The summer that changed Boston
The nation was splintering, and Boston wasn’t immune. But something was happening here. Boston had long treated its ball club as an afterthought, but then on Opening Day 1967: the first glimmer of an implausible dream.
This is the first part in a series about the Red Sox Impossible Dream season and the Summer of 1967 in Boston. Learn more about this project.
THE WINTER OF ’67 HAD BEEN BRUTAL, a snow-covered March blurring into a frost-bitten April, and the pictures of flame-throwers and helicopters desperately trying to thaw Fenway Park in time for Opening Day made more than a few people wonder: Why bother?
Eight straight years the Sox had finished in the bottom half of the American League — the “second division,” they called it — 100 losses in 1965, a ninth-place finish in ’66, and rarely did they even fill their little ballpark halfway. Twice in ’66 they had played to just 1,000 fans, and once in ’65 they drew a mere 409, meaning 98.8 percent of the seats that day were empty.
Why bother indeed. Those Red Sox weren’t just mediocre, they were apathetic, branded a “country club” and “the Fenway Millionaires,” many of the players coasting under a succession of the aging owner’s front-office cronies and drinking-buddy managers.
Except now some close watchers — and there weren’t many — sensed changes afoot for ’67. The Sox were a young club with a new manager named Dick Williams, a crewcut drill instructor who had barked his way through spring training, setting a strict curfew, holding daily weigh-ins, and imposing a jacket-and-tie dress code, all while hammering away at foreign concepts such as bunting, stealing, and hitting behind the runner.
But that could only take you so far. John Gillooly of the Record-American mocked the pitching staff with a reference to a scrawny 17-year-old supermodel: “as thin as Twiggy and twice as curveless.” One Vegas oddsmaker set Boston’s chances of winning the pennant at 50-1, another at 100-1.
“We’ll win more than we’ll lose,” the new manager had insisted, but when catcher Russ Gibson tried to wager $20 on it with the Globe’s Will McDonough, outfielder Carl Yastrzemski cautioned the rookie not to be so carefree with half a day’s pay. A .500 record? Not a single man on the roster had played for a Boston team that had managed that.
“Bet him we’ll finish sixth or better,” Yaz told Gibson. “You’re giving him too much of an edge.”
And so they had flown up from Florida on Northeast Airlines that Sunday, April 9, arriving at night to a quiet Logan Airport, a team with no idea what it was like to be above average.
No one could imagine that come July more fans would swarm Logan to scream their names and grasp for them than had overrun the airport for the Beatles the summer before. Or dream that by October even a police horse working crowd control outside Fenway — imagine that — would be wearing a ribbon that read “Go-Go Red Sox,” like the stickers and buttons that had overtaken New England. Or foresee that this would become a baseball town forever.
No, not for a second, and anyone who did belonged with the turned-on, tuned-in kids at that day’s Be-In on the Boston Common, strumming lyres and dispensing daffodils and blowing candy-colored bubbles, a psychedelic gathering of several thousand, rivaling the typical crowd at Fenway.
On Monday the team had gone to a preseason luncheon at Anthony’s Pier Four — a last meal for a death-row inmate, the wags in the press said — and on Tuesday they were supposed to open, but knock-down winds, soggy turf, and sub-40 temperatures forced them to postpone.
So they opened instead on the 12th, just a few degrees warmer, a subdued scattering of fans filtering into Fenway Park.
The Sox had a special offer that day to attract more people, admitting anyone with a ticket printed for either Game 1 or Game 2, but only 8,324 showed up, and still the question was, Why? Even for the opener you didn’t come to Fenway on a chapped April afternoon without some reason: superstition, inertia, a child’s irrational hope, an adult’s addiction to suffering.
“You gotta be a fruitcake to be out here on a day like this,” said Eddie Szczepanski, a Somerville mechanic and World War II vet with 15 straight openers under his belt. “So I guess I’m a fruitcake.”
