Once again last weekend the kids came out of New Hampshire on buses with $5 in the pockets of their bell-bottoms and bags of sandwiches on their laps. From down Maine, station wagons full of wigglers bearing Red Sox yearbooks, buttons, banners and dreams were on their way to "The Fens" in Boston to join their like from Springfield and Dedham, Fairfield, Conn. and Newton, Mass. By the time this baseball season is over these youngsters and their willing parents are going to cause the biggest single-attendance miracle in sports history, and when they do it the razor cuts on many of this nation's Madison Avenue image makers are going to curl.
Looked at Boston lately, Pete Rozelle?
The Red Sox are going to draw two million people to see a team that might very well not even win the American League Eastern Division Championship, let alone a spot in the World Series. And, since Boston today has the largest number of aware and wealthy teen-agers in the country—already present or wanting to get there—it could be the beginning of a trend on the part of youngsters that might quickly sidetrack football's rising popularity. Drawing two million in Boston's Fenway Park with its seating capacity of only 33,379 is a virtual impossibility, but the Red Sox are now almost a certainty to do it in 1969. Last weekend the stands were filled to see Boston play the expansion Kansas City Royals, of all people. This weekend the Oakland Athletics may play to 90% of capacity, and one week from now, after the Red Sox return from a road trip, the Yankees, who play in the flat town of New York, will break 105,000 as visitors.
A box or reserved ticket to a Red Sox game—any game—is one of the hottest properties to come by in sports today. Five weeks from now, for example, if you want to see the Sox challenge the division-leading Baltimore Orioles, the best seat you can possibly buy is an "obstructed view" position. And only a few short weeks ago some were wondering how the Red Sox would draw once they traded Hawk Harrelson to the Cleveland Indians.
The crowds in Boston are the result of factors that should give sporting executives pause. Instead of being modern with extensive parking facilities, Fenway is tiny, old and almost inaccessible by automobile. The intimacy of the park is what makes it attractive, as well as the pregnant possibilities of what that short, great green wall in left field can do in the course of a game to make it different. Not until last Saturday was a shut-out pitched in Fenway. And the Red Sox seem hell-bent on breaking all the home run records.
Despite some normal bad weather early in the season the Red Sox are now drawing an average home attendance of over 25,000, which is about 75% of capacity. Yet to come is Harrelson's return plus a July 4 weekend with Ted Williams and his near-.500-playing Washington Senators. Boston is so wild about the Red Sox that the fans give standing ovations for foul balls.
Only large stadiums capable of holding 50,000 have ever been able to draw a yearly attendance of two million, and those franchises that succeeded in doing so had to use gimmicks. In Boston, caps, bats, balls or orchids are not given away. The Red Sox instead are thriving on their heroes and the well-known fact that Boston is in second place and playing one of the more frustrating roles any team ever has had to undertake.
Because of the major leagues' new divisional standings, the Red Sox find themselves in the same division with the Baltimore Orioles, who up until last Sunday were playing .722 baseball. In over half a century only one team, the 1954 Cleveland Indians, ever played as well for an entire season. (The Indians won 111 games that year to finish at .721. In the National League the last team good enough to approach the current Baltimore percentage was Pittsburgh in 1909. Those Pirates played .724.)
From the beginning of May until the end of last week the Red Sox won 23 games, lost only nine, yet found themselves still 3� games behind Baltimore. "We have," says Manager Dick Williams, "been playing the kind of baseball a manager likes to see his team play. Everybody has been doing his part, yet we are behind Baltimore, and they seem to keep winning. Tony Conigliaro's comeback from his eye injury has given this team a tremendous psychological lift. He leads the club in game-winning hits. And Dick Schofield, who came from the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade, and Vicente Romo, in relief, have been excellent. I'm happy with this team and the way it's playing; we are fighting a heck of a club, but we think that we are as good as they are."
In Fenway the fans believe that the Sox are better. Boston holds its athletes in a special awe, and there never has been a player in Boston named Carl Yastrzemski, he is merely Yaz. Jim Lonborg, of course, is Lonnie, and the rest of the team is made up of Tony C., Mike, Reggie, Dalton, Great Scott, Ray and Rico.