50 Years Ago: Billy Rohr's Near No-Hitter, Yastrzemski's 'Tremendous Catch'

Apr 13, 2017

The Impossible Dream. For Red Sox fans who endured the Yankees dynasty of the 1950s or who grew up during the futile years of the early and mid-1960s, those three words mean only one thing: the 1967 Boston Red Sox. The 100-1 long shots who won the American League pennant on the last day of the season. The Cardiac Kids who had us glued to our transistor radios and black and white televisions during that thrilling, electrifying summer.

In San Francisco they wore flowers in their hair in 1967. In Boston, it was baseball in the air.

This is the 50th anniversary of that remarkable season, the renaissance of baseball in New England. Everything we have come to expect of the Boston Red Sox – the winning seasons, the playoff appearances, the World Championships, the big Fenway crowds – began in 1967. Everything. And the first glimpse of the drama that unfolded that summer came 50 years ago today, on April 14, 1967.

Billy Rohr, a skinny 175-pound Red Sox lefthander, came within one strike of pitching a no-hitter in his major-league debut, which would have been a baseball first. Left fielder Carl Yastrzemski made a miraculous diving catch in the ninth inning to prolong the drama. In doing so, they provided a sneak preview of the most exciting season in Red Sox history.

Rohr was a 21-year-old rookie that spring. He had signed with the Pirates out of Bellflower High School in suburban Los Angeles in 1963 – he weighed only 145 pounds but was 26-3 with four no-hitters -- and was drafted by the Red Sox at the end of the season. He pitched his way through the minors, winning 14 games for Triple A Toronto in 1966, and left spring training in 1967 as the third starter in the Boston rotation.

The Red Sox had split their first two games of the season in Boston against the White Sox and traveled to New York for the Yankees home opener. New York had finished 10th in 1966 and Boston ninth, so only 14,375 fans showed up at the old Yankee Stadium to watch Whitey Ford make his 432nd career start. Nobody could have predicted what transpired over the next 2 hours and 11 minutes. Nobody.

Red Sox rookie Reggie Smith, who started the season at second base and finished in center field, led off with a home run. Rohr retired the first 10 Yankees he faced. He walked two batters in the fourth but escaped the jam. In the sixth, Yankee right fielder Bill Robinson lined a shot off Rohr’s left shin. The ball ricocheted to third baseman Joe Foy, who fielded it and threw to George Scott for the out. Trainer Buddy LeRoux and manager Dick Williams rushed to mound, but Rohr said he was okay.

The rookie finished the sixth and held the Yankees hitless in the seventh. Foy’s two-run homer off Ford in the eighth gave Boston a 3-0 lead. By this point just about everybody in Yankee Stadium was rooting for Rohr. Mickey Mantle, like Ford, an aging icon heading to the Hall of Fame, pinch hit to lead off the Yankees eighth. He flied out to Tony Conigliaro in right. Lou Clinton, a former Red Sox outfielder, reached on Rohr’s throwing error and went to second when Rohr walked Horace Clark. Robinson grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Rohr took the mound for the bottom of the ninth with the heart of the Yankees lineup standing between him and fame. He took a few seconds to savor the moment and then toed the rubber. Left fielder Tom Tresh led off and worked Rohr for a 3-and-2 count. Here’s how Boston play-by-play man Ken Coleman described one of the greatest plays in Red Sox history for his radio listeners in New England.

“Billy Rohr, on the threshold with a tremendous performance today. Eight hits in the game; all of them belong to Boston. Rohr winds. Here it comes. Fly ball to deep left. Yastrzemski is going hard, way back, way back . . .  and he dives and MAKES A TREMENDOUS CATCH!

