Recollections of fifty years -- III
A long agonizing road-trip preceded the All-Star break, the season's unofficial midpoint when assessments of which teams truly contend and which decidedly do not become realistic and get taken seriously. The brash young Red Sox are wedged uncomfortably on the fence in fifth place and teetering in the wrong direction.
The trip had been painful -- five and five with four losses by one run -- and now 10 of their last 11 losses have all been by that thinnest of margins -- a single bloody run -- which means either that they are a little luck short of being quite decent or just good enough to lose with dignity. At this point, nobody -- least of all them -- knows the answer to that thorny question.
For the finale, they get a brutal double-header in Detroit played in blast-furnace heat and when they are trounced in the opener, they've lost four in a row and now but one game above .500. Arriving at the break by getting swept in Detroit would have been a sour statement about their alleged revival. We're left to wonder what such negative vibes might have led to, had it come to that.
But it didn't because like Horatio at the Bridge, Jim Lonborg stepped forth and seized the moment. Manager Dick Williams, not casually given to lavishing encomiums on his ballplayers, later called it, "the most important single game of the season." Pitching on the edge of heat prostration -- he blacked out briefly in the sixth inning -- Lonborg shut out the Tigers for seven innings with Johnny Wyatt coming on to finish the task. It was his eleventh win. Only one that season would be more important.
It was vintage 1967 Lonborg, a superb example of the valor he would display in crucial situations again and again that year and always with a fine combination of the sophistications of a scholar from Stanford with a taste for the arts and the compelling grit of a very disciplined fellow with an intensely competitive make-up sharpened to a razor's edge.
It was a rare combination and maybe, as such, only destined to have a short run. But if Carl Yastrzemski, with his well-documented and magnificent Homerics was the King of this improbable production, Gentleman Jim Lonborg was surely its Crown Prince. It was a role he bore with elegance.
Emerging from the break quite viable, they promptly dispelled lingering doubts about the seriousness of their potential with a sizzling 10-game winning streak that detonates the entire six-state region, bringing about a glorious tizzy that would last deep into October. It begins with a thumping of the Orioles at Fenway and ends with a double-header sweep of the Indians in Cleveland and demonstrates the cohesion and suppleness of the lineup Williams has brilliantly fine-tuned in his few months on the job.
In every game of the streak someone else steps up. They win on homers by Mike Andrews, Rico Petrocelli, Joe Foy (a grand slam), Tony C., and Yaz. They go eight games without an error. Lonborg racks up three more wins. Bucky Brandon, Lee Stange and Gary Bell pitch complete games. In a town that's long featured baseball prima donnas Williams has concocted a true "team". It was the 10-game win streak that brought this realization to a giddy fullness. That was the flashpoint and the result is a remarkable euphoria that sweeps the region, and it begins when they return triumphantly from Cleveland.
That evening I was on the desk at WBZ-TV (Channel 4) editing a newscast when excited calls from roving photographers Nat Whittemore and Dick Felone came in advising that something crazy was happening at Logan airport and they were on their way. State and local police radios were exploding. We thought the worst only to discover it was all about delirious Red Sox fans gone bonkers -- thousands of them -- attacking the airport in their determination to greet their newly minted heroes when they disembarqued.
It was "crazy" alright. In the marvelous madness, Callahan Tunnel gets totally plugged up. People abandon their cars and run on to United's Gate. Hundreds manage to get onto the runway forcing the pilot to back the plane to another terminal. Police find a bus to rescue the team only to have the mob surround them and rock and shake the thing with the astonished players inside; still not entirely sure of what to make of it as finally they are led away leaving their admirers baying in the night.
Whatever the hazards, it was a merry moment; no hostility, menace, serious injuries, or even arrests reported as police accept the spirit intended. Much has happened since and it wouldn't be such a big deal today. But a half century ago, it was unprecedented and a very big deal. The entire nation took notice.
So they bore on through the dog days of summer, cheek to jowl with the White Sox and Twins with the Tigers and Angels nipping at their collective heels and the Orioles also still very much in it. A pennant race for the ages was shaping up and in the front office Dick O'Connell -- grinning from ear to ear but otherwise the Cheshire cat, as usual -- is convinced it could be as he puts it, "one of those years".
Aggressive like no other GM they've ever had, O'Connell stalks the wires plucking veteran Norm Siebern from the Giants who in his brief stay wins them a huge ballgame and every win will prove huge. Far more dramatic is the acquisition of Elston Howard, last remnant of the faded Yankee dynasty. At 38, Howard has little left but he shores up the catching and brings much gravitas to the cause.
Increasingly, it's rumored O'Connell is monitoring Hawk Harrelson who is in the process of extricating himself from bondage to Charlie Finlay in Kansas City. "Where would they play him," people wondered. But O'Connell, an apostle of the thesis that you never know what's going to happen next in this bloody game, remains intensely interested.
- 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.