On Sunday afternoon, September 18, 1966, my father and I strolled down an unassuming alley in the Back Bay section of Boston called Jersey Street, entered Gate A, and sat in our appointed seats in Section 14 at Fenway Park.
Another summer of disappointment would officially end for the Boston Red Sox ten days later. On the final day of the season, the team would finish with a demoralizing 72-90 record, good for ninth place, one-half game out of tenth place in the then ten-team American League.
Back then, the Red Sox were considered a genuine loser with a disquieting moniker – “The Country Club.” Boston’s only professional baseball club was known to overpay and coddle its stars while playing in a then-feeble stadium where the average attendance was less than nine-thousand a game. The last major league franchise to include an African-American on its big league roster, the organization was a backwater for deep-seated colonialism that had come to define the team itself.
Not surprisingly, the Sox hadn’t had a winning season in a decade, and despite the presence of a handful of talented prospects emerging from Boston’s AAA squad in Toronto, a sparse crowd of downcast loyalists sat passively as the Olde Towne Team lost their final home game of the season to the California Angels.
As my father and I watched from our red seats along the first base line, we witnessed starting pitcher Jim Lonborg being relieved in the fifth inning after another unsatisfactory outing. He would be replaced by journeymen hurlers Rollie Sheldon and Garry Roggenburk. Despite the looming presence of such emerging sluggers as Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Conigliaro, and George Scott, Angel hitters Jim Fregosi and Paul Schaal outmatched the Sox, 5-3, handing Boston its 86th defeat of the season.
At 3:29 pm, when the final out was made, even the most casual of fans recognized that one more futile Boston baseball season was already in the books. Observing my gloom, my father, who had come to accept disappointment as an unswerving baseball companion, put his arms around me and said fiercely, “Don’t worry, son. You know what they said in Brooklyn in the old days? ‘Wait until next year!’ ”
“I hope so,” I muttered as we walked past five-thousand torn scorecards, confetti for another melancholy season.
As Dad and I sauntered out of Fenway that afternoon, little did we know that our ragtag baseball team was actually on the cusp of a truly remarkable Magical Mystery Tour – the most unlikely, surreal, and joyful of all Red Sox seasons. To the absolute astonishment of the entire baseball world, a franchise that had once been nicknamed “The Red Flops” by the head of its own fan club, would, over the course of the next 12 months, inexplicably defy nearly insurmountable, 100 to 1 odds to emerge as a truly immortal squad – the Impossible Dream Red Sox!
As a result of the 1967 miracle, Boston’s major league baseball entry would not only fill Fenway Park with regularity over the next five decades, but the team itself would experience an unprecedented renaissance, finishing above .500 forty-two times while maintaining the second-best winning percentage in the majors from 1967 through 2013, when it won its third world championship in nine years. The entity that would lovingly become known as “Red Sox Nation” would find its origin in 1967 when “The Cardiac Kids” captured the soul of each and every New Englander. Even today, 50 years later, the colors from that improbable year still light up the sky.
A few weeks before his death in 1986, my father murmured to me, “I’ve seen everyone from Babe Ruth to Bobby Orr, but ’67 has no comparison. It stands on its own.”
My first recollection that things would be different on Jersey Street began at precisely 2:02 pm on the afternoon of September 28, 1966, when minor league manager Dick Williams was formally introduced as the new field general of the franchise.
Dad and I watched a synopsis of the press conference later on that evening through the incisive lens of veteran Boston sportscaster Don Gillis. During his nightly report on WHDH TV, Channel 5, Gillis conducted a now legendary interview with the new Boston manager in which the volatile Williams spat out a series of declarative sentences in rapid fire: “I’ll tell you what, Don. We’ll have a hustling ball club. And they won’t quit. They didn’t quit on me in the minors in Toronto, and they won’t quit on me here. In the end, I honestly think that we’ll win more games than they lose.”
As Gillis concluded his report, my father exclaimed, “You know what? I believe Williams and what he just said. After all,” Dad winked at me, “Williams is a National League guy!”
Like thousands of other old Boston Braves fans, my father had never transferred his allegiance to the Red Sox. As a young man, he had seen Babe Ruth hit a gigantic blast into the legendary “Jury Box” in right field at old Braves Field. From Rabbit Maranville to Bob Elliott, he had lived and died with “his boys.” When the Braves abruptly departed for Milwaukee in March 1953, Dad lived in a perpetual baseball gulag; the only time I had ever seen him root outright for any baseball team occurred when the National League representative played in the World Series each fall.
“Maybe this Williams guy will follow through on his words,” my father exclaimed as he flipped off the TV. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
On Monday morning, February 27th, the 1967 Boston Red Sox assembled for the first time at Boston’s spring training facilities in Winter Haven, Florida. Many of the players were stunned when they were individually phoned by an apologetic desk clerk at the local Holiday Inn at 7:00 am. From veteran John Wyatt to rookie Reggie Smith, the same message was delivered: “Manager Williams expects you on the field at 9:00 am sharp – or you will be fined for being late.”
