“This is really a love story, an affair betwixt a town and a team. A town that waited and waited for what seemed like an Impossible Dream.”
Legendary WHDH commentator Ken Coleman uttered these words in his description of the 1967 Boston Red Sox season. It was perhaps the most appropriate description of one of the most amazing years of Boston baseball. When trying to think of a first post for The Grounds, I couldn’t think of a better season to discuss. The 1967 season was, in a lot of ways, a rebirth of the Red Sox. It was a season that brought an end to what had been a disappointing decade for the team, who had last finished in the top half of the American League in 1958 and hadn’t won a pennant since 1946. The team had been led by Carl Yastrzemski, a reluctant leader for a squad that had been derided as a “country club” for the team’s relatively high payroll and lack of performance on the field. The perception at the time was that owner Tom Yawkey had become less interested in results on the field and was just happy to field what was essentially his personal social club. Fans responded by largely staying away. The 1966 team drew only an average of 10,014 fans to Fenway Park for each home game. There were even talks of the Sox leaving Fenway Park entirely.
Expectations were not particularly high going into 1967. New manager Dick Williams, who had most recently managed the Sox’s AAA affiliate Toronto Maple Leafs, walked into spring training and proclaimed simply that the team would “win more than they lose.” Boston Globe sports writer Harold Kaese predicted that the Sox would climb three spots to finish sixth in the American League and largely attributed his prediction to Williams’s competency as a manager. He thought that Williams could lift the team, but only so far. Pessimism about the team’s chances wasn’t just limited to the usually pessimistic Boston media however, when asked by Boston Globe writer Will McDonough about the team’s chances, right fielder Tony Conigliaro said, “at least fifth. I think Baltimore, Minnesota, and Detroit are better ball clubs than we are. But I think that we can be as good as anybody else. If we get real good pitching we could even sneak into fourth.” Carl Yastrzemski agreed with Conigliaro and said that, “I think our pitching is good enough to get us into fifth place.”
The 1967 Red Sox shattered all expectations. In an early season game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium, rookie Billy Rohr came within an eyelash of pitching a no-hitter. Yaz had an MVP season, winning the Triple Crown even. Hometown boy Tony C continued the success that had defined his young career. Jim Lonborg pitched the season of his life and won a Cy Young Award for his troubles. The team rallied and became the toast of Boston. Over the course of the season, attendance doubled over 1966 totals, reaching levels not seen since the Ted Williams led Red Sox were perennials contenders in the immediate Post World War II era of the late 1940s. Boston rallied behind their hometown boys as they chased the “Impossible Dream.”
The season would come down to a 4-way pennant race between the Sox, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and Minnesota Twins. The Sox would defeat the Twins in the last game of the season to make the World Series, by just a single game. For the first time since 1946, the World Series was coming to Fenway Park.
But much like any dream, it comes to an end and reality begins to set in. Tony C’s success was fleeting, his career and life forever altered by a pitch from California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton during an August game at Fenway Park. The impact would end Tony C’s season and ultimately shorten his career. The Red Sox, now missing one of their star players, would fall to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. The series was also marred by the questionable decision by Dick Williams to start Jim Lonborg on only two days rest in game seven.
After the World Series, Harold Kaese wrote in The Boston Globe, “[c]heer up fans. With Tony Conigliaro, we’d have won it all, the pennant more easily, and then the World Series, with a rested Jim Lonborg and capable right fielder.” Tony C would return but he was never the same and his once promising career was ultimately shortened. Lonborg would injure his knee in a freak ski accident in the offseason and never again reached the heights that he had seen in 1967. Two of Boston’s shooting stars had burned out.
1967 encapsulates so much about the history of Boston baseball, the dream of success and the crushing defeat of reality. Whether it’s 1948, 1949, 1975, 1986, or 2003, Boston fans came to the ballpark to watch their boys try to win it all, only to watch them lose it in devastating fashion.
There was however one change that would be everlasting. Never again would Fenway Park be as empty as it was before 1967.