A sellout crowd packed Fenway Park and then waited 20 minutes for the rain to subside. Not a long wait to honor a man who had spent 23 years donning a Red Sox uniform. When he started in 1961, Carl Yastrzemski was just a kid charged with the unenviable task of replacing Ted Williams in left field while playing for a team familiar with finishing at the bottom of the American League. As America struggled for civil rights, mourned assassinations, and went to Vietnam, Woodstock and the moon, Yastrzemski helped lead the Red Sox to the “Impossible Dream” World Series of 1967. He grew up during the revitalization of baseball in Boston. When America came to grips with Watergate, long gas lines, and hostages, Yastrzemski and memorable Red Sox teams played before an electrified Fenway Park. And as Americans feared AIDS, mourned John Lennon, and started talking about personal computers, Yaz had distinguished himself with over 3,000 hits and over 400 home runs. Now, at the age of 44, he was calling it a career and Yaz Day was a time to reminisce and say goodbye before an otherwise meaningless game at the end of the season.
With family and friends in town for the celebration, Yaz didn’t get to bed until 2 A.M. and then, not sleeping a wink, found himself hungry. He then realized, “I forgot to eat.”1 Later that morning he made his way to the Red Sox clubhouse for the final time as a player, remarking to Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe that much of the beauty of the game is contained there. The highs and lows; the joys and tears, he’d seen it all. “When it’s been 23 years of all those hours, the bond is one of the things you remember most because it is something that – like the seasons and all its ups and downs – you share only with your teammates. Which is why what my teammates did is what I’ll probably remember most.”2
That moment of reflection was followed by Red Sox catcher Gary Allenson stuffing bubblegum in Yaz’s shoe and lighting it on fire.
“I kind of figured that might happen,” remarked Yastrzemski.3
But then, in a more serious moment, Red Sox players gathered around his locker and right fielder Dwight Evans spoke a few words of thanks on behalf of the team and presented him with a fishing rod. Yaz, who often held back his emotions on the field, broke down and cried.4
The ceremony began as Red Sox public address announcer Sherm Feller announced that in 1961 the Red Sox welcomed two rookies who had served them well for the past 23 years. One was Yastrzemski, and the other, television announcer Ned Martin, who was now introduced as master of ceremonies.
As Yastrzemski was called to the field, the standing ovation lasted a full six minutes as he waved to the crowd and fought back tears. Some of the highlights of the ceremony included a few words from Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, a gift of a rocking chair by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, a piece of the Fenway left-field wall, a Yaz Day song by Boston WHDH radio personality Jess Cain, a Notre Dame jacket, gifts from and donations to Yaz’s alma mater Merrimack College, donations made in his name to the Jimmy Fund of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a 1984 Lincoln, a boat, a four-wheel-drive Bronco, and a four-minute highlight film on the center field scoreboard to the sounds of Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.”
When the gifts were given and the speeches concluded, Yastrzemski spoke a few words, including:
“I am proud to only have worn a Red Sox uniform for my entire 23 years. It was a privilege to have worn it longer than any other player. … In recent weeks I have been asked how I would like to be remembered. I hope you will think of me as a winner because I feel just playing one game at Fenway Park makes me a winner.”5
There was a moment of silence in memory of Yastrzemski’s mother and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey.
“New England, I love you,”6 Yastrzemski concluded his speech. He then trotted around Fenway park, high-fiving those in the crowd he could reach and waving to the rest as Fenway Park organist John Kiley played “Auld Lang Syne.”
Oh yeah, and there was still a game to be played, which, to put it mildly, was an afterthought, with the sixth-place Red Sox (77-83) taking on the seventh-place Cleveland Indians (69-91). The sellout crowd was there to watch Yastrzemski take some of his final at-bats. The Red Sox sent Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd to the mound. The Indians countered with Lary Sorensen.
Yaz had nothing left to give. “I tried to concentrate, to just stay on the pitch. … I didn’t stay on one pitch all day. I just couldn’t do it,” he said later.7 Neither could the rest of the Red Sox against Sorenson. Boyd and Sorensen matched scoreless frames in the first three innings. The only noise came from the standing ovation for Yastrzemski in the second. (He quieted them by grounding out to first base.) In the fourth inning, Cleveland’s Mike Hargrove walked, moved to second on a wild pitch, went to third on a fly ball by Andre Thornton, and scored on a grounder by Ron Hassey to give the Tribe a 1-0 lead.
That run held up until the bottom of the seventh. The Red Sox tied the score as Chico Walker tripled and scored on a fly ball hit by Lee Graham. Yastrzemski, as he also did in the fifth inning, grounded out to second base.
The Indians scored two unearned runs in the top of the ninth. A fielding error by Wade Boggs led to two unearned runs and the Indians carried a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
There was now a buzz at Fenway in anticipation of a Hollywood ending. The grizzled veteran Yastrzemski was due up fourth. The inning started well as Boggs singled to right. Walker flied out to center field and Graham grounded out to third base, moving Boggs to second base, but now there were two outs. And up came Yastrzemski, representing the tying run. But the overcast Fenway Park was far from the bright lights of Hollywood that day, and there were no heroics from the Red Sox captain. Yaz grounded weakly back to the pitcher, and Yaz Day was in the history books. Yastrzemski played one final game the next day, the 3,308th of his career.
Both pitchers threw complete games. Sorensen gave up one run on five hits and struck out three. Boyd allowed nine hits and three runs (one earned), and struck out six. The game belonged to Sorensen, but the day was all Yastrzemski.
While the details of this game have been long since forgotten, Yaz Day was a historic event in Red Sox history. When Ted Williams hit home run number 521 in his legendary final at-bat on a similarly overcast day at Fenway, only 10,454 filled the stands. On Yaz Day 23 years later, a crowd of 33,491 joined him, yet it felt as if all of New England was looking on to bid farewell.
Many of them had grown up with Yaz … and had dreamed impossible dreams.
I was a 10-year-old boy in 1983, and Yastrzemski’s final year was my first year as a Red Sox fan. Although I never saw a live game until my college years, I followed the Red Sox faithfully through radio, television, and newspaper box scores. On this particular day, I was expected to go with other children from our church to a state competition and compete against other churches in quoting Bible verses. I told my mom I had no intention of going. Yaz Day was far more important, in my opinion, and I would remember it years later, but never remember the church activity. Pretty “prophetic” for a 10-year-old, but it came true. I stayed home and watched Yaz Day on our old black and white TV, and became enthralled with Yaz Day, the Red Sox, and baseball history. I still am.
The author gathered details of the Yaz Day ceremony from an original recording of the WSBK broadcast.
1 Leigh Montville, “One Last Fenway Go-Round for Yaz,” Boston Globe, October 2, 1983.
2 Peter Gammons, “Loosening the Tie That Binds,” Boston Globe, October 2, 1983.
5 Taken from a recording of the WSBK broadcast.
7 Montville, “One Last Fenway.”