Pity the poor sportswriters of Boston, who had to first deal with the toughest interview of his time, Ted Williams, and then learn to correctly spell the name of the man that would replace him in left field, Carl Yastrzemski. For that matter, look at the tremendous pressure placed on the shoulders of Carl Yastrzemski, as he tried to live up to the hype of being the man that took over for the “Splendid Splinter”. The sportswriters soon learned to abbreviate Carl Yasrtzemski to Yaz, but there were no shortcuts to stardom for the man himself. Carl Yastrzemski’s road to the Hall of Fame was paved with bitter losses in two seven game classic World Series, but his excellence over a 23 year career carried him to Cooperstown.
The son of a Polish potato farmer from Long Island, New York, Carl Yastrzemski was signed by the Red Sox away from Notre Dame, where he was a shortstop. When he arrived in Boston in 1961, the Red Sox had just said goodbye to Williams the year before, leaving Carl Yastrzemski to play Fenway Park’s ubiquitous left field, with its 37 foot high “Green Monster” wall, complete with strange caroms and angles that had to be experienced to be appreciated. Boston had not finished higher than third place in the American League since 1950, and Carl Yastrzemski was stepping onto a team that was about to be one of the worst in the circuit for the next 6 seasons.
During his rookie season, Carl Yastrzemski did not hit for power, finishing with but 11 home runs, but he knocked in 80 runs. He hit .266 in 583 at-bats, and Carl Yastrzemski struck out a career high 96 times; he would never strike out 100 times in one year. Batting left handed, with his bat held high over his head, Carl Yastrzemski was soon to be the owner of the most copied hitting stance in all of baseball.
Knocking in 94 runs in his sophomore season was a prelude to 1963, when Carl Yastrzemski would win the first of his 3 batting titles. In 570 official times up, Carl Yastrzemski hit .321; the futility of the rest of the lineup around him, save for first baseman Dick Stuart, resulted in only 68 RBI. Despite his hitting, Carl Yastrzemski was unable to propel Boston into the first division. The following April, Carl Yastrzemski hit for the cycle against the Senators, but even in that game the Red Sox were beaten. The theme remained the same through 1966, with Carl Yastrzemski putting up respectable numbers, but the team floundering. Sox owner Carl Yastrzemski, who became the best of friends with Ted Williams, was beginning to hold a similar place in his heart for Carl Yastrzemski. After 1967, all of the Northeast would feel the same.
A new manager, 38 year old Dick Williams, took over for Boston, which had added such young talent as Tony Conigliaro, George Scott, and Rico Petrocelli to go with Carl Yastrzemski in the past couple of years. Almost immediately, the 1967 season had a different feel to it. Rookie Bill Rohr took a no-hitter into the ninth against the Yankees and Whitey Ford, with Carl Yastrzemski keeping it going with a spectacular catch of a Tom Tresh drive in left. Elston Howard, who the Red Sox would trade for in August so he could become their catcher, broke up the no-no, but Boston won 3-0. 2 days later, Carl Yastrzemski would collect 5 hits in an 18 inning loss to New York; Conigliaro also had 5 as well.
On June 8th, Carl Yastrzemski had 6 hits in a split of a doubleheader with the White Sox, whose manager, volatile Eddie Stanky, had said that Yaz was an All-Star “but only from the neck down”. When Carl Yastrzemski helped to beat Stanky’s squad with his 12th home run of the year, he tipped his cap to the Chicago skipper as he rounded the bases. If there was ever a player that you did not want to upset with a remark or a dusting off at home plate, it was Carl Yastrzemski. He had an uncanny knack of getting back up and coming through in those situations time and again, often with a home run. He made two wonderful catches and hit a pair of homers to beat the Senators in June, and with rookies Mike Andrews at second and Reggie Smith in centerfield, along with the stellar pitching of eventual Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg, the Red Sox stayed in what would become a 4 team race to the pennant. Even the horrible August beaning of Tony Conigliaro by the Angels’ Jack Hamilton, which would end the young slugger’s season and eventually his career, could not deter the Red Sox. Relievers Jose Santiago and John Wyatt emerged and had career years, and along with Carl Yastrzemski, kept Boston in what would become known as the most exciting pennant race in baseball history.
