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Once upon a time there was a baseball season like no other, before nor since.
A rag-tag team that had long been a laughingstock rose from the ashes like Jack’s own beanstalk, and it was widely seen as a wonder. There were no signs, no one saw it coming. It was just sheer and inexplicable phenomena rising relentlessly, week after week, like a castle in the sky. The drama of it was surpassing becoming, in the end, excruciating. Even the most hardened cynics in the press box were moved to proclaim it ‘‘magical.’’
It was a season that actually had a theme song, though it must be said it was a hopelessly sentimental ditty. Still, it charmed New England, quite as no anthem heralding no event before nor since, while touching hearts across the nation as well. And when it was over -- ending quixotically as was inevitable -- many cried.
The year was 1967; the glorious season of ‘‘the Impossible Dream.’’
If you were along for that ride, you came away spoiled. For it would never be quite so pure, so sweet, so thoroughly unspoiled again.
Now, 40 years later -- and as many light years, in terms of change -- there have been nice remembrances of that pixilated summer. The boys who made it happen have been returning all this season -- gray, a little bent and, in some cases, strikingly old -- for little ceremonies and special moments. And that is good. Too often we forget those who paved the way. It’s nice to see that the historical impact the ’67 team brought to bear not just on the fortunes of this mercurial franchise but on the entire sporting culture of the region are still appreciated even after four decades of monumental upheaval. For it’s the way it should be.
Red Sox history has featured four ‘‘watershed’’ seasons marking significant new departures. There was 1912, starring Tris Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood and launching a mini-dynasty lasting through WWI. There was 1946, which featured the cresting of the era of Williams and Yawkey, after which a long, slow, and insidious decline ensued. And there was 2004, the moment of redemption, about which no further explanation is necessary. But far and away, the most important of the four pivotal turnings came in 1967.
You have to understand how bad things had become. The collapse of the lusty post-war wagon was precipitous. Four key pitchers sustained career-ending injuries. The core nucleus of Brothers Doerr, DiMaggio, Pesky and Stephens -- all still in their early 30s -- faded seemingly overnight. The inept and dissolute management team Tom Yawkey had gathered about him like a band of drinking buddies was hardly equal to a major rebuilding let alone willing to adjust to the game’s rapidly changing currents. Suddenly there was only the titanic but deeply flawed Williams still standing as a sort of totem, enough to divert the masses while also splendidly illustrating just how lost the franchise had become.
So much of the problem derived from Yawkey and his eccentric ownership. His intentions may have been good, if simplistic, and he had strong philanthropic urgings. But he lived in a make-believe world thoroughly detached from work-a-day life and was hopelessly adrift in another time, captive of an antebellum mindset. It affected his view of many things, most importantly the issue of race. Losing his battle with alcohol in the late ’50s Tom seemed spellbound by the hard-drinking Alabaman, Mike ‘‘Pinky’’ Higgins, the Rasputin of Red Sox history. By the early ’60s, with the Byronic Williams having faded off into the sunset, his team was a joke. I have a ‘‘Baseball Annual’’ featuring a profile of the 1960 Red Sox and the headline reads, ‘‘The dumbest team in Baseball.’’
It was a malaise that persisted through the mid-’60s -- 100 losses in ’65, another ninth-place finish in ’66 -- a malaise so deep few grasped the depth of the changes quietly taking place. The majestic 1967 story had many heroes on the field with Carl Yastrzemski, the King, and Jim Lonborg, the Crown Prince, only chief among them. One retains a special affection for old friends Rico Petrocelli, George Scott, Tony C., and Reggie Smith. Above all there was the despotic manager, Dick Williams. Without Dick, it doesn’t happen.
But the key figure, the architect, the man who set it all in motion was Dick O’Connell, a crusty and enigmatic fellow out of Lynn and Boston College and a man I dearly rank as one of the most delightful characters I ever knew in sports. It was Dick, as GM, who broke the franchise’s bonds of cronyism. When he arrived he had no background in baseball having mainly been shaped by his war service with the high command of Naval Intelligence in the Pacific. Dick was equally brilliant and irascible, responsible and mischievous, sentimental and tough. He had smart instincts, good judgment, and guts. When he bested Higgins in a fierce palace power struggle, he essentially saved the franchise.
Suddenly under Dick, Neil Mahoney was allowed to reform the long feudal farm system. Young Haywood Sullivan emerged as a more stable and rationale confidante for Yawkey. New blood was circulating throughout the organization. Most noteworthy, the franchise notorious for its record on race was brimming with black and Latin talent. 1967 didn’t happen mystically or overnight. Under O’Connell, the franchise experienced a great awakening although until ’67 few noticed.
A personal note is in order. 1967 was my first year on the sports beat. Having been strictly on news-side in my newspaper days and early years in television I had little desire to do sports, although my interest in the subject had been burning since childhood. But when in July the Red Sox began to be the hottest story in town, the bosses at Channel Four decided that the fabulous gentleman who was our sportscaster at the time, the late, great Bob Starr, could use some help and I got tapped. Not only did I get to ride the magic carpet of their immortal season, but the 1967 Red Sox altered my personal destiny. It is something only a Robert Frost might adequately explain.
Whatever, it was thereby my pleasure to have been there for all the memorable stuff, both happy and sad. I may have difficulty at this late date remembering where I left the car keys but the elements of that fabulous run are etched on memory’s mystic chords as if they happened yesterday. What a way to break in! But it oddly had an ironic effect, for nothing I ever covered or even witnessed in sport again has ever surpassed it.
To this hour, I can see that sixth inning of the last regular season game against the Twins evolving against a backdrop of sheer hysteria in the seats and a bedlam spreading from Eastport to Block Island.
When the elegant Lonborg, whose season was dream-like from start to finish, leads off by dropping a bunt for a base hit, you know the hour has arrived. Adair follows with a bouncer up the middle, then Jones slashes a single to left bringing up Yaz, who for that summer is Odysseus reborn. His smash to center rings like the bells in the steeple of the Old North Church and the game is tied, 2-2. Hawk Harrelson delivers another run when Zoilo Versalles mangles his bouncer. A fourth run scores on a wild pitch and a fifth when Reggie Smith’s drive nails Harmon Killebrew in the chest. Only two balls are hit hard; only three leave the infield. Some things are written on the wind.
And soon Rico Petrocelli is circling under Rich Rollins’ pop-up and Lonborg, the Crown Prince, is being borne off on the shoulders of a delirious mob into the page of myth.
It was all so fine. And I remain indebted. Here’s to the men who made 1967 happen, still the most remarkable sporting story ever told.