Keeping Score: Rico Petrocelli has tales to tell

  • Rico Petrocelli spent his entire career with the Red Sox. He wore No. 6 and played position No. 6 until he was moved to third base to make room after future Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio arrive from the Chicago White Sox. for the recorder/chip ainsworth

Friday, August 11, 2017

(First of two parts)

Good morning!

Most baseball fans in Franklin County who are tilting past the age of 60 remember the 1967 Red Sox. There were no sellouts in those days, nobody did the wave, Ted Williams was long gone and Wally the Green Monster was but a twinkle in a marketing man’s eye.

At Old Deerfield Grammar School, my two baseball friends rooted for the Tigers and Braves. Their heroes were Colavito, Kaline and Cash; Crandall, Adcock and Aaron. My hero was Mike Fornieles, the only Red Sox player named to the 1961 All Star team.

Nobody rooted for the Red Sox except me. Every morning I’d rush to retrieve the Springfield Union from the doorstep, scan the scores and see that the Red Sox had lost again.

Malcontents and cynics wrote that shortstop Don Buddin’s license plate should read E-6 and referred to butter-fingered first baseman Dick Stuart as Dr. Strangeglove.

Fornieles gave up a game-tying home run at Candlestick Park, but a 19-year-old kid from Brooklyn was playing for the Winston-Salem Red Sox of the Class B Carolina League.

After 408 games in the minors, Rico Petrocelli was called up to Boston and played 13 years for the Red Sox. He hit 210 home runs and was a two-time All-Star, but the iconic moment in Petrocelli’s career was catching a lazy pop fly on a Sunday afternoon in October.

“The Red Sox win and there’s pandemonium on the field!” exclaimed radio announcer Ned Martin.

When Detroit lost later that day, the Red Sox had clinched their first pennant since 1946 on the last day of the season.

Nobody saw it coming, not the new manager, Dick Williams, not the players, and certainly not the press corps. On the eve of spring training, Boston Globe columnist Bud Collins wrote, “Another endless summer for Uncle Tom’s Townies begins Saturday morning when recreation director Dick Williams asks (the players) to try to touch their toes. He won’t ask them to do anything hard right away, like catch a baseball.”

The team’s average age was under 24, their largest lead was a-game-and-half, and they’d been in first place all of six days the entire season.

A 50th anniversary edition of Petrocelli’s “Tales from the 1967 Red Sox Dugout,” co-written by Chaz Scoggins, is in bookstores.

Petrocelli was born in 1943 and was the youngest of seven children including five brothers. The scouts watched him pitch at Sheepshead Bay High School, and when he blew out his arm they stayed to watch him hit.

It was the era of the bonus baby (before the amateur draft) and Petrocelli’s first and last tryout was in Boston. He inked a $65,000 signing bonus after he put ten batting practice pitches into the left field screen.

The players he’d watched at Yankee Stadium would soon be his rivals. “Mickey Mantle was my idol,” Petrocelli said in a telephone interview. “When I first broke in and he was on base I’d say ‘hello, how’s the family?’ Anything I could think of.”

In training camp, he had a chance to experience the team’s famed country club atmosphere. “One night during spring training in Arizona, (pitcher) Dennis Bennett walked out the front door of his motel room with a couple of pistols and started firing them. ‘I had these pistols and it’s Arizona, so why not?’”

Before an exhibition game in Las Vegas, players changed in their hotel rooms and walked through the casino to the bus. On the way out, a few of the players stopped at a craps table and started tossing dice when manager Billy Herman saw them and yelled, “Get ‘em outta here before someone starts taking pictures!”

“Even Herman had his limits,” wrote Petrocelli, who made his major league debut on Sept. 21, 1963 against Minnesota. He doubled in four at-bats and saw Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew hit five home runs in three games to surge past Dick Stuart and win the home run title. Afterward, Stuart joked, “If I could’ve hit versus our staff I would have hit as many as Killebrew.”

