Baseball legend Billy Pierce has died at the age of 88.
Pierce pitched 18 years in the major leagues, beginning his professional baseball career with is hometown team, the Detroit Tigers, in 1945.
Pierce had a baseball career that almost wasn’t. Had it not been for a set of tonsils that needed removing, a stubborn Pierce, and the temptation of a parental bribe, it may never have happened.
“When I was 10, I refused to have my tonsils removed,” said Pierce according to the Washington Post. “My folks offered me a major league baseball and a good glove if I’d have the operation. I took the bribe. It really was a thrill to throw around that league ball, and I’ve been throwing ever since.”
Pierce had been courted by several major league teams while still in high school. Billy Pierce also won a four-year scholarship to the college of his choice when he was named outstanding player of the game, in the 1944 East-West All-American Game.
He briefly considered attending the University of Michigan to pursue a career in medicine, but his love of the game led him to baseball instead. He signed with the Detroit Tigers before he graduated high school.
The bulk of Pierce’s career was played in a Chicago White Sox uniform. The left-handed pitcher faced some legendary players in their own right, such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Hank Aaron. Pierce was pitted against fellow left-hander New York Yankee Whitey Ford, which made for games that are the stuff of lore.
Being a player of smaller stature, Pierce relied on talent and technique to generate his major league pitching power.
“He has wonderful coordination,” said teammate Sherm Lollar according to a report in the New York Times. “He sure is pretty to watch, the way he pumps, and rocks, and throws.”
“That little so-and-so is a marvel,” said Joe DiMaggio according to the Washington Post. “So little – and all that speed. And I mean speed. He got me out of there on a fastball in the ninth that I’d have needed a telescope to see.”
Billy Pierce ended his career with the San Francisco Giants, but his overall career garnered him much appreciation by fans and players alike.
Billy Pierce finished third in the 1962 Cy Young race. His is one of only 13 pitchers to start three or more All-Star games. He also holds the Chicago White Sox franchise record for career strikeouts at 1,796.
Billy Pierce was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. He was named to the Chicago White Sox Team of the Century in 2000, and in 2007, the team erected a statue of Billy Pierce at U.S. Cellular Field.
Billy Pierce is one of only eight Chicago White Sox players to have his number retired.
“Generations of White Sox fans lost one of their heroes today,” said Jerry Reinsdorf, the Chicago White Sox Chairman, according to the Chicago Tribune. “It was an absolute privilege to consider Billy a friend. He epitomized class, not just as a baseball player on those great Go-Go White Sox teams of the 1950s, but as a gentleman and as a human being who devoted so much of his time to helping others.”
Billy Pierce actively supported the non-profit organization Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities since 1975, and his family has requested that donations be made to that charity in his name.
Billy Pierce is survived by his wife, three children, five grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Billy Pierce died July 31 of gallbladder cancer.
[Images courtesy of Jonathan Daniels/Getty Images]