In September 1967, my parents drove me to Hanover, New Hampshire for my freshman year at Dartmouth. My father made it a two-day trip so we could experience the charm of small town New England.
On the way, we encountered baseball fever like I had never seen in Washington or New York. Every village and hamlet was buzzing about the Boston Red Sox and their quest to win the pennant after finishing in ninth place the year before.
Red Sox fever didn’t extend to Dartmouth, with its geographically diverse student body. However, when the Red Sox played two must-win games against the Twins in the final weekend of the season just about everyone watching with me in the basement of McLane Hall was rooting for Boston, either out of regionally loyalty or because Boston was the underdog.
I was the exception. My loyalty was with ex-Washington Senators Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Earl Battey, Jim Kaat, and even Zoilo Versalles who, if memory serves, had tried to jump the team as a homesick teenager from Cuba. (John also lived in McLane Hall, but I hadn’t gotten to know him yet and can’t say (1) whether he was interested enough in baseball to watch with us and (2) whether he had become a Twins fan yet.)
After the drama on Saturday, September 30, Sunday’s game was win-or-go-home for both teams. Both went with their ace, Dean Chance (20-13) for Minnesota and Jim Lonborg (21-9) for Boston. Chance was a long-time star. Lonborg had entered the ’67 season with a career mark of 19-27. He was 0-3 against Minnesota on the year and 0-6 lifetime.
Both pitchers were up for it, but Lonborg’s defense let him down early. In the first inning, he walked Killebrew with two out. Tony Oliva doubled, but Killebrew, a notoriously slow runner, was going to stop at third base. However, George Scott, the Boston’s slick fielding first baseman, mishandled the throw in from the outfield, allowing Harmon to score.
In the third, Lonborg walked Cesar Tovar with two out. Killebrew singled. Carl Yastrzemski, of all people, misplayed the ball, and Tovar scored from first.
The Twins led 2-0 going into the bottom of the sixth. Lonborg was up first. As far as we know, Boston manager Dick Williams didn’t consider pulling his ace for a pinch hitter.
Lonborg had singled to left field off of Chance in his previous at-bat. This time, he noticed third-baseman Tovar playing back. Lonborg liked to bunt and ran well for a big man. He dropped a bunt down the third base line and Tovar couldn’t make the play.
Jerry Adair and Dalton Jones followed with singles. Up stepped Yastrzemski with the bases loaded and no outs.
Yaz drilled a single that tied the game and sent Jones to third. The next batter, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, reached on a fielder’s choice that brought Jones home. Boston led three 3-2. The bases were still loaded and there was still no one out.
With Chance rattled, the Twins brought in their ace reliever, Al Worthington. Far from restoring order, he unleashed two wild pitches, the second of which scored Yastrzemski and sent Jose Tartabull (pinch running for Harrelson) to third. Tartabull scored on an error by Killebrew with one out, giving Boston a 5-2 lead.
The Twins scored a run off of Lonborg in the eighth. With two out, Killebrew and Oliva singled, bringing Allison to the plate. He smashed a line drive into the left field corner. Killebrew scored. However, Yaz hustled over, cut the ball off, and nailed Allison at second base with a perfect throw for the third out. Boston 5, Minnesota 3.
In the bottom of the ninth, Ted Uhlaender led off with a single. But rookie star Rod Carew grounded into a double play and Lonborg retired Rich Rollins.
Boston had clinched at least a tie for first place. That the Tigers might force a playoff did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the Fenway Park crowd. It mobbed Lonborg. By the time he made it to the clubhouse, he had lost the buttons on his uniform jersey, the undershirt beneath it, a shoelace, and his cap, or so the story goes.
Now, all eyes turned to Detroit, where the Tigers and the Angels were playing a doubleheader, the second in two days. Detroit won the opener 6-4. Joe Sparma got the win. Fred Gladding saved the game with two scoreless innings of relief.
In the nightcap, the Tigers tapped Denny McLain to face Angels rookie Ricky Clark, who was having a nice year. The following season, McLain would win 31 games and the Cy Young Award. In 1967, however, he was pretty ordinary. Moreover, he’d been a non-factor in September, having lasted a total of three innings in his previous two starts.
The last of them had come on September 18, after which he reported that he had severely injured two toes on his left foot. McLain claimed that his foot had fallen asleep while he was watching television, and that he stubbed it getting up when he heard some raccoons in his garbage cans. His teammates were neither amused nor convinced.
On this crucial day, McLain didn’t make it to the third inning. Rick Reichardt touched him up for a home run in the top of the second. The Tigers responded with three runs in the bottom of the inning, the big hits being a two run homer by Jim Northrup and an RBI triple by Dick McAuliffe.
In the top of the third, McLain yielded singles to Bobby Knoop and Jay Johnstone. McLain was nearly out of trouble after Roger Repoz lined into a double play. However, when Jim Fregois doubled, scoring Knoop, manager Mayo Smith had seen enough. He removed McLain and brought in southpaw John Hiller to face the left-handed hitting Don Mincher.
Mincher usually struggled versus lefties. His career batting average against them was under .200. However, against Hiller on this day he launched a two-run homer, giving the Angels a 4-3 lead.
The Angels added three runs the next inning. Hiller walked Reichardt and Bob Rodgers, sandwiched between an out. Smith brought in Mike Marshall, probably his best reliever, to face Knoop who hit into a force play. Now Marshall just had to retire Jim McGlothlin, who had replaced Clark on the mound, to get out the inning.
But McGlothlin managed an infield hit to bring in Reichardt and Repoz tripled home Knoop and McGlothlin. Angels 7, Tigers 3.
The Angels added a run in the fifth on a double by Reichardt and a single by Rodgers. The Tigers pulled to within three runs, 8-5, in the seventh when McAuliffe singled home two runs.
That’s where things stood going into the bottom of the ninth, with Minnie Rojos, a Cuban who would be named “fireman” (reliever) of the year in 1967, on the mound for California. Bill Freehan led off with a double and Don Wert walked. Suddenly, the tying run was at the plate, in the person of Lenny Green, with no outs. Green was batting for Mickey Lolich, who had pitched nine innings the previous day. That’s how desperate Mayo Smith was for pitching after back-to-back doubleheaders with everything on the line and his bullpen struggling mightily.
Angels manager Bill Rigney pulled Rojas for left-handed journeyman George Brunet. Smith countered with a pinch hitter for Green, rookie catcher Jim Price. Price flied out.
Next up was Dick McAuliffe. Brunet induced a ground ball to second that the Angels turned into a game-ending — and season-ending — double play. It was only the second double play McAuliffe hit into all year in 662 plate appearances.
Boston’s impossible dream had come true. They had gone from second worst to first in one year and snatched their first pennant since 1946. In a few days, they would seek their first world championship since 1918. This was now a possible dream, but the formidable St. Louis Cardinals stood in the way.