Last Friday, April 14 was the 50th anniversary of the most important baseball game of my life. In 1967 I was a seventh grader with an extremely loose affinity for the Red Sox (or as my father called them, “The Red Flops”). Entering the season I made the calculated decision that I was either going to start being a real fan by following them closely, or skip the whole notion of caring about baseball.
April 14, 1967 was a beautiful spring day, so when I got home from school I went outside, sat on the lawn and listened to the game on my transistor radio. (Television was not an option because only weekend games were regularly shown on TV back in those three-channel days.)
To my surprise, Billy Rohr, the Sox’ 21-year-old rookie, was pitching a no-hitter in his first start, out-dueling the great Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium. Not only were the Red Sox on the verge of a no-hitter in the first baseball game that I had affirmatively sought out on my own, but the hero was just a kid closer to my age than to White Ford’s.
Rohr was still pitching a nohitter with one out in the ninth when this happened:
Even today that catch by Carl Yastrzemski brings tears to my eyes. To get the full impact you also need to listen to the play-by-play call by the Red Sox announcer Ken Coleman:
I’ve heard the call so many times over the years that I have it memorized: “Fly ball to deep left, Yastrzemski’s going hard. Way back, way back, and he dives and makes a TREMENDOUS catch.” Yaz saved the no-hitter for only a short while because with two outs in the ninth Yankees catcher Elston Howard hit a soft single into left field and Rohr had to settle for a one-hit shut-out in his baseball debut.
Of course I was disappointed that Rohr lost his no-hitter and I was further disappointed that this performance proved to be a freak event, with Rohr sent back to the minors a month or two later after inconsistent pitching, never to play for the Sox again. But I was hooked on the Red Sox as surely as if they had plunged a syringe full of baseball heroin into my arm.
For the rest of the summer I followed the Sox avidly, watching on TV when I could, listening on the radio when I couldn’t. I bought dozens of sports and baseball magazines (the 1960’s equivalent of Deadspin) and dreamed of a day when I too would wear the carmine hose. That dream, not surprisingly came to a crashing end the next year when I tried out for my junior high school baseball team and saw that the other kids were so much better that I didn’t even look at the posted list of those who had made the first cut.
No, my baseball passion would be solely as a fan. And I don’t use the word “passion” carelessly. My ardor for the 1967 Red Sox surpassed the feelings I had for any member of the opposite sex. This was the first time I had a rooting interest in anything besides myself. Since then I have become emotionally invested in other teams, numerous political figures, and too many Oscar ceremonies to mention; that externally directed fandom began with this team.
What a year 1967 was. The Sox had been league doormats for years, finishing next-to-last in 1966 and playing to sparse crowds. Indeed, one game in 1965 had been attended by fewer than 500 hardy souls and even on Opening Day 1967 only 8,000 people showed up.
But suddenly, with a few veterans coming into their own, a handful of exciting rookies, and a hard-ass manager who made them hustle, they were competitive. That early Billy Rohr game was harbinger of thrills to come.
I remember that summer as one long blur of watching or listening to the Red Sox, although I must have done something else that year. I was just 13, so only partly employed at my parents’ business and I must have spent a lot of time doing early-teen things. God knows I had no scheduled improvement programs to attend so I must have been out a lot riding my bike or swimming at the municipal pool or exploring the nearby woods. But my only memories concern baseball.
Like, how we were on the ferry returning from Nantucket when they won their tenth straight game on the road and everyone on the vessel was listening on the radio. And seeing on TV the next morning that 15,000 fans had mobbed their plane at Logan Airport when they touched down at 2:00 a.m. — more fans that had greeted even the Beatles.
In 1967, the country was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam war but the Sox became a unifying force in New England. The players themselves were still subject to the draft, although most found a way to get into the National Guard, which required them to periodically go off for two-week tours of duty — pennant race or not.
My Red Sox memories also remind me how much time I spent with my cousins at the homes of my aunts and uncles; so many big Red Sox big moments happened when I was watching the TV at their places. I was at my Aunt Jean’s house the night Jose Tartabull threw out the White Sox’ Ken Berry at home plate in the ninth inning to end the game.
I was staying at my Uncle Carl’s during the fateful weekend the Angels came to town and 22-year-old Tony Conigliaro ended up sprawled in the dirt with a broken cheekbone and a career cut short after a Jack Hamilton fastball hit him square in the face. That was a tragedy, but just the night before the Sox had roared back from a 8-0 deficit to beat the Angels.
(Here’s a quick tribute to Tony C)
The Sox always seemed to be winning the dramatic games and the sportswriters started calling them the “Cardiac Kids,” because they gave us all heart attacks. And they really were kids. Yaz, the elder statesman of the team, was 27 years old and the rest of the crew were even younger.
And Yaz was an incredible hero, making fantastic catches and timely home runs. He won the Triple Crown that year and even though I sometimes can’t remember my own cell phone number I can still summon up the stats at will: 44 home runs, .326 batting average, 121 RBIs.
(here’s a quick summary of Yaz’ career)
The 1967 season was one of the all-time great pennant races. Back when there were no play-offs and only one team got into the post-season, four teams (the Red Sox, White Sox, Twins and Tgers) battled down to the wire, with three in the running on the final day of the season.
On that fateful Sunday I was once again at my Aunt Jean’s house, watching the game in her basement rec room. I don’t remember all the details but have never forgotten the key points of the game. The Sox’ Cy Young-winning pitcher Jim Lonborg throwing a complete game and sparking the game-winning rally by bunting his way on base (yeah, that’s when the pitcher’s batted). Yaz throwing out Tony Oliva at second base as he tried to stretch a single into a double. And the soft pop-up that landed in Rico Petrocelli’s glove to end the game and induced everyone in the stands to rush onto the field in a wild celebration.
When the Tigers lost later that night the Sox were in the World Series, which also turned out to be a nail-biter. Their opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, were a better team so just forcing them to a seventh game before ultimately succumbing was a moral victory.
When the season was over the local TV station produced a special called “The Impossible Dream,” which included cheesy doggerel narration and highlight clips (“This is really a love story/An affair ‘twixt a town and a team/A town that had waited and waited/For what seemed an impossible dream.”) The excerpts below (which include an New England Telephone ad promoting an extra house phone) provide a real artifact of prehistoric TV production values, but will still bring a lump in the throat to any New Englander over 60.
And then, if that wasn’t enough, they turned the TV special into an LP, which, by the way, I still own and still play on special occasions when I need a good cry:
In the past fifty years the Red Sox have provided a lot of heartache and thrills. They have been an organizing framework for my life, more closely tied to the passage of time than the seasons themselves. They have been generational glue in or family — the one thing that parents, grandparents and kids care about. And it all begins with that “Impossible Dream” season 50 years ago.