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Article updated: 6/12/2012 9:48 PM

Bill Melton, the '72 Sox and what might have been

By Barry Rozner

History tells us that Oakland won three straight World Series titles in the 1970s, and the Hall of Fame is bursting with the player plaques and banners of those teams.

They are celebrated and remembered as one of the great dynasties in baseball history.

And the White Sox were closer than people will ever know to stopping that great Oakland run before it even started.

It was a matter of a break here or a bounce there.

In the case of Bill Melton, it was both.

In November 1971, at his home in California, Melton fell off a ladder, bounced and busted his back, all in the name of protecting his 2-year-old son, Bill.

"On the house in California I had a small patio roof, and one morning I was up on the ladder fixing some shingles," the 66-year-old Melton recalls now as if it were yesterday. "I had my son sitting up there with me on the roof. It wasn't a big deal. Flat roof, maybe 8 feet up.

"We had done it before. Never had a problem. But it was the morning and a little wet. He slipped and started coming toward me. I caught him and let go of the ladder. It wasn't that far, maybe a 6-foot drop. I fell back and landed right on my tailbone. It went numb."

At the time, the 6-foot-2 Melton was 200 pounds of solid granite, and the 25-year-old third baseman was coming off back-to-back, 33-homer seasons, leading the American League in 1971 in a pitcher-friendly park.

The Sox had averaged 98 losses from 1968 to 1970 and there was talk they would move the franchise to Milwaukee, as attendance plummeted under a half million.

There was no free agency, so teams either got better through drafting and trades, or they didn't. In 1971, Melton got hot, the team improved, they nearly finished .500 and then traded for Dick Allen in the off-season.

Hopes were high and tickets were selling -- but Bill Melton was broken.

"I had a couple ruptured discs," says Melton, now a Comcast SportsNet White Sox analyst. "I flew to Chicago and got some epidural shots and the doctors let me go. I was able to go back to California and work out again and regain some strength.

"But about 30 games into the (1972) season I started feeling my hamstrings pull. The discs were cutting into the sciatic nerve."

The plan was to have Melton protect Allen in the lineup and it was working. Allen was on his way to an MVP year, but by the 57th game Melton was done.

"I was in the on-deck circle and the pain was so bad it dropped me to my knees," Melton said. "They brought me back to the hospital and wanted to operate, but back then it wasn't a scope. They cut through your muscles and your spine and you were done. That was your career."

Melton was in the hospital when he read about an experimental injection procedure, which he did once and it seemed to help, but the FDA would only allow it once.

Five years later it was approved for use, but it was too late for Melton. He was done for the year.

The Sox lasted until late August -- when they were still in first place -- but Oakland had too much firepower, eventually won the West by 5 games, and later the pennant and the World Series.

Allen would put up monster numbers and win the MVP for the second-place Sox.

At a news conference Monday in advance of Dick Allen Day and a '72 Sox reunion, Allen said of Melton, "If we had him, we would have had a chance to turn those (playoff) tickets into reality."

The following season, the Sox were again in a dogfight with Oakland, Allen and Melton were off to a great start and they were picked by many to win the West.

But in a game against Oakland, Mike Epstein hit a ball to Melton.

Allen went up at first to take the throw and was hit by Epstein. Allen broke his leg and the Sox quickly fell out of the division lead.

The Sox finished in fifth place, 17 games behind the Athletics.

In 1974, the Sox again hung around first place until the end of June, but they never did recapture the magic, while the Athletics won three straight World Series.

With two weeks left in the '74 season, the enigmatic Allen walked away from the team while leading the league in home runs, and that ended what could have been a terrific era in White Sox baseball.

"It's disappointing when it all collapses, but you could feel it coming," Melton said. "But we had a lot of fun for a few years there and Dick Allen put us on the map. That group probably saved the White Sox for Chicago."

That was also pretty much the end for Melton, who would be traded after the '75 season and played only two more years.

"We had some bad luck with injuries or who knows what we might have done," says Melton, who played nine seasons and retired at age 31. "Think about if they had arthroscopic surgery then, and how different it would have been.

"I remember talking to Nolan Ryan when I was with the Angels and I said, 'What happened to my power? I can't even reach the warning track anymore.'

"But I learned from the doctors that when you're in pain you protect your muscles by changing your swing, and that's what I did. I was never the same hitter.

"I lost some years for sure."

This season, the Sox are remembering the '72 team with the red, pinstriped uniforms on Sundays. Dick Allen Day is June 24 and the Chicago Baseball Museum is holding a dinner for the '72 team June 25 at the Stadium Club at U.S. Cellular Field.

Tickets are available at chicagobaseballmuseum.org.

"We had some great clubs and we were right there with Oakland, but they were a tough club to beat. There was no wild card or anything like that, so we never got there," Melton said. "But I finally realized why they're celebrating the '72 team.

"I think we're kind of like the '69 Cubs are for Cubs fans. We didn't win anything but people realize that was a pretty good era for Sox baseball."

That group of players took the Sox from an attendance of 495,000 in 1970 to 1.3 million in 1973.

"We were in dire straits for a few years, but people started coming back to the park," Melton said. "Dick Allen put a lot of people in the seats and it was a favorite time for a lot of fans.

"It's disappointing when you look back on it because you think about what could have been. But a lot of people think we saved the team in Chicago. That's something we can be proud of."

brozner@dailyherald.com

Ÿ Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM, and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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