For the first time in over a decade fortune smiled on the Red Sox. On August 21, after power-hitting outfielder Ken Harrelson was quoted referring to A’s owner Charlie O. Finley as “a menace to baseball,” Finley released him. The Red Sox were drawn into the first free agent bidding war in modern baseball history.
The ability to add a player of Harrelson’s ability so late in the season without giving up a player was a unique opportunity. Knowing he could prove the difference in the pennant race teams in both leagues scrambled after the slugger.
Harrelson quickly learned that patience was a virtue in such negotiations. He’d earned only $12,000 with the A’s in 1967. But as a free agent, his asking price started at $80,000. Within two days the Braves had upped the bid to $112,000.
Harrelson was ready to sign, but at the last moment Dick O'Connell called and asked simply “How much will it take?” Harrelson blurted out “$150,000.” O’Connell replied “Deal.” The player known as “the Hawk” was now a member of the Red Sox.
Many recalled Tom Yawkey’s profligate spending decades earlier, and Harrelson’s acquisition showed his stamp. After all but ignoring the Sox for several seasons, and even throwing a tantrum in June and threatening to move the team from Boston unless the government built him a stadium, the Sox surprising appearance in the pennant race invigorated the old owner. Yawkey was not about to let money stand between him and his first shot at a pennant in nearly a generation.
Harrelson arrived in Boston on August 24 just as Conigliaro was being released from the hospital. Tony C. convalesced at his parent’s home in Swampscott, his 20/15 vision gone, listening to the Sox on the radio like just another fan. At Fenway Park that afternoon the Red Sox defeated the Senators 7-5 then left for a crucial five-game series in three days with Chicago. They were in a virtual tie with the White Sox for first place.
As the two clubs split the opening doubleheader, Minnesota snuck into first place by 1/2 game. The next day Jerry Stephenson no-hit the White Sox through five innings and led Boston to a 6-2 victory. Meanwhile, the Twins lost to Cleveland, 5-2. For the first time in almost twenty years, the Red Sox were in first place in late August. Sox fans looked at the standings in wonder, and many put the newspaper away for safekeeping.
The first game of the Sunday doubleheader that concluded the series was a microcosm of the entire season, and of all games Boston played that season, it remains the most memorable. Sox fans could hardly bear to watch on television, but were even more afraid not to. The Sox fell behind, came back, and then almost blew the game twice before emerging with a win. It was that kind of year.
Bell started for Boston and fell behind 1-0, but Carl Yastrzemski ripped two home runs to give him a 3-1 lead. In the seventh, Scott singled home a run to make the score 4-1. But in the bottom of the inning, Mike Andrews blew a tailor-made double play ball and the White Sox scored twice to make it 4-3.
Boston failed to score off Hoyt Wilhelm in the ninth, and Ken Berry led off with a double for Chicago and was sacrificed to third to chase Gary Bell. John Wyatt came into the game with the tying run ninety feet from home.
He threw one pitch. Duane Josephson hit a soft line drive to right. Weak-armed Jose Tartabull charged in, caught the ball and came up throwing as Berry tagged.
He made perhaps the best throw of his career, and even then it still wasn’t perfect. But now Howard demonstrated why Boston had traded for him.
As the veteran catcher reached up high to catch the ball, he expertly planted his size twelve foot in front of home plate. Berry slid just as he made the catch. As Howard swept back to make a one-handed tag, his foot bounced Berry aside and his glove swept across his leg.
Out. Double play. Game over. Sox in first.
For many fans the play remains the signature moment of the season. Heroics by Yastrzemski of Lonborg were understandable, and even expected. But plays made by role players Tartabull and Howard seemed touched by magic, and convinced fans that the impossible dream wasn’t so impossible. Over the next few weeks, that feeling would grow.
In the final month of the 1967 AL pennant race momentum shifted day by day and sometimes hour by hour as partisans in Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit and Boston alternately soared and plunged back to earth according to the box score. At various times, each club seemed certain to win. At other times, each seemed doomed to defeat. Sox fans experienced both extremes during the doubleheader. After their stirring win in game one, Chicago’s Gary Peters sent Boston fans back to the depths in game two as he threw eleven-inning shutout to win 1-0.
