We always hear that the Red Sox attract the most literary attention and bring out the finest in writers, whether from the world of sports or outside of it. Think Stephen King, David Halberstam or John Updike. That is part of what we now know as Red Sox Nation – a gathering place in sports for the nation’s literati.
I wonder where they were in 1967, the year of “The Impossible Dream?”
I have always thought that the ’67 Red Sox was one of the most important teams in baseball history. With the exception of the ’21 Yankees, which forever changed that franchise (now that they had Babe Ruth), the ’67 Red Sox turned that franchise into one of the most successful in sports, a story that continues to this day. That’s 40 years, living off that wonderful final weekend of the season when so much went right.
Unfortunately, by losing the World Series, publishers probably backed off from any book deals – failing to understand just how mighty this pennant would be.
To set the stage, understand that up through 1966, there really was no great Yankees-Red Sox rivalry as we know it today. With the brief exception of the late 1940s, even the DiMaggio-Williams rivalry couldn’t bring forth a team rivalry, largely because the Red Sox were pretty awful. The year 1966 marked their eighth consecutive season in the second division
So they changed managers in ’67, as they often did, and named Dick Williams to take charge. Williams, a former player (whose time with the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1951-56, managed to skip their world championship year of 1955), had closed his playing career with the Red Sox in 1963-64. He took over a ninth-place team with some unheralded rookies, latched onto a Triple Crown season from Carl Yastrzemski and found himself in a four-way pennant race (there were 10 teams then, and no divisions).
The four teams did not include the Yankees, who were doomed to finish ninth. But even without the proud Yankees, this was one of the greatest – if not the greatest – final weekend baseball has ever known.
Boston, Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago all went into that final weekend with a chance to win the pennant. There was no division series in 1967 – the winner went straight to the World Series against the Cardinals. Minnesota was the defending champion.
Four public relations departments were preparing programs, credentials, travel, hotels, press pins – and only one would get there.
On that final weekend, Washington swept the White Sox to knock them out. Boston played Minnesota head to head in Fenway. Detroit was playing the Angels in two doubleheaders. On Sunday, Oct. 1, the Red Sox, Twins or Tigers could still win the pennant. Fenway Park had never hosted a more exciting game. It was sunny and warm, Kennedys were in the seats, (Bobby, Ted, and their father, Joseph), the team’s ace, Jim Lonborg, was on the mound and NBC carried the game live, with the ability to cut to the Tigers-Angels game as needed.
By the end of the day, there would be no playoff needed. Detroit had lost and the Red Sox had beaten the Twins, as Lonborg was carried off the field and into Red Sox lore. Yastrzemski, who had carried the team all season, was appropriately the batting hero of the day.
And now, 40 seasons later, as Dick Williams prepares to go into the Hall of Fame, the residue from that Sunday afternoon is still in the air. Fenway Park and Red Sox Nation are magical sports terms. It all began then.
The “old guard” of Boston newspapermen was covering the team then – some of the same guys who had battled with Ted Williams over the years. None of them turned out a book on that season. There was a Yastrzemski autobiography with Al Hirshberg published the following year, but not a single book published about the season that came to be known as “The Impossible Dream.”
Future Red Sox championship years would produce a flood of literature. The new generation of Boston scribes, notably Dan Shaughnessy, Leigh Montville, Peter Gammons and Bob Ryan would not arrive on the scene until the early ’70s. They would have fallen over each other to write about the ’67 team.
“Ironically,” says Montville, author of now classic biographies of Ruth and Williams, “I took a train to Boston from my paper in New Haven for opening day of ’67, and the game was rained out. It was the only ‘game’ I saw that year, but there was no game. But since I was in Boston, I went to the Globe for a job interview and got hired with their sports department. So the day was a memorable one for me.”
In 1987, the beloved Bosox broadcaster Ken Coleman, together with Dan Valenti, did the first book on the ’67 Sox – called The Impossible Dream Remembered. It was a nicely produced diary of the season that evoked great memories but lacked the immediacy of the glow of the excitement of that Sunday afternoon.
Five years later, Providence sportswriter Bill Reynolds produced a book called Lost Summer about that season. But that was it.
It should be noted, however, that the brilliant essayist of The New Yorker, Roger Angell, wrote his entire postseason feature for the magazine on that pennant race, a story called “1967: The Flowering and Subsequent Deflowering of New England,” and true to form, he nailed it. He not only captured the glory of baseball at its best, but also foresaw the significance of what this had done for the franchise. And he wrote it for publication in November 1967, giving it the immediacy it deserved. (That the Sox lost the Series, the “deflowering” part, is today almost irrelevant).
The essay is preserved today in Impossible Dreams, a Red Sox collection edited by Glenn Stout (2003), and in Angell’s own compilation, The Summer Game (1972), the first of his collection of New Yorker columns in book form. Dan Riley’s The Red Sox Reader (1991) has a lot of Angell, but not that essay, nor in fact anything from ’67.
The years 1975, 1986 and 2004 produced a lot of good writing. Where was it all in 1967?
Losing the Series to the Cardinals might have made publishers retreat, but if that was the case, they clearly didn’t see what was happening in Boston. Nothing like it has happened since to any franchise – something that turned the fortunes of a team – seemingly forever.