The second in a season-long series of reflections on the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox season of 1967.
It has seemingly become a staple of the fable, something, if you weren’t around then, you might smile about and wonder why it was such a big deal. It was a different time, you see. Still, a simpler time. Moreover, it’s true. It’s the way it was.
As the summer of ’67 hammered on through the dog days, with the Red Sox enchanting all of New England with their improbable valor, you could go for a long walk in such old-fashioned urban enclaves as Boston’s and follow the game mile after mile night after night never missing a pitch from the radios blaring from porches and open windows, house after house and street after street. For it was then still a radio game – another staple of the charm – and everybody was listening and following and clamoring to get aboard the runaway bandwagon. There’d never been anything quite like it before. Nor has there been since, actually.
Deep into August, they’d seemed anointed, dancing through minefields, averting disaster here and ruin there and, while hardly above the odd pratfall, they kept landing on their feet and charging on.
All that changed the night of Aug. 18. Bill Rigney’s Angels were in town. Jack Hamilton, a cranky veteran suspected of featuring a spitball was pitching when midway through, with the 22-year old budding superstar Tony Conigliaro stepping to the plate, some idiot in the left field stands tossed a smoke bomb onto the outfield. It took ten minutes to clear up the mess, and it was clear when he was set to resume that Jack Hamilton was not amused. Sitting in the bleachers with a bunch of friends, I recall being also annoyed, nor is there much doubt that if there had been no smoke bomb there’d have been no tragedy unfurling on the very next pitch Hamilton threw.
Tony would say he didn’t pick up the ball until it was about four feet from his left eye and he instantly realized he was in terrible trouble. Struggling to breathe after being struck, he thought he was dying. The team doctor said that had it been an inch higher crashing into his temple he would have been killed, much as Ray Chapman was when nailed by Carl Mays back in 1920. For keepers of such gruesome statistics, this was arguably the second most brutal beaning in baseball history. If it didn’t kill Tony, it ruined his life, leading unquestionably to death itself at a very young age.
Maybe all that wasn’t entirely clear that night, but there was no less a powerful sense this was more than just another painful moment on a ball field. People who were there later insisted they could hear the smack of the ball crunching Tony’s face all over the park, almost reverberating. It’s not something we could verify from center field, but as we watched Rico Petrocelli cradle his fallen pal in his arms while Mike Ryan was trying to press an ice bag on his face with stretcher-bearers soon emerging to haul him off, you could have heard a pin drop all over Fenway Park.
Unmistakably, the Conigliaro tragedy was a poignant twist lending a bitterly ironic dimension to the otherwise blissful ’67 romance, a reminder – lousy but perhaps necessary – that everything comes at a price. It was a shattering moment. His potential had been off the charts. That the team bore on staunchly seems, in retrospect, more impressive than realized then.
Dick O’Connell, having a season like no other GM in Red Sox history, swiftly minimizes the damage by outflanking a large field of pursuers to land Ken ‘Hawk’ Harrelson, the colorful outfielder who’d secured his escape from Charlie Finley’s bondage in Kansas City by simply rattling Charlie’s cage long and hard enough to force his release. Earning just $12,000 in KC, Hawk gets $150,000 to sign with Boston, and if he didn’t quite deliver on all his promise, his arrival in ’67 was a huge emotional lift at a critical juncture.
In Chicago during the last week of August and tied with the White Sox for second place, a half-game behind the Twins, they have a five-game series that’s theoretically the most important they’ve faced in a quarter century.
The Chisox are their bete noire with irascible Manager Eddie ‘The Brat’ Stanky needling them unmercifully all year, notably branding their mainstay Yaz “an all-star merely from the neck down.” Out-psyching foes is vital to Stanky whose team, while scrappy and rich in pitching, is hardly formidable.
The Bosox win three of five and the Chisox never quite recover. Boston gets one win from Jerry Stephenson, a flaky fireballer of enormous talents who never did get his act together but at this crucial moment pitches the game of his life. Only Dick Williams would have dared ask him. The third win is unforgettable for how it ends, with right fielder Jose Tartabul – thought to have the weakest arm in the league – preserving victory by throwing out Ken Berry, one of the league’s swiftest base-runners, with 38-year-old catcher Ellie Howard making acrobatic catch and tag while blocking the plate with his foot. Poor Stanky goes nuts, to no avail.
It’s their defensive play of the year and an exquisite example of the little elements Williams near-mystically weaves in making it all happen. They move on to New York, winning a couple more, and when they beat the Yankees, 2-1, in 11 innings on Yaz’s 35th homer, they greet September in first place, with a game and a half lead.
(To Be Continued)