One of the joys of baseball is that it can prompt fury about stuff that doesn’t matter at all. And by “stuff that doesn’t matter at all,” I mean that literally — I’m not talking about arguments like “Who was better, Roberto Clemente or Al Kaline?” I don’t mean arguments like, “How good would Roger Clemens have been if steroids had never been invented?”
Those might not matter MUCH but they do matter to many of us because we’re baseball fans.
No, I’m talking about rage over something utterly irrelevant. Such rage erupted in 1967, the year of Yaz, and the funny part is that if you have not heard about it I’d say there’s a pretty good chance that by the end of this post you will be pretty ticked off too even though 48 years have gone by.
Let’s begin with this opinion: No baseball life ever led more perfectly to a crescendo than Yastrzemski’s path to 1967. He was born to have that season. His father, Karol (who later changed it to Carl), was a potato farmer by day and a baseball dreamer in his spare time. He was good enough as a young man to play professional baseball but, as fathers often said in his time, there was a Depression going on. He played some semi-pro baseball and worked the fields. He drilled all of his baseball expectations and beliefs and possibilities into his son and namesake. By the the time the young Carl was 2, he was dragging a baseball bat everywhere.
Yaz was an extraordinary athlete. You probably know that he was a great basketball player; it is often said and written that he set the Long Island high school scoring record, breaking the record of another pretty good athlete named Jim Brown. After doing a little research, I’m not sure it’s quite that clear-cut — which is to say I’m not sure he actually broke Brown’s record — but the larger point is certainly true. Jim Brown averaged 38 points a game and was an amazing high school basketball player. Yaz scored something around there and was amazing in his own right. He intended to play baseball and basketball at Notre Dame.
He ended up playing neither, at least on the varsity level. In the middle of his sophomore season at Notre Dame, he was offered a gigantic contract — it came out to more than $100,000 — to sign with the Boston Red Sox. Yaz was that kind of phenom. He played shortstop then, and he had a swing so powerful and pure that at his first spring training, Ted Williams told him, “Don’t let anyone change your swing.”
The newspapers for some reason called him Paul Yastrzemski when he first joined the Carolina League, but they soon knew him — he hit .377 with power and speed for Raleigh. He intended to make the Red Sox the next year, when he was 20, and he brought his dad along to spring training to help him get ready. Yastzemski
played pretty well that spring, but that was the last season of Ted Williams and the Red Sox wanted to shape his replacement. They sent Yaz to Minneapolis to learn how to play left field. He hit .339 and the next season was positioned in the shadow of the Green Monster and Teddy Ballgame.
Yastrzemski had numerous great seasons, of course, but it’s easy to miss because of the time when he played. For instance, in 1968, he famously led the American League in batting with a .301 average. If you convert those numbers to an average scoring environment, Yaz hit .327/.456/.538 with more than 300 total bases. He also won a Gold Glove and by advanced defensive metrics clearly deserved it. He probably should have been the MVP. He finished ninth instead.
In 1970, he led the league in runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, slugged 30 homers and stole 23 bases. He probably should have been the MVP again. He finished fourth.
In all, Yaz got MVP votes in 14 different seasons … but he only won the one. That was 1967. That was not only his magical year, it might be the most magical year any player has ever had. The Red Sox had been terrible every year of Yaz’s career to that point. They stuck in 1966, stunk in 1965, stunk in 1964 and so on. There was no real reason to believe they would be anything other than stinky in 1967 too.
The Red Sox were basically a .500 team into July, which was an improvement but not enough to matter much. After losing to Baltimore 10-0 in the second game of a doubleheader on July 13, they were in fifth place. And then, the magic happened. Over the next 10 days, Yaz hit .371 with five homers. The Red Sox won all 10 games and were suddenly a half game out.
They plodded around for a month or so and fell back into fourth place on August 18. Over the next seven games, Yaz hit .360 with three homers, nine RBIs and nine runs scored. The Red Sox won all seven games. And they were tied for the American League lead.
It was like this all year: When Yastrzemski was merely good, the Red Sox faltered. He had to be superhuman. And of course, he had to be superhuman under the intense glare of Red Sox fanhood and under the gun for the 50 or so year World Series drought. On Sunday September 17, the Red Sox lost their third game in a row and fell back into third place tie with Minnesota, a game behind Detroit and Chicago. It set up one of the wildest finishes in baseball history, a four-team scramble for a pennant.
From September 18 to October 1, the Red Sox played 12 games. Carl Yastrzemski hit .523 with five homers, 14 runs and 16 RBIs. And the Impossible Dream Red Sox won the pennant.
