Keeping Score: Remembering the season of the Impossible Dream

  • Rico Petrocelli stands behind the batting cage shortly after he was called up to Boston from Reading, Penn. The 20-year-old rookie made his MLB debut on Sept. 21, 1963. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A ticket stub from Game 6 of the 1967 World Series between the Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals at Fenway Park. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/RICK KOSTANSKI

Friday, August 18, 2017

Part 2 of 2      

Good morning!

Chaz Scoggins covered the Red Sox for the Lowell Sun. He was Boston’s official scorer at Fenway Park and president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Ten years ago he teamed up with Rico Petrocelli to write “Tales from the 1967 Red Sox Dugout” and this year Skyhorse Publishing released a golden anniversary edition.

Scoggins crafted Petrocelli’s account to feel like the reader’s having coffee with the former Red Sox infielder. He polishes off a pastry, dabs his mouth and continues on about that magical season.

The narrative becomes a game-by-game saga that goes from rookie Billy Rohr’s one-hitter against the Yankees in April to Carl Yastrzemski’s five home runs in four games in May. “Baseball didn’t come as naturally to Yaz as a lot of people think,” wrote Petrocelli. “He had to work at it, and he did so for hours.”

After Chicago manager Eddie Stanky tried to rile Yastrzemski by calling him an “All-Star from the neck down, he had four hits including a home run,” wrote Petrocelli. “Stanky stood at the top step of the dugout and tipped his cap. He never criticized Yaz again.” 

On June 15, Tony Conigliaro hit a two-out, two-run blast in the bottom of the 11th inning to beat the White Sox, 2-1. “That’s when we truly began to believe in ourselves,” Petrocelli recalled, and a week later he was at the bottom of a pile during an all-out brawl at Yankee Stadium. His brother Dave, a New York City cop, ran onto the field yelling, “You hurt my brother, I’ll break your leg! I’ll kill all you guys!”

Fans listened to games on boats off Penobscot Bay or hiking in the White Mountains. “Hi neighbor, have a ‘Gansett!” became the rallying cry at backyard barbeques. Thousands came to the airport after back-to-back sweeps in Baltimore and Cleveland gave them a ten-game win streak. “Everybody was hitting and we were within a half-game of first place,” wrote Petrocelli. “Were we having fun? You bet.”

At Fenway Park, cheers rippled into a roar when the out-of-town scores revealed a contender had lost. “Those guys in the scoreboard had a flair for the dramatic. They’d pull the old number out of the slot and leave it empty a tantalizing few seconds, then they dropped a number into the slot and the place would go bananas.”

I was 16 and saw a 10-2 rout of the White Sox when Ken Harrelson’s triple stayed eight feet off the ground all the way to the centerfield wall, and watched a heartbreaker against Minnesota when the tying run was forced out at home plate. Afterward, I punched a support beam. The beam won.

Despite being hampered by a sore wrist when he was hit by a pitch in June, Petrocelli played all but 19 games. Indeed, he was as indispensable as Yastrzemski, Conigliaro, George Scott and Reggie Smith. They were the Power Five who combined for 115 of the team’s 158 home runs and accounted for more than half its total hits and RBI.

On the mound, “Gentleman Jim” Lonborg racked up 22 wins and won the Cy Young Award. Petrocelli describes how Baltimore had been cajoling him to sign four years earlier. Red Sox scout Danny Doyle tracked Lonborg down in South Dakota where he was pitching in a summer league. “The Orioles sent a scout to babysit, but our scout (Doyle) was armed with Mr. Yawkey’s checkbook,” wrote Petrocelli. “He knocked on the hotel door and asked him (to name his price).”

Lonborg wanted $18,000 and tuition for dental school. He subsequently attended Tufts University and opened a practice in Hanover after his career ended.

General manager Dick O’Connell was a wheeler-dealer comparable to Dave Dombrowski, Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein. In 1966, he traded outfielder Jim Gosger to the Kansas City A’s for outfielder Jose Tartabull and Dominican reliever John Wyatt. The weak-armed Tartabull contributed by throwing out a runner at home plate in the ninth inning of a one-run win, while Wyatt’s contributions were more significant.

Petrocelli described how Wyatt made $200 a month pitching for the Black Yankees of the Negro League, riding in an old yellow school bus with straight back seats. St. Louis sent him to Class D but he was released the following spring. “You know how they do that?” he said to Petrocelli. “You come to the park one day and your uniform ain’t in your locker.”

