The Year of the Yaz

The history of the Boston Red Sox is filled with celebration and heartbreak. As they try to make history again in the 2018 World Series, John M. Carroll reconsiders the year that Carl Yastrzemski saved the Red Sox. In 1967, while America seemed to lose itself, Yaz kept the faith.

The new Red Sox manager brashly predicted that the team would register more wins than losses in 1967. For a team that had finished ninth the previous year with 90 defeats, it seemed a stretch to say the least. Few Boston fans following the Hot Stove League of hopes and promises complained as spring training approached. Odds-makers were more realistic, making the Red Sox a 100–1 shot to win the American League race.

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Yastrzemski came up with the Red Sox in 1961, the year after Ted Williams retired. He was supposed to be the Second Coming, the slugging left fielder who would fill the shoes of the Splendid Splinter. The problem was that Yaz was a 5-foot 11-inch, 160-pound line-drive hitter who specialized in singles and doubles. He developed into a superb outfielder and played Fenway Park’s difficult left field better than anyone ever had. Although he hit well and won the league batting title in 1963, Yastrzemski didn’t deliver the home runs (his best effort was twenty in 1965) or RBI that were expected from him. Yaz obsessed over everything concerning baseball, from trying to fill the void left by Williams to which way the wind was blowing on a given day to mentally replaying a game for hours in the clubhouse. He was moody and usually stonewalled the media. “There were times after a bad game,” Yastrzemski recalled, “that I’d sit in front of my locker with such dark thoughts that I’d think about jumping off Mystic River Bridge.” He grew up on a potato farm in rural Long Island; Yastrzemski’s father, an excellent baseball player himself, spent most of his free time grooming his son for a major-league career. When the Yankees and other teams balked at meeting the elder Yastrzemski’s signing demands of a $100,000 bonus plus a free college education, Carl Sr. shipped his son off to Notre Dame on an athletic scholarship. At least young Carl would be the first Yastrzemski to graduate from college. Finally in 1958, Yaz signed with Boston for his father’s $100,000 asking price and dropped out of Notre Dame after the fall semester. To fulfill his father’s dream of a college education for his son, Yaz dutifully attended college in the off-season for the next half-dozen years, finally earning his degree from Merrimack College.

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By the beginning of June, Yastrzemski was on a hitting tear that would continue for the rest of the season. He would hit for average and with power, and, best of all, he was extraordinary in clutch situations. One explanation for the beginning of this magical season for Yaz could be traced back to mid-May. Mired in a slump, Yastrzemski sought advice and instruction from former Red Sox second baseman and then batting instructor Bobby Doerr. After watching Yaz hit in a morning workout, Doerr became convinced that Yaz was uppercutting the ball, causing an overspin that resulted in potential home-run balls’ dying in the outfield. He suggested that Yaz raise his hands to the level of his left ear to correct the overspin problem, which the left fielder did and with devastating results. The year of the Yaz might have begun that day. Or it might have begun the previous winter, when Yaz went to the Colonial Country Club in Wakefield to start a light exercise program. He had never worked out much in the off-season because the fall and winter months were spent pursuing his college degree. George Berde, a former Hungarian Olympic boxing coach and head of the health club, gave Yaz more than he bargained for. In an era when it was not that common for baseball players to train rigorously in the off-season, Berde drove Yastrzemski for two hours or more a day six days a week, including weight training, which at the time was considered harmful by many baseball coaches. The result was that Yaz was stronger and in better condition than at any time in his career, and American League pitchers would pay for it. Another theory for Yaz’s breakthrough season might center on Dick Williams. Over time the two men would come to dislike each other, but in 1967 the Red Sox manager was like the overbearing father who had motivated Yaz in his formative years — except Williams was meaner. In his autobiography Williams heaped high praise on his left fielder. “It [the Impossible Dream] started with Yaz, who was having what may be the best year of any player ever.” After rattling off Yastrzemski’s year-end statistics and noting that he was to win baseball’s Triple Crown in 1967, Williams said, “I don’t think anyone will ever have a year like this” because of the advent of multiyear contracts.