In those 29 key games, Carl Yastrzemski hit .433 with 13 homers, 32 runs, 36 RBIs and the Red Sox won 25 of them. He went on to hit .400 with three homers in the World Series, pushing what was probably a superior Cardinals team to seven games. Baseball is not a game where one man can singlehandedly carry a team. In 1920, Babe Ruth famously outhomered every other team in the American League. The Yankees finished third. In 1924, Rogers Hornsby hit .424 — the Cardinals finished 65-89. In 1991, Cal Ripken had one of the great seasons of our generation, an amazing 11.5 WAR season. The Orioles finished 67-95.
So for Yaz to not only have such an extraordinary season — he won the Triple Crown — but also to play at his peak exactly when the Red Sox needed it, this was the stuff of sorcery. It was a forgone conclusion that he would win the MVP Award, and he did. Of the 20 votes cast for the MVP Award in 1967, Yaz got 19.
Which means, of course, that one person did not vote for Carl Yastrzemski.
That man voted, instead, for Cesar Tovar, a utility-man for Minnesota who hit .267/.325/.367.
This is where the rage begins. There was an overwhelming amount of it in the baseball community when the results were announced. Cesar Tovar? Seriously? Baseball reporters lined up to tee off on the “homer” who voted for Tovar. “Ridiculous and irresponsible!” grumped the Boston Herald Traveler’s Bill Liston. “A first place ballot for Harmon Killebrew could have been justified. If the voter wanted to render under Cesar the things which were his, he should have given him a banjo as befitting a .267 hitter.”
Interlude: Light hitters were called “banjo hitters” in those days. OK, back to the fury.
“The vote for Tover was parochial and pathetic,” wrote Joe Trimble of the New York Daily News.
“One member of the Twins, who received MVP support himself, commented on Tovar’s first place vote,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Richard Dozer. “He told me, ‘I couldn’t believe it.’”
“If Cesar Tovar is deserving of one Most Valuable Player voter over Carl Yastrzemski,” wrote Bud Tucker of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, “my name is Isador Plotnik, and I drive a cab in Brooklyn.”
The intensity was so hot, that the St. Paul Pioneer’s Arno Goethel felt like he had to go public to say he was NOT the guy who voted for Tovar. “My vote,” he said, “went Yaz first, Killebrew second and Tovar sixth.”
When Goethel announced that he had not picked Tovar, everyone in the Baseball Writers Association knew that it had been Max Nichols of the Minneapolis Star who did. This was in the days before Twitter so nobody felt comfortable naming Nichols publicly, but everyone felt comfortable bashing him in an anonymous way. The Sporting News wrote: “We believe that the BBWAA, within its ranks, should take some action to penalize the writer for his unwise vote by banning him from ever serving again on a selection committee. The vote for Tovar was a black eye for the BBWAA.” Detroit’s Joe Falls simply ripped the vote for its “stupidity.”
But Falls did not stop there. He decided to reach out to Max Nichols. And in reaching out to Nichols, he found something surprising … Falls actually found himself gaining an odd respect for Nichols. “I still think he’s dead wrong,” Falls wrote. “But at the same time I respect his right to vote for whoever he chooses.”
See, Nichols did not back off his vote when challenged by Falls. He didn’t say, “Yeah, I kind of messed up there.” Instead, he said that if given the same chance he would vote for Tovar again. “From what I saw, Tovar was the most valuable player in the league,” he said. “He played six positions for the Twins and I saw him win games for them at all six positions. … We didn’t have the best of player relations on our club, but Tovar never got mixed up in any of the clubhouse politics. He kept plugging away no matter where they put him.”
When Falls saw that this was a thought-out vote, one made from a genuine position, he realized that even though it was a looney decision none of this really mattered. After all, Yaz won the MVP award by a landslide. There is no bonus for winning the thing unanimously. Forever more, when the trivia question comes up, “Who won the American League MVP award in 1967,” the answer will be Carl Yastrzemski. We can get so angry in baseball over such insignificant things. Falls felt so much respect for the way Nichols stood his ground, he even let Nichols finish off his column.
“I don’t know why it had to be unanimous,” Max Nichols said. “If that’s democracy — that I had to vote the same way everyone else voted — we’re living in two different democracies.”
Yes yes. Democracy gives everyone the right to vote! Hear hear!
Oh, wait, I should probably mention one tiny thing. Max Nichols stopped covering the Twins at the beginning of September 1967. He was moved to the city desk then. So, um, yeah, he voted for Cesar Tovar as MVP in a year where he didn’t see Yaz play during one of the greatest stretch runs in baseball history.
And when asked about the reasoning of his vote, he said, “I go by what I see, not by what I read in the papers or what somebody tells me. … I guess I didn’t see Yaz in his best games against the Twins.”
So … um … like I said, insignificant things in baseball can still make you pretty angry.