With only six weeks left in the season, let's take a quick look at the close-packed American League standings. There are Minnesota and Chicago and Detroit and California and Boston...
Boston? That can't be the Red Sox up there in the pennant race, can it? Certainly these are not the same Boston Red Sox we have been laughing at all these years. Not the Red Sox who finished ninth the last two seasons and who have not won a pennant since 1946. Not the Red Sox whose players were always there for last call—and sometimes even first call the next morning—at Duff's in Minneapolis, the Red Onion in Kansas City and all the other postgame hideaways around the American League. Not the Red Sox of Gene Conley and Pumpsie Green, who jumped the club together at midseason one year when Gene tried to fly to Israel without a passport, or Frank Sullivan, who now lives on a surfboard in Hawaii, or Dick Radatz, who always weighed 235 pounds—and not, say, 265 or 270—because two of his teammates would rig the clubhouse scales for him before weight check every day.
No, these 1967 Red Sox aren't like the old Red Sox, and that may explain why they are challenging for the pennant instead of struggling to keep out of last place. Manager Dick Williams, who likes to project himself as a tough guy and is the first Red Sox manager in memory to operate without front-office interference, believes in such things as stolen bases and proper execution of simple plays and bed checks and curfews—what a joke they used to be!—and if you do not play the game his way then you can play it your way someplace else.
Out of this refreshing emphasis on winning has emerged the best young team in baseball, led by 27-year-old Left Fielder Carl Yastrzemski (see cover), who in his six previous seasons with the Red Sox never played on a team that won more games than it lost. Yastrzemski, who admittedly played like a spoiled brat during most of those years, has been the most exciting player in the league this season, not only at bat but also in the field. He leads the league in runs batted in, trails only Frank Robinson in the batting race and already has hit 27 home runs—seven more than he ever has hit in one season. "And he's the best left fielder I've ever seen," says Minnesota Twin Third Base Coach Billy Martin, who no longer lets his base runners challenge Yastrzemski's strong and accurate throwing arm. In a recent 12-game home stand at Fenway Park, Yastrzemski cut down five base runners—four of them at home plate and one at third base.
With Yastrzemski in the outfield is 22-year-old Right Fielder Tony Conigliaro, who is Boston's answer to Joe Namath. Conigliaro records songs in his spare time, drives a 1967 burgundy Corvette, maintains an apartment overlooking the Charles River—though without Namath-style knee-high carpeting—and says he is king whenever he goes into Sonny's, a dugout spot near Fenway Park that is In. In spite of missing more than 20 games, because of his military commitments, Tony C. has hit 20 home runs, driven in 67 runs and hit around .300 all year. Add 23-year-old First Baseman George Scott, the nonpareil fielder who bats fifth and is hitting .289 with 15 home runs, and Joe Foy, the third baseman who bats second and has 16 homers, and you have four players who, among them, have hit more home runs than the Chicago White Sox, the Kansas City Athletics or, for that matter, the New York Yankees.
Then there is the long-haired pitcher from Stanford (imagine the Red Sox with a kid who was premed at Stanford?), 24-year-old Jim Lonborg, a 6'5", 200-pound right-hander who has 16 wins already for Boston this year. For two seasons Lonborg barely survived in the majors with a good sinking fast ball and a bad breaking pitch. So last winter he went to the winter league in Venezuela, where he developed a new breaking pitch and a new brush-back pitch, and now he has won 16 games and lost only six. He also has hit 15 batters, which is 15 more than Sandy Koufax hit all last year and five more than any other major league pitcher has hit this season.
"Lonborg really became a pitcher in a game he lost to the Angels in Anaheim back in May," said Dick Williams. "For eight innings he blew the ball right by them and took a 1-0 lead into the ninth. Then he tried to get cute and finesse the ball and lost the game 2-1. It cost us a loss but taught him a lesson."
Another reason for Lonborg's success is the strong defensive support he is receiving from infielders who have finally learned how to pick up ground balls and make double plays, fundamentals that the Red Sox used to think were performed only by champions. Rookie Mike Andrews is the best second baseman the Red Sox have had since Bobby Doerr, and Rico Petrocelli, despite a serious case of self-doubt, was the starting shortstop in the All-Star Game last month.
Still the player who has made the Red Sox a winner this year is Yastrzemski. When he came up from the minor leagues to replace Ted Williams at the start of the 1961 season Yastrzemski brought along a youthful vitality that soon was drained by teammates who only seemed interested in getting their five years in on the pension plan and living well off Tom Yawkey. The Red Sox were a bad ball team then, playing under a dull manager, Mike Higgins, and it was very easy for a player to resign himself to the routine of coming out to the ball park, dressing leisurely, playing nine lifeless innings of ball and then returning home a loser again.
"Playing all those years with a second-division club that never cared killed me," said Yastrzemski. "There's always tension on a losing team, bad tension, and relationships among the players and with the managers never are very happy." Carl liked Higgins, but he was never able to get along with Johnny Pesky, who became manager in 1963. Nevertheless, Yastrzemski won the batting title during Pesky's first season as manager.
Pesky always thought that Yastrzemski was not putting out 100% and, as Carl will admit today, there were times when he did not completely expend himself. There was one night, for instance, when the Red Sox were facing the White Sox in Boston and Gary Peters, a lefthander who is tough on left-handed hitters like Yastrzemski, was scheduled to pitch for Chicago. Yastrzemski, the story goes, told Pesky he could not play because his stomach was upset, so Pesky gave him the night off. After the game Pesky went to a fried- chicken, onion-rings and french-fries emporium near Fenway Park and reportedly met Yastrzemski, who was eating fried chicken, onion rings and french fries. This disturbed Pesky, whose disciplinary efforts seldom got backing from the Red Sox front office, which was then being run by Mike Higgins.