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Mike Ryan, Red Sox catcher during 1967’s Impossible Dream season, dies at 78

Boston Red Sox catcher Mike Ryan tagged out Bert Campaneris as he tried to slide into home during a 1967 game at Fenway Park.
Boston Red Sox catcher Mike Ryan tagged out Bert Campaneris as he tried to slide into home during a 1967 game at Fenway Park.Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Even though the Haverhill high school Mike Ryan attended didn’t have a baseball team, he played so well in summer leagues that a few Major League teams took notice — among them the Red Sox.

“Naturally, I wanted to play near home,” he told the Globe in 1967, the team’s Impossible Dream season. “So choosing wasn’t hard for me.”

That was also the case with picking a position to play — he found a home behind the plate. “I just liked to catch,” he said, adding that the catcher’s job “is lots of fun, and it’s good just to be in a ballgame.”

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Mr. Ryan, who played three full seasons with the Red Sox before spending nearly the rest of his Major League career with the Philadelphia Phillies, died in his sleep Tuesday in his Wolfeboro, N.H., home. He was 78.

“Everybody loved him. I mean that,” said former Red Sox shortstop and third baseman Rico Petrocelli, a friend since their playing days.

Mr. Ryan posed for a photograph with a pigeon on his shoulder during the 1967 Red Sox Impossible Dream season.
Mr. Ryan posed for a photograph with a pigeon on his shoulder during the 1967 Red Sox Impossible Dream season.Jack O'Connell/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

At 6 feet 2 inches and 205 pounds, Mr. Ryan had a long reach, which helped during games.

“He was a heck of a defensive catcher,” Petrocelli recalled. “There were times when a pitch would be wide — sometimes it was a breaking ball that got away — and Mike barehanded the ball. He did that a number of times.”

After the 1967 season, when Boston lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, the Red Sox traded Mr. Ryan to Philadelphia, where he played through 1973, finishing his playing career the following season with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He subsequently returned to the Phillies’ organization, where he was a minor league manager, and then was part of Philadelphia’s coaching staff until he retired in 1995.

Years earlier, no less than Ted Williams took a look at Mr. Ryan and thought he might be a powerhouse at bat.

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“Take that Mike Ryan,” Williams told the Globe during spring training in 1965. “Now there is no reason, absolutely no reason, why he shouldn’t be a good hitter. Look at the size of that kid.”

That prediction wasn’t meant to be. Mr. Ryan often struggled at the plate, hitting .193 for his career, even though he initially looked like a slugger.

His first Major League game catching for the Red Sox was in October 1964.

Then came the first Sunday in May the following season, when he was the catcher for the second game of a doubleheader in Detroit. He hit home runs during his second and third trips to the plate — the first to left field, the second to right — and almost notched a third homer, flying out deep in the ninth inning.

During the 1965 season’s spring training, he roomed with pitcher Jim Lonborg, a future Cy Young Award-winner.

“He taught me what New England toughness was all about. Broken fingers, cracked ribs – the game must go on,” Lonborg said in a statement via Mr. Ryan’s family. “We always had smiles on our faces and what a smile he had. Mike was a larger than life friend, on and off the field.”

On the road in the regular season, Tony Conigliaro was Mr. Ryan’s roommate.

“Me, him, and Tony C. were close,” Petrocelli recalled. “We used to have some fun singing. We’d harmonize and Mike would have the high note.”

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And when Mr. Ryan wasn’t singing, he found ways to keep the team harmonious.

“He had a great sense of humor,” Petrocelli said. “Every time he opened his mouth I laughed. He was just great.”

The oldest of six siblings, Michael James Ryan was born in Haverhill in 1941.

He grew up in the city, a son of John Ryan, a supervisor at a shoe business owned by a relative in the community, and Lorraine Huberdeau, who raised the children at home.

“When he was born, I started throwing a baseball at him,” John said of his oldest son in a January 1965 Globe interview.

He added that when Mr. Ryan “was 4 or 5, I could see he was going to be a bit better than the other boys.” And by the time he was 9, his baseball future appeared to be behind the plate.

His father recalled saying to himself that the boy “handles himself well. He can throw like a son of a gun. … He has the makings of a big league catcher.”

Mr. Ryan, meanwhile, attended a high school that didn’t field a baseball team. “My folks wanted me to get a Catholic school education,” he said in a 1967 Globe interview of his decision to attend St. James High School in Haverhill.

Nevertheless, he did well enough in amateur leagues to earn a Major League playing career that began with a single Red Sox game in 1964 and ended with the Pirates in 1974.

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His career as a Phillies bullpen coach, from 1980 to 1995, was the second-longest coaching stint in the team’s history, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, and he was the team’s only coach to make three trips to the World Series — when the Phillies won in 1980, and again in ’83, and ’93.

“Mike Ryan is one of the more underrated people in Phillies history,” Bill Giles, chairman emeritus of the Phillies, told the Inquirer.

In October 1967, Mr. Ryan married Suzanne Graham of Newburyport in a ceremony delayed by the Impossible Dream year’s postseason trip to the World Series.

The Globe estimated that about 1,400 people flocked to Immaculate Conception Church in Newburyport for the nuptials. The sanctuary was filled and hundreds more spilled outside to see Mr. Ryan and his Red Sox teammates.

While leaving, the couple was showered with Styrofoam baseballs.

During seasons, “when the game was over, it was over. He left it on the field and came home,” Suzanne said.

Mr. Ryan’s brother James, who lives in Haverhill, said he “had a charisma about him. If you met Michael, you couldn’t help but love him. I feel honored that I was his brother, and my siblings feel the same way.”

(left to right) Mr. Ryan, Richie Ashburn of the Philadelphia Phillies, and former Red Sox pitcher Jim Longborg were celebrated on the field before a 1997 game at Fenway Park.
(left to right) Mr. Ryan, Richie Ashburn of the Philadelphia Phillies, and former Red Sox pitcher Jim Longborg were celebrated on the field before a 1997 game at Fenway Park.DAVIS, JIM GLOBE STAFF PHOTO

Suzanne and Mr. Ryan, lived in a house overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee, always with an Irish setter.

“What a run we had,” she said. “I always realized how lucky I was, but you’re living in the moment. You don’t realize the place in the world you had because so few people have this special experience.”

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There will be no service for Mr. Ryan, who in addition to his wife, Suzanne, and his brother James, leaves a sister, Maureen of Haverhill; and three other brothers, Anthony and Daniel, both of Haverhill, and Steven of Florida.

At the beginning of Mr. Ryan’s Red Sox career, he was briefly home in Haverhill one day after spring training, driving around in a convertible with James when he spotted some guys digging a ditch at a water department construction site.

Mr. Ryan, who had previously worked alongside them in the off-season, pulled over and “jumped into the hole to greet his friends,” James recalled.

“I never forgot it. I looked up to him for that,” James said. “You don’t forget where you came from. He didn’t.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.