The two unusual events which unfolded on May 18, 1966, could not possibly have been connected, although those of us who appreciate the murky ways in which random acts ripple across infields and oceans and the universe itself can’t be so certain.
On May 18th, 1966, the Boston Red Sox beat the Orioles in Baltimore. It should never have happened.
And on that same day the Beatles recorded their first tune with brass. Never before had the lads brought trumpets and saxes into the EMI Studios on London’s Abbey Road.
All of us know “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
Few of us remember that six weeks into a tragic season, the 9-21 Sox scraped together an improbable 2-1 win against the best team in baseball.
There could never have been an implosion foreshadowing the events of 2011 back in 1966. There was nothing to implode.
Sox fans still unable to tear themselves away from the horrific events of September 2011 could do worse than ditching the recent wreckage and surveying the landscape of 1966.
Then again, September 2011 occupies an exalted position in Red Sox history. The most errors committed by any team ever during the month of September. The highest earned-run average for starters ever recorded in a single calendar month. The most losses in a month.
Before this carnage, and following the death of Dick Williams, I was improbably tugged back to the 1966 Red Sox. Like most Sox fans, I considered them an unfortunate prelude to the Impossible Dream of 1967.
Revisiting that dismal 1966 season you can’t help but rummage around for hints of impending glory. To see what Dick Williams saw when he came down to Boston from the club in Toronto.
And you look back on your own summer. Mine included an orange and white Philips tube radio sitting on the shelf of the cabin at Camp Champlain on Digby Neck in Nova Scotia where we listened to the Beatles on Boston’s WMEX and poisonous Sox scores seeped out like a leaking battery.
You wonder just what it was about the 1966 Red Sox, where the opening day lineup featured Carl Yazstremski and Tony Conigliaro, and the pitching staff featured Jim Lonborg, that made the team the second worst in the American League that year.
Only the Yankees were worse. That is all the comfort a Sox fan finds sifting through the wreckage of this team that care forgot.
Look at those standings. A cruel contortion of what we have grown accustomed to. But the wreckage of the 1966 Sox was strewn across a crash site that was otherwise fairly pure.
One of the first things you notice is the symmetry of the schedule, which like much of the game itself springs from simple mathematical beauty.
The Sox played each of their American opponents 18 times. No juicing the schedule with Yankees games to placate network TV.
The Sox won none of those series. Not one. The best they could do was tie Kansas City and California.
That was the kind of year it was.
June 29: U.S. Air Force bombers fly their first missions against Hanoi and Haiphong. In Fenway the Red Sox lose to the Yankees 6-5
July 14: Richard Speck murders 8 student nurses in their Chicago dormitory. In Anaheim the Red Sox lose to the Angels 3-2.
August 1: Charles Whitman kills 13 people and wounds 31 from atop a tower at the University of Texas. In Minneapolis the Red Sox lose to the Twins 6-2.
August 5: Groundbreaking takes place for New York City’s World Trade Center. In Chicago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leads a civil rights march and is hit by a rock which comes flying out of a mob. In Las Vegas, Caesars Palace opens. In London, the Beatles release “Revolver” and in Detroit, the Red Sox lose to the Tigers 2-0.
August 13: In Beijing, Chairman Mao unveils China’s Cultural Revolution. In Fenway, the Red Sox lose to the Tigers 13-1.
There was no revolution in Boston in 1966. But there was something of the final flare-up of a long running battle, a confusing storm ignited by racism which marked the end, or something close to the end, of the team’s historic difficulties with black players.
This storm involved Earl Wilson, Boston’s best pitcher and it broke out in a bar in Lakeland, Florida during spring training.
1966 was the first Red Sox spring training in Florida since 1958. For the previous seven years they had been in Scottsdale.
“We don’t serve niggers here.” That’s what a bartender at Cloud 9 in Lakeland told six-foot three Earl Wilson. The former Marine had gone into the gin mill for a drink with two white team mates, Dennis Bennet and Dave Morehead.
When Wilson relayed the incident to the Red Sox front office he was told not to complain. He was then traded June 14th, sent to Detroit for Don Demeter and pitcher Julio Navarro. Wilson went on to hit more home runs for the Tigers as a pitcher than Demeter did for Boston as an outfielder.