By the following week, local scribes were calling the Red Sox daily drills the most organized and detailed they had ever seen. Repetitious fielding drills involving cutoffs and situational hitting including hitting to the opposite field were interspersed with a series of sprints, crunches, and volleyball. “The game involves strong legs, pliable arms, superb hand-eye coordination, and teamwork,” Williams told veteran Boston Herald scribe, Harold Kaese. “If they don’t work hard, they will sit on the bench with lighter pockets.”
After six weeks of daily practices, scrimmages, and exhibition games, two leaders emerged during the late winter foray – left-fielder Carl Yastrzemski, whose unremitting workout sessions with trainer Gene Berde the previous fall and winter was already paying enormous dividends, and pitcher Jim Lonborg, whose darting fastball began to be complemented by a tumbling curveball that seemed to drop six to eight inches as it approached home plate.
Despite the apparent transformation of the team, only 8,234 fans greeted the Red Sox as they played the first official game of the 1967 season. 20 years later, Hall of Fame baseball scribe, Peter Gammons, would compare the annual Opening Day festivities in Boston to a “Druid Rite of Spring.” On this scrubbed-up, blustery day, however, the usual skepticism prevailed; there would be 25,000 empty seats at the Fens that day despite the absolutely spotless weather.
Still, the Bosox won a 5-4 contest behind the starting pitching of Jim Lonborg, the power hitting of Rico Petrocelli, and the superb fielding of Tony Conigliaro, who made a brilliant stab in right field on a ball smoked by Ron Hansen with one out in the ninth. When my father returned home that evening, he joked to me, “See, they’re winning more than they’re losing!”
Two days later, a truly seminal event occurred that would make not only Boston fans, but baseball fans everywhere, stand up and take notice. On Friday afternoon, April 14 in the South Bronx, Yankee veteran Whitey Ford started for New York in the home opener at the Stadium against the Sox. The starting pitcher for Boston was a lanky lefthander from California named Billy Rohr, whose main attributes at the time were a sneaky fastball and a lollipop curve.
After sprinting home from school to listen to the end of the game, I was startled to hear from an animated Ken Coleman, who was broadcasting the game on WHDH radio, that the young Boston hurler had not given up a hit while walking five through eight innings.
According to Coleman, the only scare in the contest had occurred in the bottom of the sixth inning when Yankee outfielder Bill Robinson ripped a smash up the middle. The ball had struck Billy Rohr on the left shin, rebounded to Red Sox third baseman Joe Foy, who then gunned the ball to George Scott at first for the second out of the sixth. Since that time, the Boston rookie southpaw had breezed through the seventh and the eighth and was on the cusp of baseball immortality as I paced back and forth in my bedroom.
On the very first pitch of the bottom of the ninth inning, Yankee hitter Tom Tresh lashed a flat heater from Rohr and lined it well over Carl Yastrzemski’s head into the cavernous outfield at Yankee Stadium. As soon as the ball was struck, Yaz sprinted flat out, and, at the last second, lunged at the ball like a wide receiver, his body extended to its furthest reaches. Announcer Coleman, who had instantly measured the distance to where the ball was heading from where the Boston left fielder had started from, realized that the Boston outfielder was improbably closing in on Tresh’s rocket. At the last second, Yaz leaped and tumbled – and then got up to his feet, clutching the ball skyward for all to see. The Red Sox lead announcer then precipitately screamed into the mike, “And he dives and makes a TREMENDOUS CATCH!”
New York first baseman Joe Pepitone followed with a pedestrian fly to right, which outfielder Tony Conigliaro easily caught for the second out. With the Red Sox leading 3 to 0, Billy Rohr was only one out away from pitching a no-hitter in his first major league start. Seven pitches later, the Boston left-hander left a hanging curve over the outer portion of the plate, which Yankee catcher Elston Howard looped to right field for a base hit, a little flair that was out the grasp of both Tony C. and second baseman Reggie Smith. As Howard rounded first, thousands of Yankee fans jeered him – the first and only time that the revered Yankee catcher was ever booed after getting a base hit in the Stadium. One pitch later, New York’s Charley Smith popped to Tony C, in right, and the Red Sox mobbed a humble Rohr on the mound.
A few seconds later, the phone rang. “Did you hear that Shaunie?” bellowed my father. “Absolutely fantastic!” Two nights later, Dad and I watched proudly as Billy Rohr was formally introduced to a national audience on Ed Sullivan’s celebrated Sunday night entertainment show on CBS.
From the time Rohr pitched his one-hitter against the Yankees on that memorable afternoon in April 1967, Dad began to follow his “new boys” on a pitch-by-pitch basis. 14 years after the Braves had departed New England for Milwaukee, James Lawrence Kelly finally became a Red Sox fan. Until the day he died 19 seasons later, my father and I would follow the daily exploits of the team together.
