Last Friday, Carl Yastrzemski turned 75. If you are of a certain age – born in the 1960s or earlier – those words are sure to make you feel old.
Want to feel even older? It’s been more than 30 years since Yaz last played in a game. His unforgettable goodbye lap around Fenway Park took place in 1983. It was a hands-on farewell that reminded every Sox fan that Yaz was a man of the people. He took his connection with Boston fans seriously.
“I played hard,” Yastrzemski told me in an interview for NESN last week. “I loved representing the people of Boston. Every time I had the Red Sox jersey on, or the road jersey with Boston on it, I wanted to have the fans respect that I played the game hard for the people of Boston.”
Yastrzemski made his debut in 1961 at the age of 21. The Sox finished 10 games under .500 that season, part of a 10-year run in which they never had a winning record. That all changed in the Impossible Dream season of 1967 when Yaz won the Triple Crown and was named American League MVP. Boston won its first pennant in 21 years.
Only one player, Miguel Cabrera in 2012, has won the Triple Crown since. Many have talked about the pressure of finishing first in home runs, RBI and batting average, but Yaz said he felt no pressure at all that season.
“That season (1967) was fun,” said Yastrzemski. “I didn’t have to get three hits in a game. I just had to do something to help our team win and the fans appreciated it. Playing for a bad team, that’s pressure. Playing for a good team is fun.”
If Yaz felt any pressure in the early days of his career, it was trying to live up to his predecessor in left field at Fenway – Ted Williams.
“My first few months here I was trying to be Ted,” said Yastrzemski. “I was trying to do the things he could do. Finally I had to stop doing that and try to be myself.”
In many ways, Yastrzemski was ahead of his time. He was the first player in the history of the AL to lead the league in walks and hits. The walks – and his high on-base percentage – weren’t highly valued at the time. They are now.
Yaz said he learned that plate discipline from his father, who would always tell the younger Yastrzemski not to swing at a bad pitch during his Little League games. Those lessons paid off as Carl became the first Little Leaguer to later be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
That Little Leaguer is now 75. He spends his time watching the Sox, just like the rest of us. “Last year was easy,” said Yaz with a laugh. “This year’s a little tougher.”
They didn’t come much tougher than Yaz. It was that toughness that made him such a great player, and made him the player a generation of Red Sox fans adored.
Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcast on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.