Monbouquette made an impression

BOSTON -- The first time I wrote about Bill Monbouquette, I was 9.

It was the opening day of school for Mrs. Patch's fifth grade class in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, and the homework assignment she gave was that perennial favorite, How I Spent My Summer Vacation. With the benefit of hindsight, it would be easy to surmise that day marked the launch of a life that would be spent in baseball press boxes. But at the time, the assignment was merely an irresistible invitation to relive the greatest moment of a small-town kid's ordinary existence: The day my father slid behind the wheel of his old Dodge, stuck me in the backseat -- I honestly don't remember if my older brother came with us -- and drove 45 miles to take me to Fenway Park for the first time.

Two things from that day have never left me. One was coming up the grandstand ramp for that first bedazzling glimpse of impossible greenness. The second was that Bill Monbouquette pitched for the Red Sox and won.

I'm not sure if I knew at the time that when he was 24 years old, Monbo had struck out 17 Detroit Tigers, breaking a 50-year-old club record set by Smoky Joe Wood, and he would have tied Bob Feller's major league strikeout record if Jim Pagliaroni had been able to hold on to a foul tip, or that the following year he would throw a no-hitter against the White Sox. The devotion to mastering the Red Sox catechism would come three years later, inspired by an Impossible Dream.

But I was at least dimly aware Monbo was a very good pitcher on some very bad Red Sox teams, and on a single midsummer's night, he embedded himself permanently in one kid's memory.

Many years would pass before I would have the occasion to speak to Monbouquette as a reporter for the Boston Globe. It was a few months before his 70th birthday. After a post-playing career in which he worked as a scout, pitching coach and manager in the Blue Jays, Mets, Yankees and Tigers organizations, Monbo had announced his retirement. He had been there for me at the beginning; now I had the chance to write the coda of his baseball life.

Happily, I discovered that not only as a player but also as a man, Monboquette had been well worth that initial investment. He was, first of all, one of our own, born and raised in Medford, Massachusetts, and 18 years old when the Red Sox signed him. That first afternoon, in 1956, he worked out at Fenway before the game, then headed to the grandstand, where his parents, Catherine and Frederick, were sitting and getting an unwelcome earful from a couple of foul-mouthed drunks. Upon his arrival, the teenaged Monbouquette suggested the drunks tone it down.

"They told me to take a flying you-know-what," he recalled.

Big mistake. "I looked at my father," Monbouquette said, "and he nodded."

Frederick Monbouquette was a former boxer, and he and his son so thoroughly thrashed the louts that police were summoned, and the Monbouquette men found themselves in a holding cell under the stands.

"The big Irish cop down there had a heck of a time saying my name," Monbouquette recalled. "I said I needed to make a phone call, and I called Johnny Murphy, the farm director."

Monbouquette, the Sox quickly learned, did not back down, nor did he suffer fools. In his big league debut, he knocked Billy Martin down after the Yankees bantam had stolen home plate on his previous plate appearance. Martin popped out, then headed straight toward the mound.

"My glove was hanging loose, but I had my fist cocked," Monbo said. "Martin said to me, 'I guess you owed me that one, rookie,' and kept on going."

Monbouquette was not afraid to take on even his own manager, if he thought he was out of line. Pumpsie Green, the first African-American to play for the Red Sox, tells the story of manager Del Baker spewing racial epithets in a diatribe against an opposing player -- Green thinks he was talking about Minnie Minoso, the great Cuban outfielder -- well within earshot of Green. Monbouquette, who had grown up in what was considered the black section of Medford, took matters into his own hands.

"Del Baker was the manager, and he was using the N-word," Monbouquette said. "I told him, 'Don't let me hear you say that, or I'll knock you right on your ass.' I meant it, and he knew I meant it."

Monbo won 20 games for the Red Sox in 1963, which today would make him wealthy beyond his dreams. Back then, Monbo was only a couple years removed from an offseason job as an aide in the Red Sox ticket office. In 1965, he lost a league-leading 18 games (with a respectable ERA of 3.70) and was traded to the Tigers.

In 1967, the year the Sox won the pennant, Monbo was released by the Tigers, then finished out the season with a bad Yankees team. He would pitch one more year.

He always regretted, he said, that the Sox never found a place for him in their organization. The sting of that rejection was eased a bit when Red Sox chairman Tom Werner called after the Sox won the 2004 World Series and asked for Monbo's ring size; the Sox gave him a Series ring. "A very classy gesture," he said.

Monbo worked out regularly at the gym at Tufts University, showed up for games at the Fenway Legends Suite and, for a number of years, entertained Red Sox fantasy campers with stories such as the ones he told me about his no-hitter.

"The thing I remember about it is that I don't think I had won a game in a month," he said. "We were flying in from Boston, and I was sitting on the plane doing a crossword puzzle. A stewardess came by and said, 'How you doing?' and I said, 'I'm struggling with this crossword.' She asked me what position I played, and I told her I was struggling with that too. She said, 'Oh, you'll pitch a no-hitter tonight,' and walked away."

The last White Sox batter that night was Luis Aparicio, the Hall of Fame shortstop. Monbo threw him a two-strike slider off the plate. Aparicio started for it, then checked his swing. The plate umpire, Bill McKinley, called it a ball.

"Next thing I hear, someone's yelling from the stands, 'They shot the wrong McKinley,'" said Monbouquette, who had to step off the mound to keep from laughing. "I threw him another slider, he swung and missed. Biggest thrill I ever had."

On Monday afternoon, the Red Sox announced Bill Monbouquette is gone. He had died the day before at age 78, due to complications, they said, from leukemia. For years after his original diagnosis, Monbo had fought that disease to a draw, lending encouragement to others engaged in the same battle.

The record book shows he won two more games than he lost in his big league career (114-112) -- nothing special, by that measure.

Try telling that to one 9-year-old kid.