Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 17, 2017

A Half-Century On, Honoring The Impossible Dream

They are half a century older now; most of their heads are gray and most of their waistlines are thicker. Yet when seventeen members of the 1967 Red Sox stood behind the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park on Wednesday evening and the applause and cheers poured down from the stands at the old ballyard, for those fans old enough to do so it was easy to recall that incredible golden summer now five decades gone. It was the Summer of Love in San Francisco, with as many as a hundred thousand hippies descending on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. But a continent’s width to the east, in Boston it was the summer of the Impossible Dream, with a record 1.7 million fans, more than the previous two years combined, passing through Fenway’s turnstiles to witness their team’s improbable run from the cellar to the mountaintop. It was the year that those aging men, then filled with the vitality of youth, won over a city and in so doing gave new life to a franchise.

When that season began even the hardiest Red Sox fan could not have foreseen how it would unfold. Boston had last won the American League pennant in 1946. The team had not finished within ten games of the league lead since 1950, and had suffered through eight losing seasons in a row, coming in ninth in the ten-team league both of the previous two years. As befits a team as hapless as the Red Sox were in those years, attendance had withered, topping a million only once in the preceding eight seasons. Owner Tom Yawkey was threatening to move the team out of Boston, and more than a few disillusioned Red Sox faithful would have said “good riddance” if he had.

There had been minimal changes to the roster that ran up 90 losses in 1966, with the major off-season move being the hiring of Dick Williams as manager. But it was the first big league posting for Williams, then just 37 years old, so expectations were understandably low when Boston opened at home in mid-April. Barely more than 8,300 showed up to watch Jim Lonborg record his first win of the season, 5-4 over the White Sox. Fewer than half that number were on hand the next day when Boston reverted to form, falling 8-5. When the team then traveled to the Bronx and lost three of four to the Yankees, who were in the midst of their own period of wandering in the baseball wilderness, another miserable season appeared to be underway.

But for close observers there were some early signs of hope. The one win over New York was delivered by the arm of 21-year old rookie pitcher Billy Rohr, who came within one strike of a no hitter. After the quick road trip Boston won six of seven, and finished April with a winning record. They were still above .500 at the end of May and again one month later. If not exactly world beaters, the Red Sox were at least in the top half of the AL standings for the first time in years. On July 1st Lonborg won his tenth game against just three losses. Young outfielder Tony Conigliaro, a fan favorite as a Massachusetts native, was on his way to becoming the youngest player in AL history to reach the 100 home run threshold, and Carl Yastrzemski, Boston’s most recognizable star, was having a season at the plate that would go down in history.

The Red Sox played twenty-nine games that July and won nineteen of them. A team that began the month having a respectable year ended it in the thick of the pennant race. That race, early on with as many as four other teams and in the longest season’s closing days with the Tigers and Twins, went all the way to the final weekend. As Boston piled up victories through the summer months the once empty seats at Fenway started to fill, and fans who had all but lost hope had reason to believe once again.

The year was not without adversity. On August 18th Conigliaro came to the plate in the 5th inning, facing California Angels’ right-hander Jack Hamilton. In the days when batting helmets were little more than hardened ball caps, a Hamilton fastball rode up and in and caught Conigliaro full in the face. Struck just above his left cheek bone, the Boston outfielder was knocked unconscious. He did not return for a year and a half, and his early promise was never fully realized. But as if in tribute to their fallen comrade the Red Sox won that game and the next seven that followed.

The season’s final weekend arrived with the Twins at Fenway for a two-game set, while in Detroit the Tigers were playing back-to-back double-headers against the Angels. On Saturday, the Red Sox won 6-4, erasing Minnesota’s one game lead in the standings. Detroit and California split their pair, leaving the Tigers a half game back. On the regular season’s final day, Lonborg outpitched Dean Chance in a matchup of twenty-game winners. After the Red Sox won they waited for news of the second game in the Motor City, where the Tigers had taken the first half of the twin bill. When word came of the Angels 8-5 victory, the 92-70 Boston Red Sox were champions of the American League.

Lonborg won the Cy Young and Yaz the MVP and the Triple Crown, the last man to achieve the latter for the ensuing forty-five years. But those Red Sox came up short against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1967 World Series, losing in seven games. Boston would taste defeat in the Fall Classic again in 1975 and bitterly so in 1986. More recent fans in attendance on Wednesday, familiar only with their team’s great success of late, including three championships in the past thirteen years, might have wondered why such a fuss was being made over a group of gray-haired retired players before the game against that same franchise from St. Louis.

Spoiled by success, those fans cannot possibly appreciate what it must have felt like to the Red Sox faithful in that magical year. The year when after season upon season of disappointment, a team and its fan base was transported without warning to the loftiest reaches of the Great Game. When he was introduced as Boston’s new skipper Williams, then many managerial seasons away from his eventual Hall of Fame induction, promised that his team would “win more ballgames than we lose.” A modest goal, but set against Boston’s history at the time, it seemed audacious. Until Williams and the 1967 Red Sox went out and did that and so much more, by making an Impossible Dream come true.

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Responses

  1. A nice look back, Mike. Have a great weekend.
    Ω

  2. Nice!


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