Red Sox 1967: Part 1 of 6 looking back at the year that rekindled the franchise

Eric McHugh

There should be a plaque, don't you think?

Something small and tasteful at Logan Airport. The wording could go something like this: "On this spot on the night of July 23, 1967, a love affair between New England and its star-crossed baseball franchise was unofficially rekindled, forever."

Because it was.

How many people really were there that Sunday evening to welcome the Red Sox - now undeniably into their "Impossible Dream" bid for the American League pennant - home from Cleveland? A few hours earlier they had just stretched their winning streak to 10 games with a doubleheader sweep (8-5, 5-1) of the Indians that left them a half-game out of first place. And now everyone, it seemed, wanted to grab them and hug them and tell them they adored them.

Accounts from the time put the party at upwards of 10,000. Counting crowds is tricky enough when they're expected. When they seem to materialize out of thin air - consider this one the grandfather of today's Internet-fueled flash mobs - it's even harder to nail down exact numbers.

Like the original Woodstock, if you say you were there, who are we to doubt you? So we'll give Sheldon Kantor of Sharon the benefit of the doubt.

"I was expecting maybe hundreds of people," Kantor, 55, said at a recent book-signing in Boston, where he got former Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocelli to autograph a copy of his "Tales from the Impossible Dream Red Sox." "I didn't envision what we saw. When we got there it was chaos. The East Boston police were directing everybody. It was chaos, but it was chaos in a very positive way. It was chaos they weren't used to."

No kidding.

Back then, Kantor was a 15-year-old kid living in Brookline. Despite years of miserable baseball, he and his younger brother Jason were Sox fans whose favorite pastime involved starting off in the bleachers at Fenway Park and then moving around the near-deserted stands to sample better seats.

"They were always losers," Kantor said of the Sox, who hadn't won the AL flag since 1946 and had posted eight consecutive sub-.500 seasons before reinventing themselves that summer. "It was easy to get in (the park). Like all kids (then), our memories are of going to seats that we didn't really pay for, because it was easy (to switch)."

Suddenly, seeing the Sox - even at an airport late on a Sunday night – was the hardest ticket in town.

Even if, you know, they didn't sell tickets at Logan.

"It was a mob scene," recalled Deborah Fogarty, 59, of Weymouth, who 40 years ago hopped on the T with five of her fellow Northeastern co-eds to join the party. "There were thousands of people. Kids. Parents. It was wonderful. It was magic. For my kids, obviously, 2004 has that same memory."

The Big Thrill

Unlike the 2004 crew, the '67 Red Sox didn't win the World Series, losing in seven games to mighty Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals. So maybe this impromptu love-fest on the tarmac was the closest they got to a triumphant Duck Boat parade through the streets of Boston.

"I'll never forget the young kids on the shoulders of their fathers, waving," Petrocelli said. " 'Here comes Yaz! Yeah!' The place went nuts.'Here comes Joe Foy!' We just couldn't believe it. What a thrill that was. I never seen anything like that. That really inspired us."

Pitcher Lee Stange, who hurled two complete games during the winning streak, joked that the reception was "scary as hell. I thought they were going to tip over the bus."

But pitcher Jim Lonborg, that year's AL Cy Young Award winner (a dazzling 22-9 with a 3.16 ERA) called it "heartwarming."

It was also the perfect snapshot of a magical season. The Sox wouldn't make it back to the Series until 1975, but the hearts and minds they won that summer were not so fickle as to demand perfection. A whole new generation of fans were hooked, for good.

The birth of a Nation

In 1965, the Red Sox drew a paltry 652,201 paying customers - their lowest turnout since World War II. In the 1966, attendance inched up to 811,172. In 1967, 1.7 million fans streamed through the turnstiles. With the exception of the strike-interrupted 1981 season, the Sox have never dipped below 1.4 million since and they've been over 2.5 million each year since 2000. Their current sellout streak - 363 games and counting - is the second longest in\ major league history.

The pink hats and the college kids who whooped it up in 2004 might have only vague memories of 1967, but that's when it all started.

"There wasn't too much hope in the early '60s," said Carl Yastrzemski, the Hall of Fame left fielder whose Triple Crown season (.326, 44 home runs, 121 RBI) carried the '67 team. "Before '67 there wasn't a Red Sox Nation, I'll tell you that. The Red Sox became winners in '67. We brought back baseball. I know."