Navarro never pitched a single inning for the Sox, fell off the radar then curiously resurfaced four years later in Atlanta, where he pitched 26 innings and registered 21 strikeouts.
In Detroit, Earl Wilson flourished.
Two months after arriving in the Motor City, the 30 year old bachelor from Ponchatoula, Louisiana was named Sports Illustrated’s “Player of the Week.” He went 13-6 for Detroit in 1966 with a 2.39 ERA. The following year he won 22 games and tied Boston’s Jim Lonborg for the most American League wins.
Red Sox fans can’t help but wonder how 1967 would have turned out had Earl Wilson stuck around. That doomed World Series rotation… with Wilson, Dick Williams would have been able to start Jim Lonborg once rather than twice.
When the 1966 Red Sox lost Earl Wilson they lost the first black man in the American League to throw a no hitter. Less than 15,000 fans were at Fenway that June afternoon in 1962 when Wilson no-hit the Los Angeles Angels 2-0 and, for good measure, hit a home run off California’s Bo Belinsky.
Home runs were not unusual for Wilson. He hit two for the Sox in one game in 1965.
Earl Wilson died in Southfield, Michigan in 2005. For four years Wilson served as President of the Baseball Assistance Team, a group which helped out retired players down on their luck.
Reflecting on Red Sox racism is a classic Hobson’s Choice. And not Butch’s.
Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Lay into the absence of black players without the benefit of a first hand understanding of the decision making process and you take a shot for speculative politicizing.
Suggest that there may have been more than met the eye and you’re racist.
As the late Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough told author Glenn Stout, “The only problem the Red Sox have ever had with blacks was finding blacks who could play. All right?”
Perhaps. But in the early sixties the Red Sox had problems finding anyone of any color who could play. And fans couldn’t help but notice.
In 1965, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey told Sports Illustrated staff writer Jack Mann;
“They blame me and I’m not even a Southerner. I’m from Detroit. I have no feeling against colored people, I employ a lot of them in the South. But they are clannish, and when that story got around that we didn’t want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club. Actually, we scouted them right along, but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer.”
For half a century Sox fans have been trying to affix a price tag to the team’s Caucasian ways. This exercise is sad and ultimately pointless given all the woulda-coulda-shoulda intangibles.
We are dragged out of box scores and statistical certainty into backwaters of hearsay, emotion, and murky departures from historical record.
Can we be 100% certain, as it has been reported, that only Sox management was in the stands that April day in 1945 when the Red Sox held a tryout for Jackie Robinson at Fenway? A reporter who was there claims to have heard somebody yell “Get those niggers off the field.”
Four years after passing on Robinson, the Red Sox passed on signing another black player. This time, Willie Mays.
From the vantage point of 2011, the temptation is to castigate the Red Sox. To suggest that all these issues were winding down, or had already wound down in 1966, is perhaps naive. And to point out that the installation of Dick O’Connell as the club’s General Manager effectively turned the corner on color may or may not be true.
But it’s not that simple. Dealing with race, it never is. If America has yet to resolve its racial issues in 2011, far be it from any of us to expect the Red Sox to have resolved theirs by 1966.
Earl Wilson was still with the Sox on April 30, 1966, the day a Los Angeles band called the Standells released “Dirty Water.” Decades later the song became a Fenway Park Anthem. In 2007, members of the original band were made honorary citizens of the Commonwealth by decree by the Massachusetts Legislature.
Year after year, Earl Wilson had enough of this inner strength, or whatever you want to call it, to sustain him through the torment of racism.
Tony Horton, a 1966 Red Sox team mate of Wilson couldn’t draw on enough of it to sustain him through the pressure of baseball.
After turning down basketball scholarships from USC and UCLA, Horton signed with the Red Sox in 1962. In 1966 he was the team’s reserve first baseman. In 1967 he was sent to the Indians for Gary Bell. After going 1-5 in Cleveland, Bell won 12 games for the Red Sox and stayed in Boston until he was drafted by the Seattle Pilots in 1969.
For awhile it was good for Tony Horton in Cleveland. 1969 was particularly good. .278, 27 home runs and 93 RBIs.
