Ron Kittle was making good money as a go-fer in an ironworks in Gary, Ind. He hooked up torches, put gas in air bottles and fetched bolts.
Later, he graduated to eight-hour shifts on the beams. The money was getting better.
Now he says, "If I weren't playing baseball, I'd still be doing that."
But Kittle is playing baseball, playing it so well in Comiskey Park that he'll probably be able to buy his own factory when he is done.
He is having the most exciting rookie season for a Chicago White Sox since Luis Aparicio in 1956. Kittle, a 6-foot-4 outfielder, went into last night's play tied for second in the American League in home runs (21), was third in RBI (63), and stood fifth in slugging percentage (.538).
Last weekend, the season just half over, Kittle joined Zeke Bonura (27 homers in 1934) and Pete Ward (23 in 1964) as the only first-year White Sox to hit 20 or more home runs. At that pace, he could equal or surpass the club record of 37 Richie Allen set in 1972.
"The home run provides a special kind of excitement for baseball fans, but through the history of our club, they really haven't had much of that pleasure," General Manager Roland Hemond said.
"In our park, that excitement isn't taken for granted the way it might be in Fenway Park. Through the years here, it has been pitching, defense and speed. That's okay, but what a guy like Kittle does is . . . well, electrifying."
Kittle has electrified the media, too. His off-the-wall one-liners were so frequent the first half of the season that publicity director Chuck Shriver compiled a list called "Kittle-isms."
* On visiting New York for the first time--"The only thing I found difficult was trying to enjoy a $20 omelet."
* On his first slump--"My weaknesses fluctuate."
* On facing new pitchers--"I swing at everything. That way, they don't know how to pitch to me."
* On why he prefers glasses to contact lenses--"I never was too crazy about putting fingers in my eyeballs."
* On a neck injury that prompted the Los Angeles Dodgers to release him from their farm system in 1978--"It must have been playing baseball. I don't remember being hit by a car."
Kittle was released after the '78 season because his composite two-year average for three Dodgers farm teams was .213. There was a reason: that neck injury so painful "my right arm felt like it was partially paralyzed." Extensive tests showed he had a pair of crushed vertebrae that were pinching a neck nerve.
He underwent spinal fusion surgery that year and wore a neck brace for four months.
"To this day I don't know how it happened," he said, adding with a wink, "Maybe running into fences and sliding headfirst into catchers' shin guards."
Kittle was rediscovered playing semipro baseball south of Chicago by former White Sox pitcher Billy Pierce. Acting on the recommendation of a coworker, Pierce watched Kittle play and made this unofficial scouting report: "Awesome strength, can run a little, lacks defense."
Pierce phoned Bill Veeck, then owner of the Sox, and said, "You've got to see this kid."
Bring him up, Veeck said.
Thus, on a hot summer evening with veteran Bruce Dal Canton throwing batting practice, Kittle hit seven of 12 pitches into the distant seats.
Sign him up, Veeck said.
Kittle recalls the tryout as if it were yesterday, which it almost was. "I remember somebody--I think it was Don Kessinger--saying, 'He swings at everything.' Then someone else saying, 'Yeah, but he hits everything.' "