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Yaz won Triple Crown

Carl Yastrzemski's career statistics

Yaz lifted Sox
By Bob Carter
Special to

"He reminded me of myself. He's wound up like a clock. He's ready to go," said Ted Williams about Carl Yastrzemski on ESPN SportsCentury's series.

Imagine a young comedian following Bob Hope on stage. A neophyte singer taking the microphone from Frank Sinatra. An unknown understudy called to perform for Laurence Olivier.
Carl Yastrzemski
Sept. 21, 1967: Red Sox infielder George Scott (left) with Yastrzemski after Yaz collected 4 hits to take the AL batting race lead.
Carl Yastrzemski began his major league baseball career under similar duress, replacing Ted Williams as the Boston Red Sox leftfielder in 1961.

Demanding fans and media exerted pressure from the start. "They were comparing me with the greatest hitter ever to play the game," Yastrzemski said. "It almost broke me."

The intense rookie began slowly but steadied in the second half of the season after getting some advice from Williams. He became a fixture in the lineup, a player who would go on to the Hall of Fame.

Known as Yaz, the lefthanded batter hit .266 that first year, then two seasons later led the American League with a .321 average, his first of three batting titles. In 1967, Yastrzemski lifted the Red Sox to a magical season, winning the Triple Crown and MVP as he drove Boston through a riveting pennant race to the World Series.

"Every game we win," Boston manager Dick Williams said that August, "it seems he's had a hand in it."

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Yaz figured in Red Sox victories for 16 more seasons and helped them to another pennant in 1975. He learned to field exceptionally, leading the league in outfield assists seven times and winning seven Gold Gloves. A lifetime .285 hitter in his 23 seasons, he played an American League-record 3,308 games. He was the first AL player to get 3,000 hits and 400 homers. In 14 World Series games, he batted .352.

Yastrzemski was born on Aug. 22, 1939, in Southampton, Long Island, the first of two sons born to Carl Yastrzemski Sr. and his wife Hattie. Carl Sr. was a first-generation Polish potato farmer and one-time semipro baseball player who influenced many of his son's decisions.

Though Yaz also excelled in basketball, it was in baseball that he dominated. Yaz, who grew up playing several positions, pitched a no-hitter in his first Little League game and batted .520 his sophomore season at Bridgehampton High School and .650 as a senior. His quick, smooth swing impressed scouts, including Pittsburgh's Ed McCarrick: "He could wait until the last split second to lash through with the bat."

Urged by his father, Yastrzemski went to Notre Dame in 1957 on a baseball and basketball scholarship. He played on the freshman baseball team before signing with Boston for $100,000.

At Class B Raleigh, N.C., in 1959, he led the Carolina League with a .377 average and was voted MVP, though he made 45 errors at shortstop. Promoted to Triple-A Minneapolis, he hit .339 and was switched to leftfield.

Williams retired after that 1960 season, and the next spring Yaz took his place and the burden of replacing a celebrated athlete whose batting skills were revered. By July, Yaz was hitting .230 and feeling tense.

"You start having doubts," he recalled. "Can I play in the big leagues? Finally, I said to myself, 'You're not Ted Williams.' I started hitting the way I could."

Yastrzemski batted over .300 the second half of the season. He hit no lower than .278 the next five years and led the league in doubles three times. Yet he averaged 16 homers in his first six seasons, hardly star-like production, and Boston finished no higher than sixth.

Yastrzemski turned moody and testy as the team sagged. A friend of owner Tom Yawkey, Yaz feuded with Johnny Pesky, who became manager in 1963 and occasionally benched the outfielder for not hustling. "There's always tension on a losing team, bad tension," Yaz said years later. "And relationships among the players and with the managers never are very happy."

After coming in ninth in 1966 (the last time Boston would finish with a losing record with Yastrzemski until his final season, 1983), Yaz worked with a fitness instructor and grew stronger. In the spring, he told new manager Williams he'd be willing to do anything he was asked.

Carl Yastrzemski
Sox great Carl Yastrzemski won the 1967 Triple Crown.
Williams didn't ask Yaz to put the team on his shoulders, but for periods in 1967 he did just that. He became a pull hitter with home-run power, and Boston started winning for the first time in his seven seasons, bidding for their first pennant since 1946.

"He could not play any better than he has," Williams said in August, the Red Sox locked in a title chase with Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota. Somehow, Yaz played better, batting .523 over the final 12 games with five homers and 16 RBI. The White Sox fell from the race in the last week, but the other three teams entered the last weekend with a chance to win.

Boston needed to sweep the final two games at home against Minnesota to have any chance, and an excited Yastrzemski could barely sleep. "This is it," he said. "We have a shot to win it all."

Yastrzemski went 7-for-8 as the Red Sox beat the Twins on the last two days of the season and when Detroit lost the second game of a doubleheader to California on the final day, the Red Sox won the pennant.

In being an almost unanimous choice as MVP, Yaz led the league in batting (.326), RBI (121), homers (44, tied with Minnesota's Harmon Killebrew), hits (189), runs (112) and slugging average (.622). He also played balls off Fenway Park's "Green Monster" wall like no one else. "The best leftfielder I've ever seen," said Billy Martin, then a Minnesota coach.

Yaz continued to pound away in the World Series, batting .400 and hitting three homers, though Boston lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Fenway fans showed their fickleness the next season when they turned on Yaz, whose production dropped considerably (23 homers, 74 RBI) though his .301 average won the batting title.

His power returned in 1969 and successive 40-homer seasons led Boston to third-place finishes that year and the next. Yaz got four hits and won the All-Star Game MVP award in 1970, although the American League lost. His .329 batting average that season was his career high.

He hit but 61 homers over the next four years as the Red Sox finished second twice and third twice. Boston made it to the World Series again in 1975 with Yaz (.269 average, 60 RBI), primarily a first baseman since 1973, playing a secondary role to rookie outfielders Fred Lynn and Jim Rice.

Oakland, coming off three straight World Series titles, was favored in the playoffs, but Yastrzemski's clutch play returned. He batted .455, hit a homer, scored four times and helped Boston to a three-game sweep.

The Red Sox missed out on winning their first World Series since 1918 when they lost 4-3 to the Cincinnati Reds in Game 7. Yaz hit .310, scored seven runs and drove in four in the Series.

A big disappointment came in 1978 when Boston blew a 14-game lead to the Yankees and then lost a one-game playoff to them for the AL East. Yaz popped up off Goose Gossage for the final out with the tying run on third base.

The next year, on September 12, he stroked his 3,000th hit, a single off the Yankees' Jim Beattie at Fenway. "I was uptight about it," he said, recalling the countdown to 3,000. "When I saw the hit going through, I had a sigh of relief more than anything."

Carl Yastrzemski
President Jimmy Carter and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill with Yaz at a 1978 fundraiser.
Yaz spent most of his last five seasons as a designated hitter, batting no higher than .275. He retired following the 1983 season with 3,419 hits, including 452 homers.

After retirement, he worked in sportscasting, as a marketing director for a meat manufacturer and as a Red Sox minor-league hitting instructor. In 1989, he was voted into the Hall of Fame. He made it on the first ballot, just like his predecessor in leftfield.

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