1970 was not. Something inside kept screaming. Whatever he did, it wasn’t enough. Not even those three home runs in a single game against the Yankees. They say Tony Horton was upset that he didn’t hit four. They say he was intense. Brooding and moody and classic loner material.
A few weeks after his three homer game he hit for the cycle against the Orioles. And in late August, when the boos from the stands in Cleveland Stadium grew loud enough to drown out anything else he could hear, Tony Horton went back to where he was living at the Blue Grass Motel and slit his golden wrists.
His manager, Alvin Dark, called it “…the most sorrowful incident I was ever involved in, in my baseball career.”
Seven years earlier, at the Red Sox training camp in Scottsdale, Ted Williams took a look at Tony Horton and said, “This kid is a natural. You don’t fool with a swing like that.”
It would be easy to pass judgment. To suggest that Earl Wilson was gutsier and held up better than Tony Horton.
But none of us will ever understand Horton’s demons. We can only guess and at some point the psychic metrics of the stress tests, one attempting to gauge the pain of racial hatred, the other the pain of unattainable perfection, veer off in such different directions that comparisons become pointless.
But Tony Horton enduring his perfection and Earl Wilson enduring his discrimination ran out of the dugout together for a few months in 1966, two proud men on a tormented team where the past was close behind.
Tony Horton. Jimmy Piersall redux?
The relentless pursuit of perfection. From 1989-99, the positioning statement for Lexus.
Which, in his later years, is the automobile that Tony Horton drove.
There were five of them in the brass section.
Eddie Thornton played Super-olds trumpet and Peter Coe on tenor sax were members of Georgie Fame’s band, the Blue Flames. Years later, I sat in row seven at Madison Square Garden and saw Georgie perform as a member of Van Morrison’s band.
The rest of the Beatles’ brass section for a day were freelancers Ian Hamer, Les Condon and Alan Branscombe. They showed up in Studio 2 at 2:30 in the afternoon.
“There was nothing written down.” said Peter Coe. “But Paul sat at the piano and showed us what he wanted and we played with the rhythm track in our headphones. I remember that we tried it a few times to get the feel right and then John Lennon, who was in the control room, suddenly rushed out, stuck his thumb aloft, and shouted ‘got it.’ George Harrison got a little bit involved too but Ringo sat playing draughts in the corner.”
Afterwards Paul laid down a new vocal track with George and John backing him up to replace what had previously been recorded. Another overdub brought in the guitars.
The final mix and the mono remixes were done and the session was over by 2:30 the next morning.
That was the day the Red Sox beat the Orioles. It would only happen once that season.
On May 18, 1966, less than 5,500 fans saw Earl Wilson get the win and Jim Palmer take the loss as the 9-21 Red Sox beat 18-10 Baltimore 2-1 in ten innings.
The two pitchers each gave up ten hits, each went the distance and each came out of the game with a 3-2 record, although Palmer’s ERA was considerably lower.
The Orioles went on to win the World Series. Looking back on skipper Hank Bauer’s lineup, it would seem inevitable.
It was third baseman Joe Foy who lead the Sox to the improbable win. While Tony C, Rico Petrocelli, George Scott, Yaz and all went hitless, Foy had three hits.
The game was won on a tenth inning home run. The hitter: Earl Wilson.
Three hits in a game wasn’t something Joe Foy was used to. A positive and likable New Yorker who grew up seven blocks from Yankee Stadium, Foy was signed by the Twins and wound up in Boston. He was a pure line drive hitter, didn’t strike out much and was gifted at hitting behind the runner.
After a sluggish start in 1966, he had a solid second half, hitting .306 with 11 home runs.
But Foy was plagued with weight issues and tormented with drinking problems. He liked to smoke pot. One night he plowed his car into a Boston taxi. Despite his clubhouse contributions his relationship with the team soured.
Like many 1966 players, Joe Foy is best remembered for his 1967 performance. He was left unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft. After brief stints with the Royals and the Mets, his career as a player came to an end in 1971 when Washington Senators Manager Ted Williams released him.
Joe Foy passed away at the age of 46 in 1989.
The name still makes us shudder. Fans still visit the Holy Cross Cemetary in Malden to pay respects. But before the horrors of August 16, 1967, throughout the 1966 season , Tony C was godlike.
