This article was written by Bill Nowlin
This article was published in 1967 Boston Red Sox essays
Analysis of front page coverage of Boston’s largest-circulation newspaper demonstrates the degree to which the Impossible Dream season of 1967 was an entirely unexpected phenomenon.Every springtime, Boston Red Sox fans hope for a pennant and the chance to win the World Series. It wasn’t always this way. There were fallow periods in Red Sox history — the entire decade of the 1920s, for instance, and most of the 1930s. Another deadzone ran from 1951 to the middle ’60s — there really was little hope during those years and, once Ted Williams retired at the end of the 1960 season, there was precious little reason for fans to come out to Fenway. Fewer and fewer did.
After the 1958 season through 1966, not a single Red Sox team even won half its games. The 1965 edition lost an even 100 games and the only thing good about the 72-90 ninth-place record posted in 1966 was that Boston finished a half-game ahead of the New York Yankees. Some consolation. It sounds comical today to read that new Red Sox manager Dick Williams had predicted in late March 1967, “I honestly believe we’ll win more games than we lose.”1 Though it hardly sounds like a pep talk from a fiery skipper to inspire the troops heading into battle, Williams was being much more assertive than it might appear. He had declared that the Red Sox would become a first-division team. And that would truly be something. Most critics doubted it would happen.
Had someone come out and predicted that the Red Sox would win the pennant, they would have been ridiculed. It wasn’t just an impossible dream. It would have been a preposterous notion. No one predicted it. Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough was optimistic; he agreed with Williams that Boston could make the first division; he picked the Red Sox to finish fifth.
There were signs, though; it’s just that most people didn’t see them. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette‘s Bill Ballou writes that the Impossible Dream began on September 16, 1965 when the Red Sox finally fired Mike Higgins, replacing him as GM with Dick O’Connell. The Red Sox were a team of young, aggressive players filled with considerable confidence. In Dick Williams, they had a new, young, very aggressive, demanding, and driven manager fresh from two years of working with many of the same players while managing Boston’s Toronto farm club. And they had a fairly new general manager in O’Connell who had clearly been given a firmer hand in running the club — witness the hiring of Dick Williams.
Furthermore, the Red Sox had played fairly well in the second half of 1966 — as had the Toronto club under Williams. On July 7, the Red Sox were 32-52 with just five games to play before the 1966 All-Star break; from that point on, they won 40 games and lost 38. For a team to hope to win more than it lost was by no means a ridiculous idea.
But the whole thing did seem to come more or less out of the blue. No one expected the team to have the success it had. It’s been said that the 1967 season saved the franchise. Red Sox attendance had been trending downward for years. Tom Yawkey hinted more or less openly about moving the team. There was little sense of optimism. But since 1967, things have never been the same.
There really were indications of sorts. Attendance at 1966 home games climbed back up over 1,000,000 — a 14.7% increase from 1965. A group of businessmen formed a booster club, the BoSox Club. Before the ’67 season began, the Red Sox announced a 40% increase in the number of season tickets sold. At least some veteran fans were showing a little more faith in the team. Not that this was a lot of season ticket holders. A 40% increase meant that 2,000 more people signed up — but that was quite a lot in those days. Newspaper coverage conveyed some of the details, but the placement of stories in the papers didn’t proclaim any message that there was any turnaround underway. Analysis of front page coverage of Boston’s largest-circulation newspaper demonstrates the degree to which the Impossible Dream season of 1967 was an entirely unexpected phenomenon.
What a difference a year made. Winning is indeed what it’s all about, and as soon as the Red Sox began to win, newspaper coverage began to blossom.
Consider this chart, comparing coverage of the Red Sox on the front pages of the Boston Globe in 1966 and 1967.
