He Started for the White Sox at 16, but Was Through at 22 : Baseball: La Habra resident Jim Derrington, who lost his major league debut in 1956, still holds record as the youngest pitcher to start a game.
On Sept. 30, the final day of the 1956 season, a dark-haired, 16-year-old left-hander from South Gate took the mound for the Chicago White Sox against the Kansas City Athletics.
Six innings later, on a hot, dusty day in front of 13,171 at Kansas City’s crumbling Municipal Stadium, he was replaced after giving up five earned runs, nine hits, six walks and a balk and striking out three.
Jim (Blackie) Derrington lost his big league debut, 7-6, but he entered the major league record book and has been there ever since.
After almost 35 years, Derrington, a resident of La Habra who was an assistant coach for the Fullerton High School baseball team this past spring, still holds the record as the youngest pitcher to start a major league game. Joe Nuxhall was 15 when he appeared for the Cincinnati Reds as a reliever in 1944, but he didn’t start in the majors until eight years later.
Derrington also singled that day, making him the youngest player in American League history to get a hit, an honor he also still retains.
Now 50, the dark hair has grayed and the square-jawed good looks have a rough-hewn quality. Derrington, who works as a produce broker in Anaheim, recalls that he had never seen a major league game before playing in one. He thought the old Pacific Coast League was “as good as it gets.”
“The quality didn’t bother me,” he remembers of that first start. “I was always used to playing against much better competition. I played semipro ball with my dad when I was 13. If I hadn’t been wild, I would have won. I shut them out four innings in a row. I felt confident. But I was wild, which means I was nervous, but as far as being overmatched, I didn’t feel anything like that.”
After a spectacular career at South Gate High School, Derrington, 6 feet 3 and 195 pounds, signed a contract that at the time included one of the highest bonuses ever paid. He had been Los Angeles City player of the year as a 16-year-old senior (he skipped the third and fifth grades), going 10-2 in 13 games. He struck out 159 and walked 19 in 88 innings, had an 0.23 earned-run average and a .452 batting average.
Paul Deitz, former Chapman College baseball coach, was a boyhood friend and sandlot teammate.
“I’ve coached in college and Alaska and sent 15 players to the major leagues and I could safely say no one that I ever saw in my lifetime was as good as Jim was at that point in time,” said Deitz, who owns a financial consulting business in Palm Springs. “I never saw anybody at that age who dominated like he did. He was a man among boys.”
Said Derrington: “I could throw hard, real hard. There were no radar guns in those days, but I wish there were. It would have been interesting.”
But the decibels from the pop of Derrington’s fastball in a catcher’s mitt and the crack of his bat commanded the attention of every scout. After Derrington marched out of June commencement ceremonies, even baseball Commissioner Ford Frick became alarmed.
Citing an agreement between the major leagues and the American Legion in effect at the time, Frick ruled that Derrington would have to complete a season of Legion ball before he could sign a contract.
“So I played American Legion ball that summer, but my dad wouldn’t let me pitch,” Derrington said. “I just played first base. My dad said, ‘There’s no sense hurting your arm.’ ”
On Sept. 10, 1956, White Sox owner Chuck Comiskey, upon the recommendations of scouts E.C. “Doc” Bennett and Hollis Thurston, personally signed Derrington for a $65,000 bonus.
Derrington immediately joined a club where he was earning more money than its star players. Three weeks later, Manager Marty Marion gave him his first start.
While it was not exactly a sparkling performance, he was in the history books.
During the winter, the White Sox fired Marion and hired Al Lopez, who had led the Cleveland Indians to the 1954 pennant, as manager. Derrington, now a ripe old 17, had a good spring in Tampa and was kept on the roster under an early form of owner collusion that stated a bonus signee had to be carried for two seasons.
Although 1957 would be Derrington’s last in the major leagues, that season with the White Sox would be a fascinating and memorable one for him.
The White Sox had one of the best and most colorful teams of the era. Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio and perennial All-Stars such as second baseman Nellie Fox, outfielder Minnie Minoso and pitchers Billy Pierce and Dick Donovan thrilled the crowds at old Comiskey Park.
