- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2011

Rather inexcusably, local obituaries on Dick Williams didn’t dwell on his greatest achievement and the greatest major league pennant race of modern times.

The Impossible Dream. That’s what everybody called it, borrowing the title from the schmaltzy song in “Man of La Mancha,” when Williams drove the heretofore hapless Boston Red Sox to the American League flag in 1967, his first as a major league manager.

Before that, there was no Red Sox Nation as we know it today, merely a collection of disgruntled New Englanders who had watched the “Sawx” endure eight straight losing seasons capped by a ninth-place finish in 1966.

Williams, who died last week at 82 of a ruptured aortic aneurysm, dispersed the gloom and doom almost before Fenway Park fans could trade their jeers for cheers.

“It changed everything around here, like when ‘The Wizard of Oz’ went from black and white to color,” columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote in the Boston Globe. “The [World Series championship] 2004 season broke the ‘Curse of the Bambino,’ but ‘67 will never be surpassed for those who lived it.”

No wonder. The Red Sox, who had lost 190 games the previous two years, won the pennant on the last day of the season after a four-team race that enthralled fans across the land. Final standings: Boston 92-70, Minnesota and Detroit 91-71, Chicago 89-73.

The Red Sox clinched on Sunday, Oct. 1, by beating the Twins while the Tigers lost the second game of a doubleheader to the California Angels. Understandably, bedlam reigned in the Boston clubhouse.

“Dick, I haven’t had a drink in years, but I’ll drink to you today,” Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey said, hugging the stunned Williams.

In those days, there were no league playoffs, so the Red Sox chugged right into the World Series against St. Louis. The Cardinals were heavily favored, but Boston hung right in before losing Game 7 when Bob Gibson outpitched Jim Lonborg in a matchup of mound aces. But that hardly diminished the startling accomplishments of Williams and his players.

How much did 1967 change the culture of baseball in Boston? Since then, the Red Sox have enjoyed 34 winning seasons in 42 years, fill Fenway for nearly every game and dominate the city’s sports scene no matter how many titles the Patriots, Celtics and Bruins win. Williams isn’t the only reason for this, but he’s the one who got it started.

During and after the Teddy Ballgame era that ended in 1960, the team was known as baseball’s country club because of how players were coddled by managers and management despite their losing ways. On the road, the story went, 25 players would take 25 cabs to and from the ballpark. Team spirit? What’s that?

Williams, a journeyman who finished his playing career with the 1965 Red Sox, swiftly altered things - and not by being a nice guy, either. During spring training, he ran the players’ collective rumps off. He took the team captaincy away from star outfielder Carl Yastrzemski, who didn’t want it anyway, and benched him once for not running out a ground ball. Williams didn’t worry about “communicating” with his players. Instead he yowled at them, early and often.

“He had everybody doing everything,” said Yastrzemski, who won the Triple Crown that season by batting .326 with 44 home runs and 126 RBI. “He had the subs out there practicing for two hours a day, and those guys came through. We had players like Rico Carty, Lonborg and Tony Conigliaro who were tired of being last or next to last every year. Dick was the guy who turned it around.”

Williams managed five other clubs after Yawkey inexplicably fired him in 1969 following an 87-75 season, winning World Series with the Oakland Athletics (1972, 1973), another pennant with the San Diego Padres (1984) and 1,571 games overall. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 2008. Yet that first season remains his best and proudest achievement.

As Mike Andrews, the Red Sox second baseman in 1967, put it, “In 1967, he made us all believe. It was magic.”

For sure and forever.

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