I’ve been meaning to talk about the 1973 Red Sox but seem to get sidetracked. I’ll admit to an immediate sidetracking today. We are going to talk about the end of the 1972 season, the one where the Sox played 1 fewer game than the Tigers and finished a half a game out of first place. I suggested earlier that the Sox should have been able to make up that missing game. Maybe so, but as we shall see, the Sox had their chance to claim the division the final week of the ’72 season and could not come through.
To end the 1972 season, the Sox played two three game series, one against the Orioles and one against the Tigers. Yep, they ended their season against the eventual champion Tigers in Detroit. To show you what a big deal this final week was, the Sox owner Tom Yawkey, for the first time in twenty-two years, accompanied the team on the road trip to Baltimore and Detroit. The last time Yawkey saw the Sox in an away game was during the 1967 World Series and before that in 1950 when he flew to Detroit to fire manager Joe McCarthy.
A little more stage setting. In mid June the Tigers were battling with the Orioles for the top spot in the division, the Sox were six and a half games back. The Sox, though, roared back, playing .626 ball (20 games over .500) through September 28 to pull ahead of the Tigers with a week to go.
With six games left on the schedule, the Sox held a one and a half game lead over the Tigers, who were playing the Brewers at home before hosting the Red Sox. The Sox and Tigers split a four game series the week before at Fenway and the final week was a barn burner. Here’s how the final week went down for the Sox and the Tigers.
The Tigers were on an emotional roller coaster their two games prior to their three game series with the Brew Crew. Two nights before they beat the Yankees, coming back from a 5-1 deficit in the bottom of the eighth. They scored three in the eighth of Yankee ace reliever Sparky Lyle (a former Red Sox who was traded in 1971 to the Yankees for Danny Cater) and then two more in the ninth to beat the Yankees 6-5.
The next night, the Tigers lost to the Yankees 3-2 in 12 innings. Mikey Lolich (who would end the year at 21-14) pitched all twelve inning for the Tigers. He took a 1-0 lead into the eighth, but the Yankees pushed the tying run across with a Thurman Munson blast to left center field. Lindy McDaniel held the Tigers scoreless in the bottom of the eighth. Then, shockingly, the Yankee reliever – McDaniel – (remember the DH wouldn’t come about until next year) took Lolich deep to put the Yankees up 2-1. Oh, my.*
*McDaniel hit only three home runs in his career. This was his third. Surprisingly, this was not the last homer by a pitcher before the DH came along. That honor goes to Roric Harrison of the O’s who hit one on October 3, 1972. That is Harrison’s claim to fame for he was out of baseball by the age of 28, well almost, he missed two years and returned at age 31 for a nine game stint. Harrison had pretty good power though hitting six homers in his short career. Marty Pattin hit the last pre-DH homer by a Red Sox pitcher two days before McDaniel’s shot. It didn’t help the Sox, they lost to the Brewers 6-4. Sox pitchers hit 4 homers in 1972. Two by Pattin, one by Bill Lee and one by Sonny Siebert. In case you ever get some bizarre baseball quiz on this minutae you can thank me later.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the Tigers down one run, Kaline singled to center and then Tiger catcher Duke Sims (a lifetime .239 hitter but in 1972 he hit a career high .316 in limited playing time) grounded a single to right fielder Rusty Torres, who threw the ball away trying to toss Kaline out at third, allowing Kaline to score the tying run. Back and forth the teams would go. Until, with one out in the top of the 12th, Roy White belted a home run to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. Sparky Lyle survived a first and third two out jam by striking out the final Tiger.
After that, the Tigers had little time to recover before facing off with the Brewers, who were just playing out the string. The Brewers were in last place, twenty-one games back. The stage is now set.