Unlike previous years when the eventual pennant winner had sprinted to the lead by mid-spring, the American League quickly turned into a veritable quagmire. Indeed, no team emerged from a pack whose leader changed virtually every day. While the defending World Champion Orioles eventually fell out of contention thanks to an unyielding series of injuries, the dangerous Minnesota Twins emerged as the most balanced squad in the league.
As the ’67 baseball year commenced, most baseball experts believed that the White Sox had the best pitching staff, while the Tigers possessed the league’s most prodigious offense. One last squad lingered near the top of the AL standings that spring like unhurried fog descending on a humid night – the youthful Red Sox.
Indeed, as the Boston nine kept itself above .500 and within a handful of games of the lead during the first 10 weeks of the season, the team had begun to discard its longstanding country club reputation. The Sox were becoming known as a hustling, talented bunch that had developed a habit of coming from behind in the most unanticipated of ways.
One afternoon after a particularly satisfying win, I began to look closely at the 1967 schedule that adorned my bedroom wall, next to a picture of my latest Boston sports hero, a certain crew cut-haired teenager named Robert Gordon Orr. When I observed that the Sox had a home game against the best team in the league, the feared Minnesota Twins, on the last day of the season, I scurried down to my father’s study.
“Daddy!” I shouted, “Do you think that Mr. O’Connell can get us tickets to the game on October 1st? I have a feeling it might be an important one.” My father and Dick O’Connell, the team’s general manager at the time, were old friends who had served in the Naval Reserve together.
“I’ll call Dick tomorrow,” Dad replied. “He will surely like your optimism, Shaunie!”
Ten days later, I received an envelope in the mail with a Red Sox logo adorning the front. When I tore it open, four tickets tumbled out onto the floor. Inside the envelope was a short note. “Dear Shaun,” it read, “I wish all Red Sox fans had your faith. May these tickets bring you great joy. Sincerely, Dick O’Connell.”
A month later, on the evening of June 15th, nearly 17,000 fans turned out at Fenway to see them battle the first-place White Sox. At the time, Boston was in third place, five games behind Chicago. Earlier that day, I had graduated from sixth grade and was now officially on vacation. Dad wanted to “break out the summer” by having the two of us take in some baseball at Fenway.
When we sat in our assigned seats in Section 27, we noticed that the crowd was more boisterous than previous games that we had been present at in the past. In centerfield, a homemade sign had been draped on the back wall with a large picture of the team’s insignia with the accompanying words – “The Little Engine That Could!”
For nine innings, we watched from our seats along the third base line as two improbable hurlers, Red Sox rookie pitcher Gary Waslewski and veteran journeyman Bruce Howard battled each other to a scoreless duel. Hard-throwing reliever Johnny Wyatt came out of the Boston bullpen in the tenth and shut the Chisox down. Hoyt Wilhelm and John Buzhardt did the same for Chicago. As the two squads walked off the field to conclude the tenth frame, Dad turned to me and beamed, “Now this is a National League kind of game!”
In the top of the eleventh inning, Walt “No Neck” Williams led off the inning with a scorching double into the leftfield corner. After monitoring the flight of the ball, my father quickly surmised, “The White Sox’s manager, Eddie Stanky, will have Don Buford bunt. Remember, Eddie once played for the Braves!”
As George Scott and Joe Foy crept in to cover the anticipated bunt, the Chicago batter suddenly left his squared-off position in the batter’s box and lashed at a John Wyatt fastball toward right field. First baseman Scott desperately lunged for the ball, caught it on a wicked hop, and beat a stunned Williams to the bag. My father fiercely applauded as he shouted through the din, “Gil Hodges himself could not have gotten to that ball!”
After the second out, however, light-hitting Ken Berry dribbled a single to right with Williams hustling in from third. I slumped into my seat as Tony C. lobbed the ball back to Mike Andrews at second. Dad tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, son – the big boys are coming up for us.”
However, when Yaz popped to first baseman Tommy McCraw and George Scott broke his bat on a soft liner to third baseman Dick Kenworthy, all hope seemed lost. “We’re staying for the final out,” Dad said emphatically as I remained seated, watching Joe Foy tiptoe towards home plate. The Red Sox third baseman took a deep breath, fingered his bat, and promptly grounded a single between short and third.
As fan favorite Tony Conigliaro slowly walked up to the plate, everyone at the Fens began to stand. Having led the American League in home runs two seasons before, Tony C. was now mired in a prolonged slump. A recent two-week stint at Camp Drum as a member of the Massachusetts National Guard had left him in a hitting stupor. Aware of Conig’s hitting funk, pitcher John Buzhardt promptly threw a pair of unforgiving curves; the kid from East Boston grunted each time as he missed by a foot. Like an airless shroud, an eerie stillness settled over Fenway.
