If you’ve been a regular reader since I started writing for the site, you’re familiar with this feature, in which I wax on (and on, and on) about a fun season in Major League history.
I want to turn back to 1967. I feel like 1968 gets all the love when we talk about the late 1960s. People want to talk about Denny McLain winning 30 or Bob Gibson posting the microscopic ERA, and then the resultant rule changes – the lowering of the mound, the eventual introduction of the DH, etc. But the previous, lesser-known season featured one of the greatest pennant races in history. For that reason alone, it’s worth a look. But there’s plenty more than that going on in 1967, as you’ll see below. Check out the rest of the post for more.
As I like to do, I think it’s worth us taking a step back to the previous year, and we’ll start in the NL. In the National League, 1966, Sandy Koufax played his final, dominant season as the Dodgers topped the Giants by a game-and-a-half to take the pennant. Without Koufax (to oversimplify), the Dodgers became a losing team. In that circumstance, the previous year’s runner-up looked to capitalize. The Giants of the 60s were famously overstocked at first base, with two Hall of Fame players manning the position, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. The Giants decided to take advantage of their oversupply through a midseason trade of Cepeda to the hapless Cardinals (73-89 in ’66). A big change occurred in ’67, though: the Cardinals went from losers to winners, becoming the first 100-game winners on the Senior Circuit in five years.
Cepeda seemed the big story, so the sportswriters made him the MVP. I think there’s good reason to question whether or not Cepeda deserved to be the winner, much less the unanimous winner (this community selected Roberto Clemente as our MVP that year, if you’re curious what the hyperlink above links back to; feel free to read back through our thoughts on the matter, if you’re interested). He did have a good season, coming just one point of OBP shy of a .300/.400/.500 batting season, third in the league in OPS+ (behind Dick Allen, Clemente, and Hank Aaron, and squeaking by former teammate McCovey).
Speaking of Aaron, I wanted to see where he ranked in the all-time home run race, relative to Mays. I thought, He must’ve been getting close to Willie Mays – there’s not that much time left in their careers. As it turns out, Aaron was still over 80 HR shy of Mays (564-481). This is in spite of Aaron being in his age-33 season in ’67. It really goes to show how productive he continued to be in his mid-to-late 30s (and insert comment about The Launching Pad here, if you’re so inclined). He’s still 150 back of the Bambino; I can’t imagine it would’ve seemed like a smart bet that he’d become the all-time leader.
But as interesting as all that nonsense is (to me, anyway), the bigger story is undeniably the American League and its pennant race. For those who don’t know, it’s the tightest race in history, pretty much however you measure it: three teams within one game; another team two further back; yet another above .500 and 5 back. We’re going to copy (sort of) my format from my “A Batting Race” posts, and we’re going to look week-by-week, and then day-by-day toward the end of the season. But first, the relevant teams:
The Tigers were the young up-and-comers, as their future is very, very bright. They’re going to come up short in this one, but they have the pieces in place to win next season’s pennant. They were led by Al Kaline who posted a career-high 176 OPS+, and Bill Freehan, the league’s best catcher (a 144 OPS+, who became arguably the league’s most-feared hitter, pacing the AL in Intentional Walks and Hit-By-Pitch).
The White Sox are the surprise team in contention. If you know your late-1960s baseball, you’ll know that the South Siders never won a pennant in the decade. They were led by a strong defense and pitching staff; 100 of their games were started by Gary Peters, Joe Horlen, and Tommy John; the three combined for nearly 700 innings and a 2.25 ERA. That is tough to beat. But, as is White Sox history, they are only competitive when they’re a no-hit, all-pitch team (this pattern is ludicrously stable in White Sox history). Unsurprisingly, ’67 is part of that legacy.
The Twins are the only recent pennant-winners in the bunch, having just won the American League in 1965. Fun fact: team leader Harmon Killebrew (who won his fifth HR title in ’67 while walking 131 times – most of the decade to date, though he and McCovey would both top it two years later) once told me in a Q&A that he thought the ’67 team may have been the Twins’ best group of his career, as it basically had all the best elements of the ’65 team still around, and all the elements of the coming division champs in ’68 and ’69 to come. One of the past elements was Tony Oliva, who led the league in doubles; one of the future elements was Rod Carew, just 21 in ’67, who batted .292 as a rookie in one of the worst hitting environments ever. In hindsight, his many, many batting titles should’ve been foreseeable.
Finally, the eventual winners, the Red Sox, had a very balanced team with one super-duper star. We’ll talk about him plenty later in this post, though. As for the rest of the team, outside of catcher, the other seven regulars also posted and OPS+ of 100 or better; likewise, their three primary starting pitchers all posted an ERA+ of 100 or better. It was a well-rounded team that didn’t have any obvious weaknesses; yet still, they needed a lot of luck to make it all work out. So… how did it happen? Here we go, beginning in September.
