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Every Outfield Looks Good on Opening Day

March 29, 2022

Hugh Atkins

On a recent trip to a thrift store, I stumbled across a book entitled Chicago by Brian Doyle. I like Chicago, and the book had a nice cover, so I opened it up and read the dust jacket flap. When I saw the main character was a young man who spent some time in Chicago “one summer in White Sox history when they had the best outfield in baseball,” I was intrigued and plopped down the $1.20 asking price.

© 2016 St. Martin’s Press

Don’t get me wrong; calling Chicago a baseball book would be like saying The Great Gatsby, with Jay Gatsby describing Meyer Wolfsheim as “the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919,” or The Old Man and the Sea, with the old man and the boy discussing “the great DiMaggio” and “the Tigers of Detroit and the Indians of Cleveland” are baseball books.

Doyle’s unnamed first person narrator shows up in the Windy City fresh out of college and moves into a privately-owned apartment house that could be described as the Island of Misfit Chicagoans. One of the characters, a dog named Edward, requires the reader to suspend their disbelief, which is distracting at first, but ultimately proves to be charming. Doyle moves his protagonist around the city, giving the readers a guided tour of some of the most interesting and historical landmarks and locations around the town.

The narrator and Edward the dog visit the streets of famous musicians like Paul Butterfield, John Prine, and Lee Loughnane, writers like Saul Bellow, Shel Silverstein, and Ray Douglas Bradbury, and the legendary comedian Bob Newhart. They do not go to the street where Ernest Hemingway was born because they felt he was “more famous for his escapades than for his work, which was a shame, because he was a very fine short-story writer.” They also avoided any place that was “famous because of criminals like John Dillinger or Al Capone” since “There is nothing entertaining about criminal activity, despite the evidence of popular culture, which insists on celebrating thieves and assassins.”

© THE TOPPS COMPANY, INC

Doyle never mentions a time period, but the White Sox outfield the book flap describes as being the best in baseball was Ralph Garr, Chet Lemon, and Richie Zisk; he also mentions Oscar Gamble, although Gamble served primarily as the designated hitter. The only season these guys played together for the White Sox was 1977.

While all those guys had decent seasons in 1977, a cursory glance at other outfields from that year shows at least four teams–the Boston Red Sox (Yastrzemski, Lynn, Carbo/Evans), Cincinnati Reds (Foster, Geronimo, Griffey), Los Angeles Dodgers (Baker, Monday, Smith), and New York Yankees (White, Rivers, Jackson)–had better outfields than the White Sox.

Three other teams–the Minnesota Twins (Hisle, Bostock, Ford), Montreal Expos (Cromartie, Dawson, Valentine), and Philadelphia Phillies (Luzinski, Maddox, Johnstone)–had outfields that were at least as good.

I can give the narrator a break for his assessment of the White Sox outfield because he made it on Opening Day, the one day of the season when all baseball fans think their team could take on the ’27 Yankees. The narrator says, “Ralph Garr leads off for us. He is in left, Chet Lemon in center, Richie Zisk in right. This is the best outfield we have had in years. They all might hit twenty homers this year.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Chicago; it was a fun read. Just like The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea, the thread of baseball running through it was just a bonus.

 (I conducted my “cursory glance” at the outfields of 1977 using Baseball Reference.)

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