With the urban riots spreading and escalating during July and protests against the war in Vietnam continuing as an average of 800 Americans died in Southeast Asia each month, Newsweek reported about the “Summer of Discontent.” Others proclaimed the “Summer of Love.” In July Time published a cover story on “The Hippies,” introducing the subculture to many Americans for the first time. There were undoubtedly hippie enclaves in Boston in 1967, but the “Summer of Love” began in the city on July 14 with “the streak.” On that date, the Red Sox were in fifth place, six games behind the Chicago White Sox. That evening Boston routed Baltimore 11–5 before 27,787 fans, with Tony Conigliaro hitting the longest home run anyone could remember at Fenway. The ball soared over the Green Monster, the screen above it, cleared Lansdowne Street, and landed on or beyond the Massachusetts Turnpike behind Lansdowne Street. Dick Williams recalled that “some people thought the homer meant we’d soon be playing out of this world. They were right. For 10 straight games we didn’t lose once. It was a winning streak as strange and wonderful as an open parking spot in downtown Boston.” After four straight victories at home, the Red Sox swept two games in Baltimore, with Yastrzemski connecting for his twenty-second home run. With Boston leading in the third game of the series 2–0 on July 20, only the heavy rains that washed out the game in the third inning temporarily cooled off the Red Sox.

As the team headed to Cleveland for a four-game series with the Indians, Boston was abuzz with excitement. The Red Sox became front-page news, overshadowing a smoldering race riot in Newark, the Vietnam War, and the contentious mayoral primary contest among Mayor John Collins, Ed Logue, and Louise Day Hicks. Boston Herald sportswriter Tim Horgan was convinced that the Red Sox surge had reduced racial tensions in the city. According to Horgan, “the amazing thing is it’s not just baseball fans. It’s everywhere you go. Every porch you walk by someone has the ballgame on.” One afternoon a motorist listening to an exciting moment in a game stopped his car at the entrance to the Sumner Tunnel, causing a massive traffic jam. He refused to enter until the inning ended because he knew his radio would black out in the underground chamber. Halfway around the world, in Saigon, David Halberstam, a New Yorker and converted Red Sox fan, was pessimistic about the futile violence of a war that appeared stalemated.

Each morning he and Tom Durant, a Boston doctor, would encounter each other at the Associated Press office to wait for the results of Red Sox games. “I would meet him there,” Halberstam remembered, “bonded by this need to escape, and this common passion, and we would follow the results of a wonderful pennant race and perhaps the greatest oneman pennant drive in modern baseball history by standing over the AP ticker.” Halberstam would sit there and “could almost see Yaz as he was in Fenway, the exaggerated stance; it was oddly exhilarating . . . In what for me was a bad season,” Halberstam recalled, “his [Yastrzemski’s] was a marvelous season and reminded me of the America I loved, and which otherwise was so distant.”

In Cleveland the Red Sox swept four games from the Indians to extend their winning streak to ten games, the team’s longest since 1957. En route to Boston, the team was in second place, one-half game behind Chicago. A year earlier, Boston had been buried near the bottom of the pack, twenty-nine and a half games behind the leader. As the Red Sox plane approached Logan Airport, the pilot announced that something strange was happening at the airport. The flight was diverted to an alternative landing runway as some 15,000 delirious fans jammed the main terminal and spilled over onto the tarmac. When the team arrived at the terminal by bus, joyous Red Sox rooters mobbed the vehicle and rocked it with glee. The Callahan Tunnel, leading to the airport in East Boston, was completely clogged, resulting in the worst traffic jam in Logan history. One airport official estimated that the throng was larger than the crowd that had greeted the Beatles a year earlier. Dick Williams wryly remarked that the crowd “was more people than the Red Sox had averaged in attendance in the last 10 years.” The Red Sox started August, baseball’s proverbial dog days of summer, in second place, two games behind the White Sox, with Detroit, Minnesota, and the California Angels all bunched within five games of first place. Yastrzemski remembered the month as one of highs and lows, with the team “sometimes delirious with victory, other times shocked by adversity.”