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What does the chart indicate? The only newspaper studied in detail was the Boston Globe, but its coverage was not atypical. At the time, the Globe published both a morning edition and the Boston Evening Globe. We only analyzed the morning Globe, but the coverage was not distinctly different in the evening editions. Even the subjects of front page Red Sox stories changed over the two-year period studied. Very few of 1966’s front page stories had to do with baseball play. The two January stories were about Ted Williams and his election to the Hall of Fame. One February feature was a light story about how the Red Sox were wanting to appeal to housewives; the other dealt with Earl Wilson being barred from a Florida nightclub because of his race. There were no stories in March, largely reflecting a month-long newspaper strike that ran from March 7 to April 7. Given the pattern of coverage throughout the rest of the year, there likely would have been one or two front page features had there been no strike. There is no reason to believe that this gap in coverage compromises our ability to compare 1966 coverage with that in 1967.
The stories in April through June 1966 included the obligatory Opening Day story and one about possible plans for a new multi-sport stadium in Boston. The trade of Dick Radatz to the Indians for Lee Stange and Don McMahon made the front page on June 3. Both of July’s page one stories reported the induction of Ted Williams into the Hall of Fame. The three September front pagers were: manager Billy Herman getting the axe, the Red Sox losing the last game of the season, and the Sox preparing to hire Dick Williams as the new manager. The Globe gave daily front page play to the 1966 World Series, but those weren’t Red Sox stories — the Red Sox hadn’t been to the Series since 1946. The one October story that was Red Sox-related announced the hiring of Bobby Doerr to coach in the upcoming 1967 campaign.
By year’s end, the only front page news story in all of 1966 that truly touched on baseball action was the one on the final game loss. There were no tags to inside stories on the front page all year long, and no teasers above the masthead. Boston Globe coverage was perfunctory and uninspired, reflecting the team’s 72-90 record which saw them finish in ninth place, just a half-game out of the cellar in what was then the one-division, 10-team American League.
Come 1967 and little was different for the first half of the year. For the first two months of 1967, there was even less front page ink than there had been in 1966. The only page one story that was even remotely Red Sox-related was one in February on the prospects for a new stadium that would house both the Patriots and Red Sox. Even looking at the first page of the sports section, there were only about half the number of Red Sox stories that there had been in 1966. In March, the front page offered two more stadium stories and one photograph showing three helicopters hovering over the playing field at Fenway Park to try and dry out freshly-plowed frozen earth in order to lay new sod and better prepare the field for Opening Day.
Comparing coverage on the first page of the sports section between the two years shows a more striking difference in March and April, but that is largely attributable to the city-wide newspaper strike in 1966. That there were more stories in the first half of 1966 both before and after these two affected months indicates somewhat less coverage on the first page of the sports section in 1967 than in 1966. There were more stories featured on page two, though, particularly during spring training. It would be difficult to argue that sports page coverage of the Red Sox had expanded in any way during the first half of 1967.
April 1967 saw a bump in the number of front page stories, and three of the five stories reflected play. The first three stories were all related to Opening Day: one in advance of the home opener, which was postponed due to the cold, the second one foreshadowing another attempt to get the game in, and the third one reflecting that the game had been played, a 5-4 win over the White Sox. When rookie Billy Rohr threw his near no-hitter against the Yankees on April 14, that rated front page coverage, as did the 18-inning loss to the Yanks two days later.
The only front page story in all of May came on the final day of the month, reporting the Memorial Day doubleheader sweep of the visiting California Angels, 5-4 and 6-1. The first game’s win brought the Red Sox to .500 on the season (20-20) and the second game victory put them up by a game. The team was in fourth place, 5 1/2 games out of first. June saw three front page stories, one more than June 1966. One was a feature on Dick Williams, the second was another stadium story not purely Red Sox-related, and the third was a June 22 front page photograph with caption of the five-minute brawl the broke out the night before at Yankee Stadium after Jim Lonborg hit Yankees pitcher Thad Tillotson, in evident retaliation for Tillotson’s beaning of Joe Foy in the top of the same inning.
It was in July that Globe front page editors really began to feature the Red Sox, as fans began to contract a germ of excitement that would later build into true pennant fever. The July 3 paper featured Joe Foy’s eighth-inning homer that won a 2-1 game for the Red Sox at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium. Rookie Gary Waslewski threw three-hit baseball (John Wyatt got the last two outs) and went to 2-0, while the Red Sox were a full five games over .500 (39-34) and in second place, albeit tied with three other teams for second-place honors.
