In the Mount Rushmore of sporting greats from Long Island, there is Jim Brown in professional football, Julius Erving in basketball, Al Oerter in track and Carl Yastrzemski on the diamond.
Yaz played 23 seasons for the Boston Red Sox and so he is more admired in Beantown than in his native Suffolk County. For those sports junkies who scour the baseball box scores each morning, a Michael Yastrzemski is now starring for the San Francisco Giants. Related? Indeed, they are. The young Yastrzemski is the grandson of the Red Sox great.
The year 1978, as any gleeful Yankee fan can tell you, was heaven for the Bombers, a nightmare for the Sox. That year, Boston had assembled a “super team”: Yaz, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, George Scott, Rick Burleson, Butch Hobson and Jerry Remy on the diamond, with Dennis Eckersley, Luis Tiant, Mike Torrez and Reggie Cleveland on the hill. Boston’s big lead was deceitful in that the defending World Champion Yankees were plagued by injuries. Once the Bombers were healthy, the team, powered by Ron Guidry’s 27-3 season, were back in the hunt, eventually defeating Boston in a legendary one-game heart-stopper at Fenway Park for the division title while on the way to another World Series title. That day, Yaz, batting cleanup, had two hits and two RBI’s, including a home run against invincible Guidry.
And so, 1979 promised to be a down year for Boston. Which it was. For the ageless Yastrzemski, however, it was a memorable year. In June, he socked his 400th career home run. In September, he lashed his 3,000-career hit. A power hitter who single handedly led Boston to its miracle pennant in 1967, Yastrzemski adjusted to the times. As he approached 40, the man cut down on his swing, used a lighter bat and continued to terrorize American League pitching.
Yastrzemski is a Hall of Famer, but his story did entail a surprising turn of events. Growing up in Southampton, the young Yastrzemski excelled in baseball and basketball. Upon graduation, he accepted a basketball scholarship at the University of Notre Dame. But all roads led to a career in baseball. It was expected that he would sign with the Yankees. In the late 1950s, there was still no amateur draft. At the same time, it was an era of “bonus babies,” young hotshots signing six-figure contracts just to begin in the minor leagues. George Weiss, the Yankees’ conservative general manager, was skeptical of this phenomenon. The signees had a bad habit of taking the money and spending it foolishly on cars and blondes. That wouldn’t have happened with Yaz, who was under the tutelage of his father, an athletic man himself, but Weiss also liked to be stingy at contract time. “Make those boys work for the money,” he liked to tell associates. That is, keep the salaries low and make that World Series money count for something. It worked swimmingly. From 1947 to 1960, the Yankees had won 11 pennants and eight World Series.
The Yankees did try to sign Yastrzemski. According to local legend, a Yankee scout met with Yaz and his father. When the latter threw out some numbers as a signing bonus, the Yankee scout reportedly tossed his pen in the air in a mixture of surprise and disgust. Either way, Long Island was incredulous that the hometown hero didn’t sign with the hometown team. Only think of that right field porch at Yankee Stadium! Or Yaz in the same outfield as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
The Bosox swooped in and signed the prospect. In 1963, Yastrzemski won a batting title, the first of three. In 1967, he won the Triple Crown and was league MVP. He was an 18-time All Star. Yastrzemski stood with Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline and Harmon Killebrew as one of the greats of a star-studded era. Players in Yastrzemski’s early career subsided on one-year contracts. When negotiations took place, a player had to prove his worth not just with numbers, but with defensive skills and base running ability. He had to hit the cut-off man and move runners along, even if it meant surrendering an at bat. A superstar was one who had the five tools: Hit for average, hit for power, run the bases like a fullback, field your position and have a rifle for an arm. That was Yastrzemski. He could carry a team for months at a time with his bat and defense.
The man’s Boston career was bittersweet. He was charged with replacing Ted Williams in left field, the hitting titan who could be mighty critical of such stars as Yastrzemski and Rice. Plus, there was the Fenway faithful, always hungry for victory and willing to boo such greats as Williams and Yastrzemski. After the 1967 season, Jim Lonborg, Boston’s ace that year, injured himself in a skiing accident. Lonborg was never the same again and Yaz commented on how that bad break hobbled the team’s prospects for years.
No one who saw Yastrzemski play could ever forget him. When Reggie Jackson was thrown out by Yaz during the 1975 playoff series, Mr. October said it was like being nailed by a throw “from God.” The man had that much respect around the league. Yaz remains the unofficial president of Red Sox Nation. It is time for Long Island to welcome this all-time great home.