Mookie Betts vs. Carl Yastrzemski

Mookie Betts and Carl Yastrzemski are the two best position the Red Sox have developed in the last 50-plus years. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Back in the old days, baseball teams’ rosters remained very similar year after year. Al Kaline with the Detroit Tigers, Mickey Mantle with the New York Yankees, Bob Gibson with the St. Louis Cardinals, Jim Palmer with the Baltimore Orioles, Roberto Clemente with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Sandy Koufax with the Dodgers, Hank Aaron with the Braves, Willie Mays with the Giants, Johnny Bench with the Cincinnati Reds, Bob Feller with the Cleveland Indians, and Carl Yastrzemski with the Boston Red Sox.

Maybe you could claim that before him Ted Williams was the image of the Red Sox. But maybe the facts of that unforgettable season of The Impossible Dream carved in stone the name of Yaz as the perennial Red Sock. In the second or third game of that season, while Billy Rohr was working on a no-hitter in Yankee Stadium, Yastrzemski made a fantastic catch by diving in shallow left field to keep the no-hitter going. While Rohr lost the no-no in the ninth on an Elston Howard hit, that’s the kind of play that sets the chemistry of a team.

Even in that magical 1967, Yastrzemski needed the support of the rest of the team, from George Scott, Rico Petrocelli, Reggie Smith, Joe Foy, Mike Andrews, Tony Conigliaro (before August 18), Jerry Adair, through Jim Lonborg, Jose Santiago, and Gary Waslewski. Before the game on Saturday, September 30, 1967, Yaz looked for Santiago somewhere in the bullpen. Santiago promised to avoid Harmon Killebrew hitting one outside the park. Yaz promised to hit one for him.

The Red Sox came to the bottom of the fifth inning losing 1-0 against Jim Kaat and later Jim Perry. Then Adair tied the score 1-1 with a single that plated in Reggie Smith. Then came Yaz, and even though manager Carl Ermer brought in left-hander Jim Merritt to face him, Yastrzemski hit a dribbler between first baseman Killebrew and second baseman Rod Carew, which was snapped up in a very good play by Carew. But as Perry didn’t cover first base, Yaz, running very hard, arrived safely, and Dalton Jones scored the go-ahead run.

***

Mookie Betts can help from the leadoff slot. He’s the kind of batter who can squeeze a lot of deliveries from the pitcher, defends the strike zone to the millimeter, has the speed to steal second and even third base, and even can hustle until getting an inside-the-park home run. If he’s positioned in the second slot in the lineup, no matter this kind of play is never practiced in the current game, Betts knows how to bunt the ball to advance the runners and can hit to the opposite side to move the runner from first to third base.

As a No. 3 batter, he can pull the ball to the alleys or hit it through the middle. In those hectic moments against the most difficult pitchers, he can come from being down in the count to hit a double in a key moment of the game. When he’s the cleanup hitter, he can send the ball to the bleachers from left to right field or smash it against the wall and then run with all his speed to gain an additional base, putting a lot of pressure on the shoulders of his rivals.

***

In the bottom of the seventh inning of that next-to-last game of the 1967 season, Yaz came to bat with runners on first and second bases, and manager Carl Ermer relieved Ron Kline with lefthander Jim Merritt. After analyzing and remembering about Merritt’s tactics on the mound, Yaz laid off some sliders — they went by, outside the strike zone. When the count arrived at 3-1, he knew Merritt would come with his fastball, so Yaz sat to wait for it.

The next scene showed the ball sailing to the right-field bleachers, and the score was now Red Sox 6, Twins 2. Although the Twins attacked with a Harmon Killebrew two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning, reliever Gary Bell retired Tony Oliva for the last out. Carl recalled that moment in an interview: “It started from the bleachers, those stands 380 feet away that I never thought I’d ever reach, and a roar started. It built as I circled each base, continued as the ‘3’ went up in the scoreboard, to show we had a 6-2 lead, and the noise didn’t end for three minutes. It continued long after I had gone into the dugout.” That was the type of atmosphere experienced at Fenway Park during each great Yastrzemski performance.

