Yastrzemski, Carl Michael, Jr.

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YASTRZEMSKI, Carl Michael, Jr.

(b. 22 August 1939 in Southampton, New York), slugging outfielder who won baseball's Triple Crown and led the underdog Boston Red Sox to the American League pennant in the "impossible dream" season of 1967.

Yastrzemski was the older of two sons of Carl Yastrzemski, a potato farmer, and Hedwig ("Hattie") Skonieczny, a homemaker. He grew up in a close-knit Polish-American family in the largely agricultural community of Bridge-hampton, New York, near the eastern tip of Long Island. His father, an accomplished semiprofessional shortstop, had been forced to decline a minor league contract offer from the Brooklyn Dodgers because of growing family responsibilities. When his son Carl displayed a similar enthusiasm for baseball, the elder Yastrzemski devoted himself to preparing the boy for a career in the game. He pitched tennis balls to him at an early age and only gave him farm chores that strengthened his hands and wrists. On his own, the younger Yastrzemski developed a smooth, quick swing, practicing for hours with baseballs attached to pipes and hanging from a string in the barn.

A left-handed batter who threw right-handed, Yastrzemski played shortstop, pitched, and caught for Little League and Babe Ruth League All-Star teams that won Long Island and New York State championships respectively. As a senior at tiny Bridgehampton High School, he compiled a .650 batting average and pitched a no-hit game in the Suffolk County schoolboy finals. Yastrzemski also impressed big league scouts playing summer ball with his father on local amateur and semipro teams (most notably the Bridgehampton White Eagles, founded by his father and made up primarily of Yastrzemskis and Skoniecznys).

An all-around athlete who had also starred in basketball, Yastrzemski was courted by major colleges and began receiving professional baseball contract offers in 1957, the year he graduated from high school. When a New York Yankees scout ridiculed his father's demand for a $100,000 bonus, Yastrzemski went off to play freshman baseball and basketball at the University of Notre Dame. His father subsequently rebuffed advances from six more major league ball clubs before settling upon the Boston Red Sox, whose scout (Frank "Bots" Nekola) he liked and whose ballpark (Fenway Park) he viewed as best suited to his son's hitting style. Yastrzemski's contract called for a $108,000 bonus, a two-year, Triple A minor league contract at $5,000 per year, and the remainder of his college expenses. After leaving Notre Dame, he completed the requirements for his B.S. in business administration at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, and graduated in 1966.

Although signed as a shortstop, the five-foot, eleven-inch, 170-pound Yastrzemski played second base at Class B Raleigh in 1959. After winning the Carolina League batting title with a .377 average, leading his team to the league championship, and being voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP), he was promoted to Triple A Minneapolis. There he moved to the outfield and was groomed as a replacement for the Red Sox star Ted Williams, who retired in 1960. Easily making the transition from the infield, he led the American Association in outfield assists, finished second in the batting race with a .339 average, and won another MVP award. He married Carolann Casper, a receptionist from Pittsburgh, on 30 January 1960; they had four children.

Yastrzemski floundered at the plate during the first half of his rookie year with Boston. With his batting average hovering around .230, he was compared unfavorably with Ted Williams. Yastrzemski returned to form following an emergency session with the legendary Williams, in his new role as a special batting instructor for the Red Sox, and ended the 1961 season with a more acceptable .266 average. He continued to show improvement, winning the American League (AL) batting title with a .321 average in 1963 and finishing second with a .312 mark in 1965. He also became one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball and the acknowledged master at playing the "Green Monster," the imposing, thirty-seven-foot-high left-field wall at Fenway Park. Possessing the strong, accurate arm of a shortstop, he led AL outfielders in assists four times between 1961 and 1966.

