1967 Red Sox: Was it really 'Impossible'?
This article originally appeared in SABR's "The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox: Pandemonium on the Field" (SABR, 2017), edited by Bill Nowlin and Dan Desrochers.
In the past generation or so, we have learned a lot about how baseball players and teams are likely to evolve, although there are still enough surprises to warrant watching the games. I have often wondered whether more modern thinking would have better prepared us for some of the “surprise” player and team breakthroughs of the past. It seems likely, to state just one example, that there were plenty of signs that the 1969 New York Mets were a team on the rise, though obviously a 27-game improvement from 1968 could not have been anticipated.
Growing up in New England, it was an article of faith that the 1967 Red Sox won the American League pennant with the help of divine intervention — that it was an “Impossible Dream.” With the passage of time, this depiction has become less satisfying, if for no other reasons than that it gives short shrift to the people who actually built the team. In his 1987 book, broadcaster Ken Coleman wrote, “The real miracle of 1967 is that it happened, not as the conscious effort applied to a preconceived plan, but in spite of just about everything.”1 Notwithstanding this supposed lack of either effort or a plan, Dick O’Connell, the team’s principal architect, was honored with the Sporting News Executive of the Year award.
Suffice it to say that no one saw it coming. Perusing several 1967 preseason publications, most of them envisioned the Red Sox finishing either ninth (as they had in 1966) or 10th in the 10-team American League. Sports Illustrated came the closest to expressing optimism, saying: “If [manager Dick Williams] can find some pitching, too, the 1967 Sox may revive baseball in Boston.”2
The Red Sox had been a sad outfit for several years. After a nice five-year run in the late 1940s, fueled mainly by players signed and nurtured by the organization, the club wasted the last decade of Ted Williams’ great career because they stopped developing talent. Joe Cronin became the team’s general manager after the 1947 season, which is about the time that the well ran dry. The 1950s teams more or less treaded water, usually finishing third or fourth, but never sniffing a pennant race.
The Red Sox were also, of course, the last team to field an African-American player—second baseman Pumpsie Green in 1959—and it is tempting to blame their continued mediocrity on this organizational bigotry. Obviously, if the Red Sox had aggressively signed black players in the 1950s they might have won several pennants, but one could claim the same thing about every team in the league. The entire American League lagged pitifully behind the Nationals in this area, leading to a talent gap that was not eliminated until the 1980s. More to the point, the Red Sox weren’t signing many good white players either.
The team finally cratered in 1960, Williams’ coda, finishing seventh (of eight) at 65-89, their worst record in 28 years. The next six seasons were similarly dreary, with placements between sixth and ninth in the new 10-team league. The club was also unpopular, playing before crowds of eight or ten thousand people (although many other teams weren’t drawing much better—only four AL teams reached a million in attendance in 1965, and only five in 1966). The Red Sox were playing in what was seen to be an old decaying ballpark, and their owner, Tom Yawkey, was trying to hitch a ride on the new stadium bandwagon sweeping the nation.
Not only did the team play poorly, it was filled with “colorful” mediocrities. When Dick Williams finished his career with the Sox in 1963 and 1964, he complained about the lazy, careless attitudes of the veterans, who he believed were rubbing off on the young guys. They were a lousy team loaded with funny stories--Dick Stuart pestering manager Johnny Pesky, Gene Conley getting drunk and trying to book a flight to Jerusalem—it was all great fun. The team’s best player was a relief pitcher, Dick Radatz, who was called upon often enough that he was worn out after four great years. The team’s general manager, Mike Higgins, was an old drinking buddy of Yawkey’s, having been a player (twice) and manager (twice) for the team before taking over control of the organization in 1961.
A turning point in team history took place on September 16, 1965, on a night that Dave Morehead no-hit the Indians at Fenway Park. Morehead did not have much of a career, perhaps partly because he was upstaged after the biggest game of his life. After the game, it was announced that Higgins had been mercifully cashiered and that Dick O’Connell would take his place atop the organization. O’Connell had joined the Red Sox in 1949 as assistant farm director, and climbed the ladder through hard work and competence—he was the first Red Sox GM who was not a personal friend of Yawkey. In the past six years he had been a team Vice President, quietly working with farm director Neal Mahoney to rebuild a long-neglected minor-league organization. O’Connell was one of the most important people in the history of the franchise, arguably the best general manager the team has ever had.
