Tuesday, September 18, 2012

This Day in Baseball History (Yaz Lifts Bosox in ‘Great Race’)

September 18, 1967—With a ninth-inning, game-tying home run—his 40th in a season for the ages—Carl Yastrzemski did what he would continue to do throughout the last frenzied weeks of the season: lift and carry the Boston Red Sox on his strong back.

The roundtripper put the Bosox in position to win the game, 6-5, in the 10th inning at Tiger Stadium, on another homer, by teammate Dalton Jones—and, equally important, put the team in a tie for first place with the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins. The Chicago White Sox joined the other three teams in a free-for-all that lasted until the final week of the season. In those final days of what the media labeled “The Great Race,” every game counted—and Yastrzemski, successor to Ted Williams in left field, was finally making Fenway Park fans forget about his Hall of Fame predecessor.

In the Ken Burns PBS documentary series Baseball, historian and Red Sox fan Doris Kearns Goodwin recalled the high stakes of that September—and that somehow, whenever there was a rally, “Yaz” always seemed to be in the middle of it. The numbers bear her out. Throughout the season, the slugger either drove in or scored just over one-quarter of the team’s runs—but in the final seven games of the season, he lifted that percentage to nearly half (45%). The pressure in that race was bad enough, but it was even worse because, with budding superstar Tony Conigliaro out since late August after being hit in the left eye by a fastball, the slugging responsibilities weighed even more heavily on Yaz.

It wasn’t a coincidence that the Red Sox’ fortunes had improved as dramatically as their star player’s. The season was called “The Impossible Dream” because of the sheer implausibility of the run. Only the year before, the team had finished in ninth place in the American League, only consoling themselves with the thought that their longtime despised rivals, the New York Yankees, were behind them in the cellar.

The 1966 season also proved disappointing for Yaz. Only three years after leading the league with a .321 batting average, the outfielder had watched his average slip to .278. While leading the league in doubles, he had only recorded 16 homers. He seemed to be buckling under the weight of expectations predicted for him when he entered the major leagues. Sportswriters didn’t help him with the fans, either, by spreading a rumor—similarly to the one in the Fenway locker room this year—that he had undermined manager Johnny Pesky with owner Tom Yawkey in 1963. By 1966, the Fenway boo-birds were letting him have it. (For the record, some would continue doing so even several years after he began to perform brilliantly.)

In the off-season, Yaz took stock of his game and dedicated himself to a rigorous weight-training regimen designed to lift his homerun and RBI totals. He also approached new manager Dick Williams to let him know that he would do whatever he wanted.

Yaz was every bit as good as his word. Fans began to appreciate one aspect of his game that Williams, for all his greatness at the plate, simply couldn’t approach: prowess with his glove and arm. Few have ever played the caroms off Fenway’s “Green Monster” in left field as masterfully as Yaz, and he had a powerful arm that runners learned to fear.

And we haven’t even talked about his batting yet.

Coming to spring training in the best shape of his life, Yaz proceeded to improve his totals dramatically from 1966 in home runs (from16 to 44), RBIs (80 to 121), and batting average (.278 to .326). Nowadays, the suspicion would have formed that steroids were behind his power surge. Instead, it was a case of a promising player finding that his new-found strength enabled him to pull the ball more—and that he was now mature enough to reach the high standard he had set for himself.

His season seems even more extraordinary in retrospect. First, his offensive totals came in a era, the late ’60s, when pitching dominated. (Indeed, the following year, his batting average, .301, might have seemed merely pretty good, except that it led the American League and he was the only batter in the circuit to top .300.) Second, his 1967 totals brought him the Triple Crown—i.e., he led the league in home runs, runs batted in, and average. The feat did not seem that amazing at the time—Frank Robinson had done so for the Baltimore Orioles the prior year—but no batter in either league has achieved that distinction since.

Yastrzemski’s heroics continued into the closing series of regular season. With the Red Sox a game behind the Minnesota Twins with two to go, he repeated his clutch performance for the month. He pulverized the Twins, going 7-for-8 (.875) with six RBIs (including a home run). There really wasn’t too much doubt, when the season ended, who would be voted the AL’s Most Valuable Player.

The Red Sox did not win the World Series in 1967 or 1975, but in each case Yaz helped take the team to the seventh game before they fell. When he retired following the 1983 season, he was the all-time league leader in games played (3,308) and, in that pre-steroid era, enjoyed the distinction of being the only AL player to accumulate at least 3,000 hits and 400 home runs.

Those career totals were enough to get Yaz elected to Cooperstown, but ’67 was what brought "Captain Carl" respect and redemption, at last, among the Fenway faithful.

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