With the count 0-2, Conigliaro settled into his familiar stance, his bat cocked, his coffee eyes staring out assertively at the White Sox hurler. Another curveball was tossed by Buzhardt, but the sphere seemed to deflate by the time it approached home plate. In less than a second, the streaking ball disappeared into the left field net above the scoreboard as the Red Sox team swirled around Tony C. as he gleefully approached home.
“Never, ever count this team out!” Dad shouted as we joined in the hosannas that swelled around us. Minutes later, we headed home on Route 9, drained and elated; as we listened on WHDH, Red Sox announcer Ned Martin concluded the post-game show be exclaiming, “The Cardiac Kids have come through once again!”
“This is the most fun I’ve had in baseball since the ’48 Braves!” Dad cried out as we entered our darkened driveway in Wellesley.
Over the next three months, the fortunes of the Red Sox turned into a proverbial Paragon Park roller-coaster-ride. In late June, a massive brawl in the Bronx ensued after Jim Lonborg plunked Yankees pitcher Thad Tillotson square in the back in retaliation for Tillotson’s beaning of Joe Foy. Injuries to pitchers Dave Morehead and Bill Rohr were offset by the unanticipated emergence of hurlers Jose Santiago and Sparky Lyle. Veteran second baseman Jerry Adair, utility man Norm Siebern, and pitcher Gary Bell were added to the team in crucial mid-season trades. Later on, catcher Elston Howard would be picked up on waivers from the Yankees. Ellie’s leadership behind the plate would prove absolutely vital to the team for the remainder of the season.
On August 18th, however, tragedy struck when Tony Conigliaro was plucked on the left cheekbone by a tailing fastball thrown by Angels’ hurler Jack Hamilton. The young Bosox superstar would not play in another major league game until two seasons later.
Despite Tony C’s injury, the Red Sox found themselves in sole possession of first place for the first time since 1949 as they played the rubber game of a vital three-game series against Chicago on the afternoon of August 26th. The Red Hose subsequently defeated the hard-charging White Sox at Comiskey Park when noodle-armed Jose Tartabull threw out a bewildered Ken Berry who had tagged up from third base to complete an astonishing double play to end the game. When the umpire’s right hand went up after the dust had settled, shouts of ecstasy could be heard throughout our cottage on the Cape as my entire family watched the game on my grandfather’s decrepit Philco.
“While Tartabull’s throw was truly incredible,” gushed Dad five minutes after the contest ended, “it was Ellie Howard’s blocking of home plate with his left foot that saved the day!” Not long after the ’67 season, longtime announcer Ken Coleman pointed to this game as the most critical victory of the year.
A few days later, the Red Sox were featured in both Life and Sports Illustrated, with Yaz gracing the cover of SI. Nearly every kid within the confines of Route 128 and beyond painstakingly cut the cover page from the rest of the magazine and scotch-taped it to his or her bedroom wall, where it resolutely remained for years afterward, a venerable sports icon, yellowed and self-important.
By this time, the 1967 Red Sox began to creep into the mindset of the American psyche, a society that was not only in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam but which was also in the throes of one of the most dynamic cultural phenomena in its two-century history that became known as “The Summer of Love.” Fueled by the anti-war and civil rights movements, the emerging hippie counterculture in San Francisco, and the unprecedented release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in mid-June, anything else that was “in” that summer was subsequently embraced by the greater culture as a “happening.” From the national debut albums of Van Morrison, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Laura Nyro, the Grateful Dead, and the Jefferson Airplane, within an astonishing ten-week period in late spring to the release of the summer’s irrepressible anthem, John Lennon’s “All You Need is Love,” the musical harvest that intrepid baseball summer was simply unparalleled.
The magic of the times even touched a previously xenophobic baseball franchise far away from San Francisco, for as the Boston Red Sox wove their way to the top of the standings, they suddenly became the next “in thing.” During a late-summer series in Yankee Stadium, thousands of Yankee fans began to root for the Red Sox because, as one fan explained to New York writer Dick Young at the time, the Sox seemed “incredibly cool.”
As the days turned breezy and the early fall evenings lengthened, Boston’s American League entry and the other three teams vying for the pennant moved in and out of first place like cars in a traffic jam. On September 23rd, with only a handful of games left in the regular season, just one game separated the four top teams. It was apparent that the AL pennant would probably be decided the following weekend when the Red Sox would host front-runner Minnesota, the Tigers would take on the Angels in Detroit, and Chicago would host the lowly Washington Senators. By Friday, September 29th, however, the light-hitting Chisox were eliminated from contention by Phil Ortega and the Senators who defeated White Sox ace Tommy John by a 1-0 score.
On Saturday, September 30th, Detroit remained on the brink with an impressive 5-0 win over the Angels. A scheduled doubleheader at Tiger Stadium would be held the next afternoon. At Fenway Park, the Red Sox defeated the Twins in an absolute do-or-die situation behind the starting pitching of Jose Santiago and the seventh-inning heroics of Carl Yastrzemski, who launched his 44th home run of the year into the Twins bullpen off of Minnesota reliever Jim Merritt. Yaz, who drove in three runs with the blast, would ultimately secure baseball’s Triple Crown the next afternoon with a clutch two-RBI, four-hit performance.