For Yaz, the night of August 18 “marked two turning points in the history of the Red Sox. It started us on a seven-game winning streak that positioned us for the greatest pennant race Boston ever saw, and it effectively began the end of Tony Conigliaro’s career as a slugger who could dominate the game.” In the fourth inning of a scoreless game with the Angels, California pitcher Jack Hamilton struck Conigliaro just below the left eye with a pitch that many suspected was a spitball. A pall came over Fenway Park at the sharp cracking sound of the ball striking Tony’s cheekbone and the sight of him crumpling motionless at home plate. Conigliaro’s season was over. He would eventually recover to play baseball again, but with his vision distorted he was never the same player. Two days later, on a warm Sunday afternoon, the Red Sox extended their winning streak to four games in a most improbable manner. Trailing the Angels 8–0 after three and a half innings in the second game of a doubleheader, Boston stormed back. When Yastrzemski belted a three-run home run (his thirty-first) in the fifth inning to cut the deficit to 8–4, Fenway and the whole city erupted. At Nantasket Beach on the South Shore, a roar echoed along the five-mile expanse of sandy shoreline as radio-toting Red Sox fans sensed a comeback in the making. Light-hitting infielder Jerry Adair, acquired earlier in the season from the White Sox, tied the game in the sixth with a single and then hit one of his rare home runs in the eighth, which turned out to be the winning run after Jose Santiago got out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth. It seemed like a miracle. But more improbable events, or miracles if you prefer, continued to occur. On August 27 in Chicago, Boston led the White Sox by a run in the last of the ninth, but the Pale Hose had the tying run at third with one out. Pinch-hitter Duane Josephson hit a line drive toward utility outfielder Jose Tartabull in right field as the speedy Ken Berry tagged up at third. Tartabull, an excellent fielder with a weak throwing arm, caught the ball knee high and made an exceptionally strong throw to the plate, but it was too high. Veteran catcher Elston Howard, acquired from the Yankees earlier in the month, proceeded to make the play of the season. With his back to Berry, Howard leaped to spear the ball one-handed, came down with his left foot to deflect Berry’s spike from touching home plate, and made a swiping tag to retire Berry all in the same motion. No one at Comiskey Park could remember a better play by a catcher. Since Howard could not see Berry coming, some observers suggested that the Red Sox catcher had radar or that it was plain luck.

Many Red Sox fans had their own theory: a miracle. Going into September, the Red Sox led the American League by half a game, with Minnesota, Detroit, and Chicago all bunched within a game and a half of the top spot. It was the closest pennant race in history and would remain so through Boston’s last twenty-seven games. During the stretch run, the Red Sox dropped in and out of first place with regularity as if on a seesaw. Yaz carried the team on his back for the final twenty-seven games, hitting .417, with nine home runs and twenty-six RBI. Statistics do not tell the whole tale, however, because he played superbly in the field and did his best hitting in clutch situations. Midway through the month, Boston fans braced themselves for the worst as the team seemed on the verge of sliding out of contention. After losing three straight games to Baltimore at Fenway, the Red Sox traveled to riot-torn Detroit for two games against the league-leading Tigers. Trailing 5–4 in the ninth inning of the first game, Yaz belted his fortieth home run of the season to tie the game. In the tenth inning, Dalton Jones, a utility infielder filling in for the slumping Joe Foy, delivered the biggest hit of his career as he launched what would be the game-winning home run into the right-field upper deck. The next evening the Red Sox rallied from a 2–1 deficit after eight innings to win 4–2 and move into a tie for first place. Boston completed the road trip by winning four out of six games in Cleveland and Baltimore. With four home games remaining to complete the season and only half a game behind the league-leading Twins, the Red Sox appeared to be in a good position to win their first pennant since 1946.

On September 26, an off day for Boston, the Red Sox moved into a tie for first place when the Twins lost. Then disaster struck. The lowly Cleveland Indians, who had lost seven straight games to the Red Sox, won two games in a row at Fenway Park. Boston scored only three runs in two days on a Yastrzemski home run. Yaz recalled going into the locker room after the second defeat and congratulating Lonborg and other players on a great season while thinking about next year and getting to the next level. A few moments later, however, the team received the news that the Twins had lost.

