Once again last weekend the kids came out of New Hampshire on buses with $5 in the pockets of their bell-bottoms and bags of sandwiches on their laps. From down Maine, station wagons full of wigglers bearing Red Sox yearbooks, buttons, banners and dreams were on their way to "The Fens" in Boston to join their like from Springfield and Dedham, Fairfield, Conn. and Newton, Mass. By the time this baseball season is over these youngsters and their willing parents are going to cause the biggest single-attendance miracle in sports history, and when they do it the razor cuts on many of this nation's Madison Avenue image makers are going to curl.
Looked at Boston lately, Pete Rozelle?
The Red Sox are going to draw two million people to see a team that might very well not even win the American League Eastern Division Championship, let alone a spot in the World Series. And, since Boston today has the largest number of aware and wealthy teen-agers in the country—already present or wanting to get there—it could be the beginning of a trend on the part of youngsters that might quickly sidetrack football's rising popularity. Drawing two million in Boston's Fenway Park with its seating capacity of only 33,379 is a virtual impossibility, but the Red Sox are now almost a certainty to do it in 1969. Last weekend the stands were filled to see Boston play the expansion Kansas City Royals, of all people. This weekend the Oakland Athletics may play to 90% of capacity, and one week from now, after the Red Sox return from a road trip, the Yankees, who play in the flat town of New York, will break 105,000 as visitors.
A box or reserved ticket to a Red Sox game—any game—is one of the hottest properties to come by in sports today. Five weeks from now, for example, if you want to see the Sox challenge the division-leading Baltimore Orioles, the best seat you can possibly buy is an "obstructed view" position. And only a few short weeks ago some were wondering how the Red Sox would draw once they traded Hawk Harrelson to the Cleveland Indians.
The crowds in Boston are the result of factors that should give sporting executives pause. Instead of being modern with extensive parking facilities, Fenway is tiny, old and almost inaccessible by automobile. The intimacy of the park is what makes it attractive, as well as the pregnant possibilities of what that short, great green wall in left field can do in the course of a game to make it different. Not until last Saturday was a shut-out pitched in Fenway. And the Red Sox seem hell-bent on breaking all the home run records.
Despite some normal bad weather early in the season the Red Sox are now drawing an average home attendance of over 25,000, which is about 75% of capacity. Yet to come is Harrelson's return plus a July 4 weekend with Ted Williams and his near-.500-playing Washington Senators. Boston is so wild about the Red Sox that the fans give standing ovations for foul balls.
Only large stadiums capable of holding 50,000 have ever been able to draw a yearly attendance of two million, and those franchises that succeeded in doing so had to use gimmicks. In Boston, caps, bats, balls or orchids are not given away. The Red Sox instead are thriving on their heroes and the well-known fact that Boston is in second place and playing one of the more frustrating roles any team ever has had to undertake.
Because of the major leagues' new divisional standings, the Red Sox find themselves in the same division with the Baltimore Orioles, who up until last Sunday were playing .722 baseball. In over half a century only one team, the 1954 Cleveland Indians, ever played as well for an entire season. (The Indians won 111 games that year to finish at .721. In the National League the last team good enough to approach the current Baltimore percentage was Pittsburgh in 1909. Those Pirates played .724.)
From the beginning of May until the end of last week the Red Sox won 23 games, lost only nine, yet found themselves still 3½ games behind Baltimore. "We have," says Manager Dick Williams, "been playing the kind of baseball a manager likes to see his team play. Everybody has been doing his part, yet we are behind Baltimore, and they seem to keep winning. Tony Conigliaro's comeback from his eye injury has given this team a tremendous psychological lift. He leads the club in game-winning hits. And Dick Schofield, who came from the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade, and Vicente Romo, in relief, have been excellent. I'm happy with this team and the way it's playing; we are fighting a heck of a club, but we think that we are as good as they are."
In Fenway the fans believe that the Sox are better. Boston holds its athletes in a special awe, and there never has been a player in Boston named Carl Yastrzemski, he is merely Yaz. Jim Lonborg, of course, is Lonnie, and the rest of the team is made up of Tony C., Mike, Reggie, Dalton, Great Scott, Ray and Rico.
The team's best player so far has been Rico. Known in the box scores as Petrocelli, S.S., Rico Petrocelli probably has made the most ignored comeback of any player in the major leagues this year. With the Red Sox finishing fourth last season, the problems endured by Petrocelli went virtually unnoticed outside of Boston. He finished the year with an elbow injury that he himself believed had put an end to a very young career. Petrocelli's batting average tumbled to .234, and for most of the final month of the season he could not throw a ball. In those moments between innings when the first baseman rolls the ball around the infield to the rest of the players, Rico would be passed by.
"I just couldn't throw," he said the other day. "I wanted to save what I had in case a play came up in the game when I had to try to get something on the throw. By the end of the season I was convinced that my career was probably over and that I would have to get out of baseball. I had a calcium deposit in my elbow that made throwing hard. It had come on me before, but last year it was awful.
