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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.

June 29, 1991|TOM BIRSCHBACH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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