With only six weeks left in the season, let's take a quick look at the close-packed American League standings. There are Minnesota and Chicago and Detroit and California and Boston...Boston? That can't be the Red Sox up there in the pennant race, can it? Certainly these are not the same Boston Red Sox we have been laughing at all these years. Not the Red Sox who finished ninth the last two seasons and who have not won a pennant since 1946. Not the Red Sox whose players were always there for last call—and sometimes even first call the next morning—at Duff's in Minneapolis, the Red Onion in Kansas City and all the other postgame hideaways around the American League. Not the Red Sox of Gene Conley and Pumpsie Green, who jumped the club together at midseason one year when Gene tried to fly to Israel without a passport, or Frank Sullivan, who now lives on a surfboard in Hawaii, or Dick Radatz, who always weighed 235 pounds—and not, say, 265 or 270—because two of his teammates would rig the clubhouse scales for him before weight check every day.
No, these 1967 Red Sox aren't like the old Red Sox, and that may explain why they are challenging for the pennant instead of struggling to keep out of last place. Manager Dick Williams, who likes to project himself as a tough guy and is the first Red Sox manager in memory to operate without front-office interference, believes in such things as stolen bases and proper execution of simple plays and bed checks and curfews—what a joke they used to be!—and if you do not play the game his way then you can play it your way someplace else.
Out of this refreshing emphasis on winning has emerged the best young team in baseball, led by 27-year-old Left Fielder Carl Yastrzemski (see cover), who in his six previous seasons with the Red Sox never played on a team that won more games than it lost. Yastrzemski, who admittedly played like a spoiled brat during most of those years, has been the most exciting player in the league this season, not only at bat but also in the field. He leads the league in runs batted in, trails only Frank Robinson in the batting race and already has hit 27 home runs—seven more than he ever has hit in one season. "And he's the best left fielder I've ever seen," says Minnesota Twin Third Base Coach Billy Martin, who no longer lets his base runners challenge Yastrzemski's strong and accurate throwing arm. In a recent 12-game home stand at Fenway Park, Yastrzemski cut down five base runners—four of them at home plate and one at third base.
With Yastrzemski in the outfield is 22-year-old Right Fielder Tony Conigliaro, who is Boston's answer to Joe Namath. Conigliaro records songs in his spare time, drives a 1967 burgundy Corvette, maintains an apartment overlooking the Charles River—though without Namath-style knee-high carpeting—and says he is king whenever he goes into Sonny's, a dugout spot near Fenway Park that is In. In spite of missing more than 20 games, because of his military commitments, Tony C. has hit 20 home runs, driven in 67 runs and hit around .300 all year. Add 23-year-old First Baseman George Scott, the nonpareil fielder who bats fifth and is hitting .289 with 15 home runs, and Joe Foy, the third baseman who bats second and has 16 homers, and you have four players who, among them, have hit more home runs than the Chicago White Sox, the Kansas City Athletics or, for that matter, the New York Yankees.
August 20, 1967
Then there is the long-haired pitcher from Stanford (imagine the Red Sox with a kid who was premed at Stanford?), 24-year-old Jim Lonborg, a 6'5", 200-pound right-hander who has 16 wins already for Boston this year. For two seasons Lonborg barely survived in the majors with a good sinking fast ball and a bad breaking pitch. So last winter he went to the winter league in Venezuela, where he developed a new breaking pitch and a new brush-back pitch, and now he has won 16 games and lost only six. He also has hit 15 batters, which is 15 more than Sandy Koufax hit all last year and five more than any other major league pitcher has hit this season.
"Lonborg really became a pitcher in a game he lost to the Angels in Anaheim back in May," said Dick Williams. "For eight innings he blew the ball right by them and took a 1-0 lead into the ninth. Then he tried to get cute and finesse the ball and lost the game 2-1. It cost us a loss but taught him a lesson."
Another reason for Lonborg's success is the strong defensive support he is receiving from infielders who have finally learned how to pick up ground balls and make double plays, fundamentals that the Red Sox used to think were performed only by champions. Rookie Mike Andrews is the best second baseman the Red Sox have had since Bobby Doerr, and Rico Petrocelli, despite a serious case of self-doubt, was the starting shortstop in the All-Star Game last month.
