Stanky got the message. The Red Sox were for real. Before leaving Fenway Park he meekly admitted Yastrzemski should be the starting All-Star left fielder for the American league. Then, as soon as he was out of town he made an empty threat to sue the Red Sox for not protecting him from their fans. The pennant race was becoming contentious. Boston had the attention of the other teams. Dick Williams loved it.
Even Boston fans were starting to wake up. Last minute wins were exciting and the Sox had a knack for coming from behind. Attendance started creeping up as older fans decided to check the team out, and young fans came for the first time.
The Sox were tough, too. How tough? When they went to New York in late June, third baseman Joe Foy visited his parents in the Bronx, found their home on fire and pulled them to safety. The next day, in a scene from a B-movie, he hit a grand slam to beat the Yankees 7-1.
In the following game, Yankee pitcher Thad Tillotsen recalled Foy’s slam and threw at him.
Jim Lonborg knew what he had to do next. When Tillotson came to bat, Lonborg nailed him on the shoulder. The studious pitcher some called "Gentleman Jim" was learning, and before the end of the season another twenty American League batters would bear a bruise from a Lonborg pitch. As Tillotson glared back at Lonborg, Joe Foy shouted at the Yankee pitcher and both benches emptied. It took a dozen New York cops to break it up.
When Lonborg came to bat, everyone in the stadium realized it was payback time and both benches emptied again. This time cooler heads prevailed, but the two clubs threw at each other for the rest of the game, as Lonborg later brushed back Charley Smith and hit Dick Howser in the lopsided 8-1 Red Sox victory.
Following the game, Lonborg calmly told the press, "I have to protect my players," and explained that he would no longer allow hitters to dig in on him. The victory was already his ninth, only one less than his total in 1966.
Then the Sox caught a series of breaks. On June 27, as Gary Waslewski beat the Twins 3-2, defending AL MVP Frank Robinson of Baltimore suffered a concussion in a base-running collision, and Detroit rightfielder Al Kaline broke his finger slamming his bat into the bat rack. The injuries to the two stars helped Boston’s pennant chances dramatically and made an already tight pennant race even tighter.
At the All-Star break the Red Sox were in fifth place, only two games above .500, but trailed first place Chicago by only 5 1/2 games. Following the break the Sox split the first two games of a home series against the Orioles, then won four in a row before heading out on a six-game road trip.
Healthy and hot the Sox went into Baltimore and beat the Orioles twice more behind Lonborg and Jose Santiago. The win pulled the Sox to within 1½ games of first place and was front-page news in Boston.
Pitcher Darrell Brandon pitched a complete game victory over the Indians on July 21 to give Boston sole possession of second place, and the next day Lee Stange threw a 4-0 masterpiece to lead the team to within a half-game of the top. Then Lonborg struck out 11 and won his fifth in a row and Bell beat his old teammate and Luis Tiant 5-1 as Boston swept a doubleheader.
The ten-game winning streak got everyone’s attention and got the club in its first pennant race in more than a decade.
Another generation of Sox fans started falling in love with their team. They were different from the wizened war veterans who had cheered their apparently invincible club in the years immediately following World War Two. The old fans were starting to come back, but now young women swooning over Tony C. and hosts of teenagers and college students who identified with Boston’s youthful underdogs joined them. It was the 1960s, a time when young people thought they could change the world. The transformation of the Red Sox from also–rans to contenders seemed more proof of their own invincibility.
When the Red Sox returned to Logan airport fifteen thousand fans were waiting for them. Not even the Beatles, who’d visited Boston a year before, had caused such commotion. The giddy club was stunned by the reception. The players joked that they’d have to sacrifice Tony C. to appease the crowd before fleeing to the team bus behind a flying wedge of state troopers.
Twenty-five years later, Dick Williams wrote, "I will never forget that night we landed at Logan Airport with that wild reception . . . We weren't even in first place and yet we couldn't see out the window of our bus because the fans had pressed themselves around the bus and against the glass. Today Boston is considered the best baseball town in America . . . I felt the franchise was practically re-born that night we arrived at Logan."