He was there.

It's Dr. Jim Lonborg now.

The man they called "Gentleman Jim" - for his stately manner, not for the 19 hitters he plunked in '67 - has called Scituate home for more than 30 years. For more than two decades he's had a thriving dental practice in Hanover. But if you've got a toothache, sorry. He has hasn't accepted new patients for two or three years. With the 40th anniversary celebration of his most celebrated Red Sox team in full swing, he might have been able to drum up some new business, if he wanted it. But Lonborg said baseball long ago stopped being a recruiting tool for his second profession.

"I think most of the people come because of referrals - that we give good quality care at our practice," he said. "It's not so much that I was a baseball player; I'm a pretty good dentist."

Still, in between opening wide and spitting, there's always time for his regular clientèle to swap some Sox stories.

"No, we never get enough of talking about baseball," he said with a chuckle. "Because every season is so different."

That one in '67 especially.

"It was a magical season," Fogarty said. "From the ashes, basically."

The apathy that the Sox seemingly had worked so hard to cultivate over the previous eight years did not dissipate right away. Lonborg was on the mound on Opening Day, April 12, when only 8,324 fans witnessed him beating the Chicago White Sox, 5-4. Six months later, he was on the hill again in the pennant-clinching regular-season finale - a gut-wrenching, 5-3, comeback win over the Minnesota Twins that ended with many of the 35,770 in attendance storming the field and simultaneously carrying Lonborg off on their shoulders and shredding his uniform top for souvenirs.

The highlights came fast and furious that year.

There was rookie Billy Rohr's near-no-hitter in Yankee Stadium in his first major league start in April.

There was Tony Conigliaro's walk-off homer in June to beat the White Sox.

There was weak-armed Jose Tartabull unexpectedly cutting down Ken Berry at the plate for a game-ending double play in Chicago in August.

There was Yaz tearing the cover off the ball all season, and Lonborg cranking out wins, including a one-hitter in the World Series.

There was tragedy, too - Conigliaro's beaning on Aug. 18 (and the famous photo of him recuperating in the hospital, his left eye grotesquely swollen) is as indelible a memory as any that year.

If you were around, and aware, then, you no doubt have your own tale to tell.

Helen Rocco of Wakefield remembers a student walk-out at Melrose High School because the teachers wouldn't put the darn books away for two hours and let the kids watch an important late-season game. Her younger sister, Ann, fared better at Shaw Junior High in Boston.

"I was in seventh grade," Ann said at Petrocelli's book signing. "We asked one of the teachers to put it on TV and he did. Good man."

"I was a big fan of baseball - pickup games and things like that," said Bob Maccia, a construction worker from Tewksbury who, as a 9-year-old, saw his first nine Red Sox games that year. "One of the guys in my neighborhood, who

was like a big brother to me, started taking me to games. Next thing you know, I was a Red Sox fan. You never forget your first walk up the ramp and seeing that grass. That green, green grass. That's when it all started (for me)."

Has it really been 40 years?

"Oh, I can't believe that!" said 65-year-old Sally Nitzsche of Reading, who showed up for Petrocelli's book-signing wearing a polka-dot skirt and a No. 38 Curt Schilling Sox home jersey. "It reminds me how old I am."

Seems like only yesterday that Petrocelli and his wife were getting cornered at supermarkets by fans who wanted to thank them for giving them back their summers at the ballpark. "They were so happy that they had something to cheer about," Petrocelli said.

On Opening Day at Fenway this year, the 1967 Sox took the field for a pregame ceremony and heard the cheers again.

"They introduced us and we came out from behind the flag and went to our positions," said Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, now the TV voice of the White Sox. "I went to first base. Big ovation. And I'm standing there and all of a sudden I had this weird feeling and I started thinking about (the late) Joe Foy and Elston Howard and Jerry Adair. It was almost like they were tapping me on the shoulder saying, 'Hey, don't forget about us.' "

If you're a Red Sox fan of a certain age, you never will.

"I remember I went with my Little League team to Fenway Park, I think it was in July and they played the Angels," said Bob Wall, 52, of Holbrook. "I still remember it today. I still have the ticket stub. Fifty cents to sit in the bleachers. It was a great season. It was a great time to be 12 with baseball. It was a terrific summer."

Next: Dick Williams takes the reins.

Eric McHugh of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) can be reached at emchugh@ledger.com.