The 1972 Boston Red Sox had spent four years as a team with a winning record, but well off the pace off the American League elite. The Red Sox made marginal improvements on the field in 1972, but that combined with the best in the AL East coming back to the pack. It added up to pennant race baseball in Fenway Park for the first time since the Impossible Dream pennant of 1967, even if Boston came up just short in the end.
Labor strife overshadowed the 1972 MLB season, and consequently the regular season didn’t begin until mid-April. The powers-that-be also decided to simply pick up the schedule where it was and to allow teams to play differing numbers of games based on what was remaining. It was a stupid decision that would loom large before it was over.
The Red Sox’ basic formula of 1968-71 remained in place for this season—that formula could be crudely described as hit the heck out of the ball to make up for bad pitching. Boston led the American League in runs scored, and finished 11th (in what was then a 12-team league) in ERA.
A big trade with the Milwaukee Brewers had aimed at strengthening the pitching rotation. The Sox parted with Billy Conigliaro, Joe Lahoud and most notably George Scott, as the key pieces used to acquire Marty Pattin for the top of the rotation. Pattin was decent, winning 17 games with a 3.24 ERA. The deal also got Tommy Harper, a base-stealing centerfielder.
The trade wasn’t a difference-maker, but it worked out pretty well for Boston. Another deal with the New York Yankees was a difference-marker and it was a disaster. The Red Sox traded their best reliever, Sparky Lyle for first baseman Danny Cater.
Lyle became a cornerstone of a bullpen that won three straight American League pennants (1976-78), two straight World Series and he grabbed a Cy Young Award in 1977. Cater batted .237 and hit eight home runs. Nor did it ever get any better. Sparky Lyle-for-Danny Cater was, plain and simply, the second-worst transaction the Boston Red Sox ever consummated with the New York Yankees.
Other offensive players picked up the slack. Reggie Smith moved from center to right to make room for Harper, but continued to put up numbers, with a .365 on-base percentage/.475 slugging percentage. Boston called up a 24-year-old catcher named Carlton Fisk, who posted numbers of .370/.538, while popping 22 home runs and bringing a fiery emotional spark to the team.
Harper brought the spark of speed, swiping 25 bases and finishing with a .341 OBP. The great Carl Yastrzemski, along with Rico Petrocelli, both struggled with power, but Yaz finished with a .357 OBP, while third baseman Petrocelli was in at .339. Shortstop Luis Aparacio wasn’t an offensive threat, but the 38-year-old glove wizard stabilized the defense.
Behind Pattin, the rest of the rotation was functionable, if not great. Sonny Siebert and John Curtis each finished with ERAs in the high 3s. Ray Culp, the staff ace in recent years, declined sharply though and was released after the ’72 season was over. It was the Lyle-less bullpen that was the big problem.
If nothing else, Boston did settle on the two pitchers that would eventually help this team win the 1975 American League pennant. Bill Lee got the first regular work of his career, throwing 84 innings and finishing with a 3.20 ERA. And Luis Tiant revived his career, making 19 starts, 24 more relief appearances and winning 15 games with a dazzling 1.91 ERA.
The season didn’t begin well, and the Red Sox started 9-17 and fell 7 ½ games out before reviving themselves with a 5-2 homestand against the Brewers and the three-time defending AL champion Baltimore Orioles. But the revival didn’t last, and on June 26, Boston was still 25-33 and eight games off the pace in the AL East. Having just gone 8-14 in a stretch against mostly sub-.500 teams from the AL West, there was no reason for New England to expect a contender.
Finally, Boston got it going. They won seven in a row and eventually nudged their way to .500. Leading up to the break, they swept the California Angels at home and then got set for a strange six-game series against the Oakland A’s, with two doubleheaders scheduled in a three-day span.
The A’s would eventually win the World Series, but the Red Sox were able to grab four wins in the six games. Boston was 45-41 at the late July 23 All-Star break, and within five games of the Detroit Tigers.
Regression started the second half, with three losses in four games at New York, then a series loss in Detroit, followed by dropping the first two games of a four-game home series with the Yankees. The Sox were again under .500, at 47-48 and 6 ½ games out.
Their back getting increasingly close to the wall, Boston won the last two against New York, then took a series from Baltimore. They crawled to 59-56, and then won six of eight to close August.
By the time Labor Day arrived, the AL East was red-hot. Baltimore was in first, but Boston, New York and Detroit were all within a half-game of the lead. The stage was set for a dramatic September.
John Curtis stepped up, with a shutout of the Yankees to conclude a three-game sweep in Fenway. Curtis then punctuated a strong week by shutting out Cleveland on Sunday, September 9. Boston now had a game and a half lead. They went 3-3 the following week, and Detroit pulled into a tie, with Baltimore and New York still in close pursuit.
A big series win over Baltimore, was followed by splitting four with Detroit. With a week to play, the race was narrowing to the Red Sox and Tigers. The Orioles and Yankees were 2 ½ games out and three back respectively.
The Red Sox and Tigers were scheduled to play three in Detroit to conclude the regular season, so the chances for Baltimore and New York to make up ground were drastically limited. By the time the final games arrived, it was down to Boston and Detroit. The Red Sox were 84-68 and the Tigers were 84-69. It was a de facto best-of-three for the AL East title.
Luis Aparacio is the name that lives on in Red Sox lore for the Monday opener. The scenario was this—Boston trailed 1-0 in the top of the third and Harper and Aparacio both singled, setting up first and third with one out. Yaz then lashed a double to center. Aparcio was coming around third to score when he slipped and fell. He ran back to third safely, but Yaz was set on a triple and was thrown out at third.
The inning ended with only Harper’s run, and the “Aparcio slipped rounding third” took its place on a level somewhere right after “The ground ball went through Buckner’s legs” and “Grady didn’t take out Pedro” in the Litany of Red Sox Woe.
But this overstates the case. The fact of the matter is that the top of the third was the only inning in two days where the Boston offense liked alive. Curtis pitched reasonably well on Monday, but Mickey Lolich was even better for Detroit, winning 4-1. The Red Sox then lost on Tuesday 2-1, mustering only four hits in the process. It’s highly debatable if Boston even wins Monday’s game if Aparacio hadn’t slipped, much less won the pennant.
Boston did win Wednesday and finished within a ½ game. Red Sox historians should focus more on the stupidity of baseball not making some kind of provision for this sort of ending and at least ensuring that a division title would not be settled by an uneven number of games played.
I understand that Detroit surely played Wednesday differently knowing it was clinched, but it hardly seems unreasonable to suggest that a basic premise of a pennant race should be each team playing the same number of games. Boston should have been able to play a game with a canceled opponent from early April to try and tie for first and force a one-game playoff.
In any case, the Red Sox at least returned to serious pennant contention in 1972 and they identified in Tiant and Lee, the arms that would eventually put them back in the postseason.