Nearly as many people mobbed Fenway Park the following day to purchase tickets for the coming homestand, the biggest walk-up sale at Fenway Park since the 1940s. "Go Red Sox" bumper stickers seemed to appear overnight on the bumpers of ever car in New England, and showed up on jeeps and gunboats in Vietnam on the evening news. In the Globe, Harold Kaese wrote that with 41 of their remaining 70 games at home, “The Red Sox should win the pennant easily . . . Maybe I am out of my mind, temporarily deranged, raving in a delirium induced but the ten-game winning streak . . . but nobody could have toured with the Red Sox on that trip . . .without catching the pennant bug.”
But the Sox lost to California 6-4 in the first game of the homestand. The next night, they trailed the Angels 5-2 in the bottom of the ninth. 34,193 fans – the largest baseball crowd in Fenway Park in ten years - held its collective breath as Mike Andrews led off the inning with a single to left. Joe Foy then crushed a homer into the left field screen to bring the Sox to within a run.
Angel’s manager Bill Rigney pulled pitcher Jim McGlothlin for lefty Clyde Wright, and he retired Carl Yastrzemski on a fly to center. Rigney then inserted right-hander Bill Kelso to face Tony Conigliaro. Conigliaro jumped on Kelso's first pitch and sent it rocketing into the screen to tie the game.
In the top of the tenth, Yaz redeemed himself. He first speared a drive by Bill Skowron that was ticketed for extra bases, then moments later fielded a hit by Bob Rodgers and gunned out Don Mincher at the plate with the winning run. The plays set the stage for a miracle finish, an impossible dream.
Reggie Smith worked the count to 3-2, then sliced a ball down the right field line and scooted all the way around to third base for a triple. Russ Gibson then flied out to short left before Jerry Adair stepped in to pinch-hit.
Across town, a Boston cabbie stopped short of the entrance to the Callahan Tunnel so he wouldn’t lose the game on the radio, blocking traffic as he waited for Adair to hit. Back in Fenway, as the crowd roared, Adair chopped the ball towards third.
In other Red Sox seasons, such hits had invariably resulted in outs. But not in 1967. The ball took a bad hop that third baseman Paul Schaal couldn’t control. Smith scored easily and the Red Sox poured from the dugout and buried him at home plate in a spontaneous celebration that carried over into the locker room. Tony Conigliaro surveyed his teammates and proclaimed to anyone and everyone over and over again, "We cannot be beat! We cannot be beat!" No one corrected him. For the first time in decades, the Red Sox actually believed those words.
Boston and New England embraced the Red Sox with unbridled enthusiasm that bridged the generation gap and drowned out a summer of dissent. The dominant sound in Boston that summer was neither the Beatles, the Beach Boys, nor chanting protesters but the voices of radio and television broadcasters Ken Coleman and Ned Martin. Every evening, from transistor radios on stoops and front porches, car radios on the street, and TVs blaring out apartment windows, they provided the story line of the summer.
By August 1, the Sox were a full twelve games over.500 and only two games behind the White Sox. Then Dick O’Connell made another key acquisition, prying former AL MVP Elston Howard from New York in exchange for minor league pitcher Ron Klimkowski.
Howard initially wanted to retire when he heard about the trade. But former teammate Phil Rizzuto talked him out of it, telling him the Sox were headed to the World Series. The Yankees clinched the deal when they told Howard they’d hire him as a coach at the end of his playing career.
Buoyed by news of the acquisition, the Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Kansas City Athletics by a score of 5-3. They flew to Minneapolis for the start of a nine-game road trip still trailing Chicago by two games.
But the Twins were in a pennant race too. They beat Boston 3-0, 2-1, and 2-0, as the Red Sox wasted fine pitching performances by Brandon, Lee Stange and Lonborg. Although they rebounded to win two of three in Kansas City, they finished the road trip in California just as they had started it in Minnesota, losing three straight one-run games, 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2.
The club returned to Boston to a different reception. Fans were banned from the airport and Sox were in fifth place. What was special about the 1967 season seemed about to fade. The pressure seemed to be getting to Dick Williams. He benched George Scott when his weight topped 215 pounds, leading the Angels Jim Fregosi to quip derisively, "Are the Red Sox being run by a manager or a dietitian?"
Detroit had a chance to bury Boston, but Reggie Smith led off with a home run against Joe Sparma and Dave Morehead shut out the Tigers in the opener. The team took two of three from Detroit and attendance at Fenway Park topped the one million mark for the first time since Ted Williams played left field. The California Angels came to Fenway looking to avenge their three-game sweep at Anaheim the previous weekend.
