Thursday, May 11, 2017

Book Review: The Impossible Dream 1967 Red Sox

For younger fans of the Boston Red Sox, and Major League Baseball in general for that matter, this might be hard to believe. But for a long stretch of my lifetime, those Bosox were considered to be jinxed at best, chokers at worst.
The Red Sox have captured three recent World Series crowns in 2004, 2007, and in 2013. They have reached the postseason four other times as well in this century. They are considered one of the leading AL contenders once again this season.
But from 1908 until 2004, just short of a full century, the Red Sox could not manage to win a single World Series championship. In fact, during that stretch, the Sox captured just two American League Pennants.
The first of those came in 1946, when Ted Williams and company were edged out by the Saint Louis Cardinals thanks famously to the “Mad Dash” of Enos Slaughter in Game Seven.
I began following baseball in 1971, and distinctly recall rooting for Boston in the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. One of the attractions for me to the Red Sox cause was that lengthy frustration, attributed to the “Curse of the Bambino” by more superstitious fans.
Famed Boston baseball historian Herb Crehan has a fairly new book out, published by Summer Game Books last year. The book is based on the other AL Pennant won by the Red Sox during that 95-year stretch.
The Impossible Dream 1967 Red Sox: Birth of Red Sox Nation“, was released in 2016, written by Crehan. His bostonbaseballhistory.com website is the definitive stop for all things Red Sox. The book includes a forward by pitcher Jim Lonborg, who played a pivotal role for Boston in that 1967 season.

HISTORY LESSON

This well-written, easy to read, 267-page effort from Crehan covers that season with a central theme in mind. Crehan opines that those 1967 Red Sox lit the fire for what has become known as “Red Sox Nation.” This is the term for the rabid multi-generational fan base of the team reaching well outside of the New England region.
Before even beginning the 1967 team story, Crehan sets the stage for the reader with an intro titled “A Brief History of the Boston Red Sox” presented as a prologue.
In these 13 pages covering 1871 through 1966, Crehan rolls through one of my favorite subjects, real baseball history. He takes you from the early Boston Beaneaters (now the Atlanta Braves) to the Boston Americans (now the Red Sox), discussing the Boston baseball evolution.
In the 1966 season, Boston finished in ninth place with a 72-90 record in the American League. It was the club’s second consecutive season finishing ninth out of the 10 AL teams playing at that time.

THE 1967 RED SOX: LITTLE HOPE

Crehan opens the story of the 1967 team by setting the scene. The opening of the baseball season provided a respite to the escalating war in Vietnam: “In most minds, the boys of summer promptly took precedence over the boys of battle.”
Crehan quickly explains that the positive feeling regarding the game was not necessarily translating to the Boston area.
“But in Boston, as on so many recent Opening Days, there was little joy, less to shout about and lots of lethargy. It is hard for fans under the age of 55 to appreciate the depth of cynicism surrounding the 1967 Red Sox. It had been 21 years since the team’s last appearance in a World Series and the Red Sox hadn’t finished in the first division since 1958.”
The previous seven-year stretch had been particularly horrendous for fans of the team. The Red Sox finished no higher than sixth place in any season between 1960-66. Fans stayed away in droves.
From that 1946 World Series winner through today, the Red Sox have drawn more than a million fans to Fenway Park in 44 of the 52 seasons. A half-dozen of those eight poorly drawing years came during the 1961-66 seasons.

BOSOX START SLOW

Bottom line, there was no talk in Boston or anywhere else in baseball of the 1967 Boston Red Sox emerging as contenders. In fact, the season started out much as most believed it would, with consistent losing.
On May 20, a loss at Fenway to the Cleveland Indians left the Red Sox with a 14-17 record and in seventh place. At that point, the Bosox were a full seven games behind the front-running Chicago White Sox in the American League standings.
In fact, as late as July 13, the Red Sox continued to struggle. The club split a doubleheader with the Baltimore Orioles that day. They had lost six of eight games. Despite a 42-40 mark they were in fifth place, still a half-dozen games out of first. And then it all suddenly began to turn around.

TURNAROUND TO SURPRISE CONTENTION

It began with a 10-game winning streak in mid-July. By the end of that month, the Red Sox were in second place, just two games behind the White Sox.
It would take three more weeks, but Boston would finally catch the Chisox by sweeping a doubleheader from the Washington Senators on August 22.
One key player, 22-year old right fielder Tony Conigliaro, was not around for all of the drama. A budding star, ‘Tony C’ was hit in the face by California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton on August 18, and was lost for the season.
The finishing stretch to that 1967 regular season would test the cardiac conditioning of fans all across New England. Over the final six weeks, Boston was never more than a game off the pace, or a game in front.

FINAL DAY MADNESS

Heading into the final day of the season, the Red Sox were tied at the top of the American League with the Minnesota Twins at 91-70. Tthe Detroit Tigers were just a half-game behind.
Remember, this was still two years before the divisional era would begin. All 10 teams were lined up in the league. Whoever finished in first place was the Pennant winner, advancing immediately into the World Series.
On that final day, October 1, Boston skipper Dick Williams sent his ace Lonborg to the hill in a head-to-head showdown with Minnesota for the pennant. Crehan writes of the buildup to that game:
“Lonborg, a native of San Luis Obispo, California, and a pre-med graduate of Stanford University, was the undisputed ace of the Red Sox staff with twenty-one wins already to his credit. However, the big right-hander entered the game winless against the powerful Twins, a team that had always given him trouble. Lonborg couldn’t have known it as the sun came up over Boston Harbor that morning, but he was about to achieve the most important victory of a distinguished career that would span fifteen seasons in the major leagues.”
The Red Sox would thrill the Fenway faithful with a 5-3 victory over the Twins on that final Sunday. Lonborg went the distance, allowing seven hits and walking four batters.