Dick Williams, who O’Connell hired to manage in 1967, is often credited with instituting the youth movement that propelled the team to contention. In fact, the philosophical shift started with O’Connell and manager Billy Herman in 1966. By the middle of that season, O’Connell had disposed of most of the old or middle aged players that he inherited—Bill Monbouquette, Ed Bressoud, Lee Thomas, Felix Mantilla, Dick Radatz, Frank Malzone, Earl Wilson, among them. Truth be told, the crop of players he got in return was not impressive, but O’Connell properly ascertained that he needed to start over.
When the dust settled, O’Connell had kept but three regular players from the 1965 team. Carl Yastrzemski was the lone success story in the team’s repeated investments in “bonus babies” in the 1950s, signing in 1959, tearing up two minor leagues and taking over left field in 1961. He was seen as a disappointment to many who had wanted him to be the next Ted Williams, but he won the 1963 batting title, and led the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage in 1965. Tony Conigliaro, an immensely popular swinger from nearby Revere, had burst on the scene with 24 homers in 111 games as a 19-year-old in 1964, following up with a home run title in 1965. Shortstop Rico Petrocelli was a 1965 rookie who had shown some promise on offense (18 home runs in 1966) and defense.
Now that he was at the wheel, O’Connell was ready to show off more of his system. Joe Foy, the 1965 third baseman for Toronto, was the MVP of the International League, winning the batting title and socking 14 home runs. George Scott, a third sacker for Pittsfield, was the MVP of the Eastern League, winning the league's Triple Crown. Two young third basemen--what to do? Herman moved Scott to first base a week into the season, and put both players in the lineup. Scott began the season on a tear, and actually started the All-Star Game, cooling off to hit .245 with 27 home runs. Foy was even better. His rate stats were impressive (.262/.364/.413), especially at a time when the league averages were .240/.304/.369. He improved substantially during the year, hitting .213 with four home runs in the first half, and .306 with 11 home runs thereafter. It was a great rookie year, and Foy looked to be a rising star.
With five positions now held by promising young players, two positions were manned by young players who did not develop—catcher Mike Ryan and second baseman George Smith—and a coterie of temps shared center field.
The pitching staff was less promising. Monbouquette and Wilson had been the best two hurlers on the squad over the past several seasons, but both were gone. Monbouquette's effective days were behind him, but Wilson, supposedly traded for exposing the team’s association with a segregated night club in spring training, would have been quite a help in 1967. The two pitchers who O’Connell kept were Morehead, who failed repeated trials over the next few years, and Jim Lonborg, a promising but erratic hard-throwing right-hander. By mid-year, Herman was using José Santiago (25), Lee Stange (29), Dennis Bennett (26) and Darrell Brandon (25) with Lonborg (24) in the rotation.
The 1966 Red Sox finished ninth at 72-90, which was one-half game better than the Yankees. Although the Orioles made short work of the pennant race, there was quite a four-team dogfight for the basement. The Red Sox seemed to have it well in hand most of year, reaching 29-51 on July 4 and holding tenth place into September, but, as usual, they were “overtaken” by the Yankees down the stretch. The Senators and Athletics, perennial losers in the 1960s, finished just off the pace.
In 1967 the team continued to mine the talent from its system. Dick Williams, who managed the Triple-A club in Toronto to consecutive championships in 1965 and 1966, was installed as the new Red Sox skipper. Williams brought the two best players from his Toronto team with him to Boston: switch-hitting center fielder Reggie Smith, who had won the batting title (.320) and hit 18 home runs; and second baseman Mike Andrews, who had hit .267 but with patience (89 walks) and power (14 home runs). As with Foy and Scott in 1966, Smith and Andrews walked right in and filled huge holes on the team.
To summarize, entering the 1967 season the Red Sox had good or promising young players at seven of the eight positions. Outfielders Yastrzemski (27) and Conigliaro (22) were established stars. Infielders Scott (23) and Foy (24) were two of the better young players in the league. Petrocelli (24) was making progress, and Smith (22) and Andrews (23) were prized rookies. Only at catcher, where Mike Ryan and Russ Gibson would share the load, was the solution less encouraging. Remarkably, all nine of these players came out of Neil Mahoney's farm system; all but Yastrzemski in just the last three years. The pitching staff began the season with the same young arms as the previous year, plus Billy Rohr, who had won 14 games for Williams in Toronto.
