THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ANOTHER GOLDEN AGE OF BASEBALL IN BOSTON. A new crop of players was going to emulate the power, passion, and pride that fueled World Series wins in 2004 and 2007 — the championship legacy would live on. But for the past few seasons, the Red Sox haven’t quite followed that script. Now, after jettisoning some of their overpriced stars and rebuilding with a number of lesser luminaries, the team could finally be taking a step in the right direction.
Some fans, like my students, impatiently look to the future, hoping that the newly acquired, Fenway-friendly bat of first baseman/catcher Mike Napoli and the gilded glove of right fielder Shane Victorino will bring winning ways back to Boston. But I know it will also require a special spirit I once saw in Red Sox past.
In my home I keep a tattered cardboard box of mementos from my days as a fledgling fan in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. The contents of this box — a crinkled newspaper photo of an acrobatic catch by center fielder Jimmy Piersall, faded Topps baseball cards of pitcher Bob Porterfield and infielder Ted Lepcio, and more — take me back to a time that I remember as the “era of the lovable losers.”
Those days were among the worst of times for the Sox franchise, which embarrassingly didn’t admit a black player until1959. Yet, for me, it was the best of times on the field — even though the team finished the 1961 season 33 games behind the Yankees — thanks to a group of inept but endearing players. Of course there were stars and legends, Ted Williams chief among them, but most of the team was made up of mediocre nobodies: people like pitchers Jerry Casale (2-9) and Frank Sullivan (6-16) in 1960 or center fielder Roman Mejias, who eked out a .227 batting average in 111 games in 1963.
Unlike many of their more talented counterparts of recent years, who caused so much misery, my lovable losers brought genuine joy and delight to their fans. My students, so focused on wins, can’t quite figure this out. How could you like such pathetic players, they ask. The answer, I tell them, is simple. They were likable. They didn’t win many games, but they won hearts.
The lovable losers were part of a generation of players largely untainted by the toxic maladies of today’s baseball. There were no astronomical salaries, steroid scandals, mercenary mentalities, and game-time clubhouse binges on fried chicken and beer. There were certainly no image consultants persuading owners to stock the roster with more “sexy” players to boost television ratings.
We recognized their limitations. We had low expectations. But we stood by them, turning on our crackling transistor radios and antenna-topped televisions for every game, season after disappointing season. And from time to time, these players rewarded our loyalty with unexpected, amazing moments of overachievement — championship moments, in their own right, that let fans experience a special thrill of victory, if only for a game.
Just ask any fan who remembers July 9 through July 13, 1959, when the Red Sox walloped the Yankees for five consecutive games. The much-maligned Don Buddin, the American League leader in errors for a shortstop in 1958 and 1959, hit a walk-off grand slam in the third game of the series. During the summer nights of 1962, this sleepy 13-year-old heard her father whisper — not once, but twice in five weeks — that a Sox pitcher had just hurled a no-hitter: Earl Wilson followed by Medford’s Bill Monbouquette. These were ordinary players with the grit to pull off extraordinary things, making baseball in this city wonderful for fans like me. And for that we loved them unconditionally.
Now, as Red Sox Nation anxiously embarks on another season, I’m prepared. I hope that passionate players like Napoli and Victorino — men who respect the game and the fans — will jump-start a new beginning. But just in case, I’ve moved that cardboard box from my musty garage to a prime spot in the living room. Should this season also go south, I’ll just lift its cover to soothe my troubled Red Sox soul.
BY THE NUMBERS
Average per-game attendance in 1965 at Fenway, then seating 33,524.
Norine P. Bacigalupo teaches journalism at Suffolk University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.