Marlene Weisman and Harriet Talent, Northeastern students, were on hand to gaze in person again at Tony Conigliaro, the dark-haired 22-year-old slugger, after six months of waiting. Marc Jasmin, a 27-year-old ad man who was new to town, had been waiting two decades for this, after a southern Connecticut childhood in which he inherited his dad’s inexplicable love for the Sox but never made it to Fenway. As a teenager, he would drive to a hilltop in Trumbull to pick up the radio signal at night.
Now, doing promotions for some of the new singles clubs sprouting around Boston — including Lucifer’s in Kenmore Square, where Tony C. sometimes hung out — Jasmin found himself awash in free tickets, the rare client who was glad to take them from the radio stations by the handful. Come July, those stations would be calling politely to ask if they might have some of the seats back, their phones suddenly jangling with requests.
Jasmin had little trouble getting a spot for his powder-blue Pontiac Tempest in the open lot beside the Salvation Army rehab center and near the main entrance to Fenway Park, a tired little ball field ringed by drab warehouses and print shops and meatloaf-special cafeterias.
Against the cold, Jasmin hopped up and down in a field box on the first base side with his young wife, Elaine, in her fur collar and fur-lined hat, lured by the promise of dinner on the town afterwards. In both hands she clutched foil-wrapped hot dogs, a source not of nutrition but warmth at 35 cents apiece.
And there, farther back in the grandstand, was Colleen Whitney, an eighth-grader from Lakeville more in love with Davy Jones and the Monkees than Dalton Jones and the Red Sox but delighted simply to be at the park with her light-hearted dad after calling a radio contest on a lark.
This was a father-daughter adventure, one slipped from school, the other taking the day off as a driver and co-owner of the local school bus company. Together they passed through the turnstiles and down the dim concourse and up through the tunnel, where the panorama before her made Colleen draw in a quick breath: the unblemished chalk lines and the crisp red-white-and-blue bunting, the emerald grass and the walls to match, concrete and tin coated in a shade called Statler Green. And all those seats, freshly painted turquoise, beige, and light blue to pop this season on color TV. She could see 25,000 of them, with the park three-quarters empty. Where, the girl wondered, were all the people?
THERE WERE TWO BOSTONS in the spring of 1967, and neither cared much about the Red Sox. One was the “New Boston” promoted by Mayor John Collins, a city on the rise, shedding its image as a stodgy old burg and decaying manufacturing hub, with finance and insurance towers starting to sprout on the skyline and nightclubs and art-house theaters taking root below. The other was a Boston of hollowed-out neighborhoods and racial tension, hemorrhaging middle-class residents to the suburbs.
When Collins first ran for office in ’59, the question wasn’t whether Boston was dying but whether it could be saved. The city was teetering on the edge of municipal bankruptcy, and developers wanted nothing to do with its drab downtown, prompting civic leaders to dive into a desperate and devastating form of urban renewal, flattening the West End in a first attempt to shock the city back to life with bulldozers and federal grants.
Enter Collins and his powerful redevelopment director Ed Logue, who ramped up the program in a less ham-handed way, leading Boston through the second-largest urban renewal campaign in the country and what the Globe called “certainly its most imaginative.”
Now with his second term winding down, Collins could point to one concrete-and-steel success after another. Boston boasted the tallest building in the world outside New York City in Back Bay’s Prudential Tower, and the ribbing was rising on a clutch of skyscrapers in the Financial District. The first new downtown residential building since the 19th century had just opened, a luxury high-rise on the Common, with more coming. Every major hospital in the city was in the midst of expansion, UMass was frantically searching for a site to plant a Boston campus, and civic leaders were mounting a case to lure the World’s Fair for the coming US bicentennial in 1975-76.
Atop the rubble of honky-tonk Scollay Square, Government Center was nearly complete, with a boldly modern City Hall, its design chosen after a nationwide contest, still covered in scaffolding. Across the street, the mildewed stalls of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market were about to be cleared of a century and a half of produce and meat peddling. And amid the rotting piers and teetering shanties of the waterfront, a concrete and glass aquarium was taking shape, its nascent staff at that very moment on an expedition in Panama to catch specimens for the tanks.
