Red Sox Memories: Opening Day 1961 Left Field Heritage
There is a connection between the 1961 Red Sox and the current edition, which can trace back some of what has now become Red Sox Nation, to when Boston was an outpost of under performing futility. One player carried the torch for following generations of left fielders and the other player became a manager who turned around a franchise.
American League baseball experienced a drastic change that had not been seen since the league organized in 1901. That was expansion as two teams were added to the American League for 1961 and games were also added as the long time standard of 154 games was expanded to the current 162 games.
Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle would be engaged in an epic home run duel that Maris won by hitting a new record of 61. That feat added an asterisk to the record since the league also expanded their schedule to accommodate the new teams. The All-Star game also number two and the second would be played in Boston and be a tied game at 1-1.
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Red Sox opening day of 1961 marked a Red Sox watershed and, as mentioned, in baseball. A watershed is a term favored by historians to signify a critical change in history either for the better or the worse, such as the invention of the printing press or the Black Plague. For the Red Sox 1961 was such a watershed.
Gone was Ted Williams a staple of the team since 1939. Possibly the greatest hitter that ever lived and a baseball icon that is easily mentioned with the best in the game. Williams last season was to this observer, one of majestic proportions coming after a year in which he failed – for the only time in his career – to hit .300.
Williams played in only 113 games due to numerous nagging injuries and did manage 310 plate appearances. What stands out is that Williams, reaching age 41, hit 29 home runs and drove in 72 with an OPS+ of 1.096. He was now being replaced by a player many were ready to declare the next great Red Sox player – Carl Yastrzemski.
That opening day was like so many for Boston from the mid-1950s through 1967. A dreary and overcast day with Fenway Park barely one-third filled. Seats were easy to come by and around the third inning you could move from the grandstand to a box seat without drawing much attention.
In that game Yastrzemski managed a single that I remember being shot into left field, but the real play was one that became familiar to opponents and fans. A ground ball to left field that Yastrzemski, a former infielder charged, and made a perfect strike directly home to cut down a runner. Later to be a trademark play.
Little noticed in this game between the Red Sox and then Kansas City Athletics was a player who did not play. On the bench for Kansas City was infielder Dick Williams, who would later play for Boston and be a significant force in resuscitating a staggering franchise.
Williams was named manager for the 1967 Red Sox and predicted: “We will win more ballgames than we lose.” Yastrzemski knew Williams from his Boston playing days and Yaz came into spring training in excellent shape to impress the new manager who had already established a reputation as a task master in managing the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate in Toronto to two International League titles.
The rest is Red Sox history as the 1967 team became the fabled “Impossible Dream,” Yastrzemski went on to a Hall of Fame career and the Red Sox have never returned to the depths of despair for that bleak period in the 1950s and 60s.
Jim Rice eventually replaced Yastrzemski as the next great Red Sox left fielder and Rice hit his way into the HOF. The sojourn continued as Manny Ramirez was brought in to play left field or have left field play Manny.
You would certainly have gaps in the name recognition of whom played left field from the dependable such as Mike Greenwell or Troy O’Leary and to those who filled a role for a brief period such as Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava. However, left field in Boston has an attachment to history as it has had its share of quality players going all the way back to Duffy Lewis and Babe Ruth, who played there for the Red Sox.
Now in left field is Hanley Ramirez, who has returned to his original team. Hanley precipitated his own signing by letting it be known that he would willingly shift from the infield to left field. Ramirez is 31-years-old and a lifetime .300 hitter. Ramirez has won a batting title, been an All-Star, and shown speed on the bases and power with the bat. Ramirez has a bloodline of talent to follow. This is not the left field of a role player, but the left field of three members of the HOF.
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