The 1967 Red Sox part 1: A bat rack full of special memories
The 1967 season had already produced a bat rack full of special memories, from the seemingly daily heroics of Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski, to the Cy Young get-off-my-plate pitching of Jim Lonborg, to Elston Howard leaping for Jose Tartabull’s throw. There was Dick Williams’ my-way-or-the-highway team-first managing, Tony Conigliaro’s powerful bat, Billy Rohr’s near-no-hitter at Yankee Stadium.
There was the incredible four-team American League pennant race among the Sox, Twins, Tigers and White Sox, with the Sox going the last 44 days of the season never more than a game-and-a-half ahead or behind. These were the days before divisions, when the only playoff series was the World Series, and the way to get there was to finish first in your league’s standings.
For the Red Sox, it came down to the final day of the regular season, Oct. 1, at home, against Minnesota. The season had already been labeled the Impossible Dream, but this was a game the Red Sox had to win to make the Impossible Dream come true. For as amazing as the season had been through 161 games, the Red Sox had to prevail that sunny Sunday to become the eternal darlings of New England.
Without Lonborg’s bunt, without Yaz’s two-run single, without Rico squeezing Rich Rollins’ pop-up, without “pandemonium on the field,’ and without the huddling around the radio in the clubhouse, the Impossible Dream that day would have evaporated into the Unlikely Close Call and become another chapter in Boston’s history of heartache. There certainly would not have been a season-long celebration 40 years later, as we have seen in 2007.
But Boston did win the game, and the pennant, that day, beating the Twins 5-3 and then listening to California frustrate Detroit in the second game of a double-header. Boston (92-70) finished one game ahead of the Twins and Tigers To many fans, as well as unofficial Sox historians, it’s the most significant, most emotional, most important game in team history, the fitting cap to a season that brought the fans back to Fenway.
Four decades later, the Impossible Dreamers remain Boston celebrities, and fans, young and old, cannot get enough of their recollections of that final weekend and final game of the 1967 season. In these stories, Impossible Dreamers Jim Lonborg, Mike Andrews, Rico Petrocelli, and Fall River native and Swansea resident Russ Gibson - as well as former Twins’ pitcher Jim Kaat - share their memories about the Sox beating the Twins, the on-field celebration, the waiting to hear how Detroit fared, and the challenge of just getting home as The Hub refused to stop celebrating.
- Greg Sullivan
Four days before the biggest celebration Fenway Park has ever seen, the Boston Red Sox were down and, some of them feared, out. They had just lost two straight mid-week home games to the second-division Cleveland Indians, beaten by a pair of future Red Sox, Luis Tiant and Sonny Siebert, and had only two games remaining, a weekend series with a Minnesota team that had beaten them 11 out of 16 games already.
But after would-be Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg and the Sox lost to the Indians that Wednesday, a strange thing happened. The Chicago White Sox lost a double-header to the lowly Kansas City Athletics, and the Red Sox were right back in the race.
“When we lost two in a row to Cleveland, we thought that was the nail in the coffin,’ second baseman Mike Andrews said. “The White Sox were playing Kansas City, and they had their two aces (16-game winner Gary Peters, 19-game winner Joel Horlen) ready. And they lost a double-header. That put us right back in the thick of it.’
Minnesota came to town for the Saturday-Sunday series a game ahead of Boston and with history on their side. Not only were they 11-5 against Boston to that point in ‘67, as recently as two seasons earlier, their pennant season of 1965, the Twins had gone 17-1 against Boston. The Sox needed to sweep.
On Saturday, Minnesota’s late-season ace Jim Kaat, winner of seven straight decisions, tore a left elbow ligament in the third inning, and the Sox went to work against the bullpen. Yaz slugged his 44th home run, a three-run shot, to sew up a 6-4 victory. “We wouldn’t have beaten (Kaat) if he hadn’t got hurt,’ Sox catcher Russ Gibson said. “You couldn’t believe the stuff he had. He was pin point, on the black.’
“He was in command,’ shortstop Rico Petrocelli said. “He put the ball where he wanted.’ Sunday could not come soon enough for the Red Sox. They had Lonborg on the mound, and the ace was well rested and highly motivated. He had pitched only three innings Wednesday in the loss to Cleveland. “I was very upset after that game,’ said Lonborg, who runs a dental practice in Hanover.
“I was happy when I got an opportunity to redeem myself.’ If Red Sox players had a difficult time sleeping Saturday night, it was more because of excitement than nerves. A young team, they had earned the nickname Cardiac Kids because of their penchant for late-game heroics. In fact, it was the veteran teams showing signs of stress fracture down the stretch.
