Perhaps the best part of all the hoopla around Miguel Cabrera’s remarkable feat of winning baseball’s fabled Triple Crown was that for a brief time, we recalled the name and exploits of Carl Yastrzemski, the last player in the Bigs to have pulled off this feat. As perhaps the official Old-Timer on the Razzball contributing staff, (that is, along with my good friend Simply Fred), I recall those halcyon days of yore. What is lost in the passage of time was the manner in which Yaz performed during the final days of that memorable season, in what was possibly the best stretch run in baseball history.
Many baseball observers consider the 1967 American League Pennant race the most exciting in modern history. Many younger fans, inured by seeing their team coast throughout the final weeks of the season, knowing that even if they fail to clinch a pennant, they will be assured of a wild-card slot, are perhaps unfamiliar with the grueling pressure of watching your favorite club go head to head with a formidable contender down the stretch.
An even greater rarity was a tight three team tussle during the final days of the season. In 1948, the Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox spent the entire month of September moving back and forth with each other; on September 23rd, all three clubs were tied with records of 91-56. The Indians, led by Rapid Robert Feller, prevailed, and went on to defeat the Boston Braves in the Fall classic. And all followers of the Team with the most politically incorrect logo in all of sports know that they haven’t managed to win another World Series since Truman ran against Dewey. As for the Bosox, this would be but one of numerous instances of the Red Sox playing the role of bridegroom. The Cubs have always been the team of the lovable loser; the Red Sox angst was fueled by the fact that from 1939 – 1960 – spanning the entire career of the Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams – the Red Sox had just three losing seasons, but only managed to appear in one World Series, that being in 1946, in which they lost an excruciating 7 game series to the St. Louis Cardinals. Including this single pennant, the Red Sox finished in the First Division 17 times during Teddy Ballgame’s years with the club, with nary a World Series victory. Hence, the origin of the fabled Ruthian curse; almost all of those 2nd place seasons came at the hands of the Yankees, the bane of Boston; from 1936 – 1964, New York would win an incredible 22 pennants and 16 World Series Championships, as opposed to Boston’s one solitary pennant.
The years leading up to Williams’ arrival and following his departure were not so fruitful, however. From 1959 – 1966, the Red Sox had 7 consecutive losing seasons; the ’65-’66 seasons was the low-water mark of this stretch — the once proud team reached their nadir as a franchise, finishing in 9th place in consecutive years. Thus, few but the most pie-in-the-sky Pollyannaish observers even dared to predict that Boston would compete for a pennant the following season. No one had the slightest notion that 1967 would be the year of the “Impossible Dream”, the only four team race in modern era, as well as producing the emergence of a new baseball legend.
At the All Star Break, it was apparent that Boston was much improved over the last two seasons. From seemingly nowhere was the emergence of a feisty and talented group of stars, including Jim Lonborg, Rico Petrocelli, Joe Foy, Sparky Lyle, as well as Tony Conigliaro. Tony had tremendous talent, the looks of a matinee idol, and was the most popular player on the team. He had led the American League in Home Runs at the age of 20, and became the first player in American League history to hit 100 dingers by the age of 22; it was taken for granted that Tony C. would wind up with a berth in Cooperstown, compiling over 500 home runs on the way. The undisputed leader of the team, however, was Carl Yastrzemski, who had already won a Batting Title, and had been on 4 prior All Star teams. The bubble seemed to burst when Boston lost 5 of 6 games going into the All Star Break, and was only two games over the .500 mark at 41–39.
However, the Red Sox went on a tear after the break, winning 14 of their next 16 games to get back into the thick of things. On July 22, the Pale Hose sat atop the standings, but the streaking Red Sox were just a half-game behind; tied in third were the Tigers and Twins, only two games off the pace, in what would become the greatest four team tussle in the history of Roundball.
Boston then went into a tailspin, winning only 6 of their next 18 games. Then, on August 18th, tragedy struck. Jack Hamilton, a pitcher with the Angels, beaned Conigliaro, fracturing his face, and blinding him temporarily in his left eye, and ultimately destroying his career.
When all seemed lost, and a once promising season had lapsed into tragic misfortune, Carl Yastrzemski took over the team, and carried it on his back throughout the remainder of the race in a fashion few, if any, players have ever come close to duplicating. Starting on the day Conigliaro was hit, the Red Sox reeled off a record of 22-12. On September 6th, all four teams found themselves in a dead heat in first place. On September 18th, the Red Sox, Twins, and Tigers all had a record of 85-66, with the White Sox ½ game behind.
From that day until the end of the season, Yaz transformed himself from a very good player to a star; his exploits would later become myth, and after almost a half-century, legend. Here are his totals the last 12 games of that memorable stretch run:
.521/.684/.995 with 5 HR, 4 DBL, 11 RS, and 14 RBI.
But these statistics only tell a part of the story. Day after day, Yastrzemski made one impossible catch in the outfield after another. His fielding was just as breathtaking as his hitting.
Going into the last two days of the season, the Twins held a one-game lead with a mark of 91-69, one game ahead of the Red Sox (90-70) and Detroit (89-69). The Tigers had two doubleheaders against California left to play at Detroit. The White Sox were the first team to falter, losing a twin bill to the lowly Washington Senators in the last week of the season.
The Tigers split their two games against the Angels. Boston would beat Minnesota 6-4, with King Carl going 3-4 with a Home Run and 4 RBI’s. Millions of viewers were transfixed in front of their TV the next day. The Tigers needed to sweep the Angels in order to tie the winner of the Red Sox-Twins game. The Tigers won the first game of the twin bill. The Red Sox once again beat the Twins to knock them out of the race; Yaz went 4-4, with 2 RBI’s. The Red Sox listened to the 2nd game of the double header on the radio in the clubhouse; they heard the Angels rally late in the game and eliminate the Tigers. The Impossible Dream had come to pass…
Well, not quite… the curse would not be fully extinguished until 2004, the year of the Yankee collapse.
The Red Sox would lose the Fall Classic to the St. Louis Cardinals in a scintillating 7 game series, as they had 21 years prior. But no one could fault them for their efforts; Boston lost three games to Bob Gibson, who in his prime was perhaps the greatest clutch pitcher in the history of the game. Yet throughout the Series, Yastrzemski kept up his torrid pace, going 10-25, with 4 RS, 2 DBL, 3 HR, 5 RBI, .840 SL%, and a 1.340 OPS.
Yastrzemski ultimately would win the AL MVP Award as well as the Triple Crown. His totals for that year: .326/121 RBI/44 HR. What makes these totals even more remarkable was that 1967 was smack in the middle of the second dead ball era. Yastrzemski also would lead the league in OBP, OPS, OPS+, hits, and Total Bases. He also took home the Gold Glove.
In retrospect, 1967 was a transformational year for the Boston Red Sox. Attendance increased by over 900,000, and the club led the American League in home attendance; the year prior they were 8th in the league in that category. Years later, it is virtually impossible to purchase a ticket to a Red Sox home game. Boston fanatics can be found at virtually every park in the American League, becoming the modern version of the “Royal Rooters” that spurred the club on to victory in the first World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, back in 1903. The annual competition between Boston and the New York Yankees is considered by many to be the fiercest rivalry in pro sports. Some years past, Red Sox television broadcaster Jerry Remy stated:
“The year 1967 created the Red Sox craze and Red Sox Nation we have today. They re-invented baseball in New England.”