Baseball Way Back: Going deep with 'the Bandit'

 
Updated 11/22/2020 8:53 AM

• First of 3 parts

Luis Robert this year became the first White Sox outfielder to earn a Gold Glove since 1970.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Prior to Robert, the Sox had some excellent defensive outfielders -- Aaron Rowand and Adam Engel come to mind.

But you have to go back to old Comiskey Park and a team that lost 106 games to find the last Gold Glover in a Sox outfield, Ken Berry, aptly nicknamed "the Bandit."

Today's Sox fans are familiar with Engel's wall-climbing heroics. Sox supporters from the 1960s have "Been there, done that," recalling how Berry would scale the center field fence at Comiskey to turn sure home runs into long outs.

Thanks to the help of Berry's friend Paul Freifeld, Berry took part in a phone interview recently from his home in Topeka, Kansas, talking about his career as a player, minor league manager, film actor and, lately, author.

Berry said his outfield prowess was due to a lot of practice.

He was already used to covering a lot of ground. A football wide receiver who had a scholarship to the University of Wichita when he signed with the Sox, he said he was used to catching 60- or 70-yard passes.

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In perfecting his trade, "I used to put my hat down (in the outfield) and then in batting practice I would chase everything that was hit that I thought I remotely had a chance to get.

"And then I could look back and see where my hat was and see how far I had run."

He coupled that information with knowledge about the range of whoever was on his wing, be it Floyd Robinson, Walt Williams or Carlos May.

"Then I could move them accordingly, so that I knew I could get a certain area, they could get a certain area, and they would just barely overlap where the two came together."

White Sox Hall of Fame pitcher Ted Lyons scouted and signed Berry in 1960. Berry wound up wearing Lyons' number, 16, retired by the Sox in 1987.

The Sox originally signed him as a third baseman, but he was encouraged to try center field after having a rough time on the sandy infields of Florida, which could get "torn up pretty quick when you're taking ground balls." It didn't help that his minor league manager, Les Moss, liked to put a spin on the ball when feeding him grounders, "and he was just eating me up."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Berry's outfield instructor was 1920s Sox outfielder Johnny Mostil.

"He's out there in a suit coat and tie. And he's ... 83 I think it was (he was actually in his 60s), and he had one leg that was probably 6 inches shorter than the other, so he was leaning terribly to the right or left, and he said, 'OK, Ber, here we go. The old sinker, Ber. Go get it, Ber.' That was the instruction I got."

He impressed Sox brass once in spring training in Florida negotiating an obstacle course of telephone poles in a center field with no fence.

"I made a couple catches where I was running and I had to run, catch, jump over the telephone pole, and then come back to the field."

Berry honed his craft in the minors, getting September call-ups in 1962, '63 and '64. The main obstacle was a Sox Gold Glove winner, center fielder Jim Landis, at the tail end of an outstanding career.

In 1964, though, with the Sox in the thick of a pennant fight with the Yankees (who would beat out the Sox by one game), Manager Al Lopez, looking for offense, installed Berry, who hit 20 home runs and batted in 83 runs in Indianapolis that year, in the lineup late in the season.

"Lopez put me in the lineup for 12 days in a row because Landis wasn't hitting, and I hit .375."

Before the next season Landis was traded and Berry was the starting center fielder.

But an injury incurred playing football in seventh grade was giving him neck spasms.

"I couldn't turn my head right or left. I had to run and just kind of look back over my shoulder, but I had to turn my body. So it wasn't like I normally would perform, and I had several errors that I shouldn't have made."

On April 15, 1965, the Chicago Tribune, in an article with the headline, "Stiff Neck of Berry is Pain to Sox," Lopez expressed his displeasure with Berry's play in a loss to Baltimore. On one play, Berry got a late start on a fly ball and collided with second baseman Don Buford. The Orioles' Norm Siebern wound up on second base.

Berry said at one point he was threatened with demotion to AAA.

He found relief, however, from a chiropractor who "put his elbow right in the middle of the muscle that was having a spasm and he got it to relax." His hitting then improved, and he led American League outfielders in putouts.

A series of photographs from The Associated Press on June 7, 1965, captured one of those putouts, Berry's diving, somersaulting catch of a fly ball by Mickey Mantle at Yankee Stadium.

Despite highlights like these and 95 wins, the Sox finished second for the third year in a row, this time to the Twins.

• Next: Muddy fields, Sox sod, and the '67 pennant race

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