Fenway Park was packed to its rusty rafters on Aug. 25, 1972. The sellout crowd of 33,551 was 172 above capacity. Today sellouts are commonplace at Fenway —even a weekday game against the Astros will pack the place. So why was that late August afternoon more than 40 years ago so special?
Well, the Red Sox weren’t world-beaters that season, but they were still in the race for the AL East crown despite a mediocre record (59-57). Indeed, the Sox would step it up and finish the season in second place just ½ game behind the Detroit Tigers. (A strike at the beginning of the season scrubbed all games scheduled before April 15, meaning some teams played more games than others; the Tigers played and won one game more than the Red Sox.)
That day the visiting team was the Texas Rangers (48-70), who would go on to lose 100 games (even with eight games lost to the strike) and finish last in the AL West. Arguably, they had the lowest profile of any team in major league baseball. You could have selected 25 names from the Boston telephone book and swapped them out with the names listed on the Rangers roster and only the most dedicated fans would have noticed the difference.
But the name of the Rangers manager was a familiar one, even to the most casual fans. It was Theodore Samuel, better known as Ted, Williams. During the middle decades of the 20th century, that was one of the most familiar names in America. In Boston, he was as much a part of that city’s history as Paul Revere or the Kennedys. Trying to imagine Ted Williams playing for any team other than the Red Sox is like trying to imagine the Boston Massacre taking place in Poughkeepsie.
Thanks to the American League schedule-makers, Williams was back in Fenway Park on Jimmy Fund Day. The Jimmy Fund is probably the best known charity in New England, but a brief introduction may be in order for outliers.
The Jimmy Fund was started to assist pediatric cancer victims. It dates back to 1948 when some of the Boston Braves, on their way to the National League pennant, paid a visit to a 12-year-old cancer patient named Jimmy for a bedside broadcast. Five years later the Braves were off to Milwaukee, but the Red Sox adopted the charity and have been involved with it ever since.
Since Ted Williams was the face of the franchise (and arguably the face of baseball itself), he became heavily involved in the charity and remained so even after his playing days had ended. Two years after his death (in 2002), a statue of Ted with a young cancer victim was unveiled outside Fenway Park.
As part of the pre-game festivities that day, some former players and local media celebrities were participating in a hitting contest to raise money for the Jimmy Fund. Every fair ball made money…the farther the ball went, the more money it raised.
Williams was not on the field with the other participants. The fans, of course, knew he was in the visitors dugout. Eventually, but not surprisingly, chants of “We want Ted!” began to resound throughout Fenway.
On Aug. 25, 1972, Williams was just five days short of his 54th birthday. His playing weight was just a distant memory, and he tried to camouflage his expanding girth by wearing a warmup jacket at all times. Obviously, he was long past his prime. But when you’re a living legend and 33,551 people are chanting your name…
Williams strolled over to the Rangers bat rack and rummaged through the lumber. He found one of Tom Grieve’s bats to his liking, so he ambled up to the plate to face the offerings of Lee “Stinger” Stange, the Red Sox pitching coach and a 10-year major league veteran. So far as any of the Rangers could recall, this was the first time Williams had picked up a bat all year. And he’s going to go up there and take some cuts? What was he thinking?
Actually, you have to wonder what was going through Lee Stange’s mind. Stange had signed with the original Washington Senators and started his major league career with the Twins in 1961 after the franchise moved to Minnesota. Ted Williams had launched his last home run at Fenway on his last at bat of the 1960 season, so Stange had never faced Williams.
Williams doffed his warmup jacket and took up residence in the Fenway batter’s box, as he had done so many times dating back to 1939.
Stange offered up a couple of lobs until Williams exhorted him to put some mustard on his offerings. Stange did so and Williams put on a show for the fans. Fifteen pitches… fifteen swings… fifteen ropes.
Here he was, almost 12 years removed from his days as a player, and lining baseballs over Fenway Park as though . . .as though he were still the Kid and someone had turned back the clock to the summer of 1941, before anyone had heard of Pearl Harbor.
For those who had seen Teddy Ballgame in his prime, what memories this scene evoked! For those who had never seen him before, what memories this incident created! Either way, the fans must have felt they were extremely privileged to be present for this exhibition. This was certainly a memorable slice of baseball history – even though it had nothing to do with the game to be played later that day.
The legend had come back to life! The old warrior was swinging his war club and knocking the bejesus out of every ball thrown to him. You couldn’t script it any better if you tried. If anyone in Boston has a home movie of this, it would be more valuable than the Zapruder film!
You can almost see the Rangers, sitting in the Fenway dugout, like the New York Knights in The Natural, watching in slack-jawed awe while Robert Redford clouts long ball after long ball around their old relic of a ballpark (portrayed by Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium).