Saturday, September 2
With a 4-1 loss to the White Sox, Boston slid into second place. They still had the most wins in the AL (77), but they slipped out of first and a half-game behind the Twins, who beat up on the Tigers to raise their record to 76-58.
Sunday, September 10
Entering the day, the Tigers had clawed their way into contention, on Wednesday, they’d tied for the league’s best record – for the first time since June 10. They were able to keep the pace on Friday and Saturday by beating the White Sox and keep pace with Boston. The Tigers had the chance to really capitalize with a doubleheader finale against Chicago. Sweeping the series would not only have put them up a full game, it could’ve knocked the White Sox 4 back. However, when it counted most, the White Sox managed to blank the Tigers – in both games, pulling out 4-0 and 6-0 wins. The Twins finished off a 5-game sat at Baltimore in which Minnesota took 4 to elevate them to the top position in the AL.
Monday, September 18
This date is notable because I don’t know if, even in the division era, there was ever a date as late in the season quite like this one; the teams played their roles perfectly, such that we wound up with a three-way tie for first. In a theme we’ll see repeated throughout the end of the season, the White Sox truly missed a chance to capitalize. The Angels were tossing a one-hitter (which included no walks and a double-play; so only 21 White Sox came to bat through 7 innings), while scoring two runs of their own. But in the top of the eighth, the Sox bats came alive. A shortstop error began the inning. After a popfly, a single was added; then third was stolen. So there were runners on first and third with one out. A Rocky Colavito single scored a run. Another run scored on a Smoky Burgess groundout on the next at-bat. Now with two outs and a runner on second, and intentional walk followed. Unfortunately for Chicago, they grounded out to end the inning. They failed to score in the ninth. But Roger Repoz scored from first on a single to end the game on a walkoff win for the Angels (who, if you’re a Twins, White Sox, or Tigers fan, may actually have been the true villains of 1967; they seem to stew up a lot of trouble in these final weeks).
Friday, September 22
For the second time in a week, the White Sox lose on a walkoff – this time to Cleveland, and this one in 13 innings. Luis Tiant pitched nine innings, giving up a solitary run, and that in the ninth for Cleveland. A one-out double followed by a run-scoring single. A walk left runners on first and second with only one out; two outfield flies ended Chicago’s hopes that inning. The White Sox were unable to muster another threat, and the loss dropped them two back. The Twins and Red Sox have both been on fire, winning five games in five days (the Red Sox have also lost one in that time – they played two on Friday). This meant that Boston and Minnesota remained tied until this day, on which the Red Sox loss in the front-end of the double-header caused them to drop a half-game back of the Twins.
Monday, September 25
Minnesota spent three straight days with exactly a half-game lead. A loss to the Angels today put the Twins in a tie. The Tigers have faltered hard down the stretch, losing 5 of their last 8 including this date, harming their chances severely. In fact, they would go 6-7 in their final 13 games. If we want to use 20/20 hindsight to make sense of the past, we could say this was the trial that prepared them for the next season’s victory – in which they had the wisdom to avoid this type of finish, never allowing the race to get close (they won the pennant by 12 games).
Wednesday, September 27
One of the things you learn when you do an analysis like this is that every season with a pennant race features days like this one – days when anybody had a chance, an no one took it. Detroit was the best of the four this day… because they were idle. The Twins maintained a one-game lead over Boston in spite of another loss to the Angels. And the White Sox played a doubleheader against the AL’s worst team: the Kansas City A’s. In fact, the A’s were so bad, they lost 100 games – at least, they would’ve lost 100, had they not swept both ends of the doubleheader against the ChiSox (the A’s finished with 99 losses). As I’ve looked back at this pennant race, I think people mostly think of it as being between the Twins and the Red Sox; maybe the Tigers thrown in as an afterthought. But honestly, the White Sox may have had the most chances to seize this race. The fact that they didn’t kept them mired without a division championship until 1983, and without a pennant until 2005. They truly had a shot in ’67, and just couldn’t capitalize on the many, many chances presented them in the last month of the season.
Friday, September 29
All teams were idle Thursday, and only the White Sox were active on this day, the perfect opportunity to pick up a half-game. Perhaps they’d just given up the ghost by this point, tired from playing above their heads all season. They lost to the Senators, mathematically eliminating themselves from the pennant (they technically could’ve tied, just looking at their schedule, but it would’ve required them to win out, and Boston and Minnesota to lose out, forcing a tie; however, Boston and Minnesota played one another, so there was no way for them both to lose all remaining games). The Sox would, in fact, be swept by the Senators, meaning they finished the season on 5 straight losses to two of the league’s worst teams, only to finish 3 games back of the league title. That’s gotta sting; even after all the other blown chances, a solid final week against weak opposition, and they still could’ve won it.
