Mantle, Maris and several regulars. They were ripe for the picking by the Sox.
The game that afternoon was a dream matchup. Peters’s opponent was the best American League pitcher of his generation: Whitey Ford, aka The Chairman of the Board. Coming into the game, Ford had notched ten straight wins including six shutouts and had not given up a run against the White Sox since August of the preceding year. He had been nearly untouchable.
That day, Peters v. Ford was a masterpiece and more than lived up to its billing with the Yankees winning 1-0 in 11 innings. Both pitchers threw complete games and Peters actually outpitched Ford until the decisive 11th inning. Peters gave up only four hits before that, two of them to Mantle, before surrendering three in the 11th including another key hit by Mantle. Ford was in trouble several times, once with Peters reaching third after a hit. But he escaped several jams and ultimately the Sox were undone by their weak bats (one of the perennial White Sox problems in that era was that Peters was a better hitter than half of the starting line-up.) With the tying run on base in the 11th, Ford retired 40-year old pinch hitter Minnie Minoso to end the game.
The significance of the game was little appreciated at the time but it ultimately took on tremendous importance. At the end of the season, the Yankees won the pennant over the White Sox by a single game.
Peters had two more great seasons but the close loss in the 1964 pennant race took something out of both him and the team. The Sox had two nondescript seasons in 1965 and 1966, but made a final stand in 1967 in a tight four-team pennant race. In the last week of the season they were favored to win the pennant, with their last five games against Kansas City and Washington, the two worst teams in the league. Three wins would probably clinch, but the Sox lost all five and the pennant. The team was broken up, Peters developed arm trouble and was traded after two more lackluster seasons. He was out of baseball less than a decade after his superb rookie season.
The Sox had a brief resurgence in the mid 1970’s with the “South Side Hitmen” but remained in the wilderness until they won the World Series in 2005. More important, after 1967 the Sox surrendered their Chicago baseball primacy to the Cubs, a position they never regained.
But the 1-0 11 inning victory was a pyrrhic victory for the Yankees as well. Times reporter Leonard Koppett wrote, “After the game, the seventh straight the White Sox have lost to the Yankees this year, Sox manager Al Lopez ordered a session of batting practice for almost the entire squad. It may help against other, more mortal pitchers, but not against Ford in his current form.”
Unfortunately, after that game Ford did prove to be mortal. The heavy innings put a stress on his hip and pitching arm. He went six weeks without a victory and, although he rallied at the end of the season and opened the World Series, he was shelled against the redoubtable Bob Gibson and the Cardinals. He did not pitch again in the Series and with everything on the line in the seventh game, Ford, who held and still holds the record for most World Series wins, watched from the bench. Gibson won the Series for the Cardinals by beating Yankee rookie phenom Mel Stottlemyre, who was forced to pitch on short rest.
Following that 1964 World Series loss, the Yankees imploded and suffered their worst decade since before the acquisition of Babe Ruth in 1920. Mickey Mantle, who ten years before had been not only the best player in baseball but one of the greatest players ever, saw his skills deteriorate rapidly, accelerated by injuries and carousing. Before that fateful Sox game in June, Whitey Ford held the Major League record with a .726 winning percentage and over 200 wins, but after that game he won only 27 more and lost an equal number.
There will never be another baseball game like that 1964 Yankee -Sox game. Two aces pitching 11 tense innings with nary a relief pitcher in sight (and no designated runners on second in extra innings.) The game came in under three hours (the average-nine inning major league game today is three hours and three minutes.)
In 1964, there was no free agency so Gary Peters could not play for the team that best suited his skills. There were no pitch counts, video rooms, computers or front-office Ivy League graduates dictating the optimal in-game strategy. And now baseball is unquestionably a “better” game if better means more skilled, athletic players in a highly programmed contest. But that’s like saying today’s cars, with airbags, crumple zones, computerized dashboards and automated features are “better” than the classic cars of the past. Sure, your Toyota may last for 300,000 miles and get great mileage with low emissions – it’s a safe, reliable appliance. But it will never evoke the feelings kindled by the comparatively inefficient 1957 Thunderbird or 1959 Impala.
In that sense, I feel sorry for today’s baseball fans – they will never know the sheer artistry of a young Gary Peters and an old Whitey Ford locked in an extra-inning pitchers’ duel in the middle of a pennant race at Comiskey.
Cory Franklin, physician and writer is a frequent contributor to johnkassnews.com.
He was director of medical intensive care at Cook County Hospital in Chicago for more than 25 years. An editorial ng the pathologists who studied it intently but had no idea what body part it could be. This was before it was known as trolling.)
There is a lesson here. The next time someone tells you, with unmistakable conviction, that he believes in “the science,” gladly offer to discuss science with him over a sandwich. Give him a choice, chorizo or perhaps kosher salami. board contributor to the Chicago Tribune op-ed page, he writes freelance medical and non-medical articles. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, Guardian, Washington Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books. Cory was also Harrison Ford’s technical adviser and one of the role models for the character Ford played in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive.” His YouTube podcast “Rememberingthepassed” has received 900,000 hits to date. He published “Chicago Flashbulbs” in 2013, “Cook County ICU: 30 Years of Unforgettable Patients and Odd Cases” in 2015, and most recently coauthored, A Guide to Writing College Admission Essays: Practical Advice for Students and Parents in 2021.