At the All-Star Break, the Sox were in sole possession of fifth place but still only six games behind the White Sox in the tightly-bunched standings. They began to climb and when they reached second place once more, on July 21, with their seventh win in a row, this rated a teaser above the masthead in the next morning’s paper. It was the first one for at least the 18 months studied here, but the first of some 29 that would occur in the remaining 10 weeks of the regular season. Clearly, the morning Globe was beginning to take notice.
The big breakthrough in Globe front page treatment began two days later, when the July 24 paper featured two stories reporting the wild welcome accorded the road warrior Red Sox who had flown back from Cleveland with a 10-game winning streak in their pockets after sweeping a six-game trip to Baltimore and Cleveland. The team traveling party was surprised Sunday night to find a crowd variously reported as from 5,000 to 10,000 fans awaiting them on their landing at Logan Airport. There were more fans waiting for the returning Red Sox than had greeted The Beatles the year before. “Cheering Crowd Engulfs Players at Logan” read the Globe subhead. Everything had changed. The Boston Record-American banner headline on Tuesday morning blared, “Whole Town Ga-Ga Over Sox.” It had been a long time since there had been anything out of Fenway that stirred the blood, but this was the real thing. This was a spontaneous outpouring. The newspaper reported the phenomenon; it had not stimulated it.
The Los Angeles Times took notice from across the country (the Angels were visiting Fenway) and columnist John Hall described the Red Sox resurgence that had captivated the Boston area. “Captivated may not be the word,” he admitted. “Enslaved is more appropriate.” It was hot in Boston, but fans flocked to Fenway to buy tickets, creating lines around the block. Another article headlined, “Vaccine Rushed to Hub Fans” invoked pennant fever for the first time” “Boston is in the throes of its worst epidemic in 18 years. The diagnosis for the malady is a rare one for this community. It is labeled pennant fever.”
The morning after the Sox beat the Angels in the bottom of the 10th inning, 6-5, putting them just one game behind the league-leading White Sox, the July 28 Globe featured the headline that provided the line for the season: “The Impossible Dream?” with a subhead reading “‘Cardiac Kids’ At It Again.” The Sox had come from behind with three runs in the bottom of the ninth on a two-run homer by Joe Foy into the left-field netting and a solo home run over everything off the bat of Tony Conigliaro. They won it in the 10th on a leadoff triple by Reggie Smith and a subsequent error by California third baseman Paul Schaal on a Jerry Adair grounder. Bedlam reigned in Beantown.
Liftoff had occurred. There was no looking back. The Globe published 31 morning papers in August and a full 13 of them featured the Red Sox on the front page in one shape or another. On the inside pages, the paper offered a “Meet the Red Sox” series of individual profiles on the ballplayers and a companion series of profiles of the wives and fiancées of the Bosox. Beginning on August 25, Carl Yastrzemski wrote an exclusive thrice-weekly column, which usually began on page one. Above the masthead, some 14 issues of the Globe featured a teaser directing readers to previous day’s score or other Sox stories featured within. The first page of the sports section had already seen a jump to 70 stories in July, an average of more than two per day — not counting the stories continued from the front page.
September offered even more of the same, with the pennant race now pretty intense and in earnest. The 20 front page stories combined with an additional 14 teasers. There was a decline in first page stories in the sports section, but to some extent that reflected the increasing number of front page features that jumped to the front of the sports section. The column inches devoted to stories about the Sox expanded; the stories were longer, too.
October saw an explosion of Sox coverage as the Globe practically surrendered its front page to the Red Sox through the final couple of days of the regular season and the World Series itself. Given that the Series ended on October 12, it’s easy to understand that the lion’s share of the 42 front page stories fell in the first half of October. The October 1 Sunday paper included a 16-page supplement on the team and the season. The entire front page of the October 2 Globe was Red Sox. It was pretty much all Red Sox, all the time. News from the rest of the world could be found inside. Given the Red Sox dominance of the front page, there was no need for teasers and none were offered.