With 161 games played, the Red Sox and the Twins were tied for first; the Tigers were only a half-game behind the co-leaders. The closest pennant race in American League history would ultimately be determined within the bookends of a single autumn afternoon.
October 1, 1967.
My father, brother, and I arrived at our appointed seats in Section 15 more than ninety minutes before game time. NBC had smartly decided to televise the game nationally, A horde of scribes and sportscasters scurried around both teams as they took batting practice. Over the next hour, the old ballpark began to brim over with Sox fans; there were standees everywhere, including scores of young supporters who stood along the rickety edges of the billboard signs that stood at attention on Lansdowne Street beyond left field.
“Dad, Mr. O’Connell was really generous!” I exclaimed to my father. “These are the best seats in the ballpark!” We glanced out onto the field from our perch near the Red Sox dugout. “It’s nice that there is an important baseball game to be played here in October,” Dad replied. “It’s been a long time.”
The team that had long been a laughing stock was now featured on the front page of The New York Times as the closest race in American League history came down to the wire. Overhead, a gaggle of news helicopters flew around the perimeter of Kenmore Square while two-hundred reporters jammed into Fenway’s overcrowded press box. The old park was bulging at the seams as game time approached – nearly 35,000 fans – a far cry from the smattering of fans who had come to witness Opening Day less than six months previously. In the centerfield bleachers, a homemade sign hung on the back wall of the park reminded us of the time, the place, and the incomparable moment: “The Sox Are Totally Groovy,” it read.
25 minutes before game time, Jim Lonborg slowly strolled out to the Red Sox bullpen to a thunderous ovation. While his 22-9 record was singularly impressive, he was 0-3 against the Twins coming into the game. Meanwhile, Dean Chance, Minnesota’s starting pitcher with a record of 20-13, also began warming up in right field. One-fourth of his victories in 1967 had come against Boston.
Some 60 miles to the southwest of Boston’s Back Bay in Southbridge, Massachusetts, Seaver Miller Rice, my great uncle, and his infirmed wife, Gertrude, were listening intently to the pregame show on WHDH radio as they had for the previous 161 contests. Rice, then 74 years old, had seen Cy Young pitch for the Boston Americans and had been one of the thousands of enthralled spectators at Fenway Park in 1912 when young Smokey Joe Wood had out-dueled the immortal Walter Johnson in one of the most famous baseball games ever played within the confines of the City of Boston.
A devoted husband, Seaver had served as the solitary caregiver of his elegant spouse, Gertrude, who had been bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis for more than a decade. Like thousands and thousands of other “shut-ins,” the daily Red Sox radio-casts had enabled the Rices to get through the summer months that year with aplomb. Gertrude Rice’s favorite player, first baseman George Scott, never ceased to put a smile on her still beautiful face. “I think George and the boys are going to come through for us all today!” she exhaled, staring at her clock radio that was positioned next to her bed. Her husband, like many devoted Boston fans at that moment, was too nervous to even reply.
Back at Fenway Park, the Red Sox started off badly, not surprising given their inexperience in pressurized games. With a runner on first and two outs, Harmon Killebrew singled to left-center as runner Cesar Tovar began sprinting around the bases. Yaz charged the ball, but it skirted behind him for an error, allowing the Twins to score their second run. Meanwhile, Twins starter Dean Chance continued to mow down the Boston nine, allowing only three hits in the first five innings.
As the bottom of the sixth began, Minnesota led 2-0, with pitcher Jim Lonborg leading off the frame. The Bosox pitcher noticed that Twins third baseman Cesar Tovar was playing back. As Chance hurled his first pitch of the inning, Lonborg suddenly swung his bat around, squared a perfect bunt down the third base line, and beat it out.
Lonnie’s unforeseen bunt – comparable to Red Sox utilityman Dave Roberts’ dramatic steal nearly 37 years later – opened up the floodgates. 10 pitches later, Chance was out of the ballgame, after Jerry Adair, Dalton Jones, and then Yaz lashed singles to tie the score. When shortstop Zoilo Versailles gambled on Ken Harrelson’s high chopper and threw home, Jones slid in safely to make the score 3-2 in favor of Boston. An error and a wild pitch enabled the fourth and fifth Boston runs of the inning to score.
“Three more innings!” my father barked above the deafening roar that engulfed the ballpark.
In the top of the eighth, Yaz completed his signature season by throwing out Bob Allison at second after the Minnesota slugger had rammed a hanging curve hard against the leftfield wall. The Boston outfielder retrieved it off the Monster, whirled around, and threw a laser to second baseman Mike Andrews for the third out. While the Twins had scored on the play to make it 5-3, we breathed a collective sigh of relief as the Sox happily disappeared into their first base dugout.
