Carl Yastrzemski: From Williams to Yaz

September 10, 1983

Replacing a legend is one of the toughest things to do in sports. Very rarely are there times when one superstar retires gracefully and another just slides right in. Often, the replacements struggle with expectations and have difficulty carving out a niche of their own. Nobody remembers George Selkirk, but he played right field and batted third for the Yankees on Opening Day in 1935, replacing Babe Ruth. Names like Babe Dahlgren, Manny Alexander and Ken Henderson don’t ring immortal, but those were the players who stepped in for Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken and Willie Mays, respectively.

While that’s often the case when a legend steps down, the Red Sox experienced the complete opposite in 1961. On the last day of the 1960 season, Ted Williams retired with a bang when he hit his 529th home run in his final at bat. The fans at Fenway gave Williams a standing ovation, calling for one final curtain call that never came. The next year, the Sox had the daunting task of replacing the greatest hitter who ever lived and chose to thrust a 21-year-old rookie with no major league at bats into left field. Although that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it couldn’t have worked out better. That rookie was Carl Yastrzemski.

Yastrzemski manned left field for the next two decades and went on to one of the great careers in major league history. He experienced the ups and downs of playing with the Sox over the next 23 years, playing the game with class and success that rivaled that of the man he replaced. Yastrzemski was a highly-touted rookie who batted .356 during his two-year minor league stint and showed promise in 1961. He finished in the top three in most offensive categories on a bad Red Sox team, but batted just .266 with 11 home runs.

After getting his feet wet in ’61, by ’63 he was an American League All-Star and Gold Glove winner. While Yastrzemski became a fixture in the All-Star Game and across the AL leader boards, the Red Sox struggled through the early part of his career. Then came 1967, and Yastrzemski led Boston to heights they hadn’t reached in 50 years.

The Sox were coming off a 1966 season in which they finished with the fourth-worst record in baseball and weren’t expected to be in the ’67 pennant race. However, Yastrzemski and Dick Williams, in his first year of a Hall of Fame managerial career, led an unlikely resurgence. Yastrzemski was phenomenal all year, channeling the all-around hitting expertise of the man he replaced, as he was near the top of all Triple Crown categories all summer long.

As the season progressed, the Red Sox stuck around and were firmly entrenched in a heated four-team pennant race as the season wound down. On September 13th, the Sox were tied for first with the Twins, and the Tigers were just one game behind. From that point on, Yastrzemski put the team on his back and turned in one of the best performances to end a season in big league history. Over the final 15 games, Yastrzemski hit .491 with five home runs and 18 RBIs. Of the 27 hits he recorded, 11 went for extra bases as he slugged .873.

On the final day of the season, the Red Sox and Twins were tied at the top of the standings and essentially played a one-game playoff for the AL pennant. With the Red Sox down 2-0 in the sixth, Yastrzemski stroked a bases loaded single to tie the game and catapult the team to a five-run rally. The Red Sox went on to a 5-3 win to clinch the AL pennant behind a 4-for-4 performance by Yastrzemski. He ended the season with 44 homers, 121 RBIs and a .326 batting average to capture the American League’s Triple Crown. Although the Red Sox fell to the Cardinals 4-3 in the World Series, Yastrzemski had clinched his spot as one of the best players in the game.

“Yaz could really hit,” said Fred Lynn, who was Yastrzemski’s teammate in Boston for seven seasons. “Sometimes you could get him out with breaking balls, but he just wouldn’t miss a fastball. Even at the end of his career, I’d be on deck and they’d bring in a lefty to face him. They’d throw him a fastball and he’d rip it. I’d be laughing and shaking my head in the on deck circle wondering why in the world anyone threw him a fastball.”

Yastrzemski sustained his excellence for years and stayed productive for the Sox throughout the 70s. As his career wound down, he began to compile some of the magic numbers that locked him in as a sure-fire Hall of Famer. In 1979, the 39-year-old Yastrzemski became the first American League player to hit 400 home runs and record 3,000 career hits, and was also selected for his 15th consecutive All-Star Game.

