Eddie Kasko and the 1972 Red Sox deserved a better fate than lazy schedule-makers handed them.
This past Tuesday night, the Boston Red Sox caught a break. Leading the Detroit Tigers 4-1 at Fenway Park, with the game in the sixth inning, Detroit loaded the bases with one out. Then the rain came and pounded the field. Ninety minutes the game was called and Boston was awarded the win. The Tigers, with considerable sympathy from the national press cried foul. It’s considered customary to wait two hours and in either case, this was a game far from over and a good chance that it will loom large in the standings during the wild-card race in September.
I understand Detroit’s frustration and in all fairness, I think they’re right. But as I watched a talk show on ESPN where the commentators ripped into the decision and how Detroit got robbed, I wanted to shout “What about 1972?!” Yes, indeed—what about 1972.
The Red Sox & Tigers ran a great AL East race to the finish line that year and it came down to a final head-to-head series in Detroit to settle it. Whoever won two of three won the division and would advance to the American League Championship Series. But there was one little caveat. 1972 was a weird year and the Tigers had played one more game than the Red Sox. Because of a players’ strike in the spring, the season didn’t get started until April 15, and the baseball powers-that-be, decided to just pick up and play out the schedule as it lay. And that oddity meant Detroit had a game in hand, and consequently only trailed the Red Sox by a half-game when the teams met in Motown on October 1 to begin the final three-game set.
Boston had already made a strong run to reach this point. The Sox were as many as eight games back at the end of June, still seven out in the end of July and didn’t start to make a move until August when they wiped out much of the lead. From September 1 forward, the margin in the AL East was always under two games.
It had been a year of transition for Boston, who traded away Jim Lonborg in the offseason. The pitcher who’d been the ace of the 1967 Impossible Dream pennant winner, had some injuries, although he was still an effective pitcher. The Red Sox, with the second-worst ERA in the American League in 1972 could have used the 14 wins and 2.83 ERA Lonborg compiled in Milwaukee. But they get back centerfielder Tommy Harper, along with Marty Pattin who anchored the starting rotation. The Wikipedia page for the ’72 Sox pans the deal, but it really wasn’t all that bad.
A far worse trade had come in March, and that’s when Boston dealt relief pitcher Sparky Lyle to the New York Yankees for first baseman Danny Cater. The latter did nothing upon getting the job in Beantown, while Lyle would go on to a stellar career in New York, one that would include winning the Cy Young in 1977. Even among historians not focused exclusively on the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, this trade makes everyone’s short list for among the worst in baseball history and probably cost the Red Sox the World Series in 1975, along with AL East titles in 1972 and 1977, the latter of which could also have realistically been a Series champ.
Trading Sparky Lyle to New York for Danny Cater cost the Red Sox in both 1972 and in years to come.
Cater’s poor hitting aside, Boston still rang up runs with the most prolific offense in the American League. Carlton Fisk came on the scene in ’72 and with a .370 on-base percentage and .538 slugging percentage won Rookie of the Year honors at catcher. Harper had a .341 OBP and until the arrival of Jacoby Ellsbury nearly four decades later, would become the standard for the Red Sox when it comes to stealing bases (admittedly not the highest standard in the world). Reggie Smith had a good year as the designated hitter, and it all helped to overcome a power outage from Carl Yastrzemski, who only went deep twelve times, though Yaz did have a solid .357 OBP.
And the young talent on Boston was something to behold. Dwight Evans made his debut in September and would be in the starting lineup for the critical final series against the Tigers. 23-year-old Ben Oglivie was an up-and-comer in the outfield, as was 22-year-old Cecil Cooper at first base.
Boston was 84-68 coming into the Monday opener, while Detroit sat on 84-69. The Tigers would throw veteran lefty Mickey Lolich, the hero of the 1968 World Series, when he won three games and Detroit upset St. Louis. Lolich was still just 31 and had top-quality stuff. He’d won 22 games and piled up 327 innings of work for the year. He got the last nine of those in this game, going the distance in a 4-1 win over pedestrian Sox starter John Curtis.
The series opener should be remembered for Lolich’s game, 37-year-old Al Kaline starting the scoring off with a solo home run, another solo shot by 24-year-old third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and Rodriguez subsequently delivering consecutive two-out RBI singles. Unfortunately the mythology surrounding a play in the third inning has to instead by debunked.
With Kaline’s home run staking Detroit to a 1-zip lead, Harper and veteran shortstop Luis Aparacio hit consecutive singles. Yaz then doubled, bringing in Harper to tie the game. Aparacio rounded third and on the wet turf, slipped and fell. He came back to third only to see Yaz barreling down on him. With nowhere to go, Yaz was thrown out in a rundown and Aparacio stayed at third, and was stranded there when Reggie Smith struck out.
The myth of Luis Aparacio’s baserunning in a key 1972 game is just that–a myth that requires debunking.
There are two myths that have to be addressed—the first is that mess was not Aparacio’s fault. Not only was he obviously not to blame for wet grass and it being slippery, but firsthand accounts say Yastrzemski wasn’t looking at his base coach, which is the real reason he was thrown out on the bases. Finally, given that the Tigers scored three more runs and the Red Sox never mounted another threat against Lolich, it requires a huge leap of faith to say the play cost Boston the game. There was already one out when it happened. Smith struck out. Up next would have been Rico Petrocelli, an average offensive player at best (.339 OBP/.363 slugging). So enough of the “when Aparacio fell rounding third” stories in the tales of Red Sox lore. Lolich dominated the game and would have won in any event.
Luis Tiant would get the ball for the Sox in Saturday’s game. El Tiante had done of mix and starting and relieving in ’72 and whatever he did, he dominated. He picked up 15 wins and posted a dazzling 1.91 ERA in 179 innings of work and he was up to the task early on in this game. But Detroit starter Woodie Fryman was hanging in there. After Harper singled, stole second and scored on an error in the first, the game remained 1-0 as it went to the sixth. The a single, sac bunt and single tied the game and in the bottom of the seventh Kaline drove in the go-ahead run. An infield hit and an error gave the Tigers a key insurance run.
Down to their last six outs, Boston couldn’t muster a serious rally. With a man aboard, Petrocelli gave brief hope with a long fly ball to right, but Kaline hauled it in. Detroit closer Chuck Seelbach(a closer in those days for a division champ got 14 saves) ended the game by retiring Evans, Cooper and Oglivie.
By all rights, that last inning should have been the glimpse of the Red Sox future, with the three hitters they sent up, all 23 or younger, forming the cornerstone of pennant-winning teams. And I suppose they did, but Cooper and Oglivie eventually ended up in Milwaukee where Cooper became one of the game’s best first baseman, Oglivie won a home run title and the Brewers won the 1982 pennant. Another glimpse of the future was that the Detroit manager was Billy Martin, with this heartbreak foreshadowing another one that would take place five years later when Martin was in the Bronx.
But the Sox won the Sunday finale, and in the record books it shows that Detroit was 86-70 and Boston was 85-70. Whose brilliant idea was it to not tweak the schedule and ensure an equal number of games? Or at least put a provision in for an additional game if a situation like this arose? Maybe the Tigers would have won the Sunday finale had it meant something. Maybe they’d have prevailed in a playoff situation. But it should have been settled on the field, rather than the lazy, ill-conceived way it was. And if the 2012 Red Sox nip the Tigers by one game for the wild-card, with the shady rain-delay of this past Tuesday swinging the balance, it just means that justice was forty years in coming.