The Red Sox still had a slim chance for the pennant. That night Dick Williams sat in his car outside his apartment, a six-pack of beer at his side, straining to hear distant reports on his radio of the White Sox–Athletics doubleheader. He remembered “hoping and wishing and trying to will the White Sox to lose both games before I went nuts or my car battery died.” Incredibly, the last-place Athletics won both games. Suddenly it seemed that no contending team had enough energy left to seize the American League pennant. The four contenders managed to lose seven of nine games played in the first three days of the final week of the season. The Red Sox still had a chance for the league championship if they could defeat the Twins in the last two games of the season at Fenway Park. As Saturday’s game with Minnesota approached, Red Sox fans were filled with both hope and anxiety. Many remembered the infamous two games at Yankee Stadium in 1949. Game one began badly for Boston. Jose Santiago was wild early and fortunate to trail only 1–0 after four innings. In the fifth inning, the complexion of the game changed as the Twins suddenly appeared snakebit. A bad-hop single that appeared to defy the laws of physics and the failure of pitcher Jim Perry to cover first base on a grounder to the right side of the infield, one of the most practiced plays in baseball, contributed to a two-run Red Sox rally. After the Twins tied the game at 2–2 in the top of the sixth, George Scott hit a long home run into the center-field bleachers to put Boston ahead 3–2. Yastrzemski put the game on ice in the seventh inning with a three-run home run into the Twins’ bullpen. Fenway Park erupted. In the two games, Yaz would make an incredible seven hits in eight at-bats, accounting for six RBI. “Yastrzemski continued a streak,” Dick Williams later said, “that cemented my feeling that his season was baseball’s best ever.”

On October 1 nearly 36,000 fans somehow crammed into Fenway Park. Boston ace Jim Lonborg started for the home team. He was 0–6 lifetime against Minnesota. To change his luck, Lonborg had stayed the night before at the Boston Sheraton, engaged in a meditative exercise to relieve tension, and fallen asleep reading William Craig’s The Fall of Japan. He pitched well enough through six innings, but trailed 2–0 mainly because of shoddy defensive play by the Red Sox, including a rare error by Yastrzemski. Meanwhile the Twins’ twenty-game winner Dean Chance mowed down Red Sox batters and appeared to be on the way to his sixth shutout of the season. The most important hit that day and maybe the season came in the bottom of the sixth and traveled only twenty feet. Despite trailing by two runs, Williams sent Lonborg up to hit for himself. The 6-foot 5-inch, 200-pound Californian promptly laid down a perfect bunt toward third base. The sight of the gangly Lonborg racing to first base and halfway to Pesky’s Pole in right field aroused the Fenway crowd while the Twins appeared bewildered. Jerry Adair and Dalton Jones followed with slap singles that loaded the bases. Then Yastrzemski delivered two runs with a sharp single to center field that tied the game at 2–2. The fans were now in an uproar, and the Twins began to unravel with a series of misplays and an error.

Boston proceeded to score three more runs in the inning without hitting the ball out of the infield. Minnesota mounted a comeback in the eighth inning, but it fell short. When Twins pinch-hitter Rich Rollins lifted a soft pop-up toward shortstop with two out in the ninth inning and the Red Sox leading 5–3, fans in Fenway Park, Boston, and most of New England were primed for a long-awaited explosion of joy that would help expunge more than twenty years of frustration. When Petrocelli caught the ball, the ball park erupted in ecstasy. Most Boston players made a hasty dash for the clubhouse, but Lonborg tarried and was swept up by the swarming crowd, which elevated and transported him, as if he were levitating, toward the right-field foul pole. The frantic fans managed to defrock him and pilfer his shoe laces with his spikes still on his feet. He was finally rescued by Boston’s Finest. One policeman remarked that “this made Roxbury look like a picnic.” Other rampaging fans dismantled the scoreboard, ripped up pieces of sod, and deposited handfuls of dirt in their pockets. Several sportswriters in the press box considered climbing down the screen behind home plate in their haste to reach the Red Sox locker room, but thought better of it when they saw a swarm of kids clawing their way toward them. Red Sox historian Ellery Clark described the scene as “a moment of Boston parochial emotionalism at its very best.”

