Apr 12, 2021

Remembering Charley Lau, the legendary White Sox hitting coach

Remembering Charley Lau, the legendary White Sox hitting coach

Charley Lau, born April 12, 1933, played Major League Baseball for 11 seasons, including seven with the Baltimore Orioles.

But his bigger contributions to the sport came, of course, as a coach.

When the Yankees let him go after the 1981 season because of George Steinbrenner's impatience, the White Sox scooped up Lau and signed him to an unheard-of six-year contract for a reported $100,000 annual salary to be their batting coach. Lau had gained wide respect and uncommon fame as the Royals batting coach throughout the 1970s, with his most notable and successful student being the great George Brett.

The White Sox in the early 1980s had made several gains as an organization — by signing free agents, making key trades and developing organizational talent that eventually took the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since 1959. Improved talent was a big reason why they won but they also hired a coach with the best reputation in the industry to help the likes of Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski, Harold Baines, Tom Paciorek and Greg Walker.

When the Sox won the AL West in 1983, Lau's second season as hitting coach, they led MLB in runs scored. Manager Tony La Russa said Lau was key in getting right the swing of rookie slugger Ron Kittle. Lau often got as much credit or more than managers do for their impact on the team.

Lau had such a big name in baseball that Hollywood called to give him a small (but important) role as himself in the 1983 film "Max Dugan Returns." Jason Robards, Marsha Mason, Matthew Broderick and Donald Sutherland were the other big names on the screen. Robards' character paid Lau a huge but undisclosed sum to help turn around the season of his grandson, Broderick's character.

Of course, Lau put Broderick to work, and the kid got a big hit in his Little League game. Lau's mix of positive and negative reinforcement gave us a glimpse — maybe — into what it was like with him in the batting cages with major leaguers.

Brett still talks fondly of Lau, calling him his "security blanket" for the successful early seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Baines swore by Lau's teachings. Reggie Jackson did too. If Reggie respected you, you were in.

A catcher and pinch-hitter when he played, Lau hit .255/.318/.365 in 527 career games from 1956 to 1967. He had some remarkable seasons as a pinch-hitter, including 1962 when he went 16 for 40 with 12 RBIs coming off the bench, and 1966, when he went 6 for 12 with four walks and five RBIs in the regular season for the Orioles' World Series championship team.

Lau's career with the White Sox was cut short in March 1984 when he died at 50 due to colon cancer, about nine months after his diagnosis. He has been gone a while, but Lau's emphasis on having a "workable" batting stance, the right balance and weight transfer, keeping your head still and other details continued through Walt Hriniak and even today in the teachings of modern instructors. It's uncertain, though, as to how Lau's full style would be embraced in this era with such a hard focus on launch angle and other home run-making approaches.

Lau, whose family still runs a hitting school in the Kansas City area, would have been 88 today.

Actor Matthew Broderick had a sweet left-handed swing that Lau refined in "Max Dugan Returns."

David Brown
Longtime Chicago guy. A professional writer and editor since 1998. Member of Baseball Writers Association of America since 2013.

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