The earlier, better Boston Massacreby Jeff Polman
September 12, 2011
Once upon a time, in a baseball era far, far away, I had the good fortune to be a partial season ticketholder for the 1977 Red Sox. This meant 18 Sunday and holiday games, plus Opening Day, but the bonus was that I lived in a one-bedroom Back Bay apartment that was just a 10-minute walk to my job at the Boston Phoenix and a 20-minute stroll to my $7.50-per-game lower grandstand seat on the third-base side of Fenway Park.
It was an expansion year, and possibly a juiced baseball one. Total major league OPS increased from .681 in ‘76 to .730 in ‘77, and Boston was one of the biggest culprits. A lineup featuring Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, George "Boomer" Scott, Dwight Evans and Bernie Carbo knocked out 213 dingers for the season and a remarkable 33 in one 10-game stretch.
The weekend of June 17-19 cpmprised three days of this stretch. On Thursday, Ron Guidry had shut out the Royals 7-0, while Steve Stone and the third-place White Sox bested Luis Tiant, 7-3, at Fenway.
The Yanks and Red Sox had split four pretty uneventful games that season, and New York was rolling into Boston with a half-game lead on them.
Now, these were not the overhyped, five-hour, on-base slogathons the rivalry is famous for today. Boston had won the ’75 pennant, New York the ’76 one. There was no lame wild card spot to fall back on. You won the East or you were humiliated.
To add to the drama, just over a year ago they had staged a full-scale riot on home plate of Yankee Stadium that had seen Graig Nettles and Mickey Rivers “jump” Bill "Spaceman" Lee and separate his shoulder. In the stands of the two cities and certainly on the fields, this was clearly the War Between the Hates.
Perfectly, Lee was on the mound for the Friday night opener against Catfish Hunter. Less perfectly, I was working a late night at the Phoenix, putting our news section to bed. Ned Martin and Jim Woods were calling the game on our production department radio.
I was out of the room when Lee retired the Yanks without a run in the first but did hear Rick Burleson take Catfish into the net atop the Green Monster to lead off the Boston half of the inning. I then heard Lynn put one into the Red Sox bullpen a pitch or two later. Rice and Yaz made outs, but then Fisk homered, Scott followed with a homer, and Billy Martin yanked Catfish for Ken Clay after only six hitters.
The hasty move worked—for a while. Clay gave up only four hits and a run over four and a third innings, while Spaceman got zapped almost immediately. New York racked up seven hits and four runs on him in fewer than three innings to bring on Bob Stanley, who threw scoreless relief for the next three innings.
But the Boston bats re-heated when Dick Tidrow entered the scene. Three singles and a Rivers error made it 6-4 Boston in the sixth before a two-run Yaz smash and another Fisk homer ended the scoring in the 9-4 game. Bill Campbell, a vanished breed of closers who sometimes didn’t just pitch the ninth, went three scoreless frames for his 13th save.
* * *
The second battle would pit Mike Torrez against Reggie Cleveland and be the Saturday Game of the Week on national TV. I had no ticket, but there was no way I was going to be kept out of that place, so I did a fast, huff-puffing walk down Beacon Street to Kenmore Square two hours before game time to scout the possibilities.
I ended up with a standing room ticket for $10 and wedged my skinny frame into a spot behind the top row of the first-base grandstand. The vantage point wasn’t so bad. I couldn’t see balls after they went in the air, but I always saw them land, and the overhang roof gave the entire first base side of the park a kind of letterbox effect. Between innings, I could even rest my feet by sitting down on the cold cement floor between flattened cigarette butts.
Cleveland got touched in the first for three hits and two runs, but then the Crunch Bunch, as they were briefly known, went back to work. Burleson and Lynn singled off Torrez to open the Boston first and Yaz, 37 years young but still lethal, bombed a three-run homer and the Sox were in front.
Cleveland then settled down, but his mates sure didn’t. Carbo put one in the screen to begin the fourth. Hobson singled and Denny Doyle tripled. Lynn’s sac fly made it 6-2, and the crowd around me was having the time of its life—and the sixth inning hadn’t even happened yet.
New York scratched two runs back in the top half of that infamous frame, bringing on Bill Campbell again (Remember? He went three innings less than 24 hours ago.) to get out of the mess.
With one gone in the bottom half, Lynn singled, and Rice plunked a double into right in front of a half-hearted jog by Reggie Jackson. While Sparky Lyle rode in on the little bullpen golf cart to replace Torrez, Paul Blair went out to Reggie Jackson’s spot in right. Reggie put up his hands in this funny “Who, me?” gesture before making his way back to the Yankee dugout.
I sat down on the cement for my break-in-the-action breather and suddenly heard a huge commotion in the crowd. Standing, I caught the tail end of Billy Martin being pulled away from Jackson in the Yankee dugout by coaches Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. The dugout fireworks were over, but not the ones that mattered.
Boomer Scott led the Boston seventh with a homer, and with two aboard in the eighth, Yaz took Sparky into the centerfield bleachers for another three-run crusher and the final 10-4 cushion. Campbell pitched three-and-two-thirds of scoreless relief for his 14th save.
And by the way, despite 14 runs and 29 hits and the Martin/Jackson incident, the game took only two hours and 38 minutes to play.
* * *
My parents and brothers showed up for the Sunday game because I had made a wise decision and bought extra tickets for this one back in February.
We hung out in my apartment for a little while—Steely Dan’s Royal Scam album providing background music—before making the trek to the ball yard.
Ed Figueroa and Fergie Jenkins were on the hill, the New York tabloids down south were going Jaxistic, and Doyle, of all people, began Sunday’s carnage in the fourth inning. With two on base in a 1-1 tie, the Kuiper-esque second baseman roped a liner into the Boston bullpen to shock the entire northeastern seaboard. Carbo homered off Tidrow in the sixth, one of his trademark slices into the net.
In the eighth, Jim Rice hit the longest homer I’ve seen to this day, a rising liner that cleared the back wall of the centerfield bleachers next to the flagpole. Yaz followed with a cruise missle off the right field grandstand roof. Boomer boomed another one an out later. When the smoke had cleared, and the blood washed off the Yankee pitching mound, Jenkins had a complete-game three-hitter, and Boston had outscored their rivals 30-9 in the sweep and outhomered them 16-0.
As you could probably guess, it all meant nothing in the end. Largely due to the Red Sox’ aging, patchwork staff, the Yanks edged out the Sox and scrappy Orioles on the final weekend by a game and a half, got past the more-talented Royals in the playoffs, then took the Dodgers in six for their first World Series title since 1962.
With Reggie mashing three homers in the final game, his fight with Martin back in June became a “turning point” footnote to a far different story. In September of the following year, New York paid Boston back with a four-game obliteration, outscoring them 42-9 in what “officially” became baseball’s Boston Massacre.
Still, for three unforgettable days in June of ‘77, on the 10-year anniversary of Boston’s impossible dream summer, and 27 years before 2004, the first ultimate Red Sox nirvana actually happened.
Jeff Polman, a former writer for the Boston Phoenix, Vermont Vanguard Press and Advocate newspapers (in his past life), now is a regular contributor to Seamheads, the Huffington Post, and other digital domains. He has also written fictionalized baseball replay blogs for the 1924 and 1977 seasons, one that reversed racial history in 1941, and is currently preparing a fourth online saga for early next year. He can be followed on Twitter at braggers41 and contacted at jpolman54 AT gmail DOT com.
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