***

During a road trip to the West Coast, the Red Sox visited Anaheim to face the Angels. Betts batted leadoff and played center field. In his very first at-bat, in the top of first inning, he slashed a tremendous line drive to the left-field bleachers. This was Bett’s 18th leadoff homer. In that game played on August 30, 2019, the Red Sox were up 4-0 in the third inning, then 6-4 in the bottom of the seventh, but in the bottom of the ninth the Angels tied the score, 6-6. The game remained tied for the next five innings against four relievers for the Angels and two for the Red Sox.

In the bottom of the 14th inning, Betts changed positions to play right field, as Jackie Bradley Jr. came in to play center. Betts made four putouts in center field and one in right field. Then, in the top of the 15th inning, when Trevor Cahill seemed to have everything under control after striking out Brock Holt and forcing Mitch Moreland to hit a grounder to second base, Betts smacked a long fly ball that landed in the left-field bleachers to give the victory to the Red Sox. Of the 20 games in which Betts has hit a leadoff homer, the Red Sox have won 13.

***

An Angell at Spring Training
For decades, Roger Angell's writing has warmed us to the romance of the new season.

In the top of the eleventh inning of that fantastic Game Six of the 1975 World Series, Ken Griffey was running at first base after Carlton Fisk made a fabulous throw to force Pete Rose at second base after he had been hit by pitcher Dick Drago. Then came a dangerous line drive hit by Joe Morgan that seemed to cover Fenway Park with a thick veil of darkness and silence. All that could be heard were Dwight Evans’ steps running backwards, each time faster, each time in a rush, until jumping to catch the ball while crashing against the little wall in right field.

Then in the same movement, all adrenaline, all intensity, Evans threw the ball with little accuracy, so it was destined to hit the lower part of the shallow right field stand, around five yards behind first base. Yastrzemski, the first baseman, as always very aware of the slightest details in the game, ran immediately to take the ball and passed it to first base to Rick Burleson, who had come across from shortstop, to complete an unbelievable double play. Yaz’s assist was all the more important considering the next batter was Johnny Bench — and with that kind of batter, you never know when he might beat you with a double or a dinger.

***

There are some facts of Betts’ relatively few years spent in the big leagues that give us the image of a cornerstone player. Those are facts between legend and reality, sandwiched through pictures and fable, diluted into history and myth. Like that Saturday afternoon game when the Red Sox were trailing by one run late in the game. The opposing pitcher was in a groove, and everyone could recognize the rivals were likely going to take the victory.

Not Betts, after slashing a single through a grounder to the gap between third base and shortstop. He started a little battle, menacing the pitcher with the threat of stealing second. The skirmish lasted for about six or seven attempts, until he finally took a good jump and arrived at second base before the catcher’s throw.  The batter hit a grounder that the second baseman took almost in shallow right field. Betts accelerated after arriving at third base and surprised even the third-base coach by beating — again — a throw to home plate. The game was tied. From then on, the opposing pitcher seemed to lose his composure, and the Red Sox found a way to score a run in the bottom of the ninth to win the game.

***

Even in the most bitter and hard moments for the team, Yaz was the first in recognizing the merits of the rival like that Monday, October 2, 1978, when the Red Sox played against the Yankees in Fenway Park to decide the winner of the American League East division. Everything had begun very well for Boston when Yaz had smacked a homer against Ron Guidry in the second inning, an immense line drive to the corner of right field that almost hit the foul pole. Guidry had been almost unhittable that year, and he ended the season with a 25-3 record and a 1.74 ERA. Then, in the bottom of the eighth, when everything seemed lost after Bucky Dent and Reggie Jackson’s homers, Yaz plated Jerry Remy with a single to center field to tighten the score, and he later scored on Fred Lynn’s single to left field to make the score 5-4.

In the bottom of the ninth, after failing with a pop-up to third base, Yaz went to the Yankees’ dugout to congratulate them on their accomplishment.