Lopez inherited a pitching staff--Pierce, Donovan, Jim Wilson, Jack Harshman and Bob Keegan with Gerry Staley in the bullpen--that was one of the best in baseball.
“I’ll tell you that would’ve been one of the best teams in history, but we couldn’t beat the (New York) Yankees. They were loaded,” Derrington said. “We had a hell of a team. Up the middle when we had (catcher Sherman) Lollar, Fox, Aparicio and (Jim) Landis (in center field). No one was stronger. Minoso in left and (Jim) Rivera in right could run like rabbits. It was a tremendous outfield.”
But the Yankees had one of their most powerful teams, with Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Bill Skowron, Elston Howard, Hank Bauer, Billy Martin and Gil McDougald all in their prime, and a solid pitching staff with Whitey Ford, Tom Sturdivant, Bob Turley, Don Larsen and Bob Grim.
Derrington’s memories of that White Sox team remain as vivid as if they were last season.
“We were well-balanced, had lots of speed, good power with Minoso, Walt Dropo, Larry Doby and Lollar and real good pitching,” Derrington said.
He also recalls having a strange relationship with Lopez.
“There are two ways to look at Lopez,” he said. “There was almost no personal contact at all. I never said two words to him all the time I was there. But he did give me every opportunity I could ask for. I had five starts and 15 relief appearances that season. I was 17, and he did everything he could for me, and he was in a pennant race all year.”
On the road, Derrington roomed with Donovan, a right-hander with a wicked slider and a legendary bad disposition.
“Donovan played eight or nine years in the minors with the (Milwaukee) Braves organization,” Derrington said. “Then he learned how to throw the slider and became a 20-game winner. He watched me like a mother hen. He was a staunch New England Irish Catholic, and I was an Irish Catholic, so our pairing was no accident. On Sundays, he used to get me out of bed and going to Mass.”
Derrington says Donovan’s fabled reputation was no joke.
“He was tough as nails. He took no prisoners,” Derrington said. “He was so mean he once knocked a guy down in the on-deck circle. The guy was there taking his swings, and he just turned and nailed him. He said it took him a long time to get here (the big leagues) and ‘I’m not leaving.’ He wasn’t too thrilled about somebody trying to take his job away from him.”
Derrington reserves his highest accolades for Minoso and Fox.
“Minoso was one of the best competitors I’ve ever seen,” Derrington said. “He led the league in getting hit by pitches. He’d run into walls and get on guys who weren’t putting out. He was also one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known when the game was over. He loved to live. I had more respect for him than anyone I’ve ever met.”
In spite of his large signing bonus, Derrington felt his acceptance by the veteran players was “a lot better than you might expect,” with the exception of one incident that bubbled to the surface involving Aparicio.
“I thought he really dogged it one time on a fly ball that would have gotten me out of an inning,” he recalled. “We got involved in a shouting match in the clubhouse after the game, and Minoso had to separate us. I don’t know but I suspect there was a little bit of resentment there. After all, we were in a close pennant race with the Yankees.”
Derrington particularly relishes the pitching duels between Pierce, the top pitcher in the league that year at 20-12, and Ford.
“Pierce was a great competitor. When he and Whitey Ford would hook up, it was beautiful,” Derrington said. “Both teams would work their pitching rotations so they would meet. What a pair of competitors.”
The White Sox led the league by two games going into a four-game series with the Yankees over the Labor Day weekend, but the Yankees swept the series.
“If we could’ve split, we still would have led by two games, but they swept us, and we folded,” Derrington said.
The White Sox finished the season with a 90-64 record but were eight games behind the Yankees.
After the 1957 season, Derrington’s career record was 0-2 with a 5.23 ERA. He was the winning pitcher in a 13-4 exhibition victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the Hall of Fame game July 22 in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Against the Detroit Tigers, he had a no-hitter after seven innings.
“I got a couple of guys on in the eighth, and Lopez brought in Pierce, a 20-game winner, in relief to get me a win, but he lost it and the Tigers won, 4-2,” Derrington recalled.