Still the player who has made the Red Sox a winner this year is Yastrzemski. When he came up from the minor leagues to replace Ted Williams at the start of the 1961 season Yastrzemski brought along a youthful vitality that soon was drained by teammates who only seemed interested in getting their five years in on the pension plan and living well off Tom Yawkey. The Red Sox were a bad ball team then, playing under a dull manager, Mike Higgins, and it was very easy for a player to resign himself to the routine of coming out to the ball park, dressing leisurely, playing nine lifeless innings of ball and then returning home a loser again.
"Playing all those years with a second-division club that never cared killed me," said Yastrzemski. "There's always tension on a losing team, bad tension, and relationships among the players and with the managers never are very happy." Carl liked Higgins, but he was never able to get along with Johnny Pesky, who became manager in 1963. Nevertheless, Yastrzemski won the batting title during Pesky's first season as manager.
Pesky always thought that Yastrzemski was not putting out 100% and, as Carl will admit today, there were times when he did not completely expend himself. There was one night, for instance, when the Red Sox were facing the White Sox in Boston and Gary Peters, a lefthander who is tough on left-handed hitters like Yastrzemski, was scheduled to pitch for Chicago. Yastrzemski, the story goes, told Pesky he could not play because his stomach was upset, so Pesky gave him the night off. After the game Pesky went to a fried- chicken, onion-rings and french-fries emporium near Fenway Park and reportedly met Yastrzemski, who was eating fried chicken, onion rings and french fries. This disturbed Pesky, whose disciplinary efforts seldom got backing from the Red Sox front office, which was then being run by Mike Higgins.
Billy Herman, a Higgins man, succeeded Pesky at the end of the 1964 season, but Yastrzemski continued to go his own way in 1965. Hoping to revive Yastrzemski as a spirited ballplayer, Herman decided to have a captain for the 1966 season and set up an election that was only slightly rigged. The captain had to be a regular, Herman said, and since Yastrzemski and the youthful Conigliaro were the only two definite regulars at the time, there was not much doubt that Carl would be elected. And he was.
"I didn't want to be captain," said Yastrzemski. "I had my own problems. As the season got along I started to feel that I wasn't a part of the team and that I was getting the cold shoulder. And every time someone had a gripe they came to me. Listen to this. One night Billy decided to make curfew an hour and 45 minutes after the game instead of the usual two and one-half hours, and he sent Sal Maglie to tell us. But some of the guys had left already, and they never knew of the early curfew.
"The next morning I get a call from a player, and he tells me that Billy caught him out after curfew and fined him $250. The player told me he did not know about the early curfew, because he left the clubhouse early. He asked me to see if I could get his money back. Well, that was on my mind the rest of the trip, until I accidentally found out that the player not only missed the early curfew but also missed the regular curfew by several hours. What was I supposed to do then?"
Then last September Herman was fired, and a few days later the Red Sox named Dick Williams their new manager. At his first appearance in Boston, Williams, who had played for the Red Sox in 1963 and 1964 and knew the complete situation, announced that he would not have a captain in 1967. This pleased Yastrzemski, who considered the position a burden. At about that time, though, Ed Short, the general manager of the White Sox, was planting rumors that he was ready to trade Gary Peters and some other player for Yastrzemski. The recurring rumor bothered Yastrzemski, because he had just built a $75,000 home in suburban Lynnfield and wanted to stay in Boston.
"Right then Mr. Yawkey called me in and told me not to worry, that they were not going to trade me, and later Dick O'Connell said the thought never entered their minds," said Yastrzemski. Now Carl started to prepare himself for 1967. He went to see a physical culturist named Gene Berde at a country club near his home. Berde could not believe that Yastrzemski was a baseball player because, according to Berde's standards, he really was not in top shape. For four months last winter Carl worked for 90 minutes a day on an exercise program designed to strengthen existing muscles, develop new ones and eliminate breathing problems during athletic competition.
Physically strong, Yastrzemski reported early for spring training and immediately sought out Dick Williams. "He told me he'd do anything I wanted," says Williams, "and all I can tell you now is that he has been the perfect player all year. He could not play any better than he has."