**

During the 2018 postseason, Betts didn’t perform well at the plate. His batting averages in the ALDS, ALCS, and World Series were just .188, .217, and .217, respectively. In the ALDS, he only managed three hits — including just one double — with two RBI and three runs scored. In the ALCS, he had five hits, two of which were doubles, plating one run and scoring five. And in the World Series, he again had five hits, with a double and a homer. No matter — he kept playing hard, tried to compensate with his defensive skills.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018. ALCS Game Four. The Red Sox lead the series, 2-1, and the game, 8-5. Bottom of the eighth inning, and Tony Kemp is leading off for the Astros. Closer Craig Kimbrel has been called upon to replace Matt Barnes.

Betts has known Kemp since his high school days in Nashville, Tennessee, where they played for opposing teams. Kemp slashed a line drive close to the right-field line. Betts, playing up the middle, charged hard from right-center field. He took the ball very close to the right-field corner and spun in a rush to throw Kemp out. It didn’t matter that Kemp had the advantage of being a left-handed batter, nor did the initial distance between Betts and the ball. Betts had overcome all those handicaps. The Red Sox won that game, 8-6.

***

On Saturday, May, 9, 1970, the Boston Red Sox arrived at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum to face the A’s. Managers Eddie Kasko and John McNamara sent right-handers Sonny Siebert and Jim Catfish Hunter to the mound. The game went scoreless until the top of the fourth inning. Up to then, Hunter had only allowed a double to leadoff batter Mike Andrews at the top of the first inning. After retiring Reggie Smith — Hunter’s tenth batter retired in a row — Yastrzemski smacked a homer to give the lead to the Red Sox. Then Rico Petrocelli got on base, advanced through Dave Duncan’s errors, and scored on a George Scott single to left field.

Yastrzemski hit another dinger against Hunter leading off the sixth inning to increase the advantage to 3-0. The A’s got closer in the bottom of the sixth, when Duncan and Bert Campaneris smacked homers against Siebert. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Mincher tied the score for the A’s with another homer against Siebert. And in the top of the ninth inning, after reliever Diego Segui had retired Andrews with a grounder to shortstop and struck out Smith, Yastrzemski hit a single to center field. Tony Conigliaro slashed a dinger to give the victory to the Red Sox.

***

Before games, Betts is always checking his swing with teammate J.D. Martinez. They analyze their stances at home plate, suggest better grips on the bat handle, correct their reaction time when the ball is coming to home plate. They sometimes stay more than half of the batting practice, talking about their hitting approaches, what’s in their minds between pitches, how hard they are holding the bat. Among all of those tiny details could be the reason for a new magnificent line drive in the clutch. Betts is also frequently seen fielding grounders. He does it in the infield — his former position — just to demand his best coordination and intensity. He knows what to do while attacking a grounder in right field.

***

In the 1968 season, The Year of the Pitcher, Yastrzemski led the American League with a batting average of .301. He had to face and decipher guys like Denny McLain (31-6, 1.96 ERA), Luis Tiant (21-9, 1.60), Dave McNally (22-10, 1.95), Sam McDowell (15-14, 1.81), Mel Stottlemyre (21-12, 2.45), Wilbur Wood (13-12, 1.87), Jim Hardin (18-13, 2.51), Blue Moon Odom (16-10, 2.45), Dean Chance (16-16, 2.53), and Tommy John (10-5, 1.98). He kept giving his best, even though the Red Sox finished in fourth place, 17 games behind the Detroit Tigers.

During the 1975 season, Yastrzemski had to deal with an injury to his shoulder. Despite that damage, he appeared 149 games, posting a .269 batting average. In the ALCS, though, he shone, batting .455 with a homer, a double, and four runs scored. And in the World Series, he collected nine hits, driving in four runs and scoring seven, for a .310 batting average.

***

For a time, it seemed Mookie Betts would have a chance to join YazCarl Yastrzemski in the club of players who performed their entire careers for the Boston Red Sox. But those are not the times we live in; we have to recognize reality. Betts most likely will end up playing for the team that pays him the most for his baseball abilities. The choices the players have to make are determined, most of all, by today’s baseball economy. Imagining a statue of Betts by Yaz’s side outside Fenway Park, something that might have seemed possible after the 2018 championship, must be relegated to the realm of fiction — a short story, a fantasy. Or maybe life will surprise the baseball world by allowing an entire career’s worth of Betts in Boston. Until the trade is finalized, we still can dream.

