Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Incredibly Beautiful People
2004-12-13 12:56
by Alex Belth

Book Excerpt

So how could I run a series of excerpts by Stout and Johnson without touching on their seminal work, Red Sox Century? Well, I couldn't leave it out. The question was, "What part did I think would work best for Bronx Banter?" After giving the matter serious consideration, Glenn and I selected the chapter on the Impossible Dream team of 1967. It just so happens to be one of the longer chapters in the book, much longer than the Dodger and Yankee excerpts which appeared here last week. But it was just too good to leave alone. After all, 67 was the Summer of Love. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were released that year, as was Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Oh, and the American League had one of the most thrilling pennant races of all-time. There is no hidden meaning behind choosing such a long section for the Bostons, but I figured that Sox fans deserve to read about a winning year--even if the team did ultimatley lose the World Series to the Cards--after how things ended up for them in 2004. So here goes...enjoy. And if you are looking for a last-minute holiday gift, please consider Red Sox Century, Yankees Century, and The Dodgers: 120 Years of Dodgers Baseball. They are all welcome additions to any baseball fan's library.


(Part 1 of 4)

by Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson

Dick Williams didn’t mess around. "This club has become a cruise ship overrun with captains and players thinking they are captain. The cruise is over and you don't need a captain anymore,” he told the players. “You have a new boss now--Me. Eliminating the club captaincy is my way of letting you know that things will be done one way...My way.” This was how spring training before the 1967 season began.

Dick Williams stripped Sox captain Carl Yastrzemski of his title and assumed total command. And the Red Sox became a different team.

Although most would later view the rebirth of the Red Sox in 1967 as some kind of miracle, the renaissance of the franchise was more the product of a peculiar set of circumstances that landed the team in the hands of the right man at the right time. The end result was perhaps the most exciting Red Sox season in history, one that started slowly then built before finally exploding like a roman candle that bathed Sox fans in a lasting glow.

The 1967 season saved the Sox. Had it never happened, it is not inconceivable to think that within a few seasons the Red Sox may well have called some other city home. Instead, fathers started telling sons about Cronin, Foxx and Grove. Grandfathers recalled Carrigan, Speaker and Ruth and a whole new generation of fans discovered the Red Sox. The storied past stirred to life.

It all started with Tom Yawkey. He’d lost interest, stopped drinking and was resigned to Boston’s second division status. He and Jean spent most of their time in South Carolina living on his estate.

Yawkey’s abject neglect left the club almost entirely in Dick O’Connell’s hands, leaving him free to hire Williams and make other moves without interference or worrying about offending any of Yawkey’s cronies. That was the best thing that could have happened. In 1967, Yawkey didn’t even speak to Williams until July. And under O’Connell and Neil Mahoney, Boston’s increasingly color-blind farm system had never been more productive. With players like Yastrzemski and Lonborg to build around, the Sox were already getting better.

What was a miracle was that Williams had been hired in the first place. In 1964 he was going nowhere as player/coach for the Red Sox Boston triple-A club in Seattle when the club announced the affiliate would move to Toronto in 1965. Manager Edo Vanni didn’t want to go.

Williams knew the club and had impressed O’Connell with his no-nonsense style. He accepted the clubs offer to become manager at $9,000 a year because he knew it was his only chance to return to the big leagues. He had to win – he needed the money – and the minor league club responded to his urgent, take-charge attitude.

His managerial philosophy was simple and unyielding. "I give 100% because I hate losing,” he explained later. “And for those players who treat losing and failure lightly I will give them something else to hate – ME. I try to make some players win just to show me up." That approach helped the Maple Leafs win two consecutive IL championships.

Williams cleaned house that spring. Every man on the roster would have to prove he belonged. Yaz was more than willing to give up the captaincy he’d never freally wanted. He’d had it with being the only star on a team of losers.

Williams had learned the game in the Dodger organization, and he schooled the Red Sox in the Dodger method, focusing on the incessant repetition of fundamentals. He knew they team had talent. His job was to turn that into wins and losses.
Williams took no one and no thing for granted, and some of what he did was revolutionary. In between throwing and fielding drills, pitcher had traditionally hung around, running sprints and shagging flys. Williams thought that was a waste. To get them in shape and build camaraderie, he had them play volleyball. The pitchers loved it, but old-timers were aghast.
Ted Williams, in camp as a roving batting instructor, kept breaking up the games to regal the pitchers with his complicated theories on hitting. Dick Williams asked Ted to stop several times, but was ignored. Then Dick Williams ordered Ted to stop.

