Peter Gammons: Carl Yastrzemski is the toughest player I’ve ever covered

Fenway Park  10/5/1967 

Yaz is 78 this Tuesday, August 22. I covered him the night Dick Williams was fired in 1969, a kid in his first year at the Boston Globe, right through to that final game in 1983, when Indians pitcher Dan Spillner tried to lay in a BP fastball, missed thrice, Yaz popped it up and later bid adieu by being the first player to do a farewell, thank you tour around Fenway. Then was still signing autographs two hours later.

Carl Yastrzemski was not a man to wear his emotions publicly, although he once buried home plate in dirt. He grew up on a potato farm during World War Two, when there were famines and droughts and wartime poverty, and he was ever proud, he may have also been the last of The Depression ballplayers.

He was never flamboyant. He left whatever clothes he took on a road trip and left them at his Fenway locker, and when it was time to go the clubhouse kids, whom he always took care of, had the suitcase packed with the same clothes. One time in Seattle Dick Drago spilled salad dressing on his nice leather jacket, couldn’t remove the stain and threw it in the trash can in the visiting clubhouse.

Yaz pulled it out of the trash can, took it to the cleaners and wore it for the next three years.

He used to like me to leave my New York Times on the chair at his locker, home and away, saving him 50 cents.

In the 46 years I have regularly covered major league baseball, I can unequivocally say he was the toughest man I have ever known. And I say that with the greatest of respect. I wish I’d been there the first time the Carl faced Bob Gibson in spring training, 1968, after they’d faced one another in the previous World Series. “I remember when I came up, he walked down towards home plate and said, ‘I’m going to strike you out,” Yaz recalls. “I said, ‘no you’re not.’ He was even competitive in a spring training game.” So was Yaz. They admired one another because they were so much alike.

“I think my toughness put me in the Hall of Fame,” Yastrzemski said this April. “When I came to the plate, even though I knew I was going to get thrown at, it never bothered me. I never was hit in the head, which was fortunate. I used to think, ‘this pitcher is not going to bother me. I tried to raise myself to another level.”

One night late in his career the Red Sox were playing in Anaheim, the Red Sox had the bases loaded, with Jerry Remy on third, and Gene Mauch brought in a lefthanded reliever named Angel Moreno.

Understand, Gene Mauch loved Yaz like a son. He was the manager of the Minneapolis Millers when Yastrzemski was brought up from Raleigh, where he’d batted .377, to the Red Sox triple-A Minneapolis team for the playoffs (Haywood Sullivan was a backup catcher on that team).

Moreno threw a pitch behind Yastrzemski’s head. The next day, Remy recalled “Carl was like an assassin—don’t get even, get revenge. He stepped out, gathered himself, took a few deep breaths, seemingly ground part of the bat into sawdust, then got in the box.”
The line drive actually ticked Moreno’s ear as it went through the box and into center field, tying the game. Mauch came up, straddled Moreno laying on the mound, waving to the bullpen for another reliever without even speaking to his pitcher. Instead, Mauch was yelling, ‘I told you never to throw at him.”

“I remember that,” says Yaz. “I heard Mauch say that.”

That wasn’t my favorite Yaz revenge memory. In 1978, the Red Sox were on them climb back from 14 game lead to 3 ½ game deficit. It was the second-to-last weekend of the season, and they were playing the Blue Jays in Toronto, down 7-5 in the ninth inning with two runners on base. The Jays brought in a young, fireballing lefthander named Balor Moore, who got ahead of Yaz 0-and-2.

Then threw consecutive pitches at what looked like 100 MPH in the vicinity of Yastrzemski’s head.

“Number one, I was behind in the count,” Yaz remembers. “When it got to one-and-two, I didn’t expect to be thrown at, and he threw behind me, which is difficult because if you fall backwards, you get hit. I fell forward. I was a little irritated, and I kept saying, ‘hit it hard somewhere. He threw me a slider and I hit it—off the top of the center field fence.” Game tied, and eventually won.

“When I got to third I called time and started walking towards him and I remember calling him every name in the book, figuring he’d come towards me. That was probably the first time in my career I was looking to fight.”