The Sox flew to New York and were met by thousands of their fans. The Yankees weren’t drawing and correctly assumed that holding Carl Yastrzemski Night at the stadium would attract rabid throngs from across New England. Before the game the Yankees gave Yaz a Chrysler with Massachusetts plates that read "Yaz-8," and fans contributed ten thousand dollars in his name to the Jimmy Fund. Yaz went hitless but Boston won 3-0 behind the pitching of Dave Morehead and Sparky Lyle. They still led Minnesota by .001.
On August 29 the team played its third doubleheader in five days. Jim Lonborg beat Mel Stottlemyre 2-1 in game one. In game two Ken Harrelson socked a home run in his first at bat, but with the score knotted 2-2, the season entered a time warp. Inning after scoreless inning passed as Boston fans sat before their radios and televisions long into the night. Finally, at 1:57 a.m. after over six hours of play, Steve Whitaker homered off Sparky Lyle and the Yankees won 3-2. The next day Boston Edison announced that electric use after midnight had been 40% higher than normal.
Both clubs were back on the field the following day. Hitless in his last seventeen at bats, Yastrzemski was exhausted. Williams sat him.
But with the game tied 1-1 in the eighth, he turned to the best player he had. Yaz entered the game and in the eleventh he crushed a dramatic home run to deep right center to beat New York 2-1.
The White Sox then came to Boston and Fenway was filled, but the Sox showed signs of exhaustion. They lost 3-of-4. After four glorious days looking down at the competition, Boston fell from first place.
Yaz was still slumping. When he didn’t hit the Red Sox were an average team. As his teammates flew to Washington for a Labor Day doubleheader, Yaz remained behind and took several hours of extra batting practice in Fenway with Bobby Doeer before joining his teammates. Tom Yawkey watched him from the stands.
Yawkey, who had kept his distance from the clubhouse for more than a decade, now became a near-constant presence. He wasn’t altogether welcome. While some players, like Yaz, basked in the attention of the wealthiest man they’d ever met, Dick Williams, who disliked Yawkey, grated against the intrusion, which he considered “an insult,” writing in his autobiography that, "You'd have thought he was one of the damn players. He was in the clubhouse, around the batting cage, on the field until the last possible minute, chatting and kibitzing and being about as fake as an owner can be . . . Where had he been when we got our asses kicked earlier in the season? And didn't he know that being friendly with the players would soon make them think they were in good with the owner and didn't have to listen to Williams? Didn't he understand how players worked?"
Yaz broke out on September 5 with two home runs and Boston started winning again, pulling the Sox back into a virtual tie for first place as Boston, Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit were separated by only a single percentage point. All four received permission to print World Series tickets.
As they jockeyed for position, the Red Sox fulfilled their manager's only pre-season promise on September 10, winning their 82nd game to assure a finish above .500. But by now that once lofty goal passed almost without notice.
The pennant was all that mattered. On September 12 Jim Lonborg won his twentieth game beating the Kansas City Athletics 3-1 at Fenway Park. Boston’s sixth win in their last seven games tied the Sox with the Twins for first place.
With only a little more than two weeks remaining in the season, the commissioner's office came up with a scheme to handle the possibility of a first place tie between anywhere from two to four teams. The solutions ranged from a single-game play-off if two clubs tied for first, to a round-robin double-elimination tournament to account for a three-way tie, to a series of best-of-three semi-finals and finals in case four teams knotted at the top. At the beginning of the season the odds of that happening had been calculated at better than 30 million to one. Now, they were considerably less.
But when the Sox dropped three straight to Baltimore, the odds of Boston winning the pennant plummeted. As Boston embarked in an eight-game road trip, Globe’s Ray Fitzgerald put it succinctly, writing, “The Red Sox need a spark.”
Carl Yastrzemski must have read the paper. For over the remainder of the season he fashioned perhaps the greatest series of clutch performances one player has ever had, doing it in every way possible, in the field, at bat and on the bases. Over the course of some 150 games, the four clubs in contention had thus far proven there wasn’t a dimes bit of difference between them. But over the final twelve, Carl Yastrzemski proved the difference.
(To Be Continued...)
Copyright 2000, 2004 Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.