The 1968 Boston Red Sox were a team coming off one of the most magical years in franchise history. After a decade of truly awful baseball and declining fan interest, the Red Sox won an improbable American League pennant in 1967 under first-year manager Dick Williams, buoyed by a Triple Crown year from Carl Yastrzemski. The Red Sox didn’t follow it up with another pennant in ’68, but they at least demonstrated that the winning baseball of “The Impossible Dream Year” was no fluke.
Boston was carried by its bats, which ranked second in the 10-team American League in runs scored, and were in the top three in each key individual category. Yastrzemski hit .301 with 23 home runs in the left field spot. Before thinking that those numbers look low for a star, 1968 was renowned for being a pitching-dominated season and Yaz won the batting title at .301. The mound would be lowered a year later to improve vision for the hitters.
Reggie Smith was a talented 23-year-old centerfielder, who finished with a .342 on-base percentage and .430 slugging percentage. He also stole 22 bases, the one speed threat in the Boston lineup. Ken “Hawk” Harrelson had excellent power in rightfield, hitting 35 home runs, slugging .518 and leading the league with 109 RBI.
Mike Andrews, a favorite of the manager, was a good young second baseman and finished with a .368 OBP. Joe Foy was another infielder with a good batting eye and the third baseman had a .336 OBP in spite of only batting .225 .George Scott and first base and Rico Petrocelli hadn’t yet really emerged, but both were young offensive threats in the making.
In short, the Red Sox were young–everyone in the starting lineup was under the age of 30. All they needed was some pitching.
Unfortunately, in this pitching rich year, that was in short supply. The ERA numbers look good individually from our perspective today. Ray Culp was at 2.91, Gary Bell posted a 3.12, Dick Ellsworth came in at 3.03. These three were the steady horses of the rotation. But collectively, the Red Sox staff was eighth-best in the American League. By the standard of the times, they weren’t up to snuff.
The problem was Jim Lonborg. The 26-year-old had been right behind Yaz as the hero of the Impossible Dream team, but on Christmas Eve of 1967, he and all of Red Sox nation got coal in their stocking–Lonborg tore up his knee in a skiing accident.
Lonborg made only 17 starter and finished with a 4.29 ERA, intolerably high by 1968 norms. Lonborg in fact would never be the same and would not even become a reliable rotation member–much less an ace–until he joined up with the excellent Philadelphia Phillies teams in the latter half of the 1970s.
There were still some good young pitchers–Jose Santiago made 18 starts and finished with a 2.25 ERA. Sparky Lyle, a tobacco-chewing 23-year-old that would one day be the focal point of the second-worst trade the Red Sox ever made with the New York Yankees, finished with a 2.74 ERA. Lyle should have gotten more work, but mediocre Lee Stange and Gary Waslewski handled most of the important bullpen innings.
Everything started well on Opening Day against the Detroit Tigers. Yaz, Smith and Petrocelli each had two hits, the latter drove in three runs and the Sox won 7-3. The team won seven of their first eleven games, but then dropped eight of ten and slipped five games back at the start of May. The bright spot in the early season winning five of seven against the Yankees, even if the Pinstripes were a far cry from the power that had once been or would be again. Boston muddled along at .500 into Memorial Day, 4 1/2 games out and in fifth place in a league that was in its last year without divisional splits and where the winner advanced directly to the World Series.
The Red Sox then dropped nine of their next 15, including a 2-3 record against the Tigers, who were emerging as the new team to beat. Boston was below .500 as late as July 2, but won eight in a row to go into the All-Star break with a record of 43-38. The problem was that they were eleven games back, in fourth place and time was running short.
Nor did the Sox turn it on in the second half, splitting their first 24 games out of the break. But the Tigers didn’t bury them, and when the calendar flipped to August, Boston was sitting ten games out, clinging for life. An 8-1 stretch was paralleled by a hot streak for Detroit and when the two teams met in Motown, Boston trailed by nine games. The four-game series at Tiger Stadium was their last stand and they needed a minimum of three victories.
On Friday, August 9, it looked like a little magic might stir again. Boston trailed 2-1 in the eighth inning, with a man on and nobody out. Yaz doubled to tie the game. The Red Sox got the bases loaded and Foy hit a grand slam to get the win.
Saturday’s game was tied 1-1 in the fifth, when backup catcher Dalton Jones doubled to give Boston the lead. Harrelson later added another run with a sac fly to make it 3-1. But the Tigers tied the game and then Norm Cash won it with a solo shot in the eighth. Boston now realistically needed to sweep Sunday’s doubleheader.
The twinbill got off to a good start. Andrews drew a leadoff walk to start the first game and Jones homered. Harrelson singled, Foy homered and it was 4-0 before anyone was settled into their seats. But the Boston bats shut down and Lonborg, a chance to redeem a disappointing season, started getting chipped away at after five strong innings. Trailing 4-1, Detroit got single runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth and the game went extra innings.
Mickey Lolich would be a World Series for Detroit in October and he came on in relief today. Lyle matched him, going 5 2/3 innings overall and the game stretched to the 14th inning. Stange finally came on and gave up a two-out home run.
The 5-4 loss was close to a death blow for the Sox’ pennant hopes, but salt was added to the wound in the nightcap. With the score tied 2-2 in the ninth, Reggie Smith homered and two more seeming insurance runs were added. Then four different Red Sox relievers combined to give up a walk and five singles, and the Tigers got four of their own to win 6-5.
Boston would muddle along to an 11-10 record the rest of August and then go 13-12 in September. They closed the season at 86-76, a distant 22 1/2 games back in fourth place. If nothing else, the heartbreak of Detroit in August realistically ended up not mattering.
Whenever a team goes from almost winning the World Series to failing to do so, it always seems like a disappointment, but there’s one development that I’m confident no one noticed at the time, because similar stories in our own day get ignored. That development is this–Boston had clearly established that the turnaround of 1967 was not a one-year wonder.
They might not be World Series-caliber on a sustained basis, but they were now indisputably a franchise that won more games than they lost. It started a trend, that with only a handful of exceptions has lived on to this day.
The flip side is that after getting so close to the prize in ’67, Red Sox Nation was now focused on just one thing–finally getting that first championship since 1918. When they lost in 1967, even though it was a tough seven-game series, there were no recriminations, no Grady Little-type firings, no references to a curse. There was just a belief that the Red Sox enjoyed a great year but that the St. Louis Cardinals were a little bit better team (both of which were true). In that regard, 1967 marked the end of the innocence and 1968 was a new day.
The winning and the expectations are now established facts of life in New England and the extended fan base across the country. That modern era basically began with the 1968 Boston Red Sox.