Moore turned his back and walked towards first base. Yaz spit in his direction, then walked back to the third base bag.”

After the game, Yaz told me, “that may have been the closest I’ve ever come to death.” If you think, at 78, he’s lost any memory, he recalls where I used the quote in my story.

In April, as we went through that moment, he looked at me and said, ‘that was my finest at-bat. I think of all the at-bats I ever head, because of the balls being thrown at my head then hitting an outstanding pitch on the outside of the plate, I’ll always remember that as my greatest at-bat.”

Yaz still loves to talk about the sequence with Dean Chance when he stayed on the hard sinker down and away, lined the ball into center and keyed the winning rally on the final day. He well remembers how they had to wait to see what happened with the Tigers playing the Angels and whether or not there would be a playoff with Detroit, how the entire team pulled up chairs and sat in a circle in the Boston clubhouse listening to the Tiger-Angel game on a radio. And how Angels manager had three pitchers warming up in the bullpen.”

Carl Yastrzemski admits he thought about going to general manager Dick O’Connell to ask to be traded in the 1966-67 winter “because It was hard to play with no one in the stands.”: Yes, Yaz was the left fielder on Sept. 16, 1965, when Dave Morehead threw his no-hitter before 1257 fans.

He lived for the crowds, and the competition. First time up against 25-3 Ron Guidry in the ’78 game he smoked a homer to right field, and Ken Harrelson holted out of the TV booth and yelled, “can you believe that old SOB? He’s incredible.”

I wasn’t all that surprised. Late in his career, Yaz had me shag for him as he prepared at 3 p.m on the road. He changed his stance each game according to the pitcher, would tell me where to park myself and why. It was never about mechanics. It was about what he planned to do to beat that night’s pitcher. He had the mechanics down; play him in tennis, and he’d run all over the court to hit backhand with the same swing with which he torched Guidry.

It’s been a half-century since he went 7-for-8 on the last two days to beat the Twins, to go 23-for-46 down the stretch and capture the triple crown. He was the only American League player to hit .300 in 1968. He hit 40 homers three times in four years. He led all major league position players in Wins Above Replacement in 1967, 1968 and 1970, in the process of winning nine gold gloves.

He was a man who some thought hard, but he never let childhood famines or a damaged wrist (which caused him to go nearly a calendar year in 1971-72 without a home run).

Today’s millennial fans lump him in the retired number club as an afterthought to Ted Williams and David Ortiz. But, remember, he began his first game as a rookie in 1961 was the first game played at Fenway by the Red Sox after Ted’s final at-bat, and with an empty park and dreadful teams, he spent six years being compared to Ted. That, of course, was not fair. Ted, Yaz, Papi and all the other great Red Sox players are all dramatically different.

But I know this: I grew up in the town of Groton, 2000 people when I was in first grade, and for years I heard how a famous columnist in Boston killed Williams, writing that in the 10 biggest games of his career (the 1946 world series, the 1948 playoff against Cleveland, the final two days of the ’49 season when they lost the pennant in Yankee Stadium) Williams was 8-for-34; never mind that he was hit by a pitch in an exhibition before the ’46 series and couldn’t swing the bat right.

So, in lieu of any comparisons, I offer THE 24 BIGGEST GAMES OF CARL YASTRZEMSKI’S CAREER:

–The final two games of the 1967 season. Twins went to Boston, the Red Sox won both games, and there was pandemonium on the field. 7-for-8, one homer, 6 RBIs

–The 1967 World Series, lost to St. Louis in 7 games. Batted .400 with a 1.370 OPS

–Oct. 2-3, at Detroit, Red Sox went in tied with the Tigers for the final three game series, the Tigers won the first two 4-1, 2-1, and clinched. He had two hits and a homer in the games.

–The 1975 ALCS, World Series. Swept Oakland in the ALCS, lost to the Reds in 7 games of the World Series. Batted .455 with a 1.318 OPS in the ALCS, and .310 against the Reds.

-The 1978 A.L. playoff, lost 5-4 to the Yankees. Homered, singled.

