Before there was Don Cooper, there was Ray Berres.
70 years ago Saturday, the White Sox signed Berres to serve as their pitching coach.
The signing began a distinguished 20-year career which turned out to be the longest stint by a White Sox coach.
Berres’ record may be in peril. No-signs-of-slowing-down Cooper, also a respected pitching coach, can eclipse Berres’ mark if he lasts through 2021.
So revered was Berres he was once called “the greatest pitching coach of all” by Bill Fischer, who played under Berres and was a big league pitching coach for 14 seasons.
Berres, who died at age 99 in 2007, played 11 seasons as a catcher in the Major Leagues in the 1930s and 1940s.
“You don’t see many players like him anymore,” said Dale McReynolds, a Platteville native who has scouted since 1953 for the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals and currently works for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I wish I could find an 18-year old with the ability of Ray. He scrambled, scratched, and clawed until he made his way to the big leagues. The fire he’s got inside of him… it’s almost impossible to find these days.”
The native of Kenosha, Wis., played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1937 to 1940 before being dealt to the Boston Braves with $40,000 for Lopez June 14,1940.
In his only year as a regular with the Braves, Berres topped big league catchers with a. 995 fielding percentage in 1941. Following the season, Berres was sold to the New York Giants.
He played sparingly there and retired after the 1945 season.
Berres’ success as a catcher helped him become a great pitching coach, former White Sox general manager Roland Hemond said.
“I was raised in New England and I remember as a youngster growing up he was a catcher for the Boston Braves and he was noted as such an outstanding receiver and handler of pitchers,” Hemond once said. “When he went on to become a great pitching coach with the White Sox, it certainly was no surprise because he had gained such a great reputation of how he handled pitchers and pitching staffs.”
Following his playing career, Berres served one season as the Boston Braves bullpen coach and one season as the minor league Milwaukee Brewers pitching coach before the Sox came calling.
It was with the Sox that Berres indiscreetly earned his reputation as one of the best in his profession through hard work and attention to detail.
“He was a quiet man behind the scenes but developed that great pitching staff of the 1950 s and through the 1960s,” White Sox historian Rich Lindberg said in a phone interview for the Berres’ obituary I wrote for the Kenosha News. “He was one of (Hall of Fame manager) Al Lopez’s most trusted assistants. Beyond that, though, was the fact that this man was very gracious, very nice.
“He made better managers out of Paul Richards and Marty Marion during those years. He really had few peers as far as pitching coaches in the Major Leagues….The ’50s would not have been the ‘Go Go ’50s’ without him and that’s the key thing. His influence covered the best years of White Sox history.”
Said Gary Peters, who won 19 games and the Rookie of the Year Award for the 1963 Sox: “I think he was the best pitching coach of his era, easily, and maybe any era.”
Berres was with the White Sox from 1949 to 1966 and 1968 and 1969. He also spent time with the franchise as a minor league instructor and consultant.
According to Lindberg, Berres was instrumental in developing the White Sox farm system.
During his time on the Southside, the White Sox became the peskiest team in baseball, reeling off 17 consecutive winning seasons. Those clubs were built on Berres’ stingy pitching staffs, speed and defense.
“I really think he was one of the unsung heroes and one of the architects of the fine White Sox farm system and those pitching prospects that came up,” Lindberg said.
The “Go Go Era” reached its zenith in 1959 when the White Sox won the American League pennant — their first since 1919 and their last until 2005.
Berres’ 1952 and 1953 staffs led the A. L. in strikeouts. His staffs in 1964 and 1966 led the league in ERA.
Among those Berres tutored were Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm and Early Wynn, Billy Pierce, Tommy John, Joel Horlen and Peters, a left-hander who followed up his
Rookie of the Year campaign with a 20-win season.
“He was the reason I got to the big leagues,” Peters said. “I don’t think I would have gotten there without his help…. He had a knack for spotting mechanical problems in your delivery and he could cure you pretty easily.”
Berres also had a knack of salvaging careers.
“He had the ability to pull out of these guys some elements of talent they didn’t know they had,” Lindberg said.
The most prominent examples of Berres reclamation projects were Bob Shaw and Ray Herbert.
Shaw caught Berres ’ eye one day in Detroit in 1958. Berres saw a struggling Shaw fire a ball in disgust after learning of his demotion to the minor leagues.
“With just that one throw, I liked what I saw, ” Berres said in November of 1999. “I thought it would be a good idea to pick him up if he we had the chance. I figured, what the heck if he doesn’t work out for us maybe we could use him in a trade or something.”
On Berres ’ recommendation, the White Sox acquired Shaw from the Tigers. The 6-foot-2 right-hander finished up strong in 1958 and then went 18-6 with a 2.69 ERA for the 1959 A. L. champs.
Herbert came to the Sox in 1961 after several undistinguished seasons with the Tigers and A’s. Under Berres’ guidance, Herbert won 20 games in 1962, a season that included a victory in the All-Star Game at Wrigley Field and a scoreless streak of 31 innings.
“He made Herbert a very effective pitcher,” Lindberg said. “Ditto for Frank Baumann in 1960, who was a retread from the Boston Red Sox, who led the league in earned-run average that year…. He worked with them on their deliveries and helped them develop new pitches. Ray Berres is a key figure in White Sox history but he was very quiet and very reticent. I don’t think a lot of fans realize the significant role he played in team history.”
After taking off the uniform, Berres still served the Sox as a minor league instructor.
He was Rich Gossage’s first pitching coach.
“Throughout my whole career I would remember Ray Berres yelling at me to stay back,” Gossage said. “We had a lot of fun with it. He was just as good as they come.
“What a great guy. If we had more people like him in the world we wouldn’t have the problems we have. I’ll tell you that.”
So impactful was Berres on his career that Gossage mentioned him in his Hall of Fame induction speech.
“The first place they (the White Sox) sent me was to the Gulf Coast Rookie League in Florida.
“The coaching I received in rookie league was tremendous. Joe Jones was the manger of the team. Sam Hairston was an assistant coach and my first great pitching coach was an ex-catcher by the name of Ray Berres. I learned so much.”
On Nov. 11,1999, Berres was inducted into the State Athletic Hall of Fame. That same year a baseball field was named in his honor in Fox River Park near his Kenosha County homes of Twin Lakes and Silver Lakes, Wis. (where he commuted from during his days with the Sox).
“I was fortunate, ” Berres said in a November 1999 interview with the Kenosha News. “I had good rapport with all my pitchers and I was a good demonstrator. I spent most of my time in the bullpen that was of my own choice. There I could spend more time with the pitchers and work with them and make sure they didn’t revert to their high school or college habits. That’s where I was their godfather and their ‘ mother goose. ’ They trusted me. I never told anybody anything not even the manager sometimes.
“I had a very happy tenure there. ”