As the 80s began, Yastrzemski finally started to show his age. Between 1980 and 1982, he batted .266 and played in just 327 games, as ankle injuries began to take their toll. He enjoyed a bit of resurgence in 1982 as he hit 16 homers and batted .275. Yastrzemski decided to return for the 1983 season, his 23rd in the bigs. He was now 43 years old and would spend much of the season as the team’s DH. In a part-time role, Yastrzemski was able to turn back the clock and was hitting .323 at the All-Star break. He was rewarded for his first half-performance with another selection to the MLB All-Star Game.

However, a mid-season slump in which he batted .243 in the six weeks after the All-Star Game started rumors that this season could be the last for Yastrzemski. As September came, fans around the country figured they had one more month to watch Yastrzemski perform in the Red Sox lineup. He gave the fans one final glimpse of greatness on September 10, 1983.

The Red Sox were suffering through a poor season and stood at 68-74 on September 10th, in sixth place in the AL East. They were playing the Cleveland Indians, the only team below them in the standings, in a Saturday afternoon game at Cleveland Stadium. The pitching matchup that day included two pitchers who had some good success in the 80s, Bruce Hurst and Rick Sutcliffe, but neither was on their game that day.

The Red Sox jumped on Sutcliffe for two runs in the first inning when Jerry Remy led off the game with a double and scored on a two-run homer by Jim Rice. Batting fourth in the lineup that day, Yastrzemski struck out in his first at bat. The lead didn’t last long as Toby Harrah homered leading off for the Indians, and Gorman Thomas drove home Bake McBride with a sacrifice fly.

After a scoreless second, the top of Red Sox lineup was due up in the third. Again, Remy got things started when he drew a leadoff walk. Wade Boggs, in his second full season as a 25-year-old 3rd baseman, singled advancing Remy to 3rd base. Rice gave the Red Sox the lead back with a sacrifice fly bringing up Yastrzemski with Boggs standing on 2nd. With the Sox looking to extend the lead, Yastrzemski blasted the final home run of his legendary career to extend Boston’s lead to 5-2.

Hurst, however, couldn’t make the lead stand as he gave up four runs in the bottom of the third. Pat Tabler hit a two-run homer and Harrah singled home two runs as the Indians took a 6-5 lead. However, Yastrzemski came through in the clutch again and laced a two-out double to right, to score Boggs to tie the game. That would be the end of the Red Sox offense though, and the Indians tacked on single runs in the sixth and eighth to win the game 8-6.

On the day, Yastrzemski gave fans one final glimpse of what it was like to watch him play as a young superstar of the 60s. Batting cleanup, he went 3-for-5 with a homer, a double and three RBIs in the Red Sox loss. The home run was tenth of the season and his 452nd and final of his career. The game would also be the final multi-hit game of Yastrzemski’s storied career.

Over the next 16 games, Yastrzemski hit just .145 and didn’t record an extra base hit. His final 1983 stats were respectable, especially for his age. His final game came on October 2nd, in Fenway Park in front of 33,491 fans. He started the game just as he started his career 22 years ago, batting fifth in the order and standing in front of the green monster as the Boston left fielder.

“I pitched against the Red Sox on Carl Yastrzemski Day,” said Lary Sorensen, who was pitching for the Indians at the time. “I had a tremendous amount of respect for Yaz and really wanted him to go out on a high note. I threw him fastballs all day; I didn’t give in or take anything off, but nothing but fastballs. He came up as the last batter of the game [Yastrzemski’s final big league at bat] and I was hoping he would get a nice single to right and give the fans one last chance to cheer him as a player. He ended up hitting a tapper back to me. I flipped it to first and got the ball right back. After the game I sent the ball to the clubhouse to have Yas autograph it. He spelled my name wrong! But I kept the ball and still have it to this day. What a great, classy player.”

In a game that doesn’t lend itself well to players who replace legends, Yastrzemski far exceeded expectations for someone replacing Ted Williams. Aside from Williams’ missed seasons while serving in the military, the Red Sox had just two regular left fielders for nearly 45 years.

“Yaz was really accurate with his arm and could play the wall like nobody else,” said Lynn. “He was just the total package; he did everything. He could have stolen bases too if he wanted, but it just wasn’t in the Red Sox style of play.”

Yastrzemski led the Sox through the “Impossible Dream” season of 1967, suffered through the team’s struggles in the early 70s and led the resurgence in 1975 that earned them a World Series showdown against the Big Red Machine. He gave the Red Sox over two decades of class, leadership and incredible production on the field.