Go Go el Birdos vs The Impossible Dream. That was the 1967 World Series. Boston and St. Louis. The Cardinals turned things around in July and cruised to their second National League Pennant of the decade. For the Red Sox, it wasn’t quite that easy. And that is the subject of my “What If”.
For the final month of the season, four teams traded places in the standings. Chicago (White Sox), Minnesota, Boston and Detroit leapfrogged each other, with no team breaking away from the others. Boston had a slight advantage because they were playing with a bit of extra emotion. That emotion came from two different events, and they couldn’t have been more different.
Carl Yastrzemski had been battling with Harmon Killebrew of the Twins for the home run title, but it was far more than that. If he won, he would win the AL Triple Crown (batting average, home runs, runs batted in). He ended up tied with Killebrew at the end of the season, and thanks to a 7 for 8 performance in the final two games, Yaz also won the batting title. His 112 RBIs also led the league, giving him the triple crown. Yaz became the second Red Sox player to accomplish the feat – Ted Williams being the other (twice). No player has done it since, although Albert Pujols has come close.
The other is a tragic event, and it nearly cost the Red Sox the Pennant. In August, one of the Red Sox bright young players, a very exciting outfielder named Tony Canigliaro, was hit in the face by a pitch, and would miss the rest of the season. While most of us know Yaz for his long and productive career, it was thought at the time Canigliaro would go on to be the better of the two outfielders. And he might have, if not for the horrific eye injury suffered in that game. With Canigliaro out, the Red Sox made a quick deal with the Kansas City Athletics to acquire Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, and The Hawk took over right field duties. Harrelson struggled and was nowhere near as productive as the young man he was replacing.
With Yastrzemski having a career year, and the team trying to overcome the loss of Tony Canigliaro, it was only fitting that they won the AL Pennant. But not so fast.
Entering the final game of the season, Boston and Minnesota were tied for first place, with Detroit just one game back. Chicago had fallen out of the race, thanks to the Washington Senators (now the Texas Rangers). While Detroit was playing a double header, Boston would face Minnesota.
On the mound for the Twins was one of the best, Dean Chance. Chance was the Tim Lincecum of his generation. He had a quirky delivery where he would turn his back to home plate, and then spin around, firing a broad assortment of pitches. He had a plus fastball, good curve and old school sinker. He had already won one Cy Young Award, and was in the running for his second in 1967. Not wanting to take any chances, the Red Sox went with their staff ace, Jim Lonborg. Lonborg was an Adam Wainwright type pitcher – tall, lanky and had a good fastball and even better curve. Unlike Wainwright, Lonborg could get a little wild, but effectively so.
History tells us that Lonborg won this final game, defeating Chance and the Twins. Detroit split their double header, giving the Red Sox the AL Pennant by a single game. What if Boston did not have to use Lonborg on that final day of the season. In the last two weeks, they played seven games with the Baltimore Orioles, and lost five. What if they had won just one of those games and could have saved their ace for Game One of the World Series.
Boston wins the 1967 World Series.
And here’s why.
Since Jim Lonborg was unavailable for the first game of the series, Jose Santiago (12-4) got the call. He would face Bob Gibson, and the two would battle in a very memorable pitchers duel. A Lou Brock single, stolen base and infield ground out by Roger Maris was the difference in this game as Bob Gibson and Cardinals win, 2-1. In Game Two, Lonborg throws a 1 hit shutout. If he does that in Game One, Boston wins 1-0. It’s not quite as clean as all that because Santiago provided the sole Boston tally. If the game goes into the ninth scoreless, Boston wins a walkoff at home.
If we continue with this scenario, Santiago gets the start in Game Two. Dick Hughes pitched well enough to win, but a bullpen meltdown gave the Red Sox an easy 5-0 win in the real Game Two. Take Santiago’s performance from Game One, and he easily defeats Hughes, and the Red Sox travel to St. Louis with a two game lead.
There would be no change to Game Three, so Nelson Briles still defeats Gary Bell. The Cardinals get their first win in the series.
Game Four would have been the rematch of Game One with Jim Lonborg facing Bob Gibson. Both pitchers were spectacular. The short rest affects Longborg more, and the Cardinals win this game, 1-0. They also tie the series at two games each.
Since we are reversing history, Game Five is one that we will put in the win column for the Cardinals. In the real Game Four, Cardinals bats totally lit up Jose Santiago early. If they did so in the fictitious Game Five, Steve Carlton has enough runs to go the distance, and wins 6-2. The Cardinals go back to Boston, up 3 games to two.
The real Game Six was a disaster, so to it will be in our What If scenario. The game is remembered for the four home runs surrendered by Dick Hughes, three in the same inning. As bad as that sounds, the game was actually lost much later when the bullpen unraveled. John Wyatt still wins in relief, and Jack Lamabe takes the hard luck loss.
That brings us to Game Seven, and the third time for Gibson and Lonborg. In the real Game Seven, Lonborg came back on two days rest and was not sharp. His curveball was flat and he couldn’t throw the fastball past anybody. Gibson was also showing the signs of fatigue, but the extra day made all the difference. Gibby got sloppy in a couple of innings, which lead to a pair of meaningless Red Sox runs. If Longborg had the extra day rest, as he did in Game Five, he wins Game Seven at home, 2-1. And the Red Sox are the 1967 World Champions.