The White Sox of Stanky faltered first, falling out of contention with a doubleheader loss to the lowly Kansas City Athletics. Detroit and Minnesota were right there, and the Twins played two contests at Boston to close the season. Jim Kaat was hurling the Twins to a victory when he was injured, and Carl Yastrzemski hit his 44th home run to carry Boston to a 6-4 win on Saturday, September 30th. It had seemed that every time the Sox needed a big hit over the last two months of 1967, Carl Yastrzemski was there to deliver it. He did just that in the final game of the season on October 1st, when he went 4 for 4 to aid Lonborg’s 22nd win of the year, 5-3, to knock the Twins out of it. When Detroit blew a 6-2 lead in the 8th on Saturday, and split two against the Angels while Boston was beating Minnesota on Sunday, the 100-1 shot Boston Red Sox won the pennant, their first since 1946. Carl Yastrzemski had gone 10 for 13 down the stretch, and won the Triple Crown with a .326 batting average, 44 home runs, and 121 RBI. Harmon Killebrew also belted 44 home runs, to tie Carl Yastrzemski in that category. No player in baseball has won a Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski, 39 years ago.
The Cardinals would be the World Series opponent of Boston, and they took a 3 -1 lead behind a pair of wins from future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson. Only Lonborg’s stunning one-hitter prevented a sweep, and when he beat St. Louis in Game Five, there was hope in Boston. Carl Yastrzemski, who had homered twice during Lonborg’s masterful Game Two shutout, hit another in an 8-4 Boston triumph to even things up in the sixth game. But with Lonborg pitching on two days of rest and Gibson on three, Boston fell to the Cardinal ace in the seventh game by a score of 7-2. Carl Yastrzemski had continued his hot hitting, batting .400 with 5 RBI in the Series; he struck out only once in 29 plate appearances. The “Impossible Dream” season was over, but it would never be forgotten in New England.
Carl Yastrzemski followed up his American League Most Valuable Player season of 1967 with his third and last batting title in 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher”. His .301 average would be the lowest to ever win the title, and he was the only .300 hitter in the league. Over the next few seasons, as Boston failed to repeat its 1967 magic, Carl Yastrzemski became something of a scapegoat for the team’s troubles. The Boston press, never shy about trying to bury a superstar, made things tough on Carl Yastrzemski, especially when he was pulled from a 1969 game for not hustling in the eyes of manager Dick Williams. In 1970, Carl Yastrzemski lost the batting crown to the Angel’s Alex Johnson by percentage points. He hit 40 home runs to duplicate his 1969 efforts and also knocked in over 100 for the third time in 4 years. One of his homers, against Dean Chance, left Fenway to the right of the centerfield flagpole, a feat previously accomplished only by Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenburg, and Bill “Moose” Skowron.
Tom Yawkey continued to be in Carl Yastrzemski’s corner. This was evident when Carl Yastrzemski signed a $500,000, three year deal in 1971; utility-player’s salary now, but the richest contract in baseball history back then. The Gold Glove winning outfielder was playing more and more at first base, as he was 31 years old in 1971. There has never been another player that became so acquainted with the intricate wall at Fenway. Carl Yastrzemski became particularly adept at pretending he had a bead on a ball, turn and play it off the “Green Monster” and fire a strike to second or third to nab the decoyed runner. The Red Sox narrowly missed another pennant in 1972, as Carl Yastrzemski hit a triple in the third inning of a must-win game with 2 men on, only to have one of them stumble twice and head back to third where Yaz was tagged out. The miscue cost Boston, as they fell to Detroit 4-1 and were out of the race.
The emergence of sluggers Jim Rice and Fred Lynn, and the whirling dervish pitching of Luis Tiant would carry Boston to the playoffs in 1975, where Carl Yastrzemski, now 35, would once again star. He hit .455 against the Oakland A’s in a three game Red Sox sweep to take the pennant, then hit over .300 in a heart wrenching loss to the Reds in the 1975 World Series, where Boston squandered a late lead in the seventh game. Carl Yastrzemski would make the final out, as he would in the famous Bucky Dent home run game of 1978, as he would never realize his dream of a world championship for himself and his friend, Tom Yawkey. If you watch film of Bucky Dent’s home run disappear into the screen, you will notice Carl Yastrzemski’s legs buckle as he watches the ball creep over the wall he knew so well.
During the summer of 1979, Carl Yastrzemski collected both his 400th home run and his 3,000th hit, the only American League player to reach both milestones at that time. By then, the Boston fans had long ago come to realize how truly special he really was, and embraced his every at bat.He retired in 1983, with 3, 419 hits, 452 home runs, 1,845 walks, and a lifetime average of .285. He had played in over 3,300 games as a member of the Red Sox, the most by any player with one team. Carl Yastrzemski was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1989. The 18 time All-Star with 3 batting titles, 7 Gold Gloves, a Triple Crown, and an MVP Award will never be forgotten in Boston and the surrounding region. Thousands of New England children actually learned their right from their left by closing their eyes and envisioning the 1967 Boston outfield of Tony Conigliaro in right, Reggie Smith in center, and of course, Carl Yastrzemski in left. I know, because I was one of them.