After the season played out on October 12 with the final 7-2 defeat at the hands of Bob Gibson and the Cardinals, the world soon righted itself and the front page quickly reverted to covering the news of the day. “The Slipper Wouldn’t Fit” headlined a story on the end of the season for the “Cinderella Sox.”
On October 21 and 22, some 50,000 protesters marched on Washington and surrounded the Pentagon demanding an end to the war in Vietnam. The antiwar movement had reached critical mass and both principled and countercultural struggles would dominate news coverage for the next several years. But in Boston and throughout New England, the Red Sox had re-established themselves on center stage in the psyche of sports fans in the six-state region and captured the fancy of a new legion of far-flung fans as well. One can see a tremendous interest in the Red Sox in both November and December compared with 1966. The front page story in November was about Tony Conigliaro’s attempt at recovery. One of the four front pagers in December was Carl Yastrzemski promoting Globe Santa to help bring some Christmas joy to children in the Greater Boston area. The other three stories were all about Jim Lonborg’s skiing accident just before Christmas.
The stories on the first sports page discussed Darrell Johnson taking over as pitching coach from Sal Maglie — the November 2 Globe actually had three separate stories on that, plus another on Yaz’s salary. Yaz wrote another column in the November 15 paper. The 19th pronounced that the Red Sox “will trade almost anyone” to improve the team. November 30, the Globe reported that the Red Sox had acquired Ray Culp from the Cubs for Bill Schlesinger and $50,000. Jim Lonborg re-signing for $45,000 was big news in mid-December, as was the gathering of folks to watch the 1967 World Series film at Fenway Park. The next day the Red Sox traded Mike Ryan and cash for Dick Ellsworth and Gene Oliver. December 20 saw a story “Yaz Deserves Own Stadium.” Of course, the end of the month had a number of stories on the Lonborg accident.
All in all, though, one sees a dramatic increase in coverage on the Globe‘s first sports page, too, from 1966 to 1967 — sure signs that the interest in the Red Sox continued well after the Series was over.
Attendance in the years after Ted Williams dropped from the million-plus range to an average of 812,160 from 1961 through 1966. Some 1,727,832 came to Fenway in 1967, marking the first time Boston had led the American League in attendance since the 1915 season. Ticket sales increased another 200,000 in 1968, but there was a bit of an ebb until 1975, with an average for the years 1969 through 1974 of 1,648,168. In other words, double the average attendance in the years preceding 1967. The 1975 season cemented the relationship and sealed the deal. The franchise was never the same again.
“1967 not only turned on the fans, but I think it turned the whole Red Sox organization around. I think we became winners instead of losers. We expected to go out and win, instead of lose. The thinking changed. We became winners.” — Carl Yastrzemski to Ken Coleman, in “The Impossible Dream Remembered”
BILL NOWLIN was one of the first fans to the mound when Jim Lonborg induced the final out and the Red Sox won the 1967 pennant. He was elected as SABR’s Vice President in 2004 and re-elected for five more terms before stepping down in 2016, when he was elected as a Director. He is also the author of dozens of books on the Red Sox or Red Sox players, including “Ted Williams At War” and “Love That Dirty Water: The Standells and the Improbable Victory Anthem of the Boston Red Sox” (both from Rounder Books.) He has written Johnny Pesky’s biography (Mr. Red Sox) and co-edited a series of Red Sox “team books” written by numerous SABR authors that focus on different years when the Red Sox fielded exceptional teams, including: ‘”75: The Red Sox Team that Saved Baseball” (2005); “The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox” (2007); “When Boston Had The Babe: The 1918 Red Sox” (2008); and “Lefty, Double-X, and The Kid: The 1939 Red Sox, a Team in Transition” (2009). He is also co-founder of Rounder Records of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s traveled to more than 100 countries, but says there’s no place like Fenway Park.
1 Boston Globe, March 27, 1967.