Following spring training in 1958, Derrington was sent to the Sox’s triple-A team in Indianapolis.
“When you were playing there in 1958, that was one of the biggest shocks, a rude awakening,” Derrington remembers. “That triple-A ball (club) was good. They had players there who would be playing in the big leagues today. There was no free agency. There were some hitters who were better than guys in the big leagues, but they stayed down because they couldn’t run or throw or some other reason.”
From there, Derrington was sent to Colorado Springs, Colo., where he was 10-8 for a pennant-winning team, but he thinks things started rolling for him again in Charleston in the South Atlantic League in 1959.
“I really had a great year. I was in the top five in the league in ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched and I pitched in the All-Star game,” Derrington said. “I was 10-8 on a lousy club. I could have won 20, but the team was horrible. We came in seventh, 30 games behind the sixth-place team.”
Derrington thought it was only a matter of time before he’d be back in the big leagues.
“After my second year in the minors, I was really pitching well,” he said. “I knew I was going to be back up and be there for a long while. Those two years in the minors did me a lot of good.”
But a serious arm injury would soon short circuit that return.
Derrington was back in triple A with the San Diego Padres of the PCL, and back in the White Sox organization as well, for 1960 spring training.
“I was just blowing (the batters down) and scheduled to start the opener,” he said. “In an exhibition against Sacramento, I threw a fastball to catcher Les Moss and it bounced off the plate. He gave me a sign for another fastball and this time, it bounced five feet in front of the plate. I didn’t feel anything, the ball just bounced.”
The next morning, Derrington was unable to straighten his left arm. His roommate, Hal Trosky Jr., had to help him straighten it so he could put on his shirt. He was sent to San Diego to see the team doctor, who gave him two cortisone injections in his left elbow.
“The doctor told me I ripped all the ligaments and tendons in my elbow,” Derrington said. “He told me I’d be able to throw again but not like I did. I always could hit, and I was the starting right fielder for San Diego on opening day. I played in 10 games and was sent back to Charleston where I finished the season.”
During the off-season, Derrington lifted weights and learned to throw off-speed pitches.
“In 1961, I was coaching and learning how to throw off-speed pitches for strikes in Lincoln in Class B. I was 7-5, and the local newspaper ran an article about my big comeback attempt. I was only 21 years old.
“Against Tommy Harper one night, I threw eight breaking balls in a row, and I said to myself, ‘He’s going to be ready for what was left of my fastball.’ He hit it over the center-field scoreboard. I said to myself, ‘This isn’t making it.’ ”
The following season, Derrington was bouncing around the minors trying to find a spot or a coaching job. “That kind of wrapped it up,” he said.
He was 22.
Derrington returned to South Gate with a wife and three daughters, went to work in his father’s TV and appliance store and helped his old friend, Deitz, as an assistant coach at Chapman in 1964 and ’65.
In 1968, Derrington’s father died in a car accident, and he took over the business, which had expanded to five stores. There was no time for baseball.
“Baseball was his whole life,” Deitz said. “It was a classic case of the roar of the crowd stopping at a young age. I don’t think he ever got over that. It was a big part of his life. He had more exposure to more great teachers than anybody. He has a lot to give, a lot of experience.”
Finally, Derrington sold the TV-appliance business in 1979.
“I wanted to get out, and a friend got me a job managing a produce company in Anaheim. I quit that job in 1989,” he said. “I really wanted to get back into baseball, coaching somewhere.”
Now Derrington works mornings brokering produce and gets off in time to assist Coach Dolf Hess with the Fullerton High baseball team during the school year and is coaching the team in summer league. “I really enjoy it,” he said.
Derrington looks back on his short major league career with a perspective and philosophy that only 50 years of life can offer.
“A lot of people said it came too soon, that I wasn’t ready for that kind of pressure,” he said. “But I don’t know. I was throwing as hard as I could. I knew I could play at that level. I do know that for all the kids who play baseball, the biggest dream you ever have is to play in the big leagues, and that dream came true for me. All things considered, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
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