When Sam Esposito, one of Chicago’s favorite sons and a member of the 1959 Pennant-winning White Sox, passed away last month at the age of 86, I was reminded that often following the tears come floods of memories.
Memories of a man I’d chased for an autograph as a kid outside DC’s old Griffith Stadium, a guy I saw then as just a utility player for the Go-Go Chicago White Sox. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought he’d become a great friend, and the greatest athlete that I’d ever know — point guard for Indiana University’s basketball team, quarterback for their football team, scratch golfer, handball player, and of course, a major league baseball player for the 1959 American League champion Chicago White Sox.
When tested by a university research scientist along with 500 other athletes on their physical acumen, Sam once told me, two were deemed “athletic geniuses.” One was the Olympic Decathlete Rafer Johnson; the other was Sam Esposito. But Sam had more, a sort of athletic savvy.
When Sam came out of the army in 1955 at age 23, he joined the White Sox and reported to the Memphis Chicks. In one instance, he’d often recall, when the the team was taking infield practice, a coach had asked, “You Esposito?” Sam allowed that he was and the coach followed with, “What position?” Sam looked out to the field, where players were taking ground balls, and said, “Who’s the guy playing second?”
“Our player and manager,” said the coach.
“How about that little guy throwing darts from shortstop?”
“I play third,” Sam said.
He’d later divulge: “I’d never played third in my life. But I wasn’t going to beat out those two. So they put me at third and I kicked it around out there for about a month until I finally learned the position.”
Esposito and his glove made a career of backing up three infield positions with the White Sox — two of them played by Hall of Famers Aparicio and Nellie Fox.
I met Sam during my years at NC State. While I was writing about the university, he was making history. As head baseball coach for more than twenty years, he developed numerous players who went on to major league careers. He took State’s baseball program to the College World Series. He sat next to Norm Sloan as bench coach when that David Thompson team won the 1974 NCAA basketball championship.
“Son,” he once said, “when you see a great head basketball coach, look at the bench and you’ll see an old fart sitting next to him. I was Norm’s old fart.”
Later having become the athletic department’s unofficial godfather, he served as Jim Valvano’s go-to guy. “V” would coach the Pack to the NCAA basketball championship in ’83. Behind the scenes, Sam anchored V’s ego. The stories about these two are legend — recruiting, coaching, and hijinx including moving around the office furniture so they could wrestle at lunchtime. If you walked into Sam’s office during those years, it was rare when court was not in session. Sam was the judge and jury.
He coached NC State’s players — and its and coaches.
Coach Sloan, recalling that ’74 basketball championship team, said it was Sam who taught him about tired legs. When he was with the Sox he’d watch guys come off the Disabled List rested and play at an incredible level.
“Thanks to Sam in ’74 we practiced less than ever, and it paid off,” Sloan said. “He also told me to quit worrying about what Dean Smith might think and clear the court for David Thompson to go one on one. And I did, and he did and we won that national Championship.”
Being from the University News Bureau I wasn’t inside the athletic circle. But I was Sam Esposito’s friend. It was my habit to wait until the Valvano storm blew out of Sam’s office. The basketball behind us, we’d sit and talk White Sox baseball.
I never met a better raconteur than Sam Esposito. He knew how to shape a story, put you in a time and a place, then hit you with the kicker.
I’ll start this one and let him finish it: In ’93 I was at a Florida Spring Training game. To my right were some Chicago guys, fans asking trivia questions. I was the little man who wasn’t there.
“Name the only pro baseball player to ever score 100 points in a Chicago high school basketball game,” one eventually said. I leaned in and answered, “Sam Esposito.”
“How did you know that?” he asked.
“Because he’s a friend,” I said — and judging by the guy’s face, you’d have thought I said I knew Elvis Presley. “I was just a kid,” he recalled, “listening to a Sox spring training game on the radio, when Sam Esposito fouled off 11 straight pitches in the tenth inning then got a hit to win the game.”
When I relayed the story to Sam later, he topped it off as only Sam could: “BS. I was showered, dressed, and at the dog tracks by the sixth inning of every spring training game I ever played in.”
He told me the one about the night when he and the Sox were in an after hours joint on State Street when the Yankees “Rat Pack” strolled in to get hydrated for a Sunday doubleheader. Sam, unmarried at the time, set Mickey Mantle up with a woman he’d been chatting with. Mantle and the girl left. The next day, the Sox were ecstatic: Mantle had missed batting practice, and was a no-show for the infield and outfield drills. Sam, it seemed, had worked his magic.
Then at the last second, Sam recalled: “I was sitting by the water cooler nursing a hangover, and here comes Mantle, giving me this look, holding his head. He hit three home runs in that doubleheader and every time he came around third base the bastard would give me a big smile and this little wave,” Esposito laughed.
Later, at the end of his career with Kansas City, Sam and Hawk Harrelson became friends and golfing buddies. Hawk was a rookie; Sam rarely played. On one incredibly hot afternoon in KC, Sam told me, the pair decided to play nine extra holes of golf. But when they walked into the clubhouse later, Hawk was shocked to see his name in the starting lineup. His hands were so blistered from golfing that he couldn’t hold a bat. So Sam — or so he used to say — sent him to the trunk of his car for his golf gloves. Hawk wore them during the game, hit a couple out, and never stopped wearing what is now known to fans simply as the batting glove.
Then there was the one about the secret light in Comiskey Park. A Sox bullpen coach during Sam’s tenure with the team, Del Wilber, was a world-class sign stealer. In one instance, Sam told me, Wilber took his home doorbell and ran an electric wire from it to a light beneath the façade in the left field stands. For several years, using binoculars from a little room behind the scoreboard, he’d “procure” the visiting catcher’s signs. When Sox hitters came to the plate and looked to left field, Wilber would hit the magic button. If that light was on, it was a fastball; if it was off, a breaking pitch. Sherm Lollar loved the light, Sam said. “He’d be looking up there when the pitcher was still in his windup.” Nellie Fox, a great singles hitter, wouldn’t use it, “afraid he’d muscle up and just hit a warning track fly ball,” Sam said. “Finally a Sox pitcher got traded, told the story, the league got involved, and our light went out.”
Of Sam’s many stories, none says Chicago better than the day he called my office and said, “Son, you know that Chicago Sportswriters show on national TV? Well yesterday [Sun-Times baseball writer] Bill Gleason went on and said that the best schoolboy athlete to ever come out of Chicago was Sam Esposito. I told my son and he won’t believe me.”
Sam wondered if I might track down Gleason and ask him to send a VHS as proof. I managed to get Gleason on the phone, and after we’d had about a half an hour of his favorite Sam stories (Esposito being his inside source on the team when everyone thought it was Nellie Fox) I popped the question.
I could hear Gleason chewing on that cigar of his. Finally, he said, “Let’s do this. Tell Sammy to watch the show again next week and I’ll tell it again.”
Sam’s gone now, but I’ll always have his stories. And if anyone would care to listen, I’d be glad to tell them again.
Bob Cairns is the author of Pen Men: Baseball’s Greatest Bullpen Stories Told by the Men Who Brought the Game Relief, V & Me: Everybody’s Favorite Jim Valvano Story, and Stories I Couldn’t Tell Until My Mother Died.