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My Favorite Player: Carl Yastrzemski

Early on the morning of May 3, 1967, I was born in Brookline Hospital, the same hospital in which my father was born, the doctor having been assisted by the same nurse who helped deliver my dad 22 years before. So it’s no wonder that we shared a love for the same baseball player—Boston Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski.

Later that night, Yaz, whose sobriquet was borne out of affection and convenience, went 1 for 3 with a walk and an assist in a heartbreaking 2–1 loss to the California Angels that dropped Boston to 9–8 on the year and kept them out of first place by a game. Yaz had begun his Major League career in 1961, following in the giant footsteps of my father’s childhood hero, Ted Williams.

By the time I entered the world, Yastrzemski had already won a batting title and two Gold Gloves, had been named to three All-Star teams, and had led the American League in multiple offensive categories. He was three weeks into painting his masterpiece 1967 campaign, which would lead to a Most Valuable Player Award, a Triple Crown, and a trip to the World Series. 

Carl Yastrzemski hit a home run in the fourth inning of Game Two of the 1967 World Series, and celebrated the Red Sox 5-0 victory over the Cardinals with manager Dick Williams

 

“I’m told that when I was eighteen months old my dad got me a tiny baseball bat, which I dragged around wherever I went, the way other babies drag blankets or favorite toys,” Yastrzemski told Al Hirschberg in 1968. It was around that same time that my mother took a picture of me holding a toy bat while my father held me. I was destined to love baseball and Yaz.

Yastrzemski came from a Bridgehampton, New York, family of Polish descent, made up of hard-working potato farmers and ballplayers. As a youth, he spent hours in the family garage swinging a lead bat so he could hone his skills and compete against older players, and he did jobs around the family farm meant to strengthen his arms and wrists at his father’s insistence.

Yastrzemski’s father, Carl Sr., was himself a world-class baseball player, having been offered a minor league contract by the Brooklyn Dodgers after a tryout at Ebbets Field that he couldn’t afford to accept because it paid less than farming. Instead, he formed a semi-pro team made up of family members that competed throughout New York and won many league championships.

The lefty-swinging Yaz joined the team at fourteen and batted third in front of his right-handed father, who batted cleanup and was forced to hit into the teeth of a shift that had everyone but the first baseman on the left side of the diamond. Carl Sr. also proved to be a shrewd and tough negotiator, insisting that the only contract he’d accept for his son would include a six-figure bonus and college tuition. Carl the elder had his sights set on Notre Dame and wanted it paid for.

After haggling with the Yankees, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers, the Yastrzemskis agreed to the Red Sox’s offer of $108,000 and Carl’s college tuition. Yaz spent only two years in the minors before making his big league debut at Fenway Park on April 11, 1961.

As if it weren’t difficult enough to try to make good in the Majors, Yastrzemski had the added pressure of replacing legend and icon Ted Williams in left field. He later denied there was pressure—“That I happened to be playing Williams’ old position didn’t make the pressure any worse,” he told Hirschberg. But he told Gerald Eskenazi in 1990, “The pressure to do well started from the very first day of camp [in 1961].”

In his third season in the majors, Carl Yastrzemski won his first of three American League batting championships. AL president Joe Cronin and John Hillerich presented the Hillerich & Bradsby Silver Bat Award to Yaz in honor of the 1963 title. 

Yaz singled in his first Major League at-bat, one of 3,419 hits he would rack up over the course of a brilliant 23-year career, all with the Red Sox. The work ethic and toughness he had learned from his father served him well—from ages 21 to 39 Yaz averaged 151 games a year and played in all 162 in 1969.

His body finally began to betray him after he turned 40. But he worked tirelessly to hone his craft, taking extra batting practice when he slumped and adjusting his batting stance as he got older.

Prior to the 1967 season he hired a personal trainer and got in the best shape of his life, which contributed to his fantastic campaign that ended with him winning the AL MVP Award. He also began to pull the ball more, and his home run total jumped from 16 in 1966 to a league-leading 44 (tied with Harmon Killebrew).

He would win another batting title in 1968, posting what appears to be an anemic .301 average, the lowest of any batting champ in history. But the league as a whole batted only .230, and Yaz was the only AL player to top the .300 mark that year. He reached the 40-homer mark again in 1969 and 1970, and from 1967 to 1970 only four players homered more than Yastrzemski.