Although Yastrzemski had built up solid baseball credentials in his first six seasons with Boston, he was not yet considered a star. The fact that the lackadaisical Red Sox had finished no higher than sixth place after he joined the team did not help. But what kept Yastrzemski from the upper echelon of big league outfielders was his lack of power. A line-drive hitter who sprayed the ball to all fields, he averaged only sixteen home runs and seventy-seven runs batted in (RBI) per year. When Ted Williams got him to turn his hips and shoulders and pull the ball more in 1965, Yastrzemski reached the twenty-homer mark for the first time. But he reverted to his old style in 1966 and regressed to sixteen homers and a modest .278 average. After the Red Sox finished in ninth place for the second straight year, rumors had him being traded.

Seeking to become more of a home-run threat, Yastrzemski committed himself to a strenuous, off-season workout program directed by Gene Berde, a former coach of the Hungarian Olympic boxing team. When he reported for spring training, a stronger, fitter Yastrzemski was eager to follow the direction of Ted Williams and swing for the fences. Later, the coach Bobby Doerr, another Red Sox great, advised him to hold his hands higher to increase his power.

During the 1967 season, everything fell into place for Boston and Yastrzemski. A new, demanding manager, Dick Williams, shook the Red Sox from their lethargy, and Yastrzemski contributed a dominating, all-around performance that propelled the team to its first pennant in twenty-one years. He led the AL with forty-four home runs (tied with Harmon Killebrew of the Minnesota Twins), 121 RBI, and a .326 batting average to become the fourteenth Triple Crown winner in major league history. He also was the league leader in hits (189), runs scored (112), and total bases (360).

The tense, four-team pennant race with the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Minnesota Twins brought out the best in Yastrzemski. In the last two weeks of the season, he collected twenty-three hits in forty-four at bats for a .523 average, hit five home runs and four doubles, drove in sixteen runs, and scored fourteen. During this crucial stretch, Yastrzemski hit a home run into the upper deck at Tiger Stadium in the ninth inning to tie a game with Detroit, 5–5, on 18 September (the Red Sox won, 6–5, in the tenth inning). He had four hits, including a homer, and scored the winning run as the Red Sox edged the Indians in Cleveland, 5–4, on 20 September. And, in the pennant-clinching sweep of the Twins (6–4, 5–3) in Boston on the last two days of the season (30 September–1 October), he went seven for eight (including a homer that won the first game) and had six RBI. Equally spectacular in the field, Yastrzemski backhanded a base hit by Bob Allison of the Twins in the left field corner and threw out Allison at second base to end an eighth-inning rally and preserve the last Boston victory. He went on to hit .400 with three homers in the anticlimactic World Series, which the Red Sox lost to the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. At season's end he easily captured the AL MVP award and signed a new contract that made him the second player in Red Sox history to earn $100,000 per year (Ted Williams had been the first).

Although Yastrzemski never again reached the heights of 1967, he remained a productive player. He won his third batting title, hitting .301 in 1968, a year in which pitching was dominant and AL batters collectively averaged .230, and clouted forty homers in 1969. By the time he retired in 1983, Yastrzemski had compiled 3,419 hits, 452 home runs, and 1,814 RBI, and had won seven Gold Gloves for his work in the outfield. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989.

Yastrzemski had many notable achievements in a long career, but he is remembered chiefly for his heroics in the heat of the exciting pennant race of 1967. As Roger Angell wrote in the New Yorker: "Other fine hitters … had finished with comparable statistics. But no other player in recent memory had so clearly pushed a team to such a height in the final days of a difficult season."

Yastrzemski wrote two informative memoirs with sportswriters: with Al Hirshberg, Yaz (1968), and with Gerald Eskenazi, Yaz: Baseball, the Wall, and Me (1990). Other notable works that cover Yastrzemski and the Red Sox in the 1960s are Roger Angell, The Summer Game (1972); Al Hirshberg, What's the Matter with the Red Sox? (1973); Ken Coleman and Dan Valenti, The Impossible Dream Remembered: The 1967 Red Sox (1987); Peter Golenbock, Fenway: An Unexpurgated History of the Boston Red Sox (1992); Bill Reynolds, Lost Summer: The '67 Red Sox and the Impossible Dream (1992); and Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson, Red Sox Century: One Hundred Years of Red Sox Baseball (2000). The National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York, has a clipping file on Yastrzemski.

Richard H. Gentile