Zalusky: Hemond served champagne on a beer budget

  • Former White Sox executive Roland Hemond jokes with then GM Kenny Williams before an August 2011 game at U.S. Cellular Field.

    Former White Sox executive Roland Hemond jokes with then GM Kenny Williams before an August 2011 game at U.S. Cellular Field. Associated Press

 
Updated 12/18/2021 8:24 PM

The news of Roland Hemond's death arrived around the time that players from two of his most memorable teams also made the headlines.

Dick Allen, the man credited with saving the White Sox franchise in 1972, missed election into the Hall of Fame by one vote two weeks ago.

 

And just days before the vote, LaMarr Hoyt, the Cy Young winner from the 1983 AL West champions, died.

Hemond's Chicago baseball legacy can be summed up by both of those teams, in what they did and didn't accomplish.

Hemond is justly celebrated for his triumphs, not only with the 1972 and 1983 teams, but also with the wildly exhilarating 1977 South Side Hitmen.

Yet for all of his tremendous front office achievements, he missed winning it all, although two moves he made, trading Hoyt to San Diego for Ozzie Guillen and drafting an outfielder named Kenny Williams in 1982, played an indirect role in the Sox winning the World Series in 2005.

Hemond would share in the 2005 success when he returned to the Sox as an executive adviser.

But for several years, Hemond presided over teams that, although containing immense potential on paper, were frustratingly bad on the field.

During Hemond's time with the White Sox, from 1970 to 1985, he proved himself the ultimate baseball survivor -- working for three owners: John Allyn, Bill Veeck, and Jerry Reinsdorf and establishing himself as a resourceful GM who could satisfy champagne tastes on a beer budget.

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It was fitting that when he was hired as director of player personnel under GM Stu Holcomb, Hemond came from the Angels system.

If any team needed an angel, the Sox did, having lost 106 games in 1970 and attracted less than 500,000 fans to White Sox Park. The Sox received two Angels, Hemond and Manager Chuck Tanner, and both immediately rolled up their sleeves and built a contender.

Hemond didn't shy away from trading a franchise icon like Luis Aparicio or a longtime fan favorite like Ken Berry to acquire such players as Mike Andrews, Tom Bradley, and Jay Johnstone.

He shed players like Gail Hopkins, John "Pineapple" Matias and Rich McKinney to haul in such mainstays as Pat Kelly and Stan Bahnsen, whom Hemond would later deal for Chet Lemon.

But it was his acquisition of Dick Allen at the end of 1971 that made the Sox a winner and drew nearly 1.2 million fans to the South Side.

Even with Bill Melton sidelined by injury, the Sox nearly overtook Oakland, finishing second in the AL West in 1972.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

By trading Bradley to the Giants for Ken Henderson in a deal that also brought the Sox Steve Stone, the Sox appeared even stronger in 1973 and, indeed, occupied first place from April 29 through June 18. But Henderson tore his knee sliding into home plate against Cleveland, and Allen broke his leg in a collision with the Angels' Mike Epstein at first base, setting the franchise on a downward spiral.

Meanwhile, discord had seeped into the front office, and when Holcomb resigned, tracing his discontent to Tanner and Hemond dealing for Phil Regan the previous year without consulting him, Hemond took over as GM in July, 1973 -- he had already turned down an offer months earlier to become Baltimore's GM.

Hemond continued working to bolster the roster, grabbing future Hall-of-Famer Jim Kaat off waivers, and after the season appeared to have scored a coup by trading for Cub legend Ron Santo.

But by the end of 1974, Santo had retired and Hemond wound up trading Allen, who had left the club before the season ended, for Jim Essian.

Through the disappointments, Hemond stayed upbeat and kept his sense of humor. On learning that switch-hitting Jerry Hairston had been married at home plate in Mexico, he asked on which side of the plate Jerry stood.

By the end of 1975, Allyn sold the team to Veeck, who fired Tanner but kept Hemond. Veeck said, "I need Roland. He has the contacts. He knows the players. And I've been away from things too long."

Hemond adapted to the quirky new owner, who set up a table with a taped sign saying "Open for Business" in a hotel lobby during the 1975 winter meetings in Florida. Six trades ensued, including one that sent Henderson to Atlanta for Ralph Garr.

Hemond said, "We're better off because of Bill's presence. I'm amazed at his knowledge."

The Sox won just 64 games in 1976, but the following year broke out in a big way, helped by Richie Zisk, acquired from Pittsburgh for Rich Gossage and Terry Forster, and Oscar Gamble, who arrived, along with LaMarr Hoyt, in a deal with the Yankees for shortstop Bucky Dent (to the ultimate regret of Red Sox fans).

The South Side Hitmen finished third at 90-72, hit 192 home runs, and responded to the curtain calls of enthusiastic fans.

But it soon became clear that the cash-strapped Veeck couldn't compete in baseball's new economic environment, and Veeck sold to Reinsdorf, who, like his predecessor, retained Hemond.

It was a wise choice. Hemond built the Winning Ugly team, signing Carlton Fisk as a free agent, purchasing Greg Luzinski from the Phillies, adding Dodgers castoff Ron Kittle, and trading for players like Rudy Law, Julio Cruz and Tom Paciorek, who came from the Mariners for Essian, completing the Dick Allen trade circle.

The clubhouse celebration -- Hemond's champagne-drenched suit still hangs at Guaranteed Rate Field -- capped his career as GM with the Sox.

It's tempting to speculate how the Sox would have fared if Hemond hadn't been ousted in 1985. But then Chicago wouldn't likely have had Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura.

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