And yet, this was a New Boston mainly for suburban commuters, downtown renters, and growing waves of baby boomer college students, with few benefits trickling to the neighborhoods. The latest state census showed a staggering drop of 108,376 residents between 1955 and 1965, meaning 1 in every 6 Bostonians had moved away or died without being replaced. It was a story told in shuttered synagogues and vacant parishes across Dorchester and Mattapan, in hollowed-out tenements in the South End, and in for-sale signs on so many West Roxbury lawns.
The papers brimmed with news of clashing cultures, reports of campus protest and life among the hippies jostling with letters from middle-aged veterans angry over what the country was coming to, reviling the draft-card burners and peaceniks who would have no problem letting Southeast Asia fall further into the hands of the Reds.
Indeed, just as the Red Sox were preparing to take the field at Fenway, a circle was forming a few blocks away in front of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, both an antiwar demonstration in its own right and a way of spreading the word about a caravan heading down to New York City’s Central Park that weekend, for the largest planned protest yet. The Vietnam War seemed to be spiraling out of control, the American death toll the year before exceeding the five years before that combined, and on pace to nearly double that in 1967.
Amid all this, Fenway Park seemed an anodyne relic in a hypercharged era, quaint to the point of irrelevance. Owner Tom Yawkey, the heir to a lumber and mining fortune who’d bought the team in 1933, had scrubbed it after World War II of all its advertisements, leaving only patriotic bunting and a sign out in right promoting the Jimmy Fund.
He had also banned beer in the seats, forcing those who needed a cold one to endure another Sox loss to gulp it down in the concourse or try to sneak it past the ushers, concealed inside a jacket or a paper cone of popcorn. And those poor ushers, forced to wear uniforms that evoked the battlefield (gray wool slacks, military-style cap, and maroon Eisenhower jacket with epaulets) and smelled like it, too, laundered by the ball club just twice a season.
Some of the older guys — and they were all men — remembered a time when the park crackled, when Boston was a baseball town. The eldest usher, genial Win Karlson, began as a teenager at the original Huntington Avenue Grounds in 1906 and moved with the team to new Fenway Park in 1912, carrying clear memories still of Smoky Joe Wood and Babe Ruth and the Royal Rooters fan club, led for a time by the mayor, Honey Fitz. The fervor of that era had returned for a new generation in the 1940s, amid that brief stretch of glory after the war, when Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky were still young.
That was the last time the region had really cared, and it wasn’t as if all that rooting energy had been redirected somewhere else. The Patriots the previous fall managed to sell 10,404 season tickets at Fenway Park, numbers the Sox could only dream about, but they were still just an upstart, a bruising novelty act.
The Bruins were a different sort of curiosity. Though they had wrapped up yet another last-place season 10 days back, they somehow still found enough fanatics to crowd the Garden most nights. But everyone else mostly shrugged — despite an exciting rookie, Bobby Orr.
As for the Celtics, they rarely sold out, despite racking up nine titles in 10 years, arguably the greatest run in the history of team sports. Not once had they gotten a victory parade, just a break-up dinner at the Lenox Hotel.
Actually, make that nine championships in 11 years, since the Celtics had lost in the playoffs the night before in Philadelphia, finally slain by Wilt Chamberlain’s Sixers, leaving the court at Convention Hall amid a splatter of eggs and a hail of debris.
So now it was officially baseball season, barely a month since the latest casualty list made Massachusetts the 13th state with at least 200 sons killed in Vietnam, two days after a Malden vet protested the desecration of the Stars and Stripes in Paris by setting fire to a French tricolor outside the Back Bay consulate, and two months before Roxbury would erupt in a race riot. A trio of sequined baton twirlers performed on the infield, Johnny Mathis crooned the national anthem, and Governor John Volpe tossed out the first pitch, never unbuttoning his overcoat.
WITH A WINDUP AND DELIVERY like a loose-limbed marionette, Jim Lonborg reared back and kicked his leg high, unleashing the first pitch of the 1967 season at 1:35 p.m.