He was 21 that summer and finished the 1966 season with a .265 average, the worst of his pre-injury career, 28 home runs and no stolen bases.
But there was no glare of publicity, harsh or otherwise. This was a team out of rhythm with its city and its fans. A team that pulled fewer than 2,200 fans into Fenway on June 4th for a Saturday afternoon game with the Yankees that went 16 innings.
Had Tony C. himself shown up in our main lodge at Camp Champlain that summer he would have been no more a godlike figure than our counselors.
These guys, each in their late teens, each a master of something and very good at just about everything else, occupied positions at the crossroads of the exalted and the ethereal.
Saturday night. We’re back from the dance over at Camp Arcadie, the girls’ camp on the other side of Digby Neck. We’re in our cabin getting ready for bed and we’re talking about the dance and my counselor says to me:
“PT, that girl you were dancing with, very cute.”
“Yeah, she’s really fine. “
It is now necessary in this recollection that I leave out her name and her family’s business, although revealing that her grandfather was a member of the Canadian Senate probably won’t jeopardize her identity, which I wish to protect.
But that night in the cabin when we were reliving the dance over at Camp Arcadie I shared all this with my counselor, who was suitably impressed, and because he was a Newfoundlander, brought essential Newfie wisdom to his response.
“Fockin Jaysus. PT, you’re gonna stick yer cock in a fockin gole mine.”
This is precisely what every thirteen year boy old needs to hear.
It was an assurance that my awkward and uncertain path forward would somehow sort itself out, that whatever valleys of death I had been imagining were no longer of any consequence.
Sitting with the young lady in question the next morning in the Anglican church built in 1844, nothing that came from the pulpit resonated quite so well.
My counselor’s benediction bestowed in front of the other guys in the cabin on that foggy Saturday night in Nova Scotia in 1966 when we were getting ready for bed, that was, on that evening, unquestionably the single greatest moment of my life.
The summer of 1966 did not sprinkle such magic on Billy Herman. The Red Sox skipper was adrift.
Herman is remembered as one of the best defensive second basemen of all time, a member of the Hall of Fame and a brilliant hit and run artist. He is also remembered as one of Boston’s most woeful managers. And his relationship with Yazstremski was never good.
Arriving in Boston in 1960 he was the third base coach for Pinky Higgins for five seasons before taking over as manager for the last two games of the 1964 season. The ‘65 Sox went 62-100, a ninth place finish, the worst season since 1932.
“When we opened up the season [in 1966], I had Joe Foy and George Scott and Rico Petrocelli in the lineup, all of them very young then. We started out poorly and for most of the first half of the season stayed that way. But I didn’t have anybody better to put in, and these kids were hustling and starting to show a little improvement, so I just kept them in there.
“Then they started putting it together. As a matter of fact, that club won more games in the second half of 1966 than the pennant-winning club won in the first half a year later. The only team that played better ball than we did in the last half of ‘66 was Baltimore–and they were World Champs that year. In other words, that Red Sox ball club was starting to move.”
As the Beatles moved across North America that summer on their 1966 tour they played in eight ball yards. Only two performances were in American League parks, Municipal Stadium in Cleveland August 14 and DC Stadium in Washington DC August 15, where Frank Howard would hit home runs into the upper deck.
The day the Beatles performed in DC, members of the Maryland Klu Klux Klan staged protests outside the stadium.
The Boston performance was at Suffolk Downs Racetrack on August 18th, a one mile oval where Seabiscuit once ran. A former Suffolk Downs owner, Charles Adams, was ordered to sell the Boston Braves because of his involvement with the track. Adams also owned the Boston Bruins, but the NHL didn’t seem to mind the racetrack.
And Beatles fans in San Francisco didn’t pack Candlestick for the band’s final live stadium performance. 42,500 seats, just 25,000 tickets sold.
Paul screams Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” for the encore and the fabs head home. In a few months they are back in the Abbey Road EMI studios working on John’s “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
The Giants are in Philadelphia and lose to the Phillies 5-1. Future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning gets the win.
The Red Sox are in Anaheim and beat the Angels 4-3.
Jose Santiago gets the win and finishes the season 12-13. The following season, when impossible dreams float across Fenway with improbable regularity, Santiago goes 12-3.