After Boston went quietly in the bottom of the eighth, my father and I, along with everyone else at Fenway, got out of our seats and stood as the Red Sox took the field in the top of the ninth. “Three more outs, my boy,” Dad patted me as I gripped my program nervously.
Centerfielder Ted Uhlaender led off and skipped a grounder to Rico at short. At the last second, however, the ball took a bad hop and struck the Boston shortstop square on the cheek. With a runner at first, Lonborg got two quick strikes on rookie Rod Carew. On the third pitch, the Twins phenom lashed a ball right to second baseman Andrews who tagged Uhlaender and then heaved the ball to George Scott who scooped it out of the dirt for a double play.
A groundswell of emotion began to bubble all around Fenway. I placed my hands together, literally praying for one more out. For five years, I had followed a franchise that had long defined both mediocrity and failure; but now, after six miraculous months of unspoiled play, the Boston Red Sox were on the abyss of baseball ecstasy. As pinch-hitter Rich Rollins approached the batter’s circle, I felt a gentle hand pat my back. I looked over to my left. Dad gave me a wink as Rollins dug in.
70 miles away in Southbridge, Massachusetts, Gertrude Rice fingered her rosary beads and said a silent prayer as she lay in her bed, listening to the reassuring voice of Ned Martin on WHDH radio. “They are going to pull this all off,” Seaver Rice smiled at his wife. “It’s an absolute miracle.”
Gertrude Rice began to shed tears of joy.
Back at Fenway Park’s crowded press box, renowned New York uber-scribe, Jimmy Breslin began to compose an on-the-spot tribute to the Boston Nine just as Jim Lonborg began his windup:
“Here’s to the Red Sox of Boston
Home of the bean and the cod
Where Cabots now cheer Yastrzemskis
And ol’ Beantown is suddenly mod.”
One floor above where Breslin was sitting, WHDH engineer, Al Walker, sat up straight in the radio broadcasting booth to watch the proceedings as announcer Ned Martin sat huddled next to him. Both men had spent several excruciating years in the wilderness with the Red Sox – and both wanted to get this moment just right. Walker had just finished communicating with head Red Sox announcer, Ken Coleman, on his headset, who was in the Red Sox dressing room waiting to interview the Red Sox after the game. The local radio engineer leveled the crowd noise with his announcer’s distinct baritone as Ned Martin intently watched Rich Rollins dig in at home plate. The Red Sox number two announcer took a deep breath and began talking on the air, “Jim Lonborg is within one out….of his biggest victory ever…his twenty-second of the year….and his first over the Twins.”
He then paused – letting the listener take in the scene.
“The pitch……is looped toward shortstop….”
A living and breathing thesaurus, Martin could have used any of a host of words from his prodigious vocabulary, but he chose “looped.” My father later described Rollin’s popup as “a little squirt from the hose.” “Looped” was an inspired choice, impeccably capturing the bending flight of the ball.
As the ball began to topple, Ned’s voice hurriedly changed; his tenor commenced to soar as he exclaimed, “Petrocelli’s back…he’s got it! The Red Sox win!”
The Sox radio announcer then took in a breath of air, mostly to observe the players and fans who had instantly enveloped the jubilant Lonborg to the right of the pitcher’s mound. Absolute chaos ensued, but Ned Martin was well equipped to describe it. He immediately punched out, “And there’s pandemonium on the field!”
The last ingredient of Martin’s call contained just one word – and a cacophony of elation. Mindful that he was describing the action to a devoted radio audience, Ned paused, and then called out, “Listen!”
An opus of horns could be heard – the air-kind that were allowed at the time by management – instruments of exultation that always gave out a piercing glee as they resounded throughout the ancient ballpark. The fans’ collective primal-shouting verified Martin’s precise account. Martin and Al Walker both stood up as thousands of fans swirled onto the field.
Also standing in his usual upstairs box along the third base line was owner Tom Yawkey, who received hugs from his wife, Jean, and from the vice president of the team at the time, Haywood Sullivan. Tears streamed down his ancient face as the Red Sox principal owner for more than thirty years watched the proceedings.
Down below in the stands, my father grabbed me as I began to move toward the mob scene on the field, Dad yelled, “You’ll get killed out there. Enjoy it from here!”
For the next 20 minutes, the Red Sox themselves attempted to make it safely back to the dugout from amidst the euphoric horde. Jim Lonborg was physically carried out to right field before being rescued by a flock of policemen. As we watched the ensuing bedlam on the field, my father gestured to the field and shouted above the clamor, “Life doesn’t get any better than this!”
A year previously, Dad and I had walked out of Fenway Park dejected after another losing season. As we maneuvered through the hubbub of the euphoric throng encircling Kenmore Square, the Red Sox, ninth place finishers the season before, were now on the cusp of an improbable pennant.
We listened to the Tigers game on the radio on the triumphant ride back to Wellesley. Detroit had won the first game against California; Ned Martin announced that a one-game playoff would be played at Fenway the following afternoon if the Tigers prevailed in the second game.