Down in Florida, the 6-foot-5 Lonborg, a genteel Stanford grad, raised eyebrows among the press when he said he wanted to win 20 games, make the All-Star team, and pitch in the World Series. Only once in the previous decade had a Boston pitcher won 20, and no one had done all three since Boo Ferriss back in ’46, when the dominant Sox romped to the pennant but lost the Series in a heartbreaker. They hadn’t been back since.
Lonborg had plenty of talent, but he seemed to lack a killer instinct, his “Gentleman Jim” nickname not entirely a compliment. In two big-league seasons he was 19-27 with an ERA of 4.17. In 1966, he’d come on in relief in the opener and coughed up the losing run on a 13th-inning balk.
But some of Dick Williams’s fire seemed to rub off, and Lonborg had heeded the manager in working with pitching coach Sal “The Barber” Maglie on the muscular art of brushing back hitters. In 30 spring training innings, Lonborg had posted a sterling 2.45 ERA and won the ball for Opening Day.
Now he made quick work of the first two Chicago hitters, ground outs both. Before fans could finish penciling it into their scorecards, the Fenway organ burst forth with a jaunty inning-ending tune — a rare miscue by John Kiley, a steady man at the keys and pedals since his days playing silent-film theaters. Undaunted, Lonborg stayed on the hill and fanned Tommie Agee, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, to close a 1-2-3 first.
He jogged off the field and straight to the clubhouse, where trainer Buddy LeRoux set to work to keep Lonborg from stiffening in the cold, a routine he would repeat each inning. LeRoux rolled up the undershirt sleeve beneath Lonborg’s baggy flannel jersey and slathered on his own concoction, a proprietary mix of anti-inflammatory cream, muscle relaxer, and makeup remover, before affixing electric heating pads to both shoulders.
Out in the dugout, the chatter was flying as leadoff hitter Jose Tartabull stepped to the plate, a speedy but light-hitting outfielder from Cuba known for playing bongos and singing in the clubhouse.
For so long the Sox had suffered from “the malady of individualism,” as Globe columnist Harold Kaese put it, but they had emerged from the spring as a cohesive team, even if some of it was just shared resentment of Williams, which was the way he had planned it.
On the mound for Chicago, Johnny Buzhardt seemed to be having trouble finding the plate, walking one and hitting another.
Facing Boston rookie Reggie Smith with two outs, Buzhardt bounced one in the dirt that squirted between the catcher’s legs. The runner on third, Joe Foy, raced home, but the catcher quickly corralled the ball and fired a strike to the plate, where Buzhardt slapped the tag on Foy just in time.
First inning over, still no score, but this seemed to be a scrappier team already. Way out in the bleachers, where scattered fans peered through binoculars and kept up on the radio broadcast with $5 Philcos, Marion Knight of Peabody smiled approvingly, her fur cape tight against the chill. Knight had once been known as the “lady in red,” for her head to toe ensemble each and every Opening Day. But she had been so disgusted with the team’s play that she had not come at all the last two years. In Florida the previous month with her husband, she caught some of spring training and decided to return.
“I like Dick Williams’s style of play,” she said, to a roaming reporter. “They really look better.”
OVERHEAD, TWO SMALL PLANES BUZZED, a Piper Super Cub and an open-air 1930s biplane that had once been a crop duster, circling barely higher than the top of the Pru. They were piloted by a father-son duo out of Beverly Airport, Harley and Wayne Mansfield, one pulling a banner for the upcoming Miss Massachusetts pageant, the other towing a “GO RICO” sign paid for by Gibbs Oil, supporting shortstop Rico Petrocelli.
From their cockpits, they could make out some things clearly down below: the players as distinct specks on the grass and the dirt; the heavy equipment amid the moonscape of the 29-acre urban renewal site across the river in Cambridge, where a NASA campus was taking shape; the double barrels of the new Massachusetts Turnpike Extension to Boston, an interstate highway the Globe had likened to “zooming on a land-borne jet,” with the aging railroad languishing beside it.
Towing the banners at 50 miles an hour, they had just missed a crowd of 6,119 parents and children that had stretched down Western Avenue all morning, finally making its way inside the new home of WGBH, all of them eager to see the first Boston taping by a slim and sunny television host from Pittsburgh named Fred Rogers.
