Book review: Strength Down the Middle: The Story of the 1959 Chicago White Sox, by Larry Kalas

originally posted elsewhere: January 25, 2009

tl;dr: A fan's (not a team insider's) perspective on a magical season for the White Sox...

Southside Chicago native Larry Kalas was a fourth grader in 1959 when his beloved White Sox put together all the pieces for a magical season and made it to the World Series for the first time since the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Strength Down the Middle is Kalas's recounting of the 1959 season, published 40 years later. Although Kalas does intersperse some personal stories and items of popular culture and general news from that time period, much of the book is a game-by-game recitation of facts and figures. As a fan and not a player or team outsider, Kalas doesn't have access to many inside stories of what went on in the player's minds either during or between the games. Thus, while Strength Down the Middle does provide the facts and figures for what happened on the field, it falls short of providing the full story of the 1959 White Sox season.

As a current day White Sox fan, there are several aspects of the book that I found interesting. Kalas does provide some context around the White Sox and what they meant to the south side of Chicago in that era, especially to young boys playing sandlot baseball. There are notable parallels between the 1959 White Sox and the next White Sox team to make it to the World Series, the 2005 team: both teams had excellent defense and pitching, with several pitchers having career years; while both teams had excellent won/loss records, many of their wins came in tight games in which they had to grind out victories; both teams played very well on the road; and while the composition of both teams was in flux before, during and after the season, for that one special season, everything gelled on the field and the result was magic. It is interesting to see the differences in how pitchers are used in 1959 versus today, with the strong specialization (starter, middle reliever, 8th inning set-up man, closer) that has become standard. And although fans today may think of the pre-free-agent days as a time of much greater stability in team composition, there were far more roster moves and trades in that era than I was expecting, especially considering that there were only seven other teams in the American League in 1959.

A book cover with a black background, with the title, subtitle and author's name in white letters, featuring a cropped picture of approximately sixteen men posed for a team picture in five rows, most of them wearing white pinstripe uniforms and black baseball caps, in the far background of which is a portion of a stadium with bright green seats

Although Kalas did talk to several players and members of the 1959 White Sox organization, one can infer that his primary source of material was newspaper clippings about the games. So, Kalas saves the fan interested in the 1959 season from having to read 160 newspaper stories and box scores. The black-and-white photos in the middle of the book are excellent. One addition to the book that would make it more special is for it to include the CD contained in Lew Freedman and Billy Pierce's book "Then Ozzie Said To Harold...", which contains the 1959 radio broadcast of the first World Series game versus the Dodgers.

Bottom line: Strength Down the Middle is worth reading for White Sox fans interested in the 1959 season, but it doesn't tell the whole story.