By Petrocelli’s account the Red Sox had bottomed out less than a week earlier when Dave Morehead tossed a no-hitter before a scant 1,247 fans at Fenway Park. Enough was enough, and owner Tom Yawkey fired general manager Mike “Pinky” Higgins and hired Dick O’Connell. The new GM started wheeling and dealing and set the stage for what would happen two years hence.

Herman was fired at the end of the 1966 season, but not before he’d contacted New York GM Ralph Houk and proposed a trade: Tom Tresh and Phil Linz for Carl Yastrzemski. O’Connell got wind of it and quashed the deal before Yawkey had time to mull it over.

The Red Sox moved their training camp from Arizona to Florida the year Williams was hired. In Winter Haven he required players who were single or without their spouse to stay in the same hotel. When two of them arrived late to practice, he asked the front desk to call and wake everyone at 7 a.m.

Petrocelli told his wife Elsie to hightail it south: “The Haven Hotel was a stucco monstrosity past its prime. It was a dump. I called my wife and said, ‘Get down here and bring the kid! Take the next plane!’”

Columnist Clif Keane picked up on the not-so-subtle changes going on in the clubhouse and wrote, “Williams has a schedule mapped out that looks like something out of West Point.”

Williams said later that his take-charge approach was born of necessity. “My wife Norma and I took a three-year lease on an apartment in Peabody and we bought furniture on a three-year plan. I was only on a one-year contract, so if I was going to go down I was going to go down my way.”

The Red Sox home opener in 1967 was cancelled by high winds and low temperatures, and conditions weren’t much better the next day. In the press box, Curt Gowdy did the play-by-play, PA announcer Sherm Feller read the lineups and organist John Kiley regaled 8,234 fans with “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” The smallest crowd for a home opener since 1953 went home happy after Petrocelli’s three-run blast gave Boston a 5-4 win over the White Sox.

Things were already brewing in Red Sox Nation.

Next Week: The Cardiac Kids take Boston by storm.

SQUIBBERS: NESN analyst Dennis Eckersley’s color commentary following the David Price fiasco is reminiscent of Randle McMurphy’s condition after his lobotomy in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” … The Valley News of Lebanon, N.H. reported Thursday that somebody stole a Red Sox jersey signed by Carlton Fisk out of the Salt Hill Pub in Hanover. “People take stuff, it happens,” said co-owner Josh Tuohy. “But this isn’t a beer mirror or a flag. It has sentimental value. This means more than whoever took it could possibly know.” … The UMass football schedule is oustanding. How good? I bought a season ticket for $140 (plus $10 handling). It includes a McGuirk Stadium parking pass, five home games in Amherst and the Veterans Day game against Maine at Fenway Park. … UMass opens two weeks from today against Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors were flagged 116 times for over 1,000 yards last season, second most in the FBS. … masseyratings.com ranks UMass 119th of 130 teams in the FBS. The five teams UMass plays in Amherst are ranked 42nd (Appalachian State), 76th (Old Dominion), 80th (Ohio), 90th (Georgia Southern) and 101st (Hawaii). …UConn had the second-fewest penalties last season (43); Navy had the fewest (39). … Leonard Grybko knocked Old Deerfield off its rocker at his daughter Kristyn and Dylan Korpita’s wedding reception at DA last weekend. “This is the best party this town has ever had!” exclaimed the proud father. … Tampa Bay southpaw Blake Snell (0-6) is the only AL pitcher without a win in 15 starts this season. … TVG handicapper Rich Perloff reports that in the last five years trainer Todd Pletcher has won with 19 of his 22 first-time starters that were the odds-on favorites. … SI.com reports that Texan John Lackey’s mound music is “Friends in Low Places.” … Made a big mistake volunteering to watch my neighbor’s dog while he took his family to Florida. The year-old American bulldog knocked over my printer, ripped apart a box of dog biscuits and had killer gas. There were more candles burning in the house that week than at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.