Gary Bell and Jack Hamilton pitched the series opener on August 18. The game was scoreless into the fourth, and then George Scott led off with a drive to left. He tried to stretch the easy single into a double, but was thrown out at second.
The Boston crowd disagreed, and someone threw a smoke bomb onto the field. Police quickly removed it, but the game was delayed ten minutes as the umpires waited for the smoke that hung in the humid air to clear.
Reggie Smith came up next and flied to center. But there was still a tinge of acrid smoke in the air as Tony Conigliaro followed Smith and took his customary stance leaning over the inside of the plate. As Conigliaro wondered if the delay had caused Hamilton’s arm to stiffen, the pitcher wound up and his first pitch rode in high and tight.
Tony C. saw it too late. Players later recalled hearing a discernible thud, which they compared to the breaking of a pumpkin, as the pitch struck Conigliaro's left cheekbone just underneath the eye socket. Angel left fielder Rick Reichardt, fully one hundred yards away, visibly cringed when heard the sound. Conigliaro’s cheekbone was crushed, his eyeball imploded.
He dropped as if shot and lay motionless. For a split second, no one moved as the scene slowly registered. Then Dick Williams raced from the dugout and Rico Petrocelli dashed from on-deck circle to Conigliaro’s side. He was awake but disoriented. Rico held his friend's hand and told him over and over “Everything’s gonna be okay, everything’s gonna be okay,” as he watched the side of Conigliaro's face visibly swell. Seconds later, trainer Buddy LeRoux and team physician Dr. Thomas Tierney circled around Conigliaro. Tierney later recalled that he could hear a hissing sound coming from Conigliaro's bruised and swollen head.
They tried to keep the conscious player still as they waited for an ambulance. For ten full minutes Fenway Park was silent as Conigliaro lay kicking his legs before Jim Lonborg, Joe Foy, and Mike Ryan lifted him onto a stretcher and carried him onto the clubhouse.
As Conigliaro was carried off the field, the crowd applauded, then turned its attention to Jack Hamilton, who stood next to the mound, head down and arms crossed. They began to boo loudly. Jose Tartabull entered the game to pinch run as play continued. Petrocelli tripled him home for Boston’s first run and the Sox eventually won 3-2. When Hamilton was lifted after five innings, the crowd booed again, and an angry Carl Yastrzemski exchanged words with the pitcher.
After the game, Hamilton insisted he had not hit Conigliaro intentionally, saying, "I certainly wasn't throwing at him, I was just trying to get the ball over. Tony stands right on top of the plate." Angel catcher Bob Rodgers also disavowed any ill intent, explaining, "The pitch was about eight inches inside and it took off when it got near Tony, it just sailed." Although Tony C was wearing a helmet, it didn’t have the now common ear flap, a relatively new feature in 1967. The Sox players didn’t believe Hamilton. Yaz fumed at his locker and told the press, "All I know is that the kid has a cracked head because of Hamilton.”
Conigliaro was rushed to Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge, the same hospital where Harry Agganis had died only a dozen years earlier. Later that night, Tom Yawkey went to the hospital and held the young slugger's hand. The next morning, before their national televised game later that afternoon, teammates arrived in a steady stream. Jack Hamilton also tried to see Conigliaro. The Conigliaro family turned him away.
The Sox were devastated by Conigliaro’s loss. They were left with a choice – either collapse or play on. That afternoon they took their anger out on the Angels and beat California 12-11.
The two clubs played a doubleheader the next day. In game one switch-hitting Reggie Smith became the first player in Fenway Park and the first Red Sox player ever to sock home runs from both sides of the plate. Boston won 12-2.
In game two, the Sox fell behind 8-1. But in the fifth they started to chip away at the lead, and in the eighth inning Jerry Adair capped a 5-for-7 afternoon with a game-winning solo home run into the left field net. The sweep of the Angels left the Red Sox only a game and a half behind the first place Twins and a game behind the second place White Sox. There would be no collapse.
Yet Conigliaro’s loss was significant. At the time he was beaned, he was second on the club to Yastrzemski in most offensive categories. They missed both his power and the protection he afforded Yastrzemski in the lineup. Already, it was obvious he’d be unable to return in 1967, if ever.
(To Be Continued...)
Copyright 2000, 2004 Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.