A Crowning Achievement

It is the one crown in baseball that gets the least amount of use.

The figurative garland bestowed upon a player who leads his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI’s in the same season – the much ballyhooed Triple Crown – has only been worn by a dozen Major League hitters since 1900.

The most recent honoree, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, earned the distinction this season as he led the Tigers to the American League Central Division title.  Cabrera, a seven-time All-Star, solidified his place as one of the premier hitters in the sport by clubbing 44 home runs, batting .330, and driving in 139 runs – besting all other players in the American League in each category.

In the buildup to Cabrera’s 2012 ascent to the throne, the difficulty of the task was underscored merely by citing the last instance of such triangular excellence.  Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski was the last player before Cabrera to wear the Triple Crown, and Yaz had achieved the rarity in 1967 – a reign of 45 years before the regal headwear was handed to a new recipient.

As baseball rightly lauds the new king, his predecessor merits a linger in the limelight before he cedes it entirely.  So, Yastrzemski’s magical run to his triumphant thrice deserves another look.

1967 is lovingly referred to by Red Sox partisans as the “Impossible Dream” season.  The year before Boston finished next to last, twenty-six full games behind the first place Baltimore Orioles.  So, little was expected of the team in 1967.  In fact, the Red Sox hadn’t finished higher than third in over twenty years.

Even mediocrity was a longshot; triumph lunacy.  However, Boston’s best player was hardly free from lofty expectations.

Carl Yastrzemski had earned the team’s starting left field job in 1961, stepping into a pair of the biggest footsteps in baseball history.

Ted Williams was larger than life, a genuinely heroic figure – on and off the field.  Williams was a Marine fighter pilot, a baseball icon who had willingly stepped away from the sport to fight in two wars, and a champion for minority players who had never received the opportunities he felt they deserved.  And his personality seemed to be guided by the furies.  He was cantankerous and profane but also generous and fiercely loyal, rarely doing anything in life at less than loud acceleration.

He was also the greatest player in the storied history of one of baseball’s most venerable franchises.  Williams, who retired in 1960 after nineteen extraordinary seasons with the Red Sox, owned virtually all of Boston’s hitting records and capped his remarkable career with one of the most lasting farewells in the game.

In his final at-bat of his last game, Williams hit a towering home run into the right field stands – the perfect baseball goodbye.  With that, the man with 521 career homers, six batting titles, and two Triple Crowns of his own, circled the bases one last time and left the diamond for good.  His daunting legacy promised to swallow the poor fellow who assumed his spot in the Red Sox lineup.

That unenviable task fell on a rookie from Southampton, New York with a tongue-spraining Polish surname.

Yastrzemski lacked the panache of the home run hitting war hero.  He was reserved and difficult to read.  On the field, he played well but could not equal Williams’ herculean stats – few mortals ever could.  And a passionate fan base starving for success had yet another reason for displeasure.

The kid with the funny name wasn’t an acceptable substitute for their brash record setting virtuoso.  But he was the best they had.  It just wasn’t good enough for most of them.

Although Yastrzemski had won a batting title and made three All-Star teams entering the 1967 season, he was still cast firmly in Williams’ considerable shadow, and the team limped along, vainly waiting for a transformational player to lead them out of the doldrums.

As it turned out, Yastrzemski was such a transformative force.  He had needed only to mature into that role, and in 1967, he fully displayed his considerable potential.  Flanked by a hard-hitting 22-year-old from nearby Revere, Tony Conigliaro, Yastrzemski led the Red Sox on an unlikely surge up the American League standings.  By August, Boston had closed to within three games of first.

Yastrzemski who had never hit more than 20 home runs in a season, already had 26 by August 1.  Later that month, in one of the game’s most frightening episodes, Conigliaro was lost for the season after he was hit in the face with a pitch.

Without the talented young right fielder to help him, Yastrzemski single-handedly carried the Red Sox to the American League pennant.

Over Boston’s final 44 games – from the day after Conigliaro was injured – the man now affectionately known as “Yaz” hit .344 with 15 homers and 38 RBI’s.  As an exclamation, with the Red Sox needing to win the last two games of the season against the Minnesota Twins to take first, Yaz had seven hits in eight at bats and drove in six runs – including two in the season finale to help Boston come from behind and take the title.  It was the first American League championship that the Red Sox had won since 1946.

When it was over, Yastrzemski had finished the year with a .326 batting average, 44 home runs, and 121 RBI’s – all career highs and all either tied for or exclusively in the league lead,  He had finally proved himself to be a worthy successor to Ted Williams and had a Triple Crown of achievement to prove it.

Although the Red Sox lost the 1967 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Yaz didn’t disappoint in that ultimate showcase, either.  He hit an even .400 with three homers and five RBI’s in the seven-game series, bringing Boston within an eyelash of baseball’s biggest prize.

Yastrzemski went on to play sixteen more big league seasons and finished his brilliant career with more than 3,400 hits, 452 home runs, and seven Gold Glove awards.  As such, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  The skinny kid with the odd name turned out to be every bit as good as Red Sox fans could have hoped.

So, while Miguel Cabrera deserves all of the accolades given to him as baseball’s newest Triple Crown winner, a former crown bearer who lifted an underdog to unlikely heights and allowed all of New England to dream for an entire season merits another bow in the spotlight as well.

Sources:
http://www.baseball-almanac.com/awards/aw_triph.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cabremi01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BOS/
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/y/yastrca01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.cgi?id=yastrca01&t=b&year=1967
http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1967_WS.shtml

Photos:
http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/2012/writers/cliff_corcoran/10/02/miguel-cabrera-triple-crown-best-season/miguel-cabrera-usp2.jpg
http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0819/mlb_g_yastrzemski_200.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/002/641/830/carl_yastrzemski_mvp_display_image.jpg?1349203197
http://www.veteranstoday.com/story_images/ted_williams.jpg
http://www.esquire.com/cm/esquire/images/ted-williams-0209-lg.jpg
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/8183/index.htm
http://blog.mitchellandness.com/image.axd?picture=2012%2F8%2F136887266.jpg

Videos:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_St0-1sGh0Y

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