Most observers conceded the 1967 pennant to the Orioles. After romping through the AL in 1966, the O’s had summarily swept the Dodgers in the World Series. The club had a few middle-aged stars—Frank Robinson (31), Brooks Robinson (29) and Luis Aparicio (33)—but they were showing no signs of slowing down. The rest of the starting lineup was in their early 20s, and Steve Barber, at 29, was the old man of a deep and talented pitching staff.
The rest of the league was fairly easy to sort out as well. The toughest challenge was likely to come from the Twins, who had won the pennant in 1965 and had as much front line talent as any team in the league. The Tigers and White Sox had been threatening for a few years, and would likely stay in contention through most of the summer. The Indians and the Angels had enough young talent to scramble for the fifth and sixth slots. The four clubs that had waged the classic battle for the cellar in 1966—New York, Washington, Kansas City, and Boston—were generally picked to finish near the bottom of the league again.
The American League race generally worked out the way everyone had thought, except for two wrinkles: the Orioles, the overwhelming favorite, finished tied for sixth, and the Red Sox, a consensus also-ran, held off the three teams expected to challenge the Orioles, and played in the World Series. How in the world could such a thing have happened?
First of all, Baltimore was beset with a passel of misfortune. Boog Powell had a terrible season, Frank Robinson was injured much of the year, and the team’s two best pitchers, Dave McNally and Jim Palmer, got hurt, the latter derailing his great career for two full seasons. The Orioles outscored their opponents 654-592, totals that would typically yield a won-loss record of about 88-73, yet they finished 12 games worse, at 76-85. The 1967 season turned out to be a stumble in the road for the Orioles, who quickly retooled and became one of history’s great teams by 1969.
With a surprising vacancy at the top, four teams spent much of the summer locked in a legendary pennant race, won by the Red Sox on the last day of the season. The other three contenders—Minnesota, Detroit, and Chicago—came away from this great race feeling as if they had let it slip away, that a blown game or series here or there had cost them their chance at the flag. But let’s face it: it was a great season and a great race, but these were not great teams. They were fine ballclubs with discernible weaknesses. The Red Sox’ .568 winning percentage was the lowest ever for an American League champion (before the league split into divisions).
The Red Sox vaulted from ninth to first place, it is true, but that fact overstates their improvement. The club’s record increased by "only" 20 wins, from 72 to 92, which is impressive but not historically unusual. In 1967 alone, the St. Louis Cardinals, the NL champs, improved by 18 wins (83 to 101), and the Cubs by 28 (59 to 87). The 1965 Twins advanced by 23 wins (79 to 102), the 1969 Mets by 27 (73 to 100).
What makes the Red Sox leap look so dramatic is that they were playing in a highly compressed league. In 1966, the Yankees winning percentage of .440 was the “best” last place showing in American League history (again, before the league split in to divisions). The 10th-place Yankees were just 17 1/2 games behind the second-place Twins, whose winning percentage was .549. The only team that separated itself from this pack—the Orioles—collapsed in 1967, creating a unique confluence of events for the Red Sox.
Another thing largely missed from the Red Sox’ escape from the cellar in September 1966: they stood at 29-51 on the Fourth of July, but finished 43-39, only one-half game worse than the Orioles. It was the pitching staff which fueled the improvement, as the team’s ERA improved from 4.42 in the first half (easily the worst in the league) to 3.42 in the second half (basically the league average), playing in the worst pitchers park in the league. Jim Lonborg (6-3, 2.95), Lee Stange (6-5, 2.60) and Darrell Brandon (7-6, 3.32) were all dramatically better at the end of the year.
Another way to look at the 1965-67 Red Sox is to divide each season into 81 game halves.
|1965 first half||31-50||.383|
|1965 second half||31-50||.383|
|1966 first half||30-51||.370|
|1966 second half||42-39||.519|
|1967 first half||42-39||.519|
|1967 second half||50-31||.617|
The Red Sox were remarkably consistent for a season and a half, before melding into a competitive squad in mid-1966. While it should not be ignored that this club was hopelessly out of the pennant race in the second half, an 81-game sample size is compelling evidence of genuine improvement. The 1967 team’s promising start was really just a carryover from the previous year. Fueled by the emergence of a few of their young players and several key mid-season acquisitions, the team found another gear in July 1967, and completed their storybook campaign.