Friday, September 29, 1972:
Brewers v. Tigers
The Tigers sent Woodie Fryman to the hill against now Brewer but former Sox star Jim Londborg.*
*Londborg, along with George “Boomer” Scott and others, was traded away by the Sox after the 1971 season to the Brewers for Tommy Harper and Marty Pattin. The trade was about even for the 1972 season. After that, it was arguably a loss for the Sox. In 1972, Londborg went 14-12 with a 2.83 ERA for the Brewers, The Boomer smacked 20 HRs, drove in 88 and had a slash line of .266/.321/.426. For the Sox, Pattin was 17-13 with a 3.24 ERA. Danny Cater (part of the Sparky Lyle trade) would man first for the Sox and hit 8 homers, drive in 39 and have a slash line of .237/.270/.372. He’d lose his job when Evans came up and Yaz took over first. Harper hit lead off for all but ten games, played centerfield and hit .254/.341/.388 with 14 homers and 25 stolen bases. I generously say this was a wash. Arguably, it was a bad trade for the Sox.
An afternoon rain fell in Detroit so neither team got batting practice before the game. That didn’t seem to bother the Tigers who erupted for three runs in the first, a run in the second and seven in the third. After the game, Tiger manager Billy Martin expressed some disgust with the Brewers. He was peeved that the Brewers had not pitched Londborg against the Red Sox, instead holding him back for the Tiger series.
“I guess that’s why we hit him so bad, because they saved him for us,” said Martin.
Londborg had his shortest outing of the year. He’d make one more start, against the Yankees, and would pitch a complete game 3 hit shutout. If only he’d done that against the Tigers.
Red Sox v. Orioles
In Baltimore, the Sox had Luis Tiant facing off against Jim Palmer. Ace against Ace. Both pitchers would be stellar this evening, going 10 innings each with Tiant pulling off the win in a stirring 4-2 triumph. The loss would eliminate the O’s, the defending league champion each of the previous three seasons.
Tiant would end the season at 15-6 with a league leading 1.91 ERA. Palmer would finish out the ’72 campaign at 21-10 with a 2.07 ERA. Tiant would finish 6th in Cy Young voting and Palmer 5th. Gaylord Perry for the Indians would eke out a win over Wilbur Wood for the Cy Young award. Both pitchers won 24 games that year but Perry’s 1.92 ERA was just a tad better then Wood’s 2.51 ERA.
Back to the game. Both teams scored in the first. Luis Aparicio homered off Palmer and in the bottom of the first Boog Powell doubled in Paul Blair, who was on base due to a botched double play grounder by Rico Petrocelli.
The O’s took a 2-1 lead in the sixth on a homer by Powell, that landed just out of the reach of Tommy Harper, who said, “I just did miss that thing.”
The Sox came right back in the seventh with a single by Carlton Fisk, a single by Dewey and then a double by Doug Griffin drove in Fisk. Tiant batted with two outs and lifted a pop fly to Belanger at short. The game would stayed tied at 2-2 until the top of the tenth.
With Palmer still on the mound, Tommy Harper laced a double to left center and moved over to third on the second out of the inning, a grounder by Aparicio to second. Up came Yaz. Earl Weaver went to the mound to talk with Palmer.
“You want to walk him?” asked Weaver.
“No, I’ll pitch him high and outside,” said Palmer.
Indeed. With Weaver’s love of numbers you’d think he know that Yaz was on fire in September. Up to that point he’d launched 6 homers, driven in 20, and raised his batting average from .254 to .263. He was in a Yaz Zone. So, it should have come as no surprise when he took Palmer deep to left center. Paul Blair the O’s centerfield whiz raced back, timed his leap and just missed the ball. “I just felt it hit the end of my fingers,” said Blair after the game. The Sox went up 4-2.
Tiant took the mound in the bottom of the tenth, something you’d never see today. The inning would prove uneventful with a fly out, a strikeout and a ground out to second. The Sox held serve and stayed a game and a half ahead of the Tigers. Tiant would go 11-1 from August until the end of the season. That one loss (spoiler alert) would come four days later and end the Sox hopes for a title. But, there’s a lot to go before we get there.
Tomorrow – September 30, 1972.