Coleman, as even-keeled as any announcer, couldn’t help himself and shrieked those last four words. And why not? Carl Yastrzemski, playing a little shallow in left to prevent a bloop single, turned to his left at the crack of the bat and sprinted hard for about 10 strides, his head turned toward the plate and his eyes tracking the ball as Tresh’s drive shot toward the warning track. At the last second, his back still to the plate, Yaz leaped, stretched out his left arm and while in midair snagged the ball in his glove. He landed hard on his left knee, somersaulted over his right shoulder, pulled the ball from his glove, held it aloft in his bare hand while rising from his knees, and threw back to the infield. Then he picked up his cap and trotted back to his position.

The 14,375 fans who had just witnessed the greatest catch in Red Sox history roared as loud as 14,375 voices can roar. Coleman allowed those wild cheers to boom out of New England radios without interruption for a few seconds and then continued.

“One of the greatest catches we’ve ever seen by Yastrzemski in left field. Everybody in Yankee Stadium on their feet roaring as Yastrzemski went back and came down with that ball.”

You have read the words. Now listen.

Next door in the Yankees broadcast booth, Joe Garagiola called the play for WPIX Channel 11 viewers.

“Well hit, Yastrzemski going back, going back, back . . .  ONE HANDED GRAB! HE MADE THE CATCH!”

On the “PIX Playback” Garagiola says, “Watch Yastrzemski leap for this one.” Fifty years later, Yaz still goes back, goes up and comes down with the ball, Rohr’s no-hitter still alive. I have listened to Coleman’s call and watched that PIX clip dozens of times over the years, and I still smile and get goose bumps.

On Rohr’s next pitch, Joe Pepitone flied out. Two down, one to go. The veteran catcher Elston Howard came to the plate. Rohr got ahead on the count, 1-2, and delivered a fastball down the middle. Russ Gibson, Boston’s 28-year-old rookie catcher also making his major-league debut, thought it was a strike. So did Rohr. And so did Howard, who started to cross the plate back to the dugout. But umpire Cal Drummond did not call strike three. Howard got back in the box, took the next pitch and then dumped Rohr’s 3-2 delivery into right field for a soft but clean single. Just like that, Rohr’s no-hitter was gone.

Yankee fans booed Howard while he stood on first base, and Charley Smith, first pitch swinging, flied out to end the game.

Billy Rohr became an instant celebrity. Jackie Kennedy and her son John were at the game and stopped by to congratulate him. Rohr signed a baseball for the boy. Rohr’s childhood heroes, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, called.  Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey got word to his pitcher that he was getting a $1,000 raise, to $9,000 a year. Boston Mayor John Collins sent a telegram. Television host Ed Sullivan invited him to appear on his variety show, a Sunday night institution in those days. Tony Bennett, Count Basie and Nancy Sinatra were the other guests.

Coincidence and irony wrapped their fingers around Rohr’s performance. In 1966, pitching for Toronto against the Yankees Toledo Triple A farm club, Rohr had a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth. Mike Ferraro broke it up with a base hit. A week after his near no hitter in Yankee Stadium, Rohr faced the Yankees again at Fenway Park. The Red Sox won, 6-1, but Howard ruined Rohr’s shutout bid with an RBI single in the eighth inning. The Red Sox traded for Howard on Aug. 3, 1967, and he helped them win the pennant with his expert handling of Boston’s pitchers. Boston released him after the 1968 season. He coached first base for the Yankees for a decade and died of heart failure in 1980.

After beating the Yankees twice, Rohr never won another game for the Red Sox. He was back in Toronto by June, pitched an inning of relief for Boston in September and in April of 1968 was sold to the Indians, who sent him to the bullpen. He made 17 relief appearances for Cleveland through June, developed a sore arm and never pitched in the big leagues again. From 1969 to 1972 he threw in the minors for Detroit and Montreal. He retired at 26, went to law school, and became a medical malpractice lawyer in San Diego and Palm Springs. Fifteen years after his brush with fame, I tracked him down and wrote a column about him for The The Providence Journal. I recall he was generous with his time and gracious with his comments.

Yaz? He went on to win the Triple Crown and lead the Red Sox to the seventh game of the 1967 World Series. But that’s an Impossible Dream story for another day.