On the date Bench was honored in Cincinnati, Yastrzemski went 0 for 4 at Fenway Park, but it was his 3,299th game—the record breaker. By then, plans were already under way for a Yaz Day at Fenway, Oct. 1. When Yastrzemski found out that Bench's celebration had lasted nearly an hour, he was horrified. "We aren't going to make a big deal out of mine, are we?" he asked. "We can do it in five or 10 minutes, can't we?"
In their times, Bench and Yaz were two of the most productive hitters in baseball, defensive players without peer, and both were men who played hurt as much as not. And each played for the same team throughout his career. All of which, in Yaz's case, has obscured the fact that he almost didn't make it. He was a minor league phenom—he hit .377 at Raleigh in 1959, .339 at Minneapolis in 1960—but there was no way any man could start in leftfield for Boston in 1961 and measure up. That was the year after Ted Williams had retired. "They were comparing me with the greatest hitter ever to play the game," Yastrzemski says. The weight of that was overwhelming. "It almost broke me," he recalls. "I struggled the first 2½ months. You start having doubts: 'Can I play in the big leagues?' I was hitting about .220. Finally, I said to myself, 'You're not Ted Williams.' I started hitting the way I could hit. I think that was probably the best thing ever to happen to me over the 23 years. It toughened me so, mentally. No pressure ever bothered me again."
Nothing could shield him, however, from the silent torture of playing for the Red Sox in the early 1960s. He batted .321 in 1963 and led the league in hitting—he was a line-drive hitter to the alleys back then—but so what? "I was always discouraged," he says. "I'm the most optimistic person in the world, but when spring training started I knew we had no chance. The games we finished behind! The clubhouse was so quiet. I sat by my locker, all alone all the time. It was terrible. You played for small crowds, the fans were unhappy, you were embarrassed to be a member of the team. Other teams were laughing at us from the bench."
The laughter stopped in 1967, the year of Yaz. That winter he had worked out like a prizefighter, hitting a speed bag and jumping rope, swinging a lead bat and raising weights attached to pulleys. "It was the first time I really worked out hard during the off-season," he says. And he became a power-hitting pull hitter by getting more of his hips into his swing. He became the game's dominant figure.
Has anyone played better than Yastrzemski did during the last five weeks of that year? He won games in the field and at the plate. By then, he was playing the Green Monster like a fiddle, quite literally by ear. The bottom 15 feet was then cement. "When you heard it hit the cement wall, you stayed back a ways because it came off there hard," he says. "Above the cement, you had squares of tin with rivets in them. If the ball hit the tin, it made a thud, and the ball dropped straight down. If it hit the rivets, it could do anything, come straight down, shoot to the side."
During the last two weeks of the season, with Boston in a four-way fight for the pennant, Yastrzemski hit .523, with five home runs and 15 RBIs. His last two games, against Minnesota in Fenway Park, he went 7 for 8. The Red Sox had to win both to win the pennant. "I never slept for both those nights," he says. "I was so uptight. After six years, we had a chance to win a pennant! I moved out of the house into a motel. I remember walking around a golf course at three, four o'clock in the morning. Riding in the car for two hours in the middle of the night. Sleeping like a baby in the training room. This is it. We have a shot to win it all."
In the World Series against St. Louis, Yastrzemski hit .400 and played spectacular defense, but all for naught. The Cardinals triumphed in seven games. Yastrzemski had won the Triple Crown—.326 average, 121 RBIs and 44 home runs—but the game ate at him.
"It's fun when you finally win it all," he says. But the Red Sox never would. He was 36 in 1975, and time for him was growing short when Boston won the pennant and beat Oakland in the playoffs. And Bill Lee took the Sox into the sixth inning of the seventh game with a 3-0 lead over the Reds. "Bob Gibson beat us in 1967, he was just too much," says Yaz, "and in 1972, it simply wasn't meant to be. But I thought we should have beat Cincinnati in '75." They didn't, losing that seventh game 4-3. It was the first and last time, outside of All-Star and exhibition games, that Bench and Yaz ever played against each other. Neither had a particularly remarkable Series, but both came to it on the way to the Hall of Fame. Bench had been sighted moving that way for years. One minor league team, Peninsula of the Carolina League, had retired his number after he had hit 22 homers in 98 games. He came to the bigs as cocky as he could be.
In 1966, before he even got to the majors, he was sitting in the stands at Cincinnati, nursing an injured thumb and watching the bullpen work. Sammy Ellis, a Cincinnati pitcher, recalls Bench yelling down, "If any of you guys are catchers, you'd better remember me. I'm going to take one of your jobs." Two seasons later he was Rookie of the Year.
In March of 1969, Bench spotted Ted Williams at spring training in Pompano Beach, Fla. and approached him with a baseball for an autograph. "Would you please autograph this for me, sir?" Bench asked with uncharacteristic deference.