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Cal Ermer, the gray-haired manager of the Minnesota Twins, stood behind the batting cage at Boston's Fenway Park early last Sunday afternoon, watching his team take batting practice in preparation for what turned out to be the vital game of the longest, daffiest and most desperate American League pennant race in history. "In bullfighting," Ermer said, "I understand that the moment of truth usually comes sometime around 4 in the afternoon. I have a feeling that it will come a lot earlier today."
Not really. It was 3:21 p.m. when the truth came out about Ermer's Twins. In the ensuing 24 minutes the city of Boston went wild as the Red Sox scored five runs to beat Minnesota 5-3 to win their first pennant since 1946. Of course, in keeping with the nature of the race, Boston's victory could not be fully savored until nearly four hours later when Bobby Knoop of the California Angels picked up a ground ball 700 miles west at Tiger Stadium in Detroit and turned it into a double play. That ended the game there and knocked the Tigers, who up to then had a chance to tie, into oblivion.
In retrospect, this season's American League race seemed destined from the start to be won by the Red Sox, who now take their place with the 1914 Braves and the 1951 Giants as the most improbable pennant winners in baseball's long and wonderfully colored history. Since July, people in New England—and almost everywhere else in the U.S., except Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota—had been talking about the Red Sox and their chances of winning as "the impossible dream." They kept dying in August and September—do you remember that they lost five out of seven games to Baltimore as summer turned to fall two weeks ago?—and, like a fighter who is either punch-drunk or gallant, kept getting up and swinging. Before those last two decisive games against Minnesota, a wire was pinned upon a bulletin board hung in Boston's clubhouse. It read: "We ask nothing, but our hopes are high. Godspeed". And when the Red Sox trotted out on the field for their final game of the season, the swollen crowd of 35,770 in Fenway Park (2,246 beyond official capacity) stood and cheered. The crowd in Boston wanted the Red Sox to win, sure, but the salute the team received was more a thank-you for bringing back the thrill of winning baseball to one of me great baseball cities.
The man who had made the Red Sox win all season long was Carl Yastrzemski, the brown-eyed, 28-year-old left fielder who in the last two dramatic games against the Twins did more than it seems possible for one man to do in a baseball game. Yastrzemski made breathtaking running catches and at least one utterly extraordinary throw, and he hit—oh, how he hit! Eight times he came to the plate in the two games, and seven times he got hits; two infield hits, a double, three solid singles and a dramatic three-run homer.
The most important thing that Yastrzemski did, however, was take charge of a pennant race that during the final two weeks of the season threatened to disintegrate into farce. Just because four teams are locked in a fight for a championship does not mean that the race is automatically majestic—not if the teams involved play poor baseball, fumble away opportunity after opportunity and lose as many games as they win. That was what was happening, except for Yastrzemski.
The White Sox, the scramblers, had found themselves in the perfect spot, half a game out, five games to play against Kansas City and Washington, their nonpareil pitching staff rested and ready. But the White Sox were shut out three times in these last five games, lost them all and fell clammily out of the race.
The Tigers kept lurching into contention and then, as though aghast at finding themselves in the spotlight, scurrying into shadow. They beat the White Sox twice, once with a spellbinding seven-run rally in the ninth, then dropped a doubleheader the next day. They rallied to win four straight and the lead, then bowed 5-0 to the Washington Senators and blew two seemingly sure wins to Boston. They rallied again to win three straight, then threw away a 4-2 lead to Washington in the ninth. On the final weekend of the season, confronted with successive doubleheaders, they won the big first game each day and then died in the second.
Minnesota held onto first place, either in whole or in part, from September 2 to the end of the season, except for two days in midmonth and on the fateful 1st of October. The Twins, though they did not know it for certain at the time, abandoned the pennant in Chicago when they were beaten once, twice, three times by the White Sox, the middle game falling through their hands like quicksilver when the Sox scored four times in the last of the ninth to win 5-4.
Yet by last Saturday afternoon Boston's chances for a pennant required a sweep of the Twins, and Minnesota had its two best pitchers, Jim Kaat and Dean Chance, ready to pitch. The Twins had always played well in Fenway Park; in their pennant-winning year, 1965, they had beaten the Red Sox in 17 of 18 games and had won eight of nine played in Fenway.
But bad luck and bad morale dogged this year's Twins. Not long before the crucial meeting with the Red Sox, the team divided even further on the question of who would get World Series shares and why. Many veteran members of the Twins felt that Sam Mele, the deposed manager, should be cut in. He had handled the club from late 1962 until Owner Cal Griffith relieved him of his post in early June this year and replaced him with Ermer. The players argued violently, and the wishes of the veterans were rejected. As one of them said, "I was never so ashamed of anything in my life. And we had enough problems even before that came up."