In those 24 games, Yaz’s record:

84 AB

35 H

.417 AVG

21 Runs

6 HR

19 RBI

.738 Slugging %

Assists from Left Field: 4

I think about what might have been had he played for teams like the 1995-2001 Yankees, then I think about that at-bat against Balor Moore in Toronto in September, 1978, what today he calls the greatest at-bat of his career, the at-bat that best defines a 78 year old man who is the toughest player I’ve ever covered.

Comments

  1. Captain Carl. In September and October of 1967 the only chant that mattered, ‘We Want Yaz, We Want Yaz’. Thanks for the reminder Mr. Gammons

  2. Mike Skillin says:

    thank you for this tremendous post about Yaz…what you both have meant to long time Sox fans like me

  3. GhostOfFenway says:

    Yaz is and will always be the blue-print for what you want in a baseball player and someone representing your franchise.

  4. Tom Reichlmayr says:

    Thanks Peter. Yaz was my childhood idol. I remember during the ’78 Massacre the Sox were down late in a game something like 14-2 and Yaz dove for a liner near the Monster. Back then the warning track was just rough cinders and, I don’t even think he caught it – but that effort, and never giving up is one of my fondest Yaz memories.

  5. Scott Langlois says:

    My Birthday is 8/22 too. Just one of the reasons Yaz was and is My Favorite Player. Thanks Again Peter for a great read

  6. Paul Fraser says:

    Thanks for the memories. I was so lucky to be able to attend the HOF induction for Yaz (along with Johnny Bench) in 1983. He was one of the first guys to work out during the winter making sure he would be in shape when he reported to Spring Training.

  7. Jim Pickel says:

    Moved to Boston in 1960, corner of Beacon and Mass Ave. Walked to Fenway about thirty times a season. Total admission cost $30.00 ($1.00 bleachers). Yaz made those seasons SO SPECIAL !!! Another hugely exciting player was Dick Radatz.

  8. Marty Berry says:

    My all-time favorite. Great article.

  9. Georgiane Travinsky says:

    Yaz my hero. I lived for him to come to bat. Great article thanks peter gammons.

  10. steve tacey says:

    awesome! yawkey way to yaz blvd. can’t go williams to ortiz and forget YAZ!

  11. Dave McCarthy says:

    Peter – thanks for your article about Yaz. I grew up watching Yaz and reading your stories in the Globe. Give the success of the Sox over the past 15 years, I feel as if he’s not given enough credit for his many accomplishments. The younger generation of Sox fans has no clue what an awesome player and competitor Yaz was throughout his long career.

  12. Dave McCarthy says:

    Happy birthday, Yaz. Thanks for great memories…

  13. David Braica says:

    Thank you, Peter, as when he played, I still find his detractors to be petty, and vicious.

    He was always the guy I most wanted to be batting when you needed a hit most.

  14. Don Rizzardi says:

    Had the occasion three years to meet Yaz in Cooperstown outside his store on HOF weekend. Listened for twenty minutes to him re-tell stories about the dream season and the ’75 WS. The stories were not told as the modern day blowhard would, but with the reverence of soldier remembering a battle and the part all the combatants played. Thanks Peter for your story that reminded me of the great Bosox warrior!

  15. Dr. Peter Nanos says:

    Great column, about an extraordinary player who has never received the accolades and recognition he deserved.

    No player I’ve ever seen has carried a team on his back as he did in 1967.

  16. Charles Hunter says:

    Yaz was and always be my top player. he gave me so many great memories from the first time I saw him play in 1962 till i saw him get his 3,000 hit. A truely great player and man.

  17. Steven Goldleaf says:

    Saw him play his rookie year, vs. Maris (stuck on 60 HR) and the Yankees. Jim Kaat actually had a more impressive September of 1967, and Yaz benefited greatly from being a Fenway favorite, but a great player nonetheless.

  18. Appreciate the column. Here’s the thing about the Ted Williams column, though. Egan (it was Egan, right?) picked ten games out of Ted’s career to make his point. No one has really sat down to determine, regardless of the outcome or his performance, what the ten or 20 most important games in his career actually were. I’m sure you could, Peter, and you should ignore the box score until you decide if the GAME was important. Then the outcome would be interesting. Or you could vary that by seeing what the most important games were where Ted was actually healthy.

