By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) I’ll admit it. I thought Kenny Williams was nuts.
When the temperamental White Sox general manager hired Robin Ventura as manager last fall despite him having no previous coaching experience – at all – I thought the former Sox star was destined to underwhelm in the dugout during the 2012 season.
But I’ll admit it. So far, I’ve been dead wrong.
With the Pale Hose currently perched atop the AL Central with a 33-27 record, Ventura has already exceeded the expectations of most everyone in Chicago. And with his team winning games at a .550 clip – currently on pace for 89 victories – he has a chance to become just the third White Sox skipper ever to win 90 games in his first season, and the first to do so in 55 years.
Since 1945, the Sox have welcomed 15 rookie managers to their ranks, and in their first seasons at the helm, just seven have produced a winning campaign. But not one of them has also led their inaugural team to the playoffs, as well.
And as Ventura continues working toward that goal, let’s take a glance at the winning seasons of those seven rookie managers who preceded him on the South Side.
1951: Paul Richards (81-73)
On May 1, 1951, some kid for the New York Yankees named Mickey Mantle belted his first big league home run against White Sox hurler Randy Gumpert.
Gumpert went on to become an All-Star that season. Mantle, meanwhile, went on to become, well, Mickey Mantle.
The White Sox, under the guidance of Richards – an early advocate of the style of baseball that what would later become known as “small ball” – went 81-73, which was good for fourth place in the American League, but still 17 games behind the first-place New York Yankees.
1955: Marty Marion (91-63)
With nine games left in the 1954 season, Richards bolted the White Sox to become the field manager and general manager for the Baltimore Orioles.
To replace Richards, the White Sox promoted Marion, who was a coach with the team. Marion went just 3-6 down the stretch in ’54, but then in 1955 turned in a strong season in his first full one as manager. Behind the likes of Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso and Virgil Trucks, the Sox went 91-63.
That record, however, was only good enough for third place in the AL, as the Sox still finished five games behind the first-place Yankees.
1957: Al Lopez (90-64)
After the 1956 season, Marion stepped down as the White Sox manager and was succeeded by Lopez, who had led the Cleveland Indians to second-place AL finishes in both 1955 and ’56, after having won 111 games and reaching the World Series in 1954.
Just a month prior to his hiring by the Sox, Lopez resigned in Cleveland and left town in a huff after he felt the team’s fans were unfair to Indians third baseman Al Rosen during the stretch run and team management didn’t do enough to support the injured player.
In his debut season in Chicago, Lopez led the Sox to a 90-64 record, but again finished in second place behind, yes, the Yankees.
1966: Eddie Stanky (83-79)
Following the 1965 season, Lopez announced his retirement (he would later return in 1968). As a replacement, the White Sox hired former St. Louis Cardinals skipper Eddie Stanky, even though he had been out of managing ever since he was fired by St. Louis just 36 games into the 1955 season.
In Chicago, Stanky’s inaugural team finished 83-79 and in fourth place, 15 games behind the first-place Baltimore Orioles. The White Sox were led by pitcher Tommy John, who went 14-11 in the fourth of what would eventually be his 26 seasons in the big leagues.
1992: Gene Lamont (86-76)
After Jeff Torborg left Chicago to manage the New York Mets, the White Sox handed their reins to Lamont, Jim Leyland’s longtime assistant in Pittsburgh.
Lamont turned in a solid debut season, going 86-76 and finishing in third place in the AL West, 10 games behind Oakland. But the White Sox’s offseason prior to the ’92 campaign may have actually been more compelling than their regular season.
That spring, the team signed Bo Jackson as a free agent and also traded Sammy Sosa to the Cubs. In August of ’92, the Sox also swung a deal with Philadelphia that was a small one, but is much more interesting today.
They dealt reliever Keith Shepherd to the Phillies and received in return Dale Sveum, now the Cubs’ own rookie manager.
1996: Terry Bevington (85-77)
In 1995, the White Sox dumped Lamont after an 11-20 start and opted to promote Chicago coach Terry Bevington to manager. The Sox finished just 68-76 that season, but in ’96 – Bevington’s first full year as manager – they fared considerably better, posting an 85-77 mark. Alas, that record was still only good for a second-place finish 14.5 games behind the division-winning Cleveland Indians.
The ’96 season also marked the best year that Ventura enjoyed with the Sox, when the third baseman batted .287 with 34 home runs and 105 RBI.
2004: Ozzie Guillen (83-79)
In his first season as manager on the South Side, the combustible Guillen led the White Sox to a respectable 83-79 record and a second-place finish, nine games back of the AL Central champion Minnesota Twins.
But, most importantly, the season set the table for 2005 when the Sox, of course, rolled all the way to the World Series championship and made Guillen the first Windy City manager to win a title since Pants Rowland in 1917.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.