The 1971 Boston Red Sox represented the continuation of a pattern the franchise had settled into after ending a decade of horrid play with an amazing pennant run in 1967. For each of the next four years, under two different managers, the Red Sox scored runs and won more than they lost. And each time they struggled with pitching, couldn’t get out of the 80s for wins and finished well off the pace.
Boston’s front office, which had already made a poor deal to get rid of productive rightfielder Ken Harrelson in 1970, followed it up with another ill-advised move prior to the start of the 1971 MLB season. They traded Tony Conigliaro.
The rightfielder was a good power hitter and RBI man and also an inspiration, having comeback from a terrible beaning in 1967. What did the Sox get for him? The highlight of the package was a light-hitting second baseman in Doug Griffin.
To make matters worse, Boston already had a good second baseman in Mike Andrews, whom they shipped out to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for the aging Luis Aparacio, a great player in his day and still outstanding with the glove. But Aparicio was now 37 and his offensive production was non-existent.
The situation got worse when you consider that 27-year-old first baseman George Scott regressed, after appearing to come into his own in 1970. And finally, the great Carl Yastrzemski, had a one-year loss of power, only slugging .392 even as he got on base to the tune of a .381 OBP.
So how did the Red Sox still manage to rank third in the 12-team American League in runs scored? Rico Petrocelli might have changed positions, going from short to third to accommodate Aparacio, but Petrocelli’s bat didn’t lose its bunch. He posted a .354 OBP and slugged .461. Reggie Smith, one of the outstanding young players in baseball, had numbers of .352/.489.
Two other players chipped in, with rightfielder Joe Lahoud, who replaced Conigliaro, had a .330/.438 stat line–it didn’t match “Tony C”, but it was pretty good. And Tony’s younger brother Billy stayed with the team and popped 11 home runs in a reserve role, while slugging .436.
Boston’s top two starting pitchers, Ray Culp and 34-year-old Sonny Siebert, each significantly improved their ERAs, bringing them down to 2.42 and 2.91 respectively, after a year in which no notable Red Sox pitcher had an ERA under 3. But pitching improved across the league and it wasn’t enough to prevent Boston from still ranking 10th in the AL in ERA.
Gary Peters, also 34-years-old, struggled to a 4.37 ERA, though he did win 14 games. Jim Lonborg made 26 starts with a pedestrian ERA of 4.13 .The good news came in the bullpen, where Sparky Lyle put up a 2.75 ERA and saved 16 games, a decent number at a time when saves weren’t nearly as common as they are today.
The Red Sox played nine of their first ten games on the road and managed a 5-5 split. Then they got rolling and winning 10 of 13 games at Fenway Park and moving into first place by the beginning of May .They went on the road and continued to play well, going 5-2. A pair of three-game series with the two-time defending AL East champion Baltimore Orioles was survived, as the teams split and the Sox swept a total of four games from the contending Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees. By Memorial Day, the Red Sox were 29-16, and in first place. They led the Orioles by 2 1/2 games and the Tigers by four.
After previous years, which had seen Boston fall substantially behind Baltimore in the first half of the season, it was at least heartening not to be giving chase by June. But it didn’t take long for the slump to come.
It was the Kansas City Royals, who would finish second in the AL West, that were the thorn in the side and they came into Boston and swept the Sox. When Boston made the return trip to the heartland two weeks later, the Royals swept them again. In between the two sweeps, the Red Sox went 3-10.
When it was all over, they were five games back of the Orioles.
But the Sox came off the canvas. Baltimore came to Fenway for a four-game set and Boston grabbed three wins, triggering a 12-3 stretch that got them to within 2 1/2 games. But they took the foot off the gas just prior to the All-Star break, losing three straight in the Bronx. The Red Sox were 5 1/2 back at the midpoint.
The second half of the schedule started pretty well, with a 6-2 stretch against bad teams in the Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers and the White Sox, and Boston closed to within 3 1/2 games. For the first time since 1967, the Red Sox were in legitimate contention for first place this late in the season.
In late July, a bad four-game series in Milwaukee, losing three, was an ominous foreshadowing. The killer blow came from August 5-18. The entire two-week stretch was at Fenway, yet the Red Sox went 4-11, falling to the Tigers, the future AL West champion Oakland A’s, the Royals (of course) and the Angels. By the time the carnage was over, the deficit in the AL East was 10 1/2 games and pennant fever in the Fens was history.
Boston went 15-13 in the month of September, and still won 85 games. You only needed to turn the clock back five years to know times much worse than this. But after four years of finishing way in the rearview mirror of the leaders (the Sox ended 18 games behind Baltimore), it was time to do a little bit more. Fortunately, real, season-long pennant contention awaited Red Sox Nation the very next season.