Having just submitted a performance for the ages in the midst of what was becoming rookie season for the ages, Fred Lynn set out on the evening of June 18, 1975 to celebrate his achievement with some teammates before the next day’s ballgame beckoned.
Why not? The Red Sox were enjoying an unexpectedly excellent season, one that would culminate with a loss to the Cincinnati Reds in perhaps the greatest World Series ever played. Lynn and fellow rookie outfielder Jim Rice, dubbed the Gold Dust Twins, were at the forefront of the revival, and the particular achievement on this night certainly was worthy of a fine meal and a toast or three.
Lynn, the Red Sox’ casually electrifying 23-year-old center fielder, had just spent nine innings crafting what still stands as one of the greatest single-game offensive performances in baseball history. Lynn tied the American League record for total bases with 16, crushing three home runs, a triple, and adding an infield single to the tally for good measure in the Red Sox’ 15-1 win over the host Detroit Tigers. Lynn drove in 10 of the 15 runs.
“The last time I hit three home runs in a game before then, I think it was the very last game I played in Little League when I was 12 years old,’’ said the ever-affable Lynn during an interview earlier this week from his home in California. “I wasn’t a home run hitter per se, but I had power, and if I got into a groove, I could hit ‘em out. It was a magical night. Nobody has these kind of games. Maybe a handful of guys in the history of the game have had them.’’
It was a performance worth celebrating then, just as it is today, on the 40th anniversary of the feat. But as Lynn tells it, a strict maître d’ nearly accomplished what Tigers pitching could not. He nearly shut down Lynn before he could even get started.
“After the game, four or five of us went out, the young guys, I’m going to say it was the London Chop House, and I didn’t have a coat. I don’t even remember if I owned one then,’’ said Lynn. “So I had to run across the street to the rental place. I pleaded with the guy at the restaurant, ‘Please, my team is here, can’t I just come in with them?’ I didn’t tell him I just hit three homers or anything like that, but I begged the guy, turned on the charm. He was having none of it, my friend. He said, ‘I do not care, go across the street.’’’
With his smooth lefthanded swing and spectacular defense in center field, Lynn had caught the attention of baseball fans before his epic performance in Detroit. During a brief 43 at-bat cameo late in the ’74 season, the former second-round pick out of Southern Cal hit .462. He began the ’75 season hitless in his first nine at-bats. But in the Red Sox’ fifth game, he hit a pair of home runs in a 4-2 win over the Yankees. He never fell below .300 the rest of the year.
It would be a magical season, one that remains on a very short list of the best rookie performances in baseball history. Not only would Lynn receive 23 ½ of a possible 24 votes in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting – the other ½ vote went to Rice – but he would become the first rookie to win the league Most Valuable Player award. Lynn led the league in slugging (.567), OPS (.967), doubles (47) and runs (103) while hitting .331 with 21 home runs and 105 runs batted in. He also won a Gold Glove award.
He came into the June 18 game having seen a 20-game hitting streak snapped two nights earlier. “I was seeing the ball good, but Mickey Lolich shut me right down,’’ said Lynn. “He was a 20-game winner, lefthanded, a sinker-slider pitcher, and I kept beating it into the ground against him. When you’re a rookie you’re seeing everybody for the first time anyway. That guy was tough for me to hit, and I had an 0 for 5.
“It was frustrating, so I got up early the next day, got to the ballpark early, and took extra BP.’’
Lynn pauses and laughs. “Obviously it worked.’’
Oh, it worked. And it worked immediately, from his first at-bat in the first inning as the cleanup hitter against Tigers starter Joe Coleman.
“Every time I came up on the first three innings, I think there were two guys on,’’ said Lynn. “I homered my first time up to the upper deck in right-center. The next time I came up, there were a couple of guys on again and I homered off the roof in right-center. I was off to a pretty good start.
“I came up in the third inning and there were two guys on again and I hit a shot into left-center that missed a home run by maybe a foot. It ricocheted off the wall and I ended up with a triple. So after three innings I had a homer, homer, and a triple and had driven in seven. I should have called it a career right then.’’
Lynn’s first two home runs – his 12th and 13th of the season — came off Coleman, a Natick native who was en route to one of the more frustrating seasons of his 15-year career. A 23-game winner in 1973, he would go 10-18 with a 5.55 ERA for the ’75 Tigers, who would lose 102 games.
“Against Coleman, I hit some bad pitches,’’ said Lynn. “I can’t remember if they were forkballs, but they were up in the zone, I remember that. I remember being interviewed about it and I said something about what kind of pitch I thought I hit, and the next day he says, “[Expletive], the kid doesn’t even know what he hit.’
“I understood where he was coming from. We didn’t have DVDs then. There wasn’t much in the way of scouting reports. I always would ask Carl [Yastrzemski] about the pitchers we were facing. He was the elder statesman and lefthanded like me. I’d ask him, ‘how’s this guy pitch you, what does he have?’ That’s what guys talk about on the bench. You’re watching how this guy or that guy pitches the batters ahead of you, and maybe you detect a pattern when he’s facing a similar hitter. But you really need to get into the batter’s box and see it yourself.’’
He didn’t see Coleman much longer – the Tigers starter lasted just two innings, allowing nine hits and seven runs. Reliever Lerrin LaGrow would last just 2/3 of an inning, and Lynn’s two-run triple in the third inning came off the third Detroit pitcher, “Bullet’’ Bob Reynolds.
Reynolds actually proved effective by ’75 Tigers standards, allowing two runs (one earned) in 4.1 innings of relief work. He even retired Lynn on a liner to second in the fifth inning. But in the seventh, he yielded Lynn’s fourth hit, a single that might look like another Lynn rocket in the box score but, according to the man who hit it, most certainly was not.
“He threw a nasty sinker and I hit it 15 feet and it just stopped, like a perfect bunt,’’ said Lynn. “He was kind of yelling at me as I ran down the line.’’
By the time the ninth inning came around, the Red Sox led 12-1, and most starters had long since been pulled from the game. The only suspense was what Lynn would do in his final at-bat against Tigers reliever Tom Walker. Lynn insists he wasn’t trying to hit a home run. But he did.
“I wasn’t thinking homer, though some guys on our bench mentioned it. I was thinking get a good pitch to hit,’’ he said. “I got something hanging because I hit it very high. Two more guys on, and I hit it into the upper deck. I remember seeing the film and it looked like there was no one there – because there was no one there. Everybody had left. The ball was just bopping around out there.
“I saw [Walker] in ’74 when I came up, and I knew he had a pretty good curveball. I’m just kind of seeing what he had. Every at-bat was like an adventure. Every time you go to the stadium, it’s an adventure, because you haven’t seen everyone.’’
While Lynn, in his fancy rental sport coat, celebrated the achievement that night, he did not linger on it. Lynn might have been a rookie, but he wasn’t about to make a rookie mistake.
“Things happen so fast when you’re a rookie,’’ said Lynn. “The next game, I think we headed to Baltimore and had to deal with [Jim] Palmer. So there’s no rest. I learned pretty quickly, enjoy the moment, but put it away, because then it’s gone. You can have fun that night, but you have to be ready to come back the next day ready to play. You can’t relish those things. There’s plenty of time to do that when you’re retired.’’