"If you play baseball you know what a hard game it is to play and how tough it can be to play it day in and day out. When the season ended I told my wife that I might be done at the age of 25 and that the time had come to think about trying to get into something else. But I didn't want to. Anybody in baseball is terribly lucky to get a chance to play for an owner like Tom Yawkey. It is impossible to describe the way I feel toward him. He has done so much to help me. Paid so much interest in me, advised me and made me feel so much a part of the Red Sox organization that I cannot really define everything that he has done for me.
"We decided, my wife and I, to try it again this spring. I took it easy, never threw the ball real hard until I was ready and just hoped for the best. I have to take three cortisone pills some days, shots on others, and am on a diet that restricts the amount of milk I can drink and ice cream I eat, and I love both of them. I guess I haven't had two glasses of milk in six months."
After last Sunday's games Petrocelli was the second leading hitter in the American League at .341 and leading in homers with 19. He still has problems throwing the ball from deep short to first but has made only one error all season and achieved plays that he was not supposed to be capable of.
"My quick start this season is probably no more than a lot of luck," Petrocelli says. "The hits are falling in, and that has made me more aggressive when I go to the plate. Of course, I've had quick starts before, and I hope to be able to keep this one going. Playing in Boston is like playing nowhere else. These tremendous crowds of kids root for you, and no matter how you might try not to hear them, you do. Right now my arm doesn't feel real great and the whole thing can go anytime. That's what you worry about."
Only four seasons ago the Red Sox struggled to draw 650,000 to Fenway as they finished 40 games behind the pennant-winning Minnesota Twins. At that point the American League was undergoing its transition from the dominance of the New York Yankees to a period in which competition became tighter and a wave of new stars came into the league.
Over an 18-year span only Cleveland and Chicago had won pennants as the Yankees seemed to both control the league on the field and dominate its activities within baseball's inner councils. The Twins, playing an assertive, National League-type baseball, took the highly favored Los Angeles Dodgers to a seventh game against Sandy Koufax before losing. In the three years that followed, the Orioles wiped the Dodgers aside in four games in the World Series, the Sox took the Cardinals and Bob Gibson to the seventh game of their Series before losing and last year the Cards made the fatal mistake of letting the Detroit Tigers up after holding a 3-1 lead in games. Once the Tigers got up, they proved the worth of American League competition by coming back to win.
Although they were a terrible team in that 1965 season, one in which they lost 100 games, the Red Sox were starting to slide young talent into their lineup. The nucleus of today's club was either just getting started in the major leagues or making strong impressions in the minors. Second Baseman Mike Andrews, one of the most underrated players in the league, was at Toronto and nearly ready to come to the Sox. Third Baseman George Scott was in Pittsfield and drawing strong notices. Tony Conigliaro and Dalton Jones were very young and only in their second year with Boston. And Jim Lonborg and Rico Petrocelli were rookies learning to live the wrong way on what was considered the largest country club in baseball. Carl Yastrzemski, that old veteran, had been with the Sox for four seasons and had managed to promise enough and fail enough to confuse everyone.
Once the "impossible dream" of 1967 evaporated into the unbearable nightmare of 1968, many wondered what might happen to attendance at Fenway. Oddly, it climbed to 1,940,788, and the park became the finest and most interesting place to watch a game.
This season has spawned another phenomenon. Some 900 seats in the center-field bleachers at Fenway are not used unless the crowd turns into an absolute sellout. At the request of Tony Conigliaro, who objected to the sea of white shirts obscuring the flight of the ball from the pitcher, the Red Sox named the area "Conigliaro's Corner" and, on those days when it becomes necessary to sell the seats, the fans are asked to wear dark shirts. They are given membership cards in the corner, and their response has been dark and excellent.
Within baseball itself, going to Fenway has become the In thing to do and to talk about. Last week, for instance, Ewing Kauffman, the new owner of the Kansas City Royals, went to Boston to find out what it was all about. He sat in amazement as two former Red Sox now with Kansas City, Joe Foy and Jerry Adair, were cheered on their return. He also saw the crowd give a standing ovation to Kansas City Pitcher Bill Butler when he had to leave the game after pitching brilliantly for 10 innings.
All over New England the broadcasts of Sox games blast out of radios and, despite the telecasting of games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and often of one night game during the week, the enthusiastic crowds pour in. Only in Fenway could a sign fly from the center-field bleachers exhorting the management to BRING UP DICK MILLS, a young pitcher from East Weymouth now toiling at Pittsfield.
The New York Mets have their kids and their signs at Shea Stadium, but Shea is not half the place Fenway is in which to watch a ball game. The list of heroes in the Boston lineup is partially responsible for drawing all the youngsters to "the scene." The special place the team holds in the affections of New England is another. But maybe something else is going on right under the very eyes of trend spotters. This Children's Crusade could become awfully contagious.