An hour later, I paced back and forth in my bedroom, pulling with all of my might for the Angels to preserve their 8-5 lead. With one out and one on in the bottom of the ninth, Tigers infielder Dick McAuliffe walked up to the plate to face veteran California pitcher, George Brunet.
Through the haze of the fall afternoon in Tiger Stadium, legendary Detroit announcer Ernie Harwell barked out, “McAuliffe hits a ground ball to Bobby Knoop who shovels to Fregosi for one – there’s the throw to Don Mincher – and it’s a double play! Boston has won the American League pennant!” I jumped up and down for what seemed like an hour. My mother then flew into my room and squeezed me extra hard.
“After all of those years of following this team – and now look what they’ve brought you!” she exclaimed with blinking eyes. Within minutes, more than 20 of the neighborhood kids formed a spontaneous parade up and down our street, Radcliffe Road, as their jubilant parents stood by their doorways, clapping and yelling with all of their hearts.
Later that night, before I went to sleep, I went to say goodnight to my father. “I can’t believe that we’re American League champs!” I admitted to him with a tone of wonder in my voice.
“We did it, Shaunie! We did this thing together,” Dad smiled as he gave me an extended hug.
On the morning of October 2nd, I rushed downstairs and ran outside to fetch a copy of the day’s newspaper. I hastily opened up The Boston Herald and saw a colored team picture of the Red Sox with a bold headline that proclaimed, “Pennant Is Ours!”
“Best news headline I have read since ‘The Japanese Surrender!’” grinned Mom as I showed her the top half of the front page.
Two days later, I brought my tiny transistor to Wellesley Junior High School in order to hear the World Series. In Mr. Briggs’ math class, we huddled around my radio and listened to the start of the Sox pregame show. It turned out to be an 18-minute recap of the regular season with music, poetry, and audio clips cohesively threaded together in an emotive tribute that announcer Ken Coleman called, “The Impossible Dream.”
As we began to listen to the Series that afternoon, we knew that the odds of securing a world’s championship that year were somewhat remote, for facing the Red Sox in the World Series that fall was the plucky St. Louis Cardinals, the most balanced and talented team in either league at the time. Most baseball experts had already picked St. Louis to win the Series in five games.
In Game 1, the Cards started fast out of the gate with a dramatic 2-1 victory at Fenway behind the seamless pitching of the fearless Bob Gibson. The Sox came back in Game 2 with abandon; Yaz lashed two prodigious home runs while ace Jim Lonborg lost a perfect game bid with two out in the eighth inning when Julian Javier stroked a double into the left-field corner. Ultimately, Lonnie tossed the second one-hitter in World Series history, a peerless pitching performance in the most pressurized of circumstances.
After Game 2, my joyful parents brought back a Red Sox American League Champions banner and a World Series program for me to have as mementos – they had been guests of old friends Dom and Emily DiMaggio – and were still soaring from Lonnie’s near-perfect game. Dad laughed when he told me that he saw New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy at the game – proudly wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap. “That will go well in the Bronx when he runs again,” my father quipped.
In St. Louis, the Cards won games 3 and 4 behind the sterling pitching of Nellie Briles and Gibson, who seemed especially unhittable in the glare of the Midwestern afternoon sun. However, Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg valiantly came through for the Boston nine in Game 5 at Busch Stadium as Lonnie pitched another complete game victory, a three-hit masterpiece in which he gave up his only run of the game to St. Louis with two out in the ninth.
Back at Fenway for Game 6, few fans believed that Boston could come back, especially when journeyman pitcher Gary Waslewski was announced as Dick Williams’ surprise starter. In the end, however, the improbable Red Sox struck again as they had all season. “Waz” pitched a heroic, five-and-a-third innings – giving up just two runs, while Rico Petrocelli, Carl Yastrzemski, and Reggie Smith hit back-to-back-to-back home runs in the fourth inning off St. Louis starter Dick Hughes. Key hits by Dalton Jones, Carl Yastrzemski, and Reggie Smith off old friend Jack Lamabe secured the game for the Boston nine in the seventh.
In Game 7, Manager Dick Williams went with his heart over his head and chose Jim Lonborg to pitch on only two days’ rest against the relentless Bob Gibson. Laboring for the third time on three days rest, the future Hall of Famer dominated the finale, permitting Boston just three scratch hits while striking out ten batters.
After 49 hard-fought innings over seven inexorable games, George Scott struck out to end the Series, a signature bullet from the golden arm of Gibson, who was immediately swallowed up by a throng of exultant Cardinals teammates. The whirl of John Kiley’s organ could be heard in the background as the silent throng at Fenway slowly began to head for the exits.
Later that night, my eyes began to well with tears as I lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Suddenly, a shaft of light filtered through the darkness as a hulking figure approached my bed. The man who sat down at the corner of my cot had survived the Great Depression, had fought at Iwo Jima and Leyte Gulf, and had helped raise four children during a most tumultuous time period.