Saturday, September 29
With the White Sox eliminated and the other three well-rested, we head first to Detroit. The Tigers sit between Minnesota and Boston (in the standings, not just geographically), a half-game behind the Twins and a half ahead of the Red Sox. The have a doubleheader against the Angels on this day. They’re dominant in the front-end; Mickey Lolich goes the distance with 11 Ks in a three-hitter, and they score five runs to move into a tie with Minnesota, who doesn’t play until the night game. 7 of the nine starters garner hits (everyone but Kaline and Freehan, weirdly), and the Tigers are in position to take the league lead. Alas, the second game is not so clean. The Angels, again playing the spoiler, score 8 runs in a wild, back-and-forth nightcap. At one point, Detroit led 6-2. They retained starter Fred Lasher for the eighth, and the wheels came off; they needed three other pitchers to finish the inning, allowing a SIX-run inning as a team. They couldn’t scrape another run and had to settle for treading water in the standings, with games to play vanishing quickly – another doubleheader the next day would be it. The Twins and Red Sox, then, were able to play one another. The Twins struck in the first inning. Tony O had an RBI single. That was it for the scoring until the bottom of the fifth, when the Red Sox scraped across two runs, the latter on an infield single by Yaz. I would love to hear an explanation of how an infield single scores a run, even from third. So if anyone knows, I’d love to hear it. The Twins answered to tie it up in the 6th; the Red Sox answered with a George Scott solo homer in the bottom to take the lead at 3-2. That brought up the heart of the Twins order, with 2-3-4 to bat. However, a three-up-three-down inning left the game at 3-2. But then MVP Yaz struck with a 3-run homer to put things out of reach at 6-2. Killebrew would answer with a two-run homer of his own in the top of the ninth, but it was too little, too late for the Twinkies, and the American League was tied. Again, had Detroit been able to take advantage this evening, it would’ve made for an extraordinarily dramatic final day of the season.
Sunday, October 1
We’ll start with the Tigers. Again, they played a doubleheader, again versus the Angels, and again they won the front end, and again they lost the back end. Briefly, here’s what happened. The Angels struck first in the second, scoring a single run. The Tigers roared back (excuse the pun), clawing out (and again) three for the lead. The Angels, over the next three innings, scored 3, 3, and 1 – to take a commanding, 8-3 lead. The Tigers managed two more in the seventh. The teams each finished with 10 hits, and the Angels had a one-walk advantage. Each team had two doubles, a triple, and at least one homer (though the Angels had two homers). Mostly, though, their hits and walks were better sequenced. And that’s how the Tiger’s season came to an end; regardless the outcome of Twins-Red Sox, the Tigers wouldn’t be able to match them.
So the main event: a whole season coming down to Game 162. I know it’s happened before (1982 comes to mind in the division era; I think you’ll all know by now, based on my fandom, why I have an attachment to that particular year). But I don’t know how often it’s happened that teams are tied going into the final game (154 or 162) in the pre-division era. If there are other suggestions of times that’s happened, holler them out in the comments.
Anyway, the loser of this game was going to be out; so even without knowledge of the Tigers’ later game, this one had stakes – possibly, even, a pennant riding on it. The Red Sox had gone without since 1946, which was their only pennant since 1918. For fans younger than I am (I think we might have some such readers) who think of the Red Sox as a powerhouse, or at least as a one-pennant-per-decade kind of franchise, the fact that they had one pennant in nearly fifty years might come as a surprise. Whereas the Twins were still looking for the validation of a first-ever World Series title – they would have to wait 20 more years, until the day my wife was born (she’s from a family of Twins fans, and they all very much enjoy this fact about her; I’ll tell the story here sometime).
Anyway, here’s how the game for all the marbles broke down. Dean Chance, a 20-game winner, started for the Twins; Jim Lonborg, one of the worst pitchers to ever win the Cy Young Award (which he did in ’67), took the mound for the Red Sox, already sitting on 21 wins of his own. And, in an underrated storyline for this game, Carl Yastrzemski could wrap up the Triple Crown, merely by making sure that he wasn’t out-homered by Harmon Killebrew, as they entered the game tied on 44 bombs each.
In the top of the first, Lonborg offered a two-out walk to Killebrew – not necessarily a bad decision, as Killebrew is a hurt-you-with-one-swing-of-the-bat kind of player. But Tony Oliva roped a double down the left field line, and was able to advance to third on an error. Suddenly, the Red Sox were in trouble. They did get out of that jam, and came to bat.