RED SOX VS TWINS

The Twins had broken to an early 2-0 lead, and that scored carried into the bottom of the sixth. Then the Bosox erupted for all five of the runs that they would score on the day against Twins 26-year old ace Dean Chance.
Lonborg incredibly began the big inning with a bunt base hit. It was the first of four straight singles to start the frame. The last of those was a game-tying, two-run single off the bat of future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski to score Lonborg and Jerry Adair.
Ken Harrelson then hit into a fielder’s choice, with Dalton Jones racing home with the run that put Boston on top for the first time. After that, Chance and the Twins fell apart. A pair of wild pitches, a walk, and an error combined to push two more Red Sox runs across. Those runs would provide Boston’s ultimate margin of victory.
With two outs in the top of the 8th, the Twins tried to rally. Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva registered back to back singles. Then Bob Allison‘s base hit to left field scored Killebrew to cut the Boston lead down to a 5-3 margin.
However, Allison committed the final boner of the day for the Twins. Trying to put himself into scoring position, he went for second base on his clutch hit. Yaz came up firing, and gunned to second baseman Mike Andrews. Andrews’ tag nailed Allison for the final out of the inning and killed the Minnesota rally.

CAPTURING THE PENNANT

In the top of the 9th, the Twins had one final shot when Ted Uhlaender led off with a base hit. At that point in today’s game, had he somehow lasted that long, Lonborg would be lifted. The great lefty bat of Rod Carew was stepping to the plate.
But Williams stuck with his starter, and Lonborg rewarded his skipper. First he coaxed Carew into an easy 4-3 double play. Then he retired pinch-hitter Rich Rollins on a pop out to shortstop Rico Petrocelli to end the game.
The Red Sox and their fans exploded in a frenzied celebration. Yet there was still a potential fly in the ointment. Remember, Detroit had entered that final day just a half-game out. Should the Tigers sweep their doubleheader with the California Angels, they would finish tied with Boston. This would force a playoff for the AL Pennant.
The Boston locker room would eventually settle down, and the team would follow the Tigers-Angels action on a radio broadcast. Detroit had captured the opener 6-4, and moved to an early 3-1 lead in the second game.
But the Angels were no pushover, they roared back with three runs in both the third and fourth innings, coasting home with an 8-5 victory. The Tigers were eliminated, and the Red Sox were officially champions of the American League.

THE 1967 WORLD SERIES

In the World Series, the Red Sox would find the Saint Louis Cardinals waiting as representatives of the National League. Just as had happened 21 years earlier, the Cards would capture a seven-game victory.
The Red Sox beat one future Hall of Famer in that series. Lonborg edged his future Philadelphia Phillies rotation mate Steve Carlton by a 3-1 score in Game Five.
However, Boston simply could not solve the other Hall of Famer in the Cardinals rotation. Bob Gibson went 3-0, allowing just 14 hits over 27 innings with a 26/5 K:BB to earn the Most Valuable Player honors.
Crehan takes you through each game of that World Series, including Williams dice roll in Game Seven, where he started Lonborg on just two days rest.
“Lonborg managed to hold the Cardinals at bay during the first two innings of Game Seven. “I felt pretty good warming up,” Lonborg remembered. “I had pitched on two days rest several times that year…felt a little tired, but in a big game like that you are most interested in pitching command than power.””
Lonborg’s efforts that season were truly heroic. He would be rewarded for a 22-7 season by winning the AL Cy Young Award. But in Game Seven, he just didn’t have it. The Cardinals tagged him for six earned runs on 10 hits. Against the dominance of Gibson, that ineffectiveness proved the difference.

RED SOX NATION

Despite the Fall Classic defeat, the 1967 season was the beginning of major success for the Boston Red Sox. The club would reel off 16 consecutive winning seasons, returning to the World Series again just eight years later.
From that 1967 season through last year, a total of 50 seasons, the Red Sox and their fans have experienced just eight losing campaigns. They have been to the World Series five times, winning the last three.
Fenway Park has become a genuine “place to be” in Boston. The Red Sox have drawn more than three million fans on five occasions, and since 1986 have drawn over two million in every full season.
Just last month, Forbes estimated that the Boston Red Sox were worth $2.7 billion. That makes the club the third most valuable in all of Major League Baseball, behind only the arch-rival New York Yankees and the NL’s Los Angeles Dodgers, two teams playing in much larger home markets.
Crehan doesn’t simply take you chronologically through that 1967 season. The fourteen full chapters each highlight a specific player and their contributions to that Red Sox team. In addition to the players already mentioned here previously, those players include Reggie SmithRuss GibsonGeorge ScottJoe FoyGary Bell, and Jose Santiago.
When you examine the record of the team on the field, the response of the fan base, and the growth in value for the franchise in the last fifty years, it’s hard to argue with Crehan’s ultimate argument.
Those “Impossible Dream 1967 Red Sox” truly did give birth to the “Red Sox Nation”, just as his book title proclaims. This is an outstanding read, particularly for Boston fans, but also for all baseball fans.

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