Now managers are trying to psych him, and pitchers and catchers are studying charts, trying to figure out what pitch he cannot hit. "Our club," says Elston Howard of the Red Sox, referring to his old team, the Yankees, "tried breaking balls low and away and then down in at him, but now we don't throw him breaking stuff at all, because he kills it. We can get Frank Robinson out with breaking stuff but not Yastrzemski. Now the Yankees are going to throw fast balls at him in tight and see what happens."
Eddie Stanky of the White Sox started the psych a few weeks ago when he called Yastrzemski an All-Star from the neck down. The same day Yastrzemski read Stanky's remark in the papers he received a telegram that read, STANKY'S TRYING TO PSYCH YOU LIKE RED AUERBACH PSYCHS WILT CHAMBERLAIN. DON'T GET MAD. (signed) AN ANGEL. Then he went out that day and got six hits in a doubleheader against the White Sox. He hit a home run, and as he rounded third base he looked into the dugout and tipped his hat at Stanky.
Yastrzemski, too, is a changed person around his teammates. "He used to get us pitchers mad, especially Bill Monbouquette," says Jim Lonborg, "because when someone would hit a home run off us he'd just stand there and not even turn and look at the ball. I mean, at least he could make it look as though the ball was not hit so hard. In fact, I talked to him about that myself this past spring."
And this year, for the first time, there is a strong rapport between Yastrzemski and Conigliaro. "I don't think we were jealous of each other, at least I wasn't jealous," says Yastrzemski, "but for some reason when Tony came up in 1964 we stayed away from each other." Conigliaro, who was born and raised in the Boston area, says, "I didn't like Yaz my first year or two, because he did things that made me mad. Like he didn't give 100% all the time."
Like Yastrzemski, Conigliaro also seems to have matured this year. He still talks about the good single life and his records, which he dedicates to baseball people. When You Take More Than You Give, for instance, is for Billy Herman, because Herman fined him $1,000 for an incident that happened in New York one night. Why Don't They Understand is for umpires and Limited Man, his latest recording, is for Bo Belinsky. Playing the Field he dedicated to himself. But Tony now seems more sensible about everything.
"I think I did what every 19- or 20-year-old kid would have done in the same situation," said Conigliaro, looking back at the past few years. "I threw temper tantrums and partied, but now I realize my responsibilities. Besides, Williams always is checking on us, and there's no way he's going to fine me." Actually Williams has imposed very few fines this year. He pulled bed checks on successive nights in Kansas City last week and did catch at least one player out past curfew, but he did not fine anyone.
The Red Sox have been in a mild slump the past three weeks, during which they have won only eight of 22 games. Nevertheless, they have dropped only a couple of games in the standings. And now, for the rest of the season, the schedule is somewhat in their favor. They play 28 of their last 45 games in Fenway Park, where they generally are favored. They have completed their three trips to the West and have only two games left with the Twins, who always beat them. And they have nine games remaining with the White Sox, including five next weekend in Chicago. So if they are going to win any pennant they possibly can do it for themselves. That is why they purchased Elston Howard from the Yankees. Howard, as Pitching Coach Sal Maglie explained, has been through nine pennant races, and there is only one other Red Sox player, pinch-hitter Norm Siebern, who has ever played on a championship team. The Red Sox hope that Howard can think for some of their young pitchers—like Darrell Brandon, who throws curves all the time instead of his good fast ball, and Reliever Sparky Lyle. The other night Lyle came on in the ninth inning with the Red Sox holding a three-run lead, and he went to a three-two count on the first batter. Howard signaled for a fast ball, but Lyle shook his head. Howard signaled for a fast ball again, but Lyle shook his head again. He wanted to throw a curve, so Howard let him—and the batter singled into center field. Sparky lasted only a few more hitters before he himself needed relief, and after the game Howard took him aside for some avuncular advice. Watching Howard graphically demonstrate to Lyle what he should do on three and two, Yastrzemski said to the pitcher, "Sparky, how do you figure it? You've been up here now about two months and Ellie's been here 13 years—and you shake him off twice." They all laughed.
"We've got to teach our pitchers to get tough now, too," said Dick Williams. "They're going to play games they've never played before. Heck, it's easy to pitch when you're 26 games behind all the time."
But it's the middle of August now and the Red Sox, for a change, are not 26 games behind. No, these are not the same old Red Sox anymore.