Should we have foreseen the 1967 Red Sox winning the pennant? No, of course not. A 20-win improvement is too much to expect, no matter the quality of the young talent. What’s more, the collapse of the Orioles was a necessary component to the Red Sox dream season, and was similarly unlikely.
That being said, there were many reasons to be optimistic about the Red Sox. They showed real improvement in the latter half of the 1966 season. Their young core of position players was as promising as anyone’s. They were playing in a historically compressed league, allowing for large gains in the standings with handful of additional wins. They had a new young manager who was committed to the youngsters. Considering all of this, no one should have been surprised by a 10-game improvement, to 80-85 wins.
Furthermore, everything did not go right for the 1967 Red Sox. Joe Foy, who had been one of the best young players in baseball in 1966, regressed a bit and spent a lot of time on the bench in the second half, as Williams became more enamored with Dalton Jones and Jerry Adair. Foy had on-base skills that were unappreciated in his time, and his career petered out while he was still a productive player. Tony Conigliaro, a 22-year-old veteran, was in the midst of perhaps his finest season when it was brutally terminated by a fastball to the left eye on August 18. Darrell Brandon had finished 1966 with a flourish and broke camp as the team’s #2 starter, but finished 5-11, 4.17. Billy Rohr, the rookie who began the season as the #3 starter and just missed a no-hitter in his first major league game in Yankee Stadium, was back in the minor leagues by June.
Of course, several young players did break out with big years, including Petrocelli, Scott, Lonborg, and especially Yastrzemski. Yaz’s season (.326/.418/.622) was the best by any player in the 1960s, and was likely responsible for a good chunk of the 20-game improvement. But the team had so many young players who had either shown ability in the major leagues or in the high minors that it only needed a few of them to break out.
O’Connell also made several astute pickups during the year. He landed Gary Bell from the Indians in June, and Bell became the team’s second dependable starter (12-8, 3.16). The Sox also acquired Jerry Adair, Norm Siebern, and Elston Howard, all of whom played important roles. A few days after Conigliaro’s beaning, Ken Harrelson fell into the team’s lap after he was released by the Kansas City Athletics in a fit of pique by Charlie Finley.
The Red Sox’ organizational improvement was sustained. Consider what happened next. In 1968 Conigliaro missed the entire season to his eye injury, Lonborg broke his leg, stalling his career for several years, and Scott suffered through a ridiculously ghastly season (.171/.236/.237). Despite all of this, the team finished 86-76, a drop of just six games, an accomplishment every bit as astonishing as their “Impossible Dream.”
The combination of the big injuries and the emergence of the great Orioles teams kept the Red Sox away from pennant races for a few years, but Boston ran off 16 consecutive winning seasons, one of the longest streaks in baseball history. The talent from Dick O’Connell's farm system continued unabated, producing All-Stars Sparky Lyle, Carlton Fisk, Bill Lee, Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Rick Burleson, and Fred Lynn by 1974. The homegrown team that emerged in the mid-1970s was better than the 1967 outfit.
Dick O’Connell would run the team until forced out by a new ownership regime in 1976. The organization he presided over enjoyed the most sustained success the team has had in the past 50 years. Although the team has enjoyed success again in the new century, the organization has never matched the crop of homegrown talent it produced in the O'Connell years.
The season was obviously not "Impossible," since it happened, but that makes it no less magical and heartwarming to have lived through.
Raise a glass.
MARK ARMOUR grew up in New England, and could correctly spell all of the ethnic names on this team by the age of seven. He now writes baseball from his home in Oregon. Mark is the co-author of "Paths to Glory," the director of SABR’s Baseball Biography Project, a contributor to many websites and SABR journals, and, most importantly, Maya and Drew’s father.
1 Ken Coleman and Dan Valenti, Impossible Dream Remembered (Lexington, Massachusetts: Stephen Greene Press, 1987), 239.
2 “Rising Dynasty for the Birds?” Sports Illustrated, April 17, 1967.