Nearly everyone in the American League is talking about Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox. With the season not much more than a month old, unsolicited comments like "the new Ted Williams" and "the next great player" keep cropping up like dandelions on a green spring lawn. This is interesting because Yastrzemski, who is only 23, received an overdose of praise and publicity in 1961 when the Red Sox first brought him up to the majors, then showed little to justify the clamor. He had a mild season, hitting .266 with 11 home runs and, though Boston did produce the American League's Rookie of the Year, it was Pitcher Don Schwall instead of Yastrzemski.
Last year he was again nothing much more than an ordinary ballplayer at the beginning of the season. Then, with quiet suddenness and no publicity, Yastrzemski matured as a big leaguer. From the middle of May until the end of the year he hit over .300 and finished with an overall batting average of .296, with 19 home runs and 96 runs batted in. He was fourth in the league in base hits and runs scored and, surprisingly enough, in total bases, too, ahead of such famed sluggers as Harmon Killebrew, who hit 48 home runs, and Jim Gentile, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, each with 30 or more. This season Yastrzemski has hit well and steadily almost from opening day, has kept his batting average in the .300s and has left contrails of applause and admiration wherever he played. He is not "the new Ted Williams" and he never will be, but whether he is "the next great player" is something else again. Don't bet against it.
Yaz—there had to be some nickname—won't be another Williams because he is an entirely different type of player. He doesn't have Williams' size—Yastrzemski is listed at 6 feet and 180 pounds but seems smaller than that and wiry—and he does not have Williams' power. He is not a home run hitter. He is more like Stan Musial, for his forte is the sharp line drive, the two-base hit. He may hit a ton of homers in his career, as Musial has, but they will come almost incidentally. He can bunt, too, and he hits to all fields. Williams almost never hit to left (remember the Williams shift?), whereas half of Yastrzemski's base hits seem to go to left.
An unscientific bat
Nor is Yastrzemski as scientific a batter as Williams. Ted never swung at a pitch he considered out of the strike zone, and he received a great many walks, but Yaz is so eager to hit the ball that he often goes after bad pitches. He acts as though he would rather be hanged from the left-field wall in Fenway Park than take a pitch that might be called a strike. Thus he receives far fewer walks than he should. When he bats, his intensity is almost unbelievable. One night last week in Baltimore he came up in the first inning with two men on base. He swung at the first pitch and fouled it off. He took the second and, when it was called a strike, he lifted his head as though in pain and swore at himself for letting it go by. The next pitch was far outside, and Yastrzemski, after stumbling halfway across home plate in his eagerness to swing, let it go. He fouled another pitch and took another ball well outside. Each time his hands tightened on the bat until the knuckles went white and the muscles in his forearms quivered. Finally he singled to left, driving in a run. When he came back to first base and tagged up, he looked physically exhausted and emotionally spent. Red Sox Coach Billy Herman said, "He just wants to so badly. I've golfed with Yaz and bowled and played cards with him, and in everything he wants to be the best. He wants to be the best every time."
The most obvious difference between Yastrzemski and Williams is in fielding. Williams was slow-footed and, at best, only an adequate outfielder. Yastrzemski is excellent. He has good speed, he gets an instant jump on the ball and he has superb reflexes. He made a play in Kansas City early this month that the Red Sox talked about for days. He went back for a long fly, jumped, caught the ball and crashed into the fence. As he came crumpling down he turned and threw all the way to first base to double up the runner, Bobby Del Greco, who had logically assumed that the ball could not be caught.
Last week in Baltimore, Yaz went back and to his left for a hard, flat line drive that had been hit deep to left center. He leaped, lost his hat, caught the ball, fell to the ground, rolled over and came to his feet facing the infield with his arm cocked to throw. Another time, with Jim Gentile on first base, Brooks Robinson hit a sharp drive down the left-field line. It seemed a certain double, possibly a triple, but Yastrzemski sprinted to the foul line, dipped his glove, took the ball like an infielder and threw to third base in time to catch Gentile sliding in. Last year Yaz led all American League outfielders in assists with 15, and that throw in Baltimore made it six already this season. "They run on him," Billy Herman said happily. "I hope they keep on running."
The question was raised why Yastrzemski plays left field instead of center, especially since left field in Fenway Park is both shallow and bounded by a high wall. Williams played left there, it was recalled, because it was the least demanding field to play. General Manager Mike Higgins of the Red Sox says, "You ought to see Yastrzemski play that field. Ted played the wall pretty good, you know, but Yastrzemski plays it perfectly. He takes balls off that wall like—well, I don't believe there's a ball hit off that wall that he doesn't hold it to a single. And he cuts off runs. They don't score from second when he takes a base hit off the wall. That's why he's there. He's more valuable in left than in center.
"Yaz is the best left fielder in the league," says Higgins, a taciturn man not usually given to glowing comments. "He's an exciting ballplayer."