No one with the Red Sox had ever ordered Ted Williams to do much of anything. Miffed, the greatest hitter who ever lived stomped off, packed his bags and was overheard sputtering, "Volleyball, what is this game coming to?" He wasn’t heard from again for the rest of the season. But Dick Williams had made his point.
As opening day approached veterans fell to wayside as Williams stuck with the rookies and second-year players he knew from Toronto. With his crewcut and sharp tongue, Williams looked like a Marine drill sergeant. He wasn’t above reminding his young charges that now matter how hard camp was, it was better than being in Vietnam. But the Vietnam War was merely an irritant to the players. Most avoided combat by joining the reserves.

Although Williams made an impression during training camp, outside observers looked at the Red Sox and saw only more of the same. Odds-maker Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder made the defending ninth place club 100-to-1 underdogs.
On the eve of the home opener all Williams would say was "We’ll win more than we’ll lose." Most writers covering the club had heard that before and looked forward to reminding the rookie manager of his claim at the end of the season, if he lasted that long.
Opening Day in Boston was more sad than celebratory. The Red Sox had no constituency, and only 8,324 fans turned out at Fenway Park. Fans of he post-war Sox were now middle-aged or older and living in the suburbs, while younger fans and the thousands of students who lived in town only knew the club through their recent reputation as losers.

The 1967 Red Sox were the youngest team in baseball and one of the youngest ever. Except for Jose Tartabull and Yaz, who were 28 and 27, every player in the lineup was 25 or younger. Lonborg beat the White Sox 5-4 as shortstop Rico Petrocelli went 3-for-3 and cracked three-run homer, but the victory drew a yawn.

Boston lost the next day, 8-5, making three errors and playing more to their accustomed style, then went to New York for the Yankees home opener on April 14. On a cold and cloudy afternoon rookie southpaw Bill Rohr made his major league debut opposite future Hall of Famer Whitey Ford.

Rohr served notice that this season would be different. With fellow rookie Russ Gibson behind the plate, he dazzled the crowd of 14,375, including Jackie Kennedy and her six-year-old son John. Rookie Reggie Smith hit a leadoff home run – his first – to put Rohr ahead, and he gained confidence with every hitter he retired.

His hat fell off on nearly every pitch, but he kept the Yankees off balance. By mid-game the Red Sox bench turned quiet as his teammates realized Rohr was hurling a no-hitter.

In the sixth inning New York’s Bill Robinson lined a ball off Rohr’s shin, but third baseman Joe Foy picked it up and threw Robinson out. Following a lengthy visit by trainer Buddy LeRoux, Rohr regained his composure and continued to set the Yankees down. Even New York fans started to cheer for him.
Yankee left fielder Tom Tresh nailed the first pitch of the ninth inning and catcher Russ Gibson cursed as it left the bat. "There was no way that ball was going to be caught,” Gibson later recalled. “All I could think was “There goes the no-hitter.’" But Yaz got a great jump on the ball and made a spectacular diving catch. Then Joe Pepitone lifted a lazy fly to Conigliaro in right for the second out.

With one out to go, Dick Williams hurried to the mound and reminded Rohr that Yankee batter Elston Howard was a notorious first ball hitter. Rohr worked carefully, and with the count 2-2 threw a curve that looked like strike three to everyone but umpire Cal Drummond. The crowd groaned in unison. He threw another curve and Howard reached out and poked it into right for a clean single. The New York crowd still gave Rohr standing ovation as Charley Smith flied out to Conigliaro to end the game. Afterwards, Mrs. Kennedy had Rohr autograph a ball for her son.

A week later, Rohr pitched almost as well against New York in Boston, winning 6-1. But then the young pitcher struggled, and the impatient manager sent him back to the minors. Rohr never won another game for Boston and earned one more major league victory in his career.
Boston players quickly learned that winning was all Williams cared about. He would use any means necessary to motivate his players – benching them, pulling them from games, and even criticizing them publicly in the press. He proved to be the most quotable personality at Fenway Park since Ted Williams. Although saying things like "Trying to talk to George Scott is like talking to cement," was cruel, the approach usually worked, for as one associate later commented, “He was impartial. He dumped on everybody.”
The results soon started speaking for themselves. On April 29 the Sox briefly moved into a tie for first place after Jose Tartabull singled through a drawn in infield in the fifteenth inning to beat Kansas City at Fenway Park. Afterwards, a jubilant Carl Yastrzemski entered the Red Sox clubhouse and yelled to the press, "How do you like our chances now?"
They didn’t stay in first, but they didn’t fall far back, either. The White Sox and Tigers jumped ahead, while the Red Sox stayed in a six-team pack around .500.

But Williams wasn’t satisfied. After a dismal 3-6 road trip followed that included three one-run losses, Williams benched Yastrzemski. Treating the resident star like just another player both solidified the manager’s authority and lit a fire under a player who’d previously been coddled.

Early on the morning of May 14, Yastrzemski met coach Bobby Doeer for an extended session of batting practice. Doerr suggested that Yastrzemski lift his hands and made a minor adjustment in his batting stance.