Wyatt had 10 wins and 20 saves and was bonked in the back of the head by catcher Bob Tillman on a throw to second base. “I was covering second and wondered what happened to the ball,” writes Petrocelli, “but to remember him for that isn’t fair. His favorite pitch was the ‘wazleen ball’ and it was a real greaser. He had Vaseline all over his uniform, and under his belt is where he kept “The Blob.”

When a player went down, O’Connell worked the phone, getting infielder Jerry Adair from the White Sox and catcher Elston Howard from the Yankees, and after Conigliaro went down, he won the bidding war for Ken “Hawk” Harrelson.

Conigliaro was a local kid with movie-star looks and long-ball power, who in June had become the youngest player to reach 100 home runs. Contrary to public perception he was a quiet kid, said Petrocelli, who avoided the limelight. “On the road Tony, Mike Ryan and I liked to stay in our hotel rooms and practice singing the kind of doo-wop songs you’d hear on the street corners.”  

Conigliaro crowded home plate in an era when beanings were commonplace. “I always believed there was a spot where Tony couldn’t see the inside pitch,” said Petrocelli. “Sometimes he moved too late to get out of the way, and sometimes he never moved at all.”

On a hot August night with Petrocelli in the on-deck circle, California right-hander Jack Hamilton aimed high and tight and shattered Conigliaro’s cheekbone. “It was terrible. I went to see Tony, to see how he was. The left side of his face blew up like a balloon.”

After helping to carry his wounded teammate into the clubhouse, Petrocelli returned and cranked a triple into the centerfield triangle. “It wasn’t fear I was feeling, it was rage.”

Conigliaro returned in 1969 and was named comeback player of the year, but his eyesight deteriorated. He retired in 1975 and seven years later he had a heart attack while his brother was driving him to the airport. He was revived, but the oxygen loss took a terrible toll and he spent the rest of his life in a nursing home. “He was like someone with cerebral palsy. He couldn’t talk,” said Petrocelli.

Conigliaro died in 1990 when he was 45 years old.

But the games went on and O’Connell needed someone to fill the void. “Without Tony we thought we were cooked,” said Petrocelli.

On the West Coast, eccentric A’s owner Charlie Finley had released 25-year-old “Hawk” Harrelson after he called Finley “a menace to baseball.”

“I’d heard he was a heckuva golfer, a pool shark and unbeatable in arm wrestling,” wrote Petrocelli. “He was loaded with charisma and was one of the few players willing to ride the mule Finley kept as a mascot. The guys who’d played with him in Kansas City said he could hit.”

O’Connell out-bid six other teams by offering him a two-year deal for $80,000. “This is the first time in my life I won’t have to run down to the bank and figure how to get my checks covered,” said the ecstatic Harrelson, who drove in 14 runs in 23 games.

As the season wore on, Joe Foy fantasized about buying a Cadillac, George Scott joked with writers that his seashell necklace was infielders’ teeth, and the aforementioned Mike Ryan complained that “first base is a foot too far.”

Nearly everyone contributed.

Before rookie Bill Landis left the bullpen to face future Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, he turned and asked veteran pitcher Gary Bell, “Should I throw him low fastballs?”

“I told him yes to make him feel good, but I didn’t know what got him out,” recalled Bell.

Landis whiffed Mathews on a low fast ball.

After Petrocelli caught the pop fly that clinched the pennant, he gave the ball to Lonborg who handed it to owner Tom Yawkey. In the celebratory locker room, O’Connell bumped Yastrzemski’s salary to $100,000 while Yawkey retired to his private box to listen to organist John Kiley play ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’

After the Cardinals won the World Series in seven games, baseball laureate Roger Angell wrote a chapter in “The Summer Game”  that was titled, “The Flowering and Subsequent Deflowering of New England.” 

Lonborg had pitched on short rest and was roughed up for seven runs and 10 hits in six innings. Meanwhile, imperious flame-thrower Bob Gibson won all three of his starts, allowed three runs and fanned 26 batters in 27 innings.

“We were able to beat their other pitchers but Gibson had great stuff, a great fast ball, a great slider,” said Petrocelli. “I knew what was coming and I still couldn’t hit it.”

Eight years later, Petrocelli was standing on third base when Bernie Carbo’s home run set the stage for Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning blast off the left field foul pole in Game Six.

Two years later, Petrocelli was released after tripling in his last at-bat of spring training. In 1997, he was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame, and he currently lives in Nashua with his wife Elsie. On Saturday mornings he co-hosts a “Remember When” show with Ed Randall on SiriusXM Radio.

When people thank him for making 1967 a season to remember, he tells them the pleasure was all his. “To have made so many people so happy is the greatest reward of all.”

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.