Fifty years ago today, Sunday, Oct. 1, 1967, The Impossible Dream came true. The Boston Red Sox, a 100-1 long shot that April, won the American League pennant. Their 5-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park on the last day of the season cemented 1967 as the most exciting baseball summer of my life and, arguably, in Red Sox history.
Twenty-four hours earlier, on Saturday, Sept. 30, the Red Sox had beaten the Twins, 6-4, tying them for first place in the American League, each with a 91-70 record, and forcing an epic showdown in the 162nd game. How fitting that the 2017 Red Sox clinched the A.L. East title on Saturday, Sept. 30, the penultimate day of the regular season, with their 6-3 triumph over the Houston Astros.
Until that summer of love, Boston baseball in the 1960s was a joke. Last place was closer than first; in 1966 the Red Sox finished ninth, a half-game ahead of New York. You could buy a box seat the day of a game. Pigeons and seagulls outnumbered Fenway fans. Every pennant race was over by Memorial Day. Boston had not played in the World Series since 1946 and had not posted a winning record since 1958.
The Red Sox were losers, plain and simple. Until Carl Yastrzemski made that tremendous ninth-inning catch in Yankee Stadium to preserve Billy Rohr’s no-hitter, spoiled, unfortunately, by the next batter, Elston Howard. Until Jim Lonborg started mowing down hitters. Until George Scott started hitting home runs, or, as he called them, taters. Until Jerry Adair, Dalton Jones and George Thomas started making valuable contributions. Until Rico Petrocelli established himself as one of the best shortstops in the American League. Until weak-armed right fielder Jose Tartabull threw out Chicago’s Ken Berry at home in a crucial game against the White Sox, Boston catcher Elston Howard, acquired in a trade with the Yankees, blocking the plate. Until the Cardiac Kids, as we called them, won 10 in a row in July, the last six on the road, and returned from Cleveland to the cheers of 10,000 adoring fans at Logan airport.
Until the final weekend of the season with four teams within 1½ games of each other: Minnesota first, Boston and Detroit tied for second and Chicago fourth.
While the Red Sox took care of business on Saturday – Yaz went 3-for-4 and smashed a three-run homer – Detroit split a doubleheader with California, and Chicago lost to Washington.
Sunday dawned with the Tigers having to sweep a doubleheader from the Angels to force a playoff against the winner of the Red Sox-Twins finale. At Fenway Park, 35,770 hopefuls, the biggest Fenway crowd of the season, squeezed into the old ball yard to watch Lonborg (21-9) pitch against the Twins ace Dean Chance (20-13). Minnesota had beaten Lonborg three times already that season so this was anybody’s game. I wish I could say I was there, but I can’t. A high-school senior, I had broken my leg in football practice and was in a cast. I couldn’t even return to my part-time job assisting the custodians at St. Monica’s School in Methuen, Mass. But I could join my good friend and co-worker Chuck Brain in the school cafeteria after he and my brother Ken broke down the folding chairs from the morning Masses and set up the lunch tables for the school week. We rolled a television into the room, plugged it in, turned it on and watched the Red Sox write baseball history.
Minnesota took a 2-0 lead on a pair of unearned runs. Lonborg led off the bottom of the sixth inning-- there was no designated hitter in those days so pitchers had to hit – and dropped a perfect bunt down the third-base line for a single. Adair singled to center field, and Jones singled to left, loading the bases for Yastrzemski. He singled to center, driving in Lonborg and Adair and sending Jones to third. Ken Harrelson grounded to shortstop, and Jones beat Zoilo Versalles’s throw home for a 3-2 Boston lead. Al Worthington relieved Chance and threw two wild pitches. Yaz scored on the second for a 4-2 lead. Tartabull, who replaced Harrelson, scored Boston’s fifth run of the inning on Harmon Killebrew’s error.
In the Minnesota eighth Killebrew scored on Bob Allison’s two-out base hit to left. Allison challenged Yastrzemski’s arm by trying to stretch the hit to a double, but Yaz threw him out at second, ending the inning.
Lonborg returned to the mound for the Minneosta ninth, all of New England hanging on his every pitch. Ted Uhlaender singled, but Tony Oliva grounded into a double play. Down to their last out, the Twins looked to pinch hitter Rich Rollins to spark a rally. It was not to be. He popped up to shallow left. Petrocelli drifted back from infield dirt to outfield grass and made the catch that resulted, in the words of Red Sox broadcaster Ned Martin, in “pandemonium on the field.” Fans mobbed the players. Lonborg’s jersey was torn. It was Christmas, New Year’s, July 4th all rolled into one. It was unbelievable.
But the pennant race was not over. Detroit had won the first game in Tiger Stadium. The Red Sox retreated to their clubhouse, fturned on a radio and listened. When the Angels won, 8-5, the Boston clubhouse erupted. The Red Sox, chumps for years, were champs. Yaz won the Triple Crown with a .326 batting average, 44 home runs and 121 runs batted in. Lonborg, 22-9, won the Cy Young Award.
Baseball in New England changed forever that summer. Red Sox fans didn’t care that their team lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. After so many disappointing seasons, they were in the Series. And they even took it to seven games, finally losing to the great Bob Gibson in the decisive seventh game at Fenway Park. A love affair blossomed. Attendance shot up to 1.7 million. Expectations rose. The Red Sox returned to the World Series in 1975 and 1986, losing the seventh game in each. They finally won in 2004.
Those of us who experienced The Impossible Dream will never forget it for this simple reason. We expected nothing from the ‘67 Boston Red Sox, and they gave us a thrilling ride to the American League pennant, a ride that reached its climax exactly a half-century ago, on Sunday, Oct. 1, 1967.