References & Resources

  • Apstein, Stephanie. “A Quiet Gesture from Mookie Betts During 2018 World Series made a Resounding Impact.” Sports Illustrated. December 5, 2018.
  • Crehan, Herbert F. & James W. Ryan. Lightning in a Bottle: The Sox of ’67. Branden Pub Co, 1992.
  • Hornig, Doug. The Boys of October. McGraw-Hill. 2004.
  • Shatzkin Mike, Charlton Jim. The Ballplayers. New York. The Idea Logical Press. 1999. Pp 1212-1213.
  • Wexler, Sarah. “14 innings later … Mookie’s 2nd HR lifts Red Sox.” MLB.com. August 31, 2019.
  • Yates, Clinton. “Mookie Betts is the superstar baseball needs.” theundefeated.com. November 15, 2018.
  • retrosheet.org
  • baseball-reference.com


Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.
newest oldest most voted
Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

Billy Rohr never pitched a no hitter. Elston Howard broke it up in the 9th inning. I remember it like it was yesterday as I listened on my transistor radio in 5th grade. It was an afternoon game at Yankee stadium. For what it is worth, which is a trivia question at any Boston watering hole, Tom Tresh hit the fly ball that Yaz caught.

Greg Simons
Editor

Hi, Dennis. Thank you for pointing this out. The wording has been changed to better reflect the specifics of what happened.

GoNYGoNYGoGo
Member
GoNYGoNYGoGo

Very nice article. I had never considered Betts as a franchise player, but very nice article comparing him to Yaz and how he was close to becoming one.

Very minor note, but Guidry was 25-3 in 1978, not 25-1. Coming into the game he was actually 24-3.

Curious if you think Betts’ gain from the cheating scandal would have permanently stained his reputation in Boston had he stayed?

Greg Simons
Editor

This error has been corrected in the article. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

hombremomento
Member
hombremomento

What do Tony Coniglario, Brendan Fraser, and Johnny Depp have in common? They all got hit bad, but all of them still thrived, 3 kings

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

Kershaw, Molina, Posey, Votto, Trout, Strasburg.

4 players that certainly will play all of their meaningful years with the same team and 2 more that are poised to do the same.

I won’t argue that there is not more movement of star players than there used to be, but it is also true that stars have switched teams for whatever reason throughout history AND there are still a lot of players that basically play with one team their whole careers (especially if we are disregarding Aaron/Mays type situations).

Mule
Member
Mule

Also teams not basically owning players their whole careers isn’t really a bad thing.

rosen380
Member

Best I can tell, these are the 20+ year 1 team players, sorted by their last year:

Derek Jeter 2014
Chipper Jones 2012
Craig Biggio 2007
Cal Ripken 2001
Tony Gwynn 2001
Alan Trammell 1996
George Brett 1993
Robin Yount 1993
Jim Palmer 1984
Carl Yastrzemski 1983
Willie Stargell 1982
Brooks Robinson 1977
Al Kaline 1974
Stan Musial 1963
Ted Williams 1960
Bob Feller 1956
Luke Appling 1950
Mel Harder 1947
Mel Ott 1947
Ted Lyons 1946
Red Faber 1933
Walter Johnson 1927

IDK, seems like they are about as rare as they were 20-30-50 years ago…

a_teenage_smog
Member
Member
a_teenage_smog

There is a strong correlation between having 20+ year career on a single team and being in the Hall of Fame. Before MadBum and Felix left San Francisco and Seattle respectively, there were 17 active players w/ 10+ year careers on a single team. Familiar names like Posey, Strausburg, Votto and Molina, big-time All-Stars, a few likely HoFers. With the exception of Kershaw, however, Mookie is arguably (and imo it’s a not a hard argument) better than all of them, meaning he presented a particularly unique opportunity to cement a legacy like that of Yaz with the Sox. Obviously an… Read more »

James Parks
Member
Member
James Parks

Great read, thanks for that. Phillies fan but Yaz is one of my all time favorite players.

Dewey Ever
Member
Member
Dewey Ever

This a really nice piece of work, Alfonso T. Excellent stuff- enjoyed it. Some I remembered, some I ever knew.

cheers