Billy Pierce passed away on Friday. One of baseball's premier pitchers in the 1950s, the southpaw Pierce, along with his teammate Minnie Minoso, was among those players from major league baseball's "golden era" being considered for Cooperstown immortality last year by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee. Neither player, nor anyone else on the list for that matter, was voted in. But Billy Pierce surely had much to commend him, even if his lifetime 211-169 (.555) record and 3.27 ERA are not on-the-surface Hall of Fame-impressive.
Acquired from Detroit in 1949 in what turned out to be a steal of a trade, Billy Pierce was the first piece in the Chicago White Sox building momentum towards ending their decades of baseball purgatory occasioned by the ignominy of the eight Black Sox who conspired with gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series. Just as Minnie Minoso's arrival in 1951 became the foundation of the "Go-Go" Sox, Pierce was the cornerstone of a first-rate pitching staff that was essential for the White Sox to compete with the Yankees and Cleveland Indians for the American League pennant.
By 1955, the White Sox were ready to enter the fray in the pennant race. As readers of Baseball Historical Insight know, this year we are focused on that season—sixty years ago—but this article is not part of that series. It's a reminder of how good Billy Pierce really was. Suffice it to say, Pierce had one of the best years of his big-league career that year. He ended up the season with a record only 15-10, but he led the league with a 1.97 earned run average—far better than anyone else in the bigs—and was the best pitcher in the major leagues in 1955, at least according to the wins above replacement metric for pitchers. Pierce had back-to-back 20-win seasons each of the next two years. When the White Sox finally beat out the Yankees for the AL pennant in 1959, Pierce was only 14-15 with a 3.62 ERA, and did not get a start in the World Series, although he pitched in three of the six games in relief.
With all due respect to Whitey Ford, Billy Pierce was probably the best southpaw in the American League in the 1950s, if not the league's best pitcher, period. He stood only 5-10 and was slight of build, but Pierce was an agile and highly coordinated athlete whose compact motion enabled him to sizzle fastballs past batters. He led the league in strikeouts in 1953 and in strikeouts-per-nine-innings in both 1953 and 1954. The only two pitchers in major league baseball with more accumulated pitchers' wins above replacement in the 1950s were Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts, both in the other league.
If he had pitched for the Yankees, who dominated the American League in his years with the White Sox by winning pennants in all but two of them, Billy Pierce almost certainly would be in the Hall of Fame—joining his fellow small-stature lefty who did pitch for the Yankees, the aforementioned Mr. Ford. Let's pick up from 1953 and not include 1949, the year before Ford first wore pinstripes; 1950 when Ford did not arrive on the scene until July and pitched only 112 innings; and the two following years that Ford spent in the military as a draftee during the Korean War:
- From 1953 to 1961, with Pierce pitching for Chicago and Ford in New York, Whitey Ford's record was 149-62 and Billy Pierce was 137-95. That's a very big advantage for Ford.
- And Ford's .706 winning percentage relative to the Yankees' .625 for those nine years was appreciably better than Pierce's .591 winning percentage relative to the White Sox' .572. Notwithstanding that the Yankees were a much better team than the White Sox, that's another very big advantage for Whitey Ford.
- But with 33.4 pitcher's wins above replacement, Billy Pierce was by that advanced metric a more effective pitcher than Ford, whose pitcher's WAR was 29.8.
- And Pierce accumulated 2,044 innings pitched those nine years; Ford's total was slightly less at 1,925.
None of this is to say that Billy Pierce was even equally as deserving as Whitey Ford for Hall of Fame immortality based on their pitching performance in the 1950s, let alone more deserving. And the performance distance between the two widens when one considers Ford's excellence from 1962 to 1965, during which time Billy Pierce's career had come to an end after three years in San Francisco.
Pierce was 16-6 for the Giants in 1962, however, without which his new team would not have won their first pennant in San Francisco, which required winning a three-game playoff against the Dodgers. Surrendering only three hits, Pierce shut out the Dodgers in the opening game of the playoff showdown, beating Sandy Koufax. Two days later, he pitched a shutdown ninth inning after the Giants scored 4 runs in the top half of the inning at Dodger Stadium to take a 6-4 lead, sending San Francisco to the World Series. After losing Game 3 of the Series, giving up 2 runs in the seventh of what had been a scoreless game before being relieved, Pierce beat Whitey Ford in Game 6, surrendering just 3 hits, to force a decisive Game 7—the one that ended with Willie McCovey hitting that vicious line drive right at Bobby Richardson.
Again, none of this is to make an argument that Billy Pierce was even equally as deserving as Whitey Ford for Hall of Fame immortality based on their pitching performance in the 1950s . . . but had the White Sox been able to beat out the Yankees a time or two more for the pennant during those years, well . . . Billy Pierce might well have been honored in Cooperstown last week—if he hadn't already been before.