In the Red Sox locker room, beer and shaving cream flowed freely. Dick Williams quieted the ruckus temporarily when he told Lee Stage, who had already downed a couple of beers, “Careful, you’re starting tomorrow.” Suddenly it dawned on the celebrating mob that the Red Sox had only clinched a tie for the American League championship. It would take an Angels victory over Detroit to clinch the pennant. Otherwise Boston would play the Tigers the next day in a playoff game. The revelers quieted down to hear Ernie Harwell deliver the radio play-by-play of the pivotal game from Detroit. California trailed and then took the lead in the third inning, 4–3. Former Red Sox catcher Moe Berg, an intellectual, master of eight languages, and a spy during World War II, stood up and solemnly pronounced, “Despite the undiluted duality of baseball talent today, Yastrzemski must be considered and bracketed with all the men who were great at playing this sport.” Finally it was over in Detroit, and the champagne was uncorked. Tom Yawkey, who hadn’t had a drink in four years, raised his paper cup and sipped the juice of the gods.

How had a ninth-place team the previous season won the American League championship? There is no certain answer. Three men made the biggest contributions. General Manager Dick O’Connell cultivated able players in the farm system and was determined to end the country club atmosphere in Boston by hiring Dick Williams as manager. With a one-year contract, Williams saw his main chance and proceeded to shock the team out of its lethargy. Yastrzemski simply had the season of his career and perhaps the century. Beyond that, the Red Sox were lucky. They were lucky that the league was evenly balanced among the contenders, that Al Kaline broke his hand, that Lonborg beat out the improbable bunt, and that their rivals collapsed toward the end of the last week of the season. “The Impossible Dream,” as Boston fans would call the Red Sox first pennant-winning season since 1946, did not extend to the World Series.

The postseason playoff against the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals was much like the rollercoaster regular season of ups and downs except that in the end it was the Red Sox who would walk off the field in the deciding seventh game at Fenway Park as losers. It was a series of two dominant pitchers, Lonborg and Bob Gibson. Lonborg pitched splendidly, but Gibson was magnificent, with three complete game victories and a 1.00 ERA. For Red Sox fans, the World Series provided many “what ifs” that would be discussed for years to come. Would the outcome have been different if Lonborg had had proper rest and faced Gibson in games one, four, and seven? Could a healthy Tony Conigliaro have helped spark Boston to its first World Series championship since 1918? The one constant in the series for the Red Sox was Yastrzemski, who continued on a batting rampage with a .400 average, three home runs, and five RBI.

Despite the defeat in the World Series, the 1967 season changed everything about Boston Red Sox baseball. “Today,” Dick Williams wrote in 1990, “Boston is considered perhaps America’s top baseball town. The fans fill Fenway even when their team is lousy and losing. Baseball talk fills the radio and television airwaves even in the dead of winter.” The once-carnivorous Boston media embraced the team even though it drove players and managers to distraction as the team failed to deliver aWorld Championship for thirty-seven more years. Fenway Park, which Tom Yawkey was hoping to abandon in 1967 for a new stadium, is now regarded by many as a Boston shrine in the same sense as Faneuil Hall or the Old North Church.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1967, amid continued racial and war-related turmoil, Red Sox fans basked in the afterglow of a sublime season. Yastrzemski began collecting enough awards and trophies to fill several bookcases. In Vietnam, the Chinese lunar new year, “The Year of the Monkey,” was beginning. Both at home and abroad it would be a year even more tumultuous than 1967. Many Red Sox fans would remember 1967 as “The Year of the Yaz.” He and his teammates had accomplished something very special. “Very few people in sport can say they helped change the entire course of a franchise’s history,” sportswriter Bob Ryan wrote in 2002, “but that is precisely what the 1967 Red Sox did.

Excerpted from The Rock, the Curse, and the Hub: A Random History of Boston Sports edited by Randy Roberts