“I, too, am sad, Shaunie,” my father said, as he touched my face.
For the next 30 minutes, Dad and I talked. With a beckoning autumn wind blowing outside my window, we both admitted to each other that St. Louis had a vastly superior team. “The Red Sox gave it all they had,” my father said simply. In the next day’s edition of The Boston Globe, renowned sportswriter Ray Fitzgerald called it, “The Series nobody lost.”
After a moment of silence, Dad patted me on the shoulder and sighed, “Lonnie had the heart of a lion out there today. Gary Waslewski, of all people, kept us in Game 6! No, son, there are no regrets here. They will be forever champions in my book.” He kissed me goodnight and whispered, “What a season! What an incredible season!” Dad left quietly, and I closed my eyes, with a kaleidoscope of images that formed the template of a miracle swirling in my mind.
37 years later, in the afterglow of the most remarkable postseason performance in Boston baseball history, I visited my father’s grave, only a short walk from my old bedroom in Wellesley. With me was his youngest grandchild, Max, a 10-year-old boy at the time who lived for every Red Sox victory.
As we walked to Daddy’s gravesite, both Max and I were adorned in matching David “Big Papi” Ortiz tee shirts. As we stood over his grave, the sun began to glisten on the leaves that lay scattered like tiny islands on the carpeted lawn of Woodlawn Cemetery. A week before, the most prodigious parade in New England history had celebrated a team that had redefined the adjective “extraordinary.” The last two-and-a-half months of the 2004 season had completely eliminated the pathos that had become an unwieldy appendage to longtime Sox loyalists. The ensuing tarpaulin of elation that enveloped the region had reminded my mother of V-E Day.
And yet, for more than one-half of the 2004 season, the Red Sox had not played up to their potential; by the end of July, they found themselves hopelessly out of the divisional race. The team actually needed a sustained winning streak three-fourths of the way through the season in order to even qualify for the playoffs
I coaxed Max as he looked over his grandfather’s grave. “Go ahead, Maxie. He would want to hear it from you.”
“Grampie!” Max bellowed, “We won it! We’re World Series champions!”
Max and I then did a little dance at the lip of my father’s gravesite, an imitation of Manny Ramirez greeting “Big Papi” after a home run, our fingers pointing to the sky. We then placed a Red Sox World Series Championship cap on the top of Dad’s gravestone and quietly departed, driving past scores of gravestones where Red Sox hats and banners of various shapes and sizes hung proudly like bright flags on a fleet of ships.
As Max and I pulled out onto Brook Street, I began to think about the ’67 Red Sox, my father’s favorite team. While the Cardinals had celebrated a seventh game victory around the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park that year, the entire season had been nothing less than one long joyride. Unlike in 2004, there were never any pockets of despair in 1967. “Sustained delight,” my father had called it at the time.
“You know, Max,” I exclaimed as we drove past my old house on Radcliffe Road, “if I could relive my life for a two-month period, I would surely rewind the past eight weeks we just experienced. How could I not? However, if I could relieve an entire season, Dick Williams would be the manager, Yaz would be in left, and Jim Lonborg would be on the mound.”
I paused and looked at my youngest son, “And my Dad would be there to take it all in once again.”
“I bet I’ll look at 2004 the same way when I’m old like you,” Max said brightly.
“Yep, I’ll bet you will,” I smiled, recognizing how astonishing it was that fathers and sons and baseball seasons could be so extraordinarily intertwined in a such an unshakable bond.
Later that evening, after I had returned to Connecticut and had tucked Max in for the night, I sat in the dark and played “The Impossible Dream” album for the first time in nearly twenty years.
Like a specter from the past, longtime Red Sox announcer Ken Coleman’s tremulous voice concluded the 40-minute audio tribute to the ’67 Sox with these words:
“For Boston is a tradition town
With a history to uphold
And when Bostonians remember –
This story will be told
Proudly fathers will tell their sons
Of this year and this team
How by courage and grip
And refusing to quit
They forged –
Our impossible dream.”
I turned off the recording and slowly walked upstairs. As I settled into bed a few minutes later, I recalled what my father had said to me in my old bedroom in Wellesley following the seventh game loss to St. Louis nearly four decades before.
“Maybe, Shaunie, what we are really sad about this evening is that the magic – like all good things – has come to an end. That is something to mourn.”
He paused and patted my knee. “But you know what, Son? What the Red Sox gave us this past season borders on the unachievable. Ultimately, we will thank God that we bore witness to it.”
A half-century has now passed, and those of us who lived through that remarkable year still fiercely cling to its memory for what it launched – the birth of Red Sox Nation – and for what it brought us – that at least for one time in our lives, the impossible was not just a dream.
My father, as usual, said it best. When reflecting on the 1967 Red Sox just a few days before his own passing, he whispered, “The best pleasures in life are always unexpected.”