The “Rico” banner they hauled, tracing the air over the park as Petrocelli took his on-deck cuts in the second inning, was more than a sign the Gibbs Oil folks liked the play of the third-year shortstop; the owners of the North Shore firm appreciated his work over the winter selling heating oil and doing promotions. And Petrocelli, stepping to the plate now with a runner on and no outs, appreciated that job, needing every penny.
Last season he had been docked $1,000 — roughly a month’s pay — for leaving Fenway midway through a game when his wife was home sick. They had married just three months earlier, on his lone day off between a winter as a cook in the Army and Red Sox spring training. (Like other young players, he had joined the reserves as a safeguard against being drafted.)
Now, as the ’67 campaign dawned, Petrocelli was nearly 24, with a 1-year-old son at home and twins on the way. A notoriously slow starter, he had gone hitless in his first 19 at-bats in ’65 and started 2-for-33 in ’66, though in his memory the numbers were even worse.
So he stepped in now for his first at-bat of 1967, yearning for a better start. He swung at Buzhardt’s first pitch — and cracked a crisp single to center. Taking off from second, Reggie Smith raced for home, sliding in just ahead of the throw, 1-0 Red Sox.
It was still 1-0 when Carl Yastrzemski and Conigliaro, Boston’s best-known ballplayers, led off the bottom of the third. Yaz at 27 had made three All-Star teams, but he remained in the shadow of Ted Williams. Through six seasons, Yaz had never scored or driven in 100 runs and never hit more than 20 homers. He’d batted .278 in 1966, fine but not fantastic.
That is why he had decided to check out the health club in the offseason at the Colonial Inn, not far from his Lynnfield home. He was sucking wind after 30 seconds of jumping rope when the little old man who ran the gym, all 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds of him, poked a finger in his midsection, tsk-tsking the softness.
“You the big athlete?” asked the man, Gene Berde, an ex-boxing champ from Hungary. “I see your picture in the papers and everything and you can’t even jump rope for half a minute.”
They made a pact, Berde only half-joking that if Yaz stuck with him he would play better than ever and double his salary, already a handsome $50,000. Seven days a week, he put Yaz through 60 minutes of stretches and sprints, pull-ups and push-ups, never touching a weight besides a medicine ball, ending with badminton, basketball, and steam.
In Winter Haven, everyone noticed the difference immediately: Yaz was leaner, stronger, and faster, with more pop at the plate, more range in the field. But baseball is a fickle game, and now, in the second, he flew out to left.
From a booth above the plate, new announcer Sherm Feller — a longtime radio host and big-band songwriter who had just signed on to do the Fenway gig at $12 a game — leaned into the mike: Now batting, No. 25, the right fielder, Tony Conigliaro.
Not that Tony C. needed an introduction, the rare Red Sox who got mobbed in public and received sacks of fan mail, a homegrown idol who had won a home run crown, recorded a 45 that charted in Boston (“Playing the Field”/“Why Don’t They Understand”), and crashed a Corvette, all before he turned 21.
Now entering his fourth season, he was a magnet for injuries — from crowding the plate, crashing the fence, and off-the-field scrapes, too — but could flat-out hit, 84 homers already in his career. In January, A’s owner Charlie Finley tried to buy his contract from the Sox, offering a staggering $500,000. But Boston wasn’t interested; without Tony C., the already-small gate would suffer further.
But here Conigliaro grounded to third, hitless like Yaz, two up, two down. George Scott followed with a walk, then surprised everyone by stealing a base — Boomer, the husky slugger who was struggling the most with Williams’s weigh-ins.
When Reggie Smith followed by popping one to the side of the plate, the crowd sighed, figuring the inning over. But it dropped between three White Sox fielders, the kind of break Boston rarely seemed to get; maybe the nuns sitting in the $3 seats behind the plate had been praying. Given new life, Smith walked, putting two on with Rico up again.
Just try to line one up the middle, Petrocelli thought, extend the inning, bring in a run. And maybe wait on the first pitch.