Yaz singled with two outs for the only action in the bottom of the first. The second inning featured a total of one Red Sox single, so we’ll head to the third. In the third, Lonborg’s propensity for walks (he wasn’t actually bad in ’67, but this issue would plague him for the next couple seasons, in particular) would again get the team in trouble – and again it was a two-out walk. This time, he walked the two-hitter (Cesar Tovar), and it was Killebrew’s chance to make him pay, once again on a single to left! Yaz committed a throwing error, allowing Killer to advance to second. Tovar scored, and it was a 2-0 lead for the boys from the Midwest.
The next three innings featured only two hits (one, of course, by Yaz), but both hits were erased by double plays, so just one over the minimum was faced (Killebrew was walked – but Lonborg didn’t have to pay this time, as it was apparently only two-out walks that hurt him on this particular day.
We head to the bottom of the sixth… that that’s where things get interesting. Lonborg helps his own cause by bunting for a single. The next two batters single to the outfield, but Lonborg, being a pitcher, is moving station-to-station. So Yaz comes up with the bases jacked. He knocked a two-RBI single to center. Then a fielder’s choice scores another run, and the Twins finally (mercifully) lift Chance.
The next pitcher in immediately allows consecutive wild pitches, bringing Yaz around to score, and now the Red Sox have the lead. After George Scott strikes out, a walk is offered, then an error on a ground ball to Killebrew and the wheels have completely come off. The Twins do finally get out of the inning, but the damage has been done: four runs allowed, a starting pitcher removed, and desperation beginning to set in. And, unfortunately for the Twins, they have the 7-8-9 spots up. While they did do some pinch hitting, it wasn’t enough; three up, three down.
The Red Sox would load the bases in the bottom of seven with no outs on a single by – you guessed it – Carl Yastrzemski – but they couldn’t convert.
In the top of the 8th, the Twins’ top of the order came up, and they led things off with a single, which was quickly erased by a double play. Who came to start a rally but – you guessed it – Harmon Killebrew. (Seriously; it looks like this was a two-on-two baseball game between Dean Chance/Harmon Killebrew and Jim Lonborg/Carl Yastrzemski; the box is pretty remarkable, actually). Oliva singled next, and the last remaining non-Killebrew Senator (Bob Allison) knocked in Killer to tighten things. Yet again, Lonborg gets into two-out trouble with Harmon Killebrew; yet again, he escapes allowing a single run. He did so because Allison was caught trying to stretch his single into a double. That would prove tremendously costly, because it meant that the bottom of the order had to come up to face Lonborg, after the Twins had already burned through four pinch hitters.
The Red Sox managed only a single in the bottom of the inning. While the Twins did start the ninth with a single (replay what that might’ve meant for this game, had Allison not tried to stretch his hit), but that (again) was erased on a double-play, hit into by Rod Carew (not something we’d really associate Carew with doing. A flyball ended things, and Lonborg completed his start, earned his 22nd win, and for only the second time in 49 years, the Red Sox were American League champions!
Just so you can see their final lines, Lonborg went nine, allowing 7 hits and four walks, striking out 5 and giving up three ones (one earned).
Killebrew, in a losing effort, reaching all four times he came to bat by finishing 2 for 2 with singles, two walks, and two runs scored. He also erred in the field.
Yastrzemski sealed his Triple Crown when both he and Killebrew failed to homer. Not only that, he also reached base all four times at bat, going 4 for 4 with 2 RBI and a run. He also erred in the field.
When I was very young (like ten or young, in the mid-1990s), I occasionally got Harmon Killebrew and Carl Yastrzemski confused: they both had long last names and “old guy” first names; they played in the same league and era; they were both Hall of Famers. In reading about this game, it was fun to see these titans come up biggest when the games counted most.
Speaking thereof, Yaz not only sealed his Triple Crown and won the pennant (essentially guaranteeing his MVP), Yaz also had a truly epic final half-month. From September 15 through October 1, Yaz played all 15 of his team’s games. In that time, he went 27-55 with 9 BB and was hit once; he hit 6 doubles and 5 homers, and reached on error thrice. It adds up to a .491/.569/.873 line – and he got better throughout the month! In the final six, his line was .619/.680/1.143 (!!!) in 25 PAs. In the two-gamer against the Twins, the line was .875/.875/1.375 – and yeah, it’s only 8 PAs, but going 7 of 8 with a double and homer in two must-win games against the league’s best team is just about all you can ask of a baseball player. Yaz earned that MVP. And it’s given little Yaz quite the legacy to live up to.
In closing, sorry for the length of this post – but I hope you’ll agree, the quality of this race (albeit not the writing about it) makes it worthy of a lot of words! And I’m sorry for the infrequency of my posts as of late; I’m going to try to get biweekly (every other wee biweekly, that is) posts going. I think my life is in a place where I can make that happen, so there should be at least somewhat-regular content up on the site. Thanks for those of you who still check us out here at HHS! And if you have thoughts/memories of 1967, I’d love to read them!