Golden Anniversary Recollections II

From Winter Haven there had been hints of optimism with veiled suggestions maybe something interesting might be up with the 1967 Red Sox. But the historically gruff Boston sports-media, hardened the more by a full generation of their Town Team's fabled foibles and follies, had been loath to go overboard.

When Dick Williams brashly proclaimed... "We'll win more than we lose!" ... the reaction of the Knights of the Keyboard was a collective shrug touched with a condescending smile. If they'd been impressed they were nonetheless exercising caution. And who could blame them? It was a tune they'd heard before from an old familiar score.

Around the league, however, intrigue was rising, with the notion they may no longer be the joke they'd long been gaining currency fast. While finishing ninth in what was then a 10-team, one-division league -- just a half-game ahead of the fallen Yankees -- they'd nonetheless played well late in the '66 season. The solid potential of the young prospects rapidly being introduced was no secret.

Still, five other teams -- Twins, White Sox, Orioles, Tigers, Angels -- were regarded the only true contenders. The consensus held that if the revamped Red Sox climbed to sixth-place, hurdling the comparable Senators and Indians, along with the juvenile Royals and now pathetic Yankees, they should be pleased with their progress. The scene was set.

Opening Day weather was lousy; grim, cold and featuring none of the fanfare that's since made it a regional cultural Holy Day. There were only 8,324 people at Fenway, huddled if curiously hopeful. Governor John Volpe threw out the first ball then left, in the fourth inning. He missed a good one. On a late Rico Petrocelli homer they beat the White Sox, 5-4, stealing three bases along the way which stunned observers accustomed to seeing their lead-footed lads rarely attempt more than three steals a month.

There was buzz over that but it was brief because the next day, they gave one right back to Chicago, 8-5, committing five errors and yielding five unearned runs in the 9th. That was more like it. For punishment, they got a bus trip to New York to launch their season's first road trip at Yankee Stadium, House of Horrors for 45 years. It was there in the juiciest of ironies, that it became dramatically clear this was not going to be just another year of the amiable "Gold Sox" mailing them in.

On that raw April evening in the Bronx, Billy Rohr -- a shy, skinny, lefty of just modest promise -- maintained valiantly a no-hitter through eight and two thirds innings before Ellie Howard crushed the kid with a soft single. If a nice moment it might seem hardly the stuff of historic consequence. Rohr would soon quit the game to become a lawyer after winning only once more. It was the effort they gave that made it huge. Clearly they were fiercely pulling for the kid, extending themselves well beyond their familiar limits. They really cared.

It was a sensational catch by Carl Yastrzemski robbing Tom Tresh of a double -- gallantly if but momentarily extending Rohr's gem -- that exemplified the new attitude. Charging across the Stadium's cavernous left-field gap as if the Hound of Heaven were on his tail, Yastrzemski over-ran the ball with a last twisting lurch. He landed on his face. But he held onto it. Herewith notice was served.

For this was simply not traditional Red Sox behavior. Very rarely -- since the age of Lewis, Speaker and Hooper -- had the defensive prowess of a BoSox outfielder inspired such awe and meaning. It spoke rich volumes about the "new Yaz". Roundly, if unfairly, dismissed as a bit of a dog in his younger days, there was suddenly burning passion evident in his play, unleashing his great skills. He would remain ablaze the rest of the season.

Lumbering through the spring, they were struggling with their Manager's unequivocal promise they'd not lose more than they won. In May they had a horrendous 2-9 road-trip. They would bend, but not break. By the Ides of June they were 30-28, a high-water mark for the '60s. Also in June GM Dick O'Connell, whose brilliance has never been fully appreciated in my book, made two superb moves, landing colorful fire-baller Gary Bell from Cleveland and the taciturn all-purpose infielder Jerry Adair from Chicago, mainly for prospects who would eventually prove marginal. Had the wily O'Connell not made those deals, they'd have finished sixth.

It was the night of June 15 that the first beat of what became the Impossible Dream fantasy was truly sounded. Eddie Stanky's raspy White Sox were back leading by six-games and flaunting their superb pitching. Still scoreless after 10 innings, Chicago broke-through in the 11th and there were two down when Joe Foy scratched a single in the bottom half, bringing up Tony Conigliaro.

What might have been with Tony C remains agonizing to contemplate a half-century later. Along with enormous skills, he had a wonderful sense of the dramatic. The ballpark was only half full but it seemed to be bursting with everyone standing as Tony worked John Buzhardt to a 3-2 count, milking the melodrama superbly. I can still see the ball he then hit rising majestically into the night and disappearing in the lights high above the wall.

An hour later revelers were still dancing in the streets to the raucous music resounding from the Kenmore Square nightspots. The party had officially begun!

- Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Boston’s WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.