Gary native Kittle: From ironworker to Sox
March 29, 2013 3:52PM
Jeff Manes | Sun-Times Media file
Updated: May 1, 2013 1:53PM
“When I was a kid growin’ up in Gary, I remember a few Cub fans coming home from Wrigley with a little quiche and white wine spilled on the lapel of their suit coats. Sox fans came home from Comiskey with mustard and beer stains on their blue jeans.”
— Ron Kittle
Ron Kittle grew up in the Aetna neighborhood of Gary and graduated from Wirt High School, where he was a three-sport athlete.
Kittle, 55, and his five siblings are the sons and daughters of an ex-Navy man and an ironworker who emigrated from West Virginia in search of work in Northwest Indiana.
In 1983, Kittle was named American League Rookie of the Year while playing for the Chicago White Sox. He also played in Major League Baseball’s 50th All-Star game that year. It was held at old Comiskey Park.
For the past year, Kittle has lived in Mokena, Ill. Our interview took place at Cracker Barrel just off Kennedy Avenue and Interstate 294. Once we polished off some biscuits, gravy and grits, that is.
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So, Kitty, how do you like our chances of taking the American League Central this year?
“The White Sox have a very good chance of winning the division, if they stay healthy,” he said.
Childhood memories of Gary?
“We had good neighbors and friends on the block. And we lived right across the street from Aetna Senior League Field.”
You worked as an ironworker for a while.
“My graduation present was a piece of paper that said: ‘You are an apprentice ironworker, you start tomorrow morning.’ I went to work the next day.
“When I was out on that iron, I would never let anyone outwork me. It was pride. I saw how hard my dad worked despite being beat up with cancer and emphysema at the time.”
“I went to a tryout camp while I was working and did well; the Los Angeles Dodgers organization signed me to a contract. I played my first year in Clinton, Iowa.”
“I broke my neck in my very first game.”
“I hit a double in my first at bat; Mike Scioscia (current manager of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) singled me in. A late throw came in as I was sliding across the plate. The catcher jumped for the throw and landed on me while I was getting up.”
“I had surgery. It took me a long time to realize that things happen for a reason. You have to move on.”
What did you do next?
“Went back to work with the ironworkers and got as strong as I could. I used to carry a pair of 50-pound boxes of welding rods, one under each arm, and run up 30 flights of stairs at the coke plant to beat the elevator. People used to bet on me.”
The Chicago White Sox?
“I tried out at old Comiskey Park and missed the first pitch completely. I took a deep breath and then proceeded to hit the next dozen pitches way out of the ball park. People stopped what they were doing and gathered around the batting cage to watch. Bill Veeck (White Sox owner at the time) told one of the brass: ‘Don’t let him leave the park until he signs a contract.’”
You and former teammate and White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker were good friends.
“Absolutely. We were roommates. Greg is probably my best friend. He probably knows me better than my brothers know me. I pretty much spent half my life with the guy.”
Walker was a great, natural left-handed hitter. You were a slugger. Your seven roof shots at old Comiskey Park are a major league record.
“Babe Ruth hit the first one, I hit the last. You never felt it when you hit a roof shot. It was just such a pure thing. It was like it was an extension of your forearm.
“You have to hit it 500-feet plus just to get it to the roof. I hit one that went completely out of the entire stadium which is about 700 feet. I can say it on record — nobody has ever hit a ball farther than I have. The only park I’ve never hit one out of is Yellowstone.”
Who gave up the 700-footer?
“Dave Rozema. It was a 3-2 curve ball.”
Another one of my favorite players was the late Kevin Hickey from South Chicago. I believe he was working for Republic Steel when he tried out for the Sox.
“Kevin was a guy with mediocre talent, but he had a heart the size of a blast furnace. Hickey would go out to that mound and challenge you. He had some big games for us.”
“Harold was about 150 hits shy of 3,000, which is a sure trip to Cooperstown. If I could give my hits to him, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Harold Baines is that good of a guy.”
Your photograph graces the cover of legendary hitting instructor Charlie Lau’s book.
“I had a good swing and did a lot of things right — except stay healthy. I have three fused vertebrae and two that are ruptured, one above the fused ones and one below them. I’ve had two taken out of my lower back. I also dislocated my shoulder and broke my collar bone running into the left-field wall. That bothers me to this day. But I keep going.”
Something the average fan might not know about you?
“I was in Playgirl magazine. They got a bunch of ballplayers together and put our pictures in one of their spring issues. We wore shorts. They gave us $500 each. Then, they offered me something like $50,000 to pose naked for the centerfold. Ma told me not to do it. Heck, today, I’d do it for 20 bucks.”
Kitty, you’re killin’ me. Early on, you were told by an old scout that you’d never make the majors because you wore glasses.
“Yep, that made me want it just a little bit more. I don’t like being told I can’t do something.”
You played in old Yankee Stadium.
“That was a thrill; the aura of the place.”
“I never took any. The people who took the steroids blemished the records and the game itself.”
What else do you have going on since you’ve hung up the spikes?
“More than you have space to write about; people can go to ronkittle.com. One of my latest endeavors is making red, white and blue-colored baseball gloves. I’m a firm believer in products being made in the United States.
“I also work for the White Sox. They gave me a job title called ambassador. If Mr. Reinsdorf gave me a job picking up peanut shells, I‘d do it to the best of my ability.”
Is Reinsdorf a good boss?
“He’s a good man. One of the best owners in all of sports — very caring.”
Do you miss playing the game?
“I miss the camaraderie and the pressure of succeeding or failing.”
Kitty, there’s only one thing that kept me from playing for the Chicago White Sox.
“What’s that, kid?”
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Who knows what kind of career numbers Kittle might have put up if he had played without injury for 16 or 18 years? He actually has a home-run to at-bat percentage higher than Lou Gehrig’s.
Kittle also told me he didn’t want to go to one of his major league tryouts because it took place on a Saturday and he was scheduled to work a double-shift that paid double-time for the entire 16 hours. His father told him to go to the try out. Out his own pocket, Mr. Kittle paid his son the money he would’ve made that day.
In 1989, Kittle founded Indiana Sports Charities. To date, ISC has raised more than $2 million toward cancer research and education.
And I like to imagine there’s a rough-and-tumble ironworker, a former Navy man and native West Virginian, smilin’ from that I-beam in the sky.