Recalling the ‘Dream’ year at Fenway: Part One

Foreword: It’s the 50th anniversary of arguably the most important New England-based sports story of the last half-century: the rise of the Red Sox in the 1967 season that was innocently dubbed “The Impossible Dream.” Having been there for the joyful experience of riding the wonder of the thing, the sharing of the memory is irresistible. So, every few weeks over the length of this season allow me to do that, beginning with this first reflection focusing on the season’s preface that was etched in spring training in Winter Haven, Florida:

No one seems to know who first wedded the 1967 Red Sox season to the wistful nonsense of a syrupy Broadway musical about Don Quixote. But early on that season, as the erstwhile moribund ball club was beginning to show faint signs of promise, a road company rendering of the show, starring Jose Ferrer, was having a lusty run in town and the tender wail about “dreaming the impossible dream” and “beating the unbeatable foe” was charming the populace. Somehow, quaintly, a link was forged.

Those were curious times. The country, tormented by war, racial unrest, and cultural upheaval, was careening off the tracks with a near-total meltdown just around the corner in 1968. People were yearning for something upbeat that summer, however silly. Into this seamless web of historical turmoil wandered the wayward Red Sox, the grossly under-achieving veritable laughingstock of the American League over a full generation, entirely oblivious to the warm, if merely momentary service, they would provide.

It was an almost classical triumvirate, three hardened and very different characters, that essentially made it happen. Carl Yastrzemski (in my opinion no baseball player has ever had a better season, at least not since then); Dick O’Connell, who never got the full credit for the wondrous job he did patching the thing together; and Dick Williams, whose fire and brimstone seized the moment, although in the end, at considerable cost to himself.

Williams is our focus in this first installment. His performance during his first six weeks on the job may have been the most vital in the team’s history as he bullied his team into what amounted to a wholesale personality transplant. They arrived a disparate collection of the mainly bored, spoiled, and diffident and they left an angry, saucy , tough band of brothers  with a monumental chip on their collective shoulder.

It was beautiful. And it was Williams who did it. Essentially all by himself. And in only six weeks.

I have a warehouse of memories from my couple of weeks there that spring, witnessing day after day the utter arrogance and disdain for all the traditional  baseball niceties that Williams displayed while working his little miracle on his hitherto shabby troops. He did not miss a beat, nor spare an indignity. Everybody was vulnerable. Nobody was left out. And if behind his back they were cursing him bitterly that only delighted him the more. He ran that camp like a Marine DI, making the players believe that it was war they were gearing for and war they’d better be pleased to engage. Patton couldn’t have done it better.

Remarkably, they bought it.

The manager stripped Yaz of his captaincy, dubbed George Scott  “Cement-Head,” kicked the traveling press off the team bus, humiliated fun-loving veterans Dennis Bennett and Bob Sadowski for over-sleeping, ordered swinging bachelor Tony Conigliaro to move into the team hotel, set a 7 a.m. wake-up call for the entire team, barred team meetings that barred him from attending, took it upon himself to teach the entire team how to bunt, umpired intra-squad games behind the plate, engaged relentlessly in battles of wits, stroking the insecure while hammering those he deemed too big for their britches. Then there was maybe the best example – the volleyball.   

Shocking venerable baseball savants on site, Williams installed a volleyball court and ordered his pitchers to use it en masse when they weren’t on the mound. He believed they were the sport’s most pampered sub-species and rarely got enough work to justify their presence. If an interesting theory, using volleyball to toughen them up seemed a bit too radical for traditionalists.

Whereupon that very first week, Himself, Ted Williams, the larger-than-life Lord on-High  of the undisputed savants, arrived in camp for his annual sideshow, observed the volleyball, and pronounced his horror, bellowing – as only Ted then could bellow – “What if one of the pitchers breaks his leg!”  This infuriated the other Williams, the ex-utility player who was now in charge.  

In a little noted but epic drama within the drama, Dick put his infamous “freeze” on Ted, ignoring him and thereby insulting him. Taking the hint, Ted left camp early never to return while Dick was manager.

No doubt, Dick had wanted the rupture. He believed Ted was a distraction and he bristled when he saw players kowtowing to the Great One.  To Dick, the volleyball flap was heaven-sent. But if there’d been no volleyball, he’d have found another way.  

Whereupon a pitcher did get hurt at volleyball; Ed Farmer seriously injured his left shoulder. “No problem,” said the new manager. “Farmer pitches with his right arm.”    

Maybe you had to have been there to fully appreciate it, but without Dick Williams, there could never have been an “Impossible Dream.”