Fort Atkinson’s Billy Sullivan
Among those immortalized in bronze at the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame, displayed on the East Wall of the U.S. Cellular Arena of 4th and Kilbourn Avenue in the first class cast in 1950 is 5 foot 9 inch, 155 lbs Fort Atkinson native Billy Sullivan.
There is no plaque for him in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. In fact, he was so poor a batter that he stands among all major league players with at least 3,000 at bats as having over his career the second worst batting average of all time: .212. But a player who does achieve over 3,000 chances to hit in a major league game has to be an asset to the team in other areas. It is important to understand how ineffective a player he was offensively to properly appreciate how great a player Billy Sullivan must have been defensively.
Billy Sullivan was the Chicago White Sox starting catcher for 11 consecutive seasons from 1901 through 1911 after debuting in 1899. With Sullivan as the backstop, the White Sox won two pennants, came within two games in two other pennant races, and never finished lower than fourth place. In 1906 national league season, the powerful Chicago Cubs [it hard to imagine those three words in a sentence phrase together] of Frank Chance, Johnny Evers, and Joe Tinker won 116 games against only 38 losses, still the best winning percentage ever in a regular season. Yet with Billy Sullivan behind the plate, the “Hitless Wonders” of the Chicago White Sox put them away in six games to win the only “Chicago only” World Series ever played. Moreover, if one measures “differences” in records as being significant regarding the impact of a player, in the two seasons he was injured, the White Sox finished the season more than 30 games out of first place.
Sullivan excelled in all phases of the catching game. He was without peer in calling pitches, blocking the plate, fielding bunts, catching foul pops, and throwing out runners. The immortal Ty Cobb called Sullivan the best catcher, “ever to wear shoe leather.” According to his biography listing in The Ballplayers (Arbor House William Morrow, New York: 1993) “When Johnny Kling, star catcher of the Cubs, boasted that he was going to be the first man catch 1,000 games, a check of the records revealed that Sullivan had already done it.”
In 1909 Sullivan was also promoted to the job of player-manager of the White Sox. It was during that season he obtained a patent on the first catcher’s chest protector that featured a wind pad for compressed air. He was one of the early White Sox promised permanent “lifetime employment” by ruthlessly frugal owner Charles Comiskey. Nonetheless it was vow broken by the “Old Roman” when Billy was released outright in 1914. When his son, Billy, Jr. caught for Detroit in the 1940 World Series, he became part of the only father/son team to have played in the fall classic up to that time.
His biography noted in closing, “Official records indicate the 1906 “Hitless Wonders hit only six home runs. Historian Rich Lindberg discovered the Sox really hit seven – the missing homer belonging to Sullivan.”
(See also archived “On Baseball” article on White Sox Pitcher “Big Ed Walsh,” the last pitcher to win 40 games in a season. It was 1908 and his catcher was Billy Sullivan.)
Go see the Plaque in the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame!
The 2013 season over, now the “chicken soup” team assembled by the Brewers must be sorted out to compete in 2014. Who stays? I like putting Caleb Gindl, a natural right fielder with a strong arm in right field, but the Brewers renewed the contract of inexpensive Aoki. Should Braun, a former infielder be shifted to 1B to accommodate Khris Davis, who can only play left field? We can use the Davis in the line-up. It seems a clear, but expensive choice, to keep playing Scooter Gennett at second base. Oddly, he can hit anywhere in the line-up, and did this year! I just wish Logan Schaeffer hit for better average because he may be our best defensive outfielder. Jeff Bianchi may also be better at 3B than the aging and less than healthy Aramis Ramirez? Can we add more pitching? We will need all arms on deck to even compete in the currently very strong NL Central. It sure would be nice to out-compete the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Brewers “fan friendly” attitude made the season fan friendly. The $10 food voucher for August was a nice touch. This looks like a trend that will continue with the Brewers now deciding to make the January, 2014 Brewers “On Deck” free for all attending!