Buzhardt threw a curve, low and away. Petrocelli swung anyway, the barrel smacking it just right, the ball climbing on a line despite a strong crosswind. Heads turned, following the shot toward what some now called “the green monster,” 37 feet 2 inches tall but tantalizingly close in left, watching the ball smack cleanly into the net.
Rico ran steadily around the bases, head down like a pro, but third base coach Eddie Popowski wasn’t about to let the moment slide. Five-foot-five and all heart, Pop had spent a lifetime in the minors as a go-anywhere player and coach before finally setting foot that day on major league soil at 53. He had managed Rico in Double-A four years back, and now he shook his hand and slapped him on the back and cheered as he rounded for home. It was 4-0, Red Sox.
BUDDY LEROUX’S MAGIC had kept Lonborg limber, but as the game entered the seventh inning, his ball started coming in high. With no out and runners at the corners, Lonborg let loose a wild pitch, bringing one run in. Bearing down, he struck out Moose Skowron, but Ron Hansen followed with a fly to right that Tony C. lost in the afternoon sun, the ball dropping dangerously close to his head before smacking off his glove, making it 5-3.
Up came Chicago second baseman Jerry Adair, as unaware as anyone else that he’d be traded here in June, a Fenway hero by season’s end. He rapped a single, bringing in the fourth White Sox run. But John Wyatt, an ex-Negro Leaguer known for a less-than-legal Vaseline pitch, came on in relief and held the lead into the ninth, when Williams called on Don McMahon to save it.
The rubber-armed 37-year-old had driven to spring training from California eight weeks back with his wife, six kids, and two dogs along for the ride. In eight more weeks he’d be on the White Sox, traded for Adair; in eight years he’d be coaching and in 20 he’d be gone, collapsing suddenly while throwing batting practice at Dodger Stadium, buried with a ball in his hand.
But here he was on the hill for Boston, the clock now past 4:30, the weather warmed to a lucky 46, the year of the last pennant. The first batter ripped one toward the gap in right center, extra bases for sure. But Tony C. sprinted over in a hat-flying streak, making amends for his miscue and snaring it for an out. Buoyed, McMahon made easier work of the rest.
Poised on the dugout steps, Williams sprinted onto the field, pumping the pitcher’s hand, the infielders rushing around them. From the looks of it you’d think they just won the pennant, one of the guys in the press box would write. But Williams had started running out after wins as a rookie manager in the minors and wound up winning two straight titles; superstitious as any baseball lifer, he wasn’t about to stop now.
In the clubhouse, the mood was loose, the team excited. “It is great to be on the club this year,” said Lonborg, making one reporter wonder if all that balm LeRoux slathered had made him light in the head. “They really move on defense. We’re gonna go.’”
But he wasn’t alone. Petrocelli had a feeling a different guy each night might pick up the slack. “We know we can win,” he said.
A winking Williams made sure the press remembered his preseason promise. “That puts us over .500,” he said. “That’s one in a row.”
The next day, though, just 3,607 fans showed up. The Sox played with similar energy, two steals, two well-placed bunts, staking out a 5-3 lead into the ninth. Then the wheels came off, three errors and five unearned runs in the final inning, the Globe’s Clif Keane calling Fenway “the same old Hilarity Hall” once more. Too late to catch the train for their next-day matinee in New York, the team piled in for a bumpy bus ride south. Adding insult, vandals that night ransacked Fenway, crashing the bullpen cars, tearing up the turf.
At Yankee Stadium, though, Sox rookie Billy Rohr would take a no-hitter deep into the game, broadcaster Ken Coleman dancing around it (“eight hits . . . and all of them belong to Boston . . . ”), people across New England calling friends who called friends who called friends, so many now going for the radio or switching on the tube.
In the bottom of the ninth, on a deep fly to left, Yaz would sprint toward the wall and make a leaping catch, tumbling to the ground, springing up with the snow-coned out, all that winter training paying off. Rohr would get within one strike of immortality before settling for a one-hit shutout in his debut. But word was spreading back home, about the game and about the team: Something might be happening that you don’t want to miss.