But he wasn’t just a great hitter. Although he had played the middle infield and pitched throughout most of his amateur career, Yastrzemski became an all-time great outfielder as a pro. He decided early on that he wanted to tame the “Green Monster,” the 37-foot high wall that towers above Fenway Park’s left field. Through dedication and practice, Yaz did just that, learning the angles and watching how the ball would carom off the wall.

Hall of Fame outfielder “Captain Carl” played his entire 23-year career with the Boston Red Sox.

He combined a keen awareness of his surroundings with a strong arm to win seven Gold Gloves and wasted no time showing Red Sox fans what they could expect from him when he gunned down Kansas City Athletics second baseman Leo Posada at the plate in only his second inning as a big league left fielder.

Perhaps the greatest compliment Yaz ever received came from Oakland’s Reggie Jackson during the 1975 ALCS. In his early 30s Yastrzemski began to transition to first base to make room for younger outfielders like Dwight Evans, Fred Lynn, and Jim Rice, who took over in left in 1975. Rice’s hand was broken by a pitch on September 21, 1975, and the Sox were suddenly in need of a new left fielder.

Enter Yastrzemski, who told Red Sox skipper Darrell Johnson, “I can play left field in my sleep.” He was penciled in to his old position for the playoffs and played as if he had never left. In Game 3 of the ALCS, Jackson lined a hit to left in the bottom of the fourth inning that Yaz tracked down and backhanded. Jackson thought he had a sure double, but Yastrzemski wheeled and fired a strike to second to erase Jackson on the bases and end the inning.

Later Jackson told the press, “There are only two people who could have made that play on me: Carl Yastrzemski and God.” Yaz also held Jackson to a single in the bottom of the eighth on a hit to the left-center field gap that was destined to result in extra bases, and kept Sal Bando from scoring. “Just those two plays on me were killers,” Jackson admitted.

Though I remember small bits of the 1975 season and a little more of 1976, it wasn’t until 1977 that I became fully engrossed in the game, and my timing couldn’t have been better. Thanks in part to expansion that brought the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays to the American League and an increase in offense across baseball, a then 37-year-old Yastrzemski became rejuvenated and enjoyed his best season since 1970.

By then I had heard and read stories about his past exploits, my father recalling how Yaz put the Red Sox on his back in ’67 and carried them to the World Series with impossible-to-believe numbers down the stretch, highlight-reel catches he had made, and how he would fool runners into believing he was going to catch a ball that he knew was going to hit the Green Monster and vice versa. Although I was already 10, 1977 was my first year as a little leaguer, and I proudly wore Yaz’s number 8 on the back of my jersey.

Yaz belted 28 home runs that year—one of five Red Sox players to hit at least 20—drove in 102 runs, scored 99 times, and played 1,194 2/3 innings in the outfield without committing an error, becoming only the fifth (and oldest) outfielder with at least 140 games to accomplish the feat. That same season he recorded his 2,655th hit and passed Williams as the Red Sox’s all-time hit leader.

With his impressive statistics as a 17-time All-Star, 7-time Gold Glove winner, and 1967 AL Triple Crown winner, Carl Yastrzemski proved himself to be a worthy successor to Ted Williams.

Over the next six seasons, Yaz added to his already impressive totals and reached milestones few have ever achieved. On July 24, 1979, he became the 18th player to hit 400 career homers when he launched a drive into the bullpen at Fenway Park off Oakland A’s pitcher Mike Morgan.

Then on September 12, he singled off Yankees hurler Jim Beattie for his 3,000th hit, becoming the 14th member of the 3,000-hit club, and the only American Leaguer with 400 homers and 3,000 hits.

Yaz recorded his final hit on October 2, 1983, a day after he was honored by a sellout crowd at Fenway Park on “Yaz Day.” He received a five-minute standing ovation before addressing the throng, telling the 33,491 in attendance, “I hope I represented Boston and New England with class and dignity.” He then jogged around Fenway Park, waving to and shaking hands with fans along the way.

In his first year of eligibility, Carl Yastrzemski was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989. Eight months later his number 8 was retired by the Red Sox and hangs with seven others above the right field grandstand.

 

 

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