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Dan Shaughnessy

Can’t skip his place in Sox lore

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / July 8, 2011

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Carl Yastrzemski is a recluse of sorts. Yaz isn’t one for making appearances, shaking hands, and swapping stories about the good old days of 1967. He doesn’t do many interviews and doesn’t return many phone calls. Months can go by, and you won’t hear back. It’s nothing personal. Boston baseball’s Garbo just wants to be left alone.

Yaz called back yesterday. Within minutes. Word was out that Dick Williams had died and the Red Sox’ greatest living ballplayer wanted to talk about his former manager.

“I played for him for a year and a half before he became a Triple A manager,’’ said Yaz. “He was an outstanding manager. He was instrumental in the ’67 season.’’

Instrumental? There’s an understatement. Typical Yaz. Saying Dick Williams was instrumental in the ’67 season is like saying Paul McCartney was an important part of the Beatles.

Yaz forever goes down as the most important figure of the most important season in Boston baseball history. But Dick Williams was right there riding shotgun with No. 8. Without Dick Williams, maybe none of it would have happened.

“He had everybody doing everything,’’ recalled Yaz. “There was no downtime. He had been a utility player [Williams played with five teams from 1951-64] and I think that was one of the things that made him such a great manager.

“He had the extra men go above and beyond what they would normally do. He had them out there for two hours instead of 20 minutes a day. And those guys came through. Jose Tartabull? With his arm, he couldn’t break a pane of glass from 10 feet away. And then he makes the big throw in Chicago to win a game for us. I thought that was the key to Dick’s success, what he did with the extra guys. When Tony Conigliaro went down, we had people ready to step in.’’

Tartabull stepped in. So did Jerry Adair and Dalton Jones and Norm Siebern. A guy named Gary Waslewski started the sixth game of the World Series. The ’67 Red Sox got contributions from everyone.

Dick Williams managed 21 big league seasons and won 1,571 games. He won pennants with three franchises and won two World Series. He won 90 games seven times. He made it to the Hall of Fame in 2008.

But ultimately, all we care about is his role in ’67. It changed everything around here - like when “The Wizard of Oz’’ goes from black and white to color. The 2004 season broke the Curse and gave us a biblical baseball tale for the ages, but ’67 will never be surpassed for those who lived it. It was the greatest pennant race of them all, and the Sox finished first one year after finishing ninth, and two years after losing 100 games.

Boston baseball in the years before Dick Williams featured a culture of losing - the Pinky Higgins era. The Sox went from 1959-66 without playing .500 ball. That was why it was so stunning when a rookie manager with a flat-top haircut predicted, “We’ll win more than we lose.’’

“We had players - Rico, Lonborg, Conigliaro - everybody was tired of being last or next to last every year,’’ recalled Yaz. “Everybody wanted to turn it around, and Dick was the guy who turned it around.’’

Williams was the definition of old school. He did not worry about communicating with his players. He said talking to George Scott was like talking to cement. He benched Yaz for not running hard on a ground ball (a move that might have resulted in Tom Yawkey firing Williams at the end of his third Sox season in 1969). He didn’t care about his players’ feelings.

“He was tough to play for,’’ said Mike Andrews, who played for Williams in the minors, with the Sox, and with the Oakland A’s. “We went months without talking sometimes. Not everybody could handle it. But he knew the game inside-out.’’

One of Williams’s first tasks was the announcement that there would no longer be a team captain.

“How’s that for openers?’’ said Andrews. “Right out of the gate he strips Carl of the captaincy. He told us, ‘There’s only one chief, and the rest of you are indians.’ ’’

Never comfortable as a young captain (he’d accepted the job with great reluctance), Yaz was happy to give up the role.

“We talked about it and I told him I didn’t want it anymore,’’ said Yaz.

Andrews thinks Williams had a big role in Yaz’s Triple Crown season.

“I know Carl had a lot of self-motivation and he’d spent the winter doing rigorous training, but I think Dick instilled something in him,’’ said Andrews. “All of a sudden he didn’t have a manager kissing his butt. The message was, ‘I’m not satisfied with what you’re doing. You have to do more.’ ’’

And that was the end of the culture of losing around Fenway Park.

“It was all the hard work he made everybody go through in spring training,’’ said Yaz.

“Once the season started he just left me alone and we had that great trip in the middle where we won something like 11 of 13 and we really started to believe in ourselves.’’

They made us all believe in ’67. It was magic.

Williams died yesterday in Nevada. His place in Boston baseball history will live forever.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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