Before going any farther, I must admit that I was not in Boston that day. I never saw any newsreel footage or read any accounts of it. I found out about it while working on an article about the Texas Rangers’ inaugural season. The article was to appear in the Rangers’ program magazine and they supplied me with a list of phone numbers and emails for surviving members of the 1972 team.
I first learned of the incident when pitcher Pete Broberg responded to my email request for memories of season highlights. Given the Rangers’ dismal 1972 season, I was grasping for highlights and the Jimmy Fund exhibition certainly qualified. I was familiar with the history of both the Rangers and Ted Williams, and I had never heard of this incident, so I was hooked.
I brought up the Jimmy Fund game whenever I contacted other players. To a man, (Lenny Randle, Bill Fahey, Dick Billings, among others), they all remembered the incident vividly. Given the space limitations of my article and the fact that it was supposed to encompass the entire 1972 season, I couldn’t go into too much detail.
But my curiosity had been aroused. After I submitted the article, I thought I’d see what more I could find out about the incident. But it was not a topic easily researched. It was not like looking up a specific game played on a specific date. It was a pre-game incident four decades old. If it was chronicled at all, it was probably more of a sidebar than a feature, and there was no guarantee I would learn any more than I already knew.
Given the internet and enough time, however, one eventually finds what one is looking for. In this case, it was “Remembering the amazing Ted Williams,” an article by Tim Kurkjian posted on ESPN.com. His interview with Tom Grieve (a Rangers outfielder in 1972, later the team’s GM, and now a broadcaster) created the ideal frame for the picture in my mind.
For one thing, Williams’ decision to participate in the Jimmy Fund competition was not spontaneous. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey had asked him to hit as a personal favor and Ted had agreed. In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising. Williams had always thought highly of his old boss and they both knew Williams was going to be in Fenway Park on Jimmy Fund Day. The Fenway fans, however, did not know this, so it made Williams’ appearance much more dramatic.
Also, the bat he selected (a W 183 model) was an old friend. According to Grieve, he had no idea the W in the model number stood for Williams. Before it had been Grieve’s bat of choice, it had been Williams’ bat of choice. Of course, Grieve didn’t get the same results that Williams got.
But there was more. According to Grieve:
“I looked at Nellie Fox [then a Ranger coach] after the round and said, ‘Nellie that was pretty impressive. The guy hasn’t picked up a bat in five years and he hit every ball hard,” Grieve said. “Nellie looked at me and said, ‘He has been hitting in the cage for six weeks just in case he decided to play today. You didn’t really think he would go out there and embarrass himself?’”
So much for the image of the old soldier dusting off his trusty old flintlock and marching off to war for one last campaign. It’s not quite the same once you realize he’s been taking target practice all along
You might think this tarnishes the Williams legend, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. No one would ever expect him to stand in against Nolan Ryan and send screamers all over the park. But this was batting practice—batting practice, mind you! Surely, “the greatest hitter who ever lived,” despite his age, could make solid contact when Lee Stange was grooving them for him!
Had Williams shown up unprepared and flailed away at Stange’s offerings, that would have been a feeble postscript to a career that ended with a home run at Fenway Park in his last at-bat. It would have been especially disappointing for the old-timers who had seen him in his prime. A lot of the fat and 50-something beer guzzlers in the stands would roll their eyes and mutter something to the effect that they could do just as well.
So I don’t blame Williams for taking BP before the big day. He had an opportunity to not only safeguard his legend but embellish it. It reminds me of the old Joe DiMaggio quote about always putting out because some kid might be seeing him for the first time. Since Williams was 12 years removed from major league competition, there were surely youngsters in the stands getting their first look at this old-timer they had heard so much about.
In addition to witnessing Williams redux, the fans also got to see Luis Tiant shut out the Rangers on four hits, plus a rare home run off the bat of Luis Aparicio. Between Ted Williams and the Louie-Louie show, it was a singular day at a ballpark that had hosted 60 years of baseball history. The fans would long remember it. The Rangers certainly did. And I’m sure Lee Stange did also. He finally had a Ted Williams tale in his bag of anecdotes.
Stange, by the way, was in the first year of his coaching career in 1972. He continued with the Red Sox through 1974, transferred to the Twins in 1975, went to the A’s in 1988, and then went back to the Red Sox from 1981-1984.
He now coaches college ball at the Florida Institute of Technology—Tim Wakefield’s alma mater—in Melbourne.
Fenway Park has commenced its second century as the home of the Red Sox. And it still hosts Jimmy Fund charity events.
This year, Fenway Fantasy Day, as the Jimmy Fund benefit is now known, is scheduled for June 15—this coming Saturday.
Ted Williams came into this world just six years after Fenway Park did.
He is no longer hitting frozen ropes—but he himself has been frozen.