Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 20, 2008
With the news of Carl Yastrzemski having chest pains resulting in open-heart surgery, it's worth remembering - while he is still with us, hopefully still for many years to come - what a ballplayer Yaz was. He's one of those guys whose career is subject to a number of cross-cutting statistical illusions: he played his prime years in a hitters' park in a pitchers' era, was an excellent glove man in the outfield (as a left fielder he averaged 15 assists per 162 games for his career) who nonetheless spent seasons as a 1B and DH and even was given a short-lived experiment as a 3B*. But the biggest one is the fact that - like Ernie Banks, Robin Roberts, Robin Yount and Craig Biggio - Yaz had a very long career (he's second only to Pete Rose in plate appearances) yet should be best remembered for the handful of seasons when he was really a dominating ballplayer.
In Yaz's case, he was a productive hitter most of the years from age 22 (1962) to 43 (1983), including some very good seasons here and there, mostly for bad Sox teams, but it was four seasons (1967-70) when he was truly one of the very best players in the game. For those four years, swimming against the tide of the late-60s pitchers' era, he batted .302/.414/.554 and averaged 106 R, 102 RBI, 37 HR, 110 BB, 30 2B and 15 SB - numbers that ranked him first in the majors in Runs, second in OBP, third in slugging, fifth in HR, 6th in RBI and 7th in batting average.
The true Fenway faithful, of course, remember him the best for the magical 1967 season that transformed a franchise that had been adrift since the early 1950s. More than anybody, the left fielder from Long Island created what we now think of as "Red Sox Nation" - it may seem hard to believe now, but between 1959 and 1966, the Red Sox finished in the bottom half of the league in attendance 6 times in 8 years; from 1961-66 they never averaged as many as 12,000 fans per game, and dropped below 10,000 twice. Attendance in 1967 doubled, and the Sox have remained the centerpiece of the Boston sports world ever since. Yaz was everything that year - MVP, Triple Crown, led the league in OBP and Slugging and Runs and Total Bases, won the Gold Glove, had 3 hits in the All-Star Game, carried his team to the pennant in an airtight race with a blistering stretch from August 19 through the end of the year when he batted .358/.466/.723 with 16 HR and 40 RBI in 45 games (including .523/.604/.955 with 16 RBI in the last 12), batted .331/.434/.662 with RISP and .367/.467/.674 when batting with two outs, and hit .400/.500/.840 3 HR in the World Series. It was an amazing season for a great player.
* - Ever notice how many Hall of Famers who played the bulk of their careers at other positions spent at least part of a season as regular third basemen? The list includes Yaz, Johnny Bench, Cap Anson, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Tony Perez, Cal Ripken, Jackie Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Ryne Sandberg, Buck Ewing, Frankie Frisch, Joe Sewell, Honus Wagner, Luke Appling...some of these guys played the hot corner at the beginning or end of their careers or were just migrant sluggers - none were really third basemen - but several of them were, like Yaz, basically mid-career experiments to plug a hole.