  19. Keith Crider says:

    I had a nice picture taken with Yaz at the 1997 Red Sox Fantasy Camp in Ft Myers. I was originally from
    Iowa and I told him that a former teammate of mine, Duane Josephson, who played with Yaz in the
    early 1970’s had passed away just weeks before. He was visibly taken aback and despite his
    great toughness and competitive side I could also detect a sensitive side. I was fortunate enought
    to see the first game of the ’67 series and Yax had a stellar game. A great player!!!

  20. Van Riker says:

    Thanks Peter. You and Yaz are treasures.

  21. rip constant says:

    Yaz was, and still is, my favorite Red Sox player. I was living in Brussels in 1967, so we listened to the WS games on Armed Forces Radio. I lived and died on every pitch, and even when he failed, Carl was my guy – he could do no wrong. Nice piece Peter, thanks. Happy B-Day #8

  22. I wish they kept a stat for BA after a brush back pitch. Yaz was so good in that situation, I remember as a fan, thinking “I hope they throw at him”.

  23. Dr. Peter Nanos says:

    Thanks Yaz and happy birthday sir your the best.

  24. Great story from a legendary writer. You mentioned Ken Harrelson in the story – he gave the best description of Yaz during his days as a Red Sox announcer when Yaz ran into the Monster trying to catch a fly ball: “Yaz – that man is tougher than a nickel steak”.

    Says it all. A true hero and role model for a generation of New Englanders.

  25. Excellent piece Peter, Happy Birthday Yaz- the greatest in my book!

  26. mark shields says:

    What a wonderful piece!Highest tribute I can pay:
    Yaz is the Peter Gammons of ball players.
    Thank you to both of you.
    With admiration and appreciation,
    mark shields

  27. Steve Brickley says:

    Thanks Peter, great article, outstanding and insightful stories. Yaz has always been my man, loved the way he performed and how he carried himself. He was Mr. Clutch before Ortiz and his class has always shown through. Happy Birthday Yaz.

  28. Jim Phillips says:

    A wonderful tribute to my boyhood idol, from the greatest baseball writer ever. When’s the book coming out?

  29. Ned Sullivan says:

    I was at the playoff game in 1978 and I remember praying that Yaz would get a chance in the ninth. The result wasn’t what I wanted, but the fact that we had our best chance made the result acceptable.

  30. Mark Parada says:

    In 1967 my family was living in Arcadia, CA and I was 10 years old. It was the year I became a life long Sox and baseball fan. It was my first year of Little League baseball, the Impossible Dream, and Mr. Yastrzemski’s Triple Crown season. I remember having his poster on my wall. The first thing I would do every morning was read the box score from the LA Times, then cut it out and scotch tape it to my bedroom wall. To this day, he is still my all time favorite baseball player. Its hard to believe its been 50 years. I now watch every NESN Sox game, thanks to satellite TV. And every time I see or hear something about him, it makes me feel like a kid again. Happy Birthday Mr. Yastrzemski, and thanks for the memories.

  31. Dr. Peter Nanos says:

    Thanks Captain Carl Happy 78th

  32. CHRIS BODIG says:

    Great piece Peter. Yaz was one of the all-time greats. Loved the stories in this.

  33. Michael McCanless says:

    Yaz and the ’67 team are the reason that I fell in love with baseball and still follow the Bosox even from my current home in Hawaii. I still make it to Fenway every few years!

  34. Frank Ricchiuti says:

    Happy Birthday Captain,
    Peter, Thank you for a Great read,
    I love to hear stories about this great ball player which
    Is tough sometimes as you know Yaz was never one to blow
    His own horn, How interesting to hear in his own words a
    Different take on all the memorable games we remember.
    He was a hell of a ball player and yes Peter one tough guy
    And I appreciate every game he played for our team
    Thank you Yaz and god bless.

  35. Peter G. Huidekoper Jr. says:

    Thank you so much Peter – just great! – and Happy Birthday Yaz – and thank you for everything. Especially for leading the team out of its doldrums to 5 decades, now , of being among the best.
    Peter Huidekoper Jr.