In the off-season the 27-year-old Yastrzemski had given baseball his full attention for the first time in his career. He met a Hungarian refugee named Gene Berde, the former trainer for the Hungarian boxing team. Berde worked as a fitness director at a hotel near Yastrzemski’s home, and after meeting Yaz for the first time, was unimpressed.

"You think you're in shape? You, the big baseball player, you, the big champion. You can't even run a hundred yards. You no athlete . . . I make you an athlete."
Yaz took the challenge and for the rest of the winter worked out with Berde for several hours each day. He was in the best shape of his life.

After his hitting session with Doerr, the ball began flying off his bat. Later that day in a doubleheader against the Tigers, Yaz led a Red Sox sweep, going 3-for-8 and hitting his third and fourth home runs of the year. He was off to the greatest season of his career.

No one was touting the Red Sox as pennant winners, but the team was obviously improved. Moreover, they were confident. The loss of Tony Conigliaro to a two-week stint in the reserves was hardly noticed, and by the end of May, with the Sox 22-20, Williams even began offering rare words of praise. He told the press that whipping boy George Scott had, “found himself.” “He’s so strong he can hit it out in any direction, in any park, said Williams. And after Lonborg beat the Tigers 1-0 in Detroit, Williams called it "The guttiest game I've ever seen pitched in my life."
Among many early season surprises was veteran reliever John Wyatt. He depended on a Vaseline-aided forkball and a series of reminders written on his glove. On four of the five fingers he wrote the word "THINK." On the fifth he scrawled, "When in doubt-Use Fork Ball." The former Negro League hurler didn't surrender a run in his first five appearances and his dependability allowed the club to make a trade.
For the first time since taking over as general manager, O’Connell wasn’t building for some distant future. The future was finally the season at hand.

On June 3, at the urging of Williams, O'Connell dealt spare reliever Don McMahon and a minor leaguer to Chicago for veteran Jerry Adair, who could play anywhere. The following day the team obtained starting right-handed pitcher Gary Bell from the Indians for former bonus baby Tony Horton and outfielder Don Demeter.

Although Bell was only 1-5 for the Indians, he’d been an all-star in 1966 and was a bonafide front-line starter. After making the trade O'Connell accurately observed, "This is one of those years when it looks like the pennant is up for grabs. I think we can win it. We've bolstered our starting pitching with experience and ability." No one was running away with the pennant. All eight teams were within ten games of each other.

Both moves paid immediate dividends. Adair got three hits in Bell's Red Sox debut, a 7-3 complete game victory over the White Sox at Comiskey Park on June 8. Adair soon became the club’s baseball equivalent of the Boston Celtic's famed "sixth man", the first player off the bench and able to win a game with either his bat or his glove. Williams, who had been Adair’s teammate in Baltimore, called him "the Red Sox secret weapon."
No one should have been surprised by O’Connell’s success as general manager, but in Boston, where the front office had always been a haven for Yawkey’s cronies, mere competence was a revelation. The club was shedding its losing reputation.

In mid-June, as the Sox played Chicago, White Sox manager Eddie Stanky was asked if Carl Yastrzemski was an All-Star. Stanky had little respect for either the Sox or Yaz, both of which he still considered losers. He called Yastrzemski, "an All Star from the neck down." The words stung.

His remarks earned him a generous dose of abuse from Boston fans, who were starting to care again. They bombarded Stanky with boos and everything from cups of beer to batteries. But Yaz got the sweetest revenge. In a doubleheader he went 6-for-9 and the Red Sox split with the mighty first place White Sox. As Yastrzemski rounded third after hitting his 15th homer of the year, he slowed and tipped his cap toward Stanky.

The next night, on June 16, the Red Sox played their best game of the season to date. For nine innings neither Boston’s Gary Waslewski nor Chicago’s Bruce Howard gave up a run. In the tenth, Williams called on Wyatt, but Chicago went ahead, 1-0.

When Chicago reliever John Buzhardt retired Yastrzemski on a pop-up and Scott on a line drive, Sox fans gave up and started to file out of Fenway. But Joe Foy stopped them in their tracks with a sharp single to left, setting the stage for Tony Conigliaro.

Since returning from reserve duty, the 22-year old rightfielder had slumped and been dropped to sixth in the batting order. After swinging and missing at the first two pitches, he worked Buzhardt to a full count then drove the next pitch into the left field net. Nearly seventeen thousand fans cheered themselves hoarse as the entire Boston bench poured from the dugout to greet Conigliaro at home plate. The next day, for the first time, the phrase “Impossible Dream,” the name of a hit song in the musical “Camelot” was used to describe the 1967 Sox, appearing in a Boston Globe headline. Sox fans soon adopted the phrase.

(To Be Continued)

Copyright 2000, 2004 Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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