As the 2016 Boston Red Sox season will usher in the final at-bats of David Ortiz’s career, it will be hard to imagine a Boston roster next season without that notable lefty bat in the lineup. When Boston lost another great left handed hitter in 1961, the front office already had a replacement in mind.
With Ted Williams retiring at the end of the 1960 season, the Red Sox were losing not only the face of their franchise, they were losing a key offensive weapon. The last man to hit .400 in a season was still a threat to hit 20 homers and drive in 80 runs, all the while keeping his on-base percentage above .400 even in his early forties.
The Red Sox front office put all their hope, along with a $108,000 signing bonus, on the shoulders of Southampton, New York native Carl Yastrzemski. For the young Yastrzemski, he grew up in a household built on work ethic and a love for baseball. His father, Carl Sr. had a chance to tryout with a few teams, but opted for working on a potato farm during The Great Depression. There he hammered home the importance of focusing on improving his son’s skill while playing together on a semipro club when Carl was a teenager.
That coaching and playing together helped not only earn Yastrzemski his lucrative signing bonus, but also a scholarship to play baseball and basketball at Notre Dame. Yastrzemski’s father was adamant to Red Sox management that his son finish school, before he committed to pro ball. An education was more important than baseball.
It was a move that benefited Yastrzemski. While he did play Class B ball in 1959, it prevented the 5’11”, 160 pound youngster from being brought up too soon. Even then, the 19-year-old heir to Ted Williams’ throne hit .377 with 15 home runs and 100 runs batted in. Teammates recounted how Yastrzemski would have a great day at the plate but would be in the batting cages for hours after the game. His tireless work ethic was focused on the next level.
Spending the next season in Triple-A Minneapolis, as Yastrzemski shifted from being a second baseman to leftfielder, he missed out on the batting title by three points. A solid .339 average and 18 outfield assists proved to the Red Sox, he was ready for a chance in Boston.
For Yastrzemski coming into spring training on the expectation of taking over left field, the Red Sox asked Williams to tutor his replacement. Management was eager to draw similarities between the two. Williams wore #9, so Yastrzemski wore #8. Both batted left-handed and both played left field.
As much as the Red Sox wanted Yastrzemski to be like the legendary Splendid Splinter, Carl knew he could not be a clone of the man who won six batting titles. From a physical makeup to the fact that Williams was a dead pull hitter, Yastrzemski and Williams just could not be compared fairly. The new left fielder wished he had the size, strength and power Williams had.
Williams, who created the the science of hitting, was able to break down Yastrzemski’s swing, discovering no major flaws. Williams spent more time schooling Yastrzemski on his concentration and focus rather than mechanics.
Yastrzemski on his mentor, “All Ted says to me is, ‘Be quick’ and ‘Study the pitcher’.”
Williams was not in the game of changing his heir’s swing. When he talked to Yastrzemski prior to his call up to Boston, Yastrzemski mentioned how his minor league hitting coach wanted to alter parts of his swing. Williams back up his replacement and told him, “Don’t let them screw around with your swing. Ever.”
Once the 1961 season started, Yastrzemski looked good in his first five games. Batting fifth, he collected five hits, including a single in his first at-bat. From that point on, he became the number three hitter in the lineup. On a team featuring a mix of veteran all-stars like Vic Wertz, Pete Runnels, Frank Malzone, and Jackie Jensen, this was a team that was not regarded to have a chance for the American League pennant.
With the pressure to see Yastrzemski become an offensive force, like Williams had been, the rookie started pressing at the plate. By the end of May, he was hitting .233 with a .278 on base percentage. He had a hard time finding consistency.
“They were comparing me with the greatest hitter ever to play the game. It almost broke me. You start having doubts. ‘Can I play in the big leagues?'” said Yastrzemski. Looking to boost his morale, the Red Sox asked Williams to reassure their struggling outfielder. All Williams did was tell Yastrzemski he had a great swing and to play his game.
“Finally I said to myself, ‘you’re not Ted Williams.’ I started hitting the way I could hit. I think that was probably the best thing to ever have happened to me,” said Yastrzemski near the end of his career.
For Yastrzemski everything started clicking, his numbers in June started to improve his batting line. Factor in a few multi-hit performances against the Los Angeles Angels that month and the confidence kept building. He backed it up with a strong July hitting .309.
Come the end of the season, and the Red Sox well out of the pennant race with a 76-86 record, Yastrzemski finished the year strong. Having hit .266 with a .324 on base percentage with 31 doubles, 11 home runs and 80 runs driven in, he was far from a favorite for the Rookie of the Year. In fact teammate and starter Don Schwall with his 15-7 record and 3.22 ERA took the award. Schwall held off fellow Red Sock Chuck Schilling of the award, receiving five more first place votes.
While both went on to brief, forgettable careers, Yastrzemski endeared himself to legions of Boston’s working class fans. While he was constantly compared to Williams, Yastrzemski focused on improving his play, for his sake. The winner of the 1967 AL MVP, Gold Glove and Triple Crown, single handedly pushed his team into the World Series that season. He would win the batting title three times, be an 18-time All-Star, win seven Gold Gloves while amassing 3,419 hits, scoring 1,816 runs, driving in 1,844 runs, and collecting 1,845 walks, 646 doubles and 452 home runs.
Carl Yastrzemski did not put up a legendary rookie season 55 years ago. Yet his rise to a Hall of Fame career seemed to run parallel to his initial struggles in the major league. He was a player noted not just for his peak years from 1967 to 1970 but rather for his modest yet great career. In his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1989, he summed up his gratitude and work ethic with the Red Sox in two sentences. “Anything less would not have been worthy of me. Anything more would not have been possible.”