  36. Thanks Peter Gammons. I was a 13-year-old paperboy in 67 and got up early to read the game stories before delivering the morning paper. I think it was the 68 All Star game in which Yaz made a diving over the shoulder catch I can still see the newspaper photo in my mind.

  37. … then one night the kid in right lay sprawling in the dirt. With Tony through what can we do ?
    Who will carry us from here ? …. Carl Yastrzemski, Carl Yastrzemski, Carl Yastrzemski the
    Man we call Yaz The man behind the Impossible Dream
    Yaz like his batting stance was one of a kind and a pleasure to watch

  38. Great article Peter on my all time favorite Red Sox player. Has was one of a kind and I never remember him taken a play off. Thanks for the memories!!!!!

  39. A great tribute from a GREAT writer about a GREAT baseball player!!! Thank You Mr. Gammons & Thank You Yaz!!!!!

  40. Gentleman ball player. How we loved Yaz

  41. I worked @ Fenway from 58-66, selling for H M STEVENS. I Remember Yaz &, I think, Chuck Shilling beaking in. He was someone to watch. He & TONY C made those last few years @ Fenway for me very special.

  42. Great article as usual. Thanks.

  43. Doug Green says:

    Let’s go to Reggie Jackson to sum up my childhood hero:
    ” From now on, I’m calling him Mister”
    After Yaz awed the A’s with his bat and glove in the 75 playofffs.
    Thank you for all the memories , sir.

  44. Dave Diroll says:

    Always remenber the day watching him replace Ted Williams in left field and when he retired and circled the field. David A Diroll

  45. Dan Towler says:

    Mr. Gammons, how awesome to read this tribute to Yaz! Always enjoyed your writing. I was 11 when Yaz came up, and a senior in high school when they made it to the Series in ’67. As others have said, there’s no one in my memory that’s carried a team like he did that year. What an inspiration for a young Sox fan! And, it’s always great to see him back at Fenway. He will always remain my idol. Wish he could have won a championship for the Sox. He sure as hell gave it his all. Happy Birthday, Captain Carl, and thanks for the memories. Hope you’re enjoying retirement, and us fans love seeing you and hearing from you when you choose to make a public appearance, which I know isn’t your favorite thing. You’re the man, man!

  46. We all wanted to be Yaz playing ball in Arlington Ma. Back in the day. My all time favorite player. Bat held high with it moving back and forth ever so slightly and cocking the elbow and driving the ball against the house for a triple . Love ❤️ YAZ

  47. Yaz, was the best! I had a baseball card of him from every year he played! Started rooting for the Red Sox when the Sox played in the greatest World Series ever, I from Ohio so I crap from both Reds fans and Yankee Fans. Ortiz was great but had to carry steam like Yaz, my opion. Thanks Peter, always wanted his autograph, never could get one, had a chance in Cleveland once but he would not sign two of the same card for him! It’s all good

  48. Peter, thank you so much for that great article about Yaz. It brought back memories of going out with my father on Saturday night to pick up the Boston Sunday Globe in Cleveland Circle so I could read your column before i went to bed. What I know about baseball I learned from you. Thanks.

  49. Jay humphreys says:

    What a pleasant surprise to read this piece.yaz and bobby Orr were my idols growing up. Both of these great players brought their respective franchises back from the brink of extinction.yaz was called one of the most overrated Boston atheletes by that blow hard Michael felger, he couldn’t be any more off the mark.yaz earned everything he accomplished thru pure will and determination reminds me of Edelman and Brady (same type of athletes)

  50. I became an MLB fan in the mid-1960’s after my family moved to the Boston area from Florida. But I became a Red Sox fanatic like so many in that magical summer and fall of 1967. I have a vivid memory of going to a scheduled double header in August during the heat of the pennant race, and sitting in seats right behind home plate that had simply been purchased for a few bucks at the Red Sox ticket office at Filene’s at the start of the saason. The most memorable moment was when Yaz threw a runner out at home plate trying to score from third base on a fly ball that reached the warning track. I’ve never seen that trick repeated