Gibson recalled talking to Hall of Fame announcer Curt Gowdy, the former Red Sox broadcaster, who came to Fenway for those final games.
“He told me, ‘Gibby, the White Sox are falling apart. They can’t even throw the ball to first place,” Gibson said. Indeed, the White Sox disintegrated. Starting with the shocking double-header loss to Kansas City, they lost their final five games of the season. The brash Sox seemed almost immune to the pressure of one of the great pennant races in baseball history. Second baseman Mike Andrews, now chairman of the Jimmy Fund (the Sox’s designated charity), remembered how he and Gibson would joke about the perceived pressure.
“We’d walk around the clubhouse and talk in a high voice, “We’re not nervous. We’re not nervous,” he said.
“We weren’t so much nervous as we were excited,’ Andrews added. “It was like that for a month. We were playing in front of capacity crowds. To be part of a pennant race and see it in the fans. ... We had so many young players who hadn’t been in the big leagues. By the time we made the second round, we really began to believe by August we were as good as anyone in the league.
“Other teams were probably more worried about playing us.’ “We went into that game like we did all year,’ Petrocelli said. “We didn’t think about losing.’
Minnesota would send its ace, 20-game winner Dean Chance to the mound. But the Sox had Lonborg.
“Lonborg was dominant. He was dominant,’ Andrews said. “Hitters, they didn’t want any part of him. He was just wild enough to be effective.’
Gibson, who got the start that day ahead of World Series veteran Elston Howard, insists Lonborg’s nickname of Gentleman Jim was a grotesque misnomer.
It’s no surprise Lonborg went into dentistry since he had during his first career shown no aversion to drilling people. Gentleman Jim hit 19 batters in ‘67.
“He’d just as soon hit you as look at you,’ Gibson said. Looking to beat the Sox for the fifth time that season, Chance had the edge for much of this duel, one that may have decided the Cy Young Award in the American League. Helped by a rare error by Yaz, the Gold Glove left fielder, the Twins and Chance took a 2-0 lead to the bottom of the sixth inning.
Then, in a flash, the game turned around. Lonborg dropped a bunt single down the third base line on the first pitch from Chance.
“Cesar Tovar (third baseman) was playing back, which was not an unusual thing with a pitcher coming up,’ the 6-foot-5 Lonborg said. “I had bunted a lot, and I could run well for a tall guy. The key thing was Tovar didn’t field it cleanly.’
Jerry Adair followed with a single. Dalton Jones did the same, loading the bases for, of course, Yastrzemski. In the final six games of ‘67, Yaz was 13-for-21 with three homers and 12 runs batted in. In the final two games, he was 7-for-8 with a home run and six RBIs.
“With our club, we were sort of sitting there saying it’s going to happen,’ Gibson said. “Somebody will boot one. Someone will walk, and Yaz will come up. Seems like all year long, Yaz came up in the big situation. It’s unbelievable how many times he came through.’
With fans in the bleachers holding a sign imploring Yaz to hit his 45th homer, the Triple Crown winner hit the first pitch, a sinker low and away, for a line drive single to center field, tying the game.
Without the benefit of another hit, the Sox scored three more times in the sixth. They were helped by an error and two wild pitches from reliever Al Worthington.
The 5-2 lead that was more than enough for Lonborg, though Minnesota did not go quietly. In the eighth inning, the Twins sent five batters to the plate and four of them singled. But Boston turned a double play on speedster Cesar Tovar, and on his two-out RBI single down the left-field line, Bob Allison unwisely tried for double, and Yaz easily gunned him down. Lonborg said his “stuff was decent’ that afternoon.
“My breaking ball was working well. My fastball wasn’t working as well I hoped. But in the eighth and ninth innings, my fast ball started to come back.’
It was a fastball he used to end the game. Rich Rollins has become a name synonymous with the Impossible Dream. An all-star in 1962, in 1967 he was a part-time starter who batted .245 in 339 at-bats. He pinch-hit with two outs in the ninth inning.
Lonborg dropped down and fired a sinker in on Rollins’ hands. The result was a weak pop-up behind shortstop. Petrocelli barely had time to wave his hands and call for the ball before making the catch.
“It was a big thrill to be able to make that last out,’ Petrocelli said. “Lonborg pitched a great game. Rich Rollins was a very good hitter, he was a right-handed hitter, and they were hoping he could lift one into the net. It was a great pitch in on his hands. The pop-up wasn’t very high.
“It was so exciting to hear the fans as soon as the ball went up - the buzz. When I caught the ball, I squeezed it to make sure I hung on.’ As Petrocelli and Co. would learn seconds later, the fans would not be content to just create a buzz.