The sixth, and last, in a season-long series of reflections on the 50th anniversary of the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox season of 1967.
Rarely if ever has a World Series been as anti-climactic as the 1967 Red Sox-Cardinals Octoberfest. At least that was the case hereabouts where the magnificent but exhausting pennant race had left the entire region emotionally drained. What more could be reasonably asked? And now the Impossible Dreamers had 48 hours to crank it up again; it was a seemingly impossible task.
Deservedly, these well-rested Cardinals were heavy favorites, and if that was a song these brash, young Red Sox had heard before, it was no less true. A strong and seasoned lineup featured Brothers Brock, Cepeda, Flood, Maris, and McCarver. But it was their ace pitcher who made them seem indomitable. At his professional pinnacle, Bob Gibson was widely considered unbeatable, and he set about proving as much in Game One, besting Jose Santiago, 2-1. Nor was it that close. Gibby simply cruised.
Back came Jim Lonborg, who was about to captivate the entire nation – much as he had New England – with his elegant balance of scholarly bearing and athletic grace. In Game Two, he had a bloody no-hitter going with two out in the eighth before a wall-job double by the ingrate Julian Javier blemished a splendid 5-0 whitewash by Boston. But in St. Louis, the visitors lost the next two, with Gibson effortlessly blanking them, 6-0, in Game Four. They were seemingly out-classed.
Enter Lonborg again: He won Game Five, 3-1, a three-hitter blemished only by a meaningless late homer by Roger Maris. The Boston ace was matching the Great Gibson stride for stride.
A half-century later, those last two games back at Fenway remain poignant in memory for the sweet mood they stirred, transcending the bittersweet result.
Facing elimination in Game Six, Manager Williams, contemptuous of the conventional wisdom to the very last, dared to start a minor league journeyman, Gary Waslewski, and survive, thanks to a homer binge: two by Rico Petrocelli, another by Reggie Smith, and yet another by the Mighty Yaz, his third of the Series in which he’d end his other-worldly season by hitting .400.
So there would be a seventh game. New England was again brinking on insanity. The headline in the morning Herald boldly declared a giddy outcome of “Lonborg and Champagne” But it would all prove a reach too far. For sure, the tides of the thing had ordained a final, epic Gibson-Lonborg confrontation as inevitable, and the raw inherent drama was sky-high that day. But for it to come to this was grossly unfair to Lonborg.
This would be the 4th time in 11 days he’d been asked to save his team in a mindlessly pressure-packed, do-or-die game, and this time it would have to be on two-days of rest. He had already pitched two complete games in four days in the Series while facing Baseball’s best and strongest pitcher on regular rest. The odds were ridiculous, and you’d have a hard time finding a greater demand ever having been made of a single player.
But Williams had no choice. There was no one else to turn to. Moreover, though a hard-nosed character not given to mere sentiment, the manager had been awed by Lonborg’s valor, maybe even embracing the popular notion there was something anointed about the lad.
But on this day, Lonborg had no chance. Clearly gassed, he lasted six innings, allowing seven runs, the last three coming on a homer by his nemesis, Javier. Trudging off after the sixth, he got a thunderous ovation from the crowd. They knew the party was over, but they still near shook the old ball yard to its roots. Even the Cardinals in their dugout were clapping.
It was a great crowd. They were on their feet again in the ninth cheering lustily through the last hopeless gestures of a 7-2 defeat and Gibson still fuming. To that reality, they remained oblivious, more determined to pay tribute to something they properly understood had been mighty rare.
Hours later, after we of the media mob had finally departed, clusters of fans by the hundreds were still hanging around outside the park, lingering quietly in October’s gathering darkness. It was touching.
In the post-game locker room, the mood was mellow and accepting. There were few regrets; nor should there have been. In the Cards’ room, on the other hand, the mood was raucous, even derisive. Boston’s upstart underdogs had gotten under the skin of the mighty Cardinals. Cepeda and McCarver, both of whom ended their careers in a Red Sox uniform, formed a conga line and mockingly chanted over and over, “Lonborg and Champagne, cha cha, cha…Lonborg and Champagne.” Though a bit much, it was amusing, if only faintly.
The “Impossible Dream” had no sequel, really, for which the laborious reasons are too myriad, let alone necessary, to labor over here. It was magic, and magic is too whimsical and mercurial to be bottled or duplicated. It was probably that simple.
There would be plenty of distinction, however, at least for the drama’s four principal play-actors. For Carl Yastrzemski, whose single-season heroics have never since been matched in my opinion, the road to the Hall of Fame was paved in 1967.
The same might have been true for Gentleman Jim Lonborg. But fate ever intrigues. The subsequent injury that likely robbed him of further greatness in baseball doubtless helped re-direct him to comparable acclaim in a rather more important field, dentistry. One suspects Dr. Jim Lonborg has no regrets.
Nor in the end did Dick Williams, even after getting unceremoniously canned by Tom Yawkey only two years after he had brilliantly orchestrated the owner’s most joyful moment in baseball. A wiser, less-harsh Williams managed the Oakland A’s to a mini-dynasty that would be his ticket to Cooperstown.
For Dick O’Connell, the general manager, whose brilliance in that post has been unsurpassed in Red Sox annals in my book, there could have been more rewards. He served Yawkey for another decade, no easy task. And he never has received the credit he deserves for delivering to Boston its first fully integrated baseball team. O’Connell did it! He made it happen. It’s a recognition the crusty and oft inscrutable ex-Naval intelligence officer never demanded but nonetheless earned.
To them, and to all of their dandy supporting cast is left 50 years later but one last word – BRAVO!