In the basement of a Canton home is a dusty yellow Kodak box that hasn’t been opened in half a century. Inside it lies buried treasure, the 1967 Red Sox “Impossible Dream” season captured in 4,000 black-and-white negatives, some of them never before published. Frank O’Brien was just a rookie Globe sports photographer then — skinny as the Pesky Pole — and not the award-winning photojournalist who still responds to the name “Fenway Frank.”
When he pulls out a magnifying loupe and focuses on 1/500th of a second from 50 years ago, he smiles broadly, looking for a moment like a kid again. “There’s never been anything like it,” he says. “Absolutely the most important year in the history of the Boston Red Sox. It put them back on the map here in New England. It was the most fun I had covering sports.”
Memories of the year that forever changed baseball in Boston come pouring out. All of a sudden “Yaz” (Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski) is the definition of clutch. “Gentleman Jim” Lonborg is a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher, and, at 22, “Tony C” (outfielder Tony Conigliaro) is the youngest player in American League history to hit 100 home runs.
The reversal is stunning. The Red Sox are coming off a ninth-place finish and eight consecutive losing seasons. On Opening Day in 1967, a raw April afternoon, only 8,324 fans show up; the next day, attendance is down to less than half that. But in July, the Sox get hot and O’Brien gets lucky. The Globe’s evening edition wants more Sox photos, and O’Brien volunteers quicker than a screaming Carl Yastrzemski line drive.
Early on, O’Brien could tell this group was fun-loving. “There was a lot of special chemistry with that team. They were all pretty easygoing guys; they didn’t take themselves seriously. But they were fierce competitors when they got between the white lines.”
In Fenway in those days, there were few shooting locations for the press. To shoot from ground level, photographers had to kneel in the aisle between the first row of seats. O’Brien was New Age, though. He had a 35mm Nikon with interchangeable lenses, and he was always looking for different angles.
“Fenway has changed,” says O’Brien, who nagged the Red Sox so much that they eventually built photo pits at the end of the dugouts. “The fans were a lot more reserved back then. They wore jackets and ties to go to the ballgame. I wore a jacket and tie to cover the ballgame.” But O’Brien wasn’t into hero-worshiping the athletes. He treated everyone the same. And he had one rule for getting the best shots: Don’t ask for special-access permission. Just go.
It was a different era. Yaz, the highest paid player, made $50,000 a year, and most of his teammates earned less than half that. Ballplayers routinely worked second jobs in the offseason. Yastrzemski worked for Portland Printing. Lonborg pitched in Venezuela for poco dinero. “I was the same age as them,” O’Brien, now 75 and retired, recalls. “Back in those days they didn’t make a lot of money, and they were much more down-to-earth people.”
“It was almost like he was part of the team,” says former Globe managing editor Tom Mulvoy. For one thing, O’Brien had total access. He got shots of Yaz getting a massage, “Boomer” (first baseman George Scott) on the bus, Lonborg icing down his elbow.
The elbow-icing photo sparks a memory for Lonborg, today a retired dentist in Scituate. “A reporter at this moment asked me if the game was more mental than physical,” says Lonborg, who won 22 games in ’67. “I replied that if it was more mental than physical, I would be icing my head.”
O’Brien chronicles the shy but overachieving Yaz, who wins the Triple Crown that year. “Everything he did turned to gold,” he says. “Yaz was very intense,” he adds, describing how number 8 would grind his batting helmet into his head on deck in anticipation of his next at-bat. Only after the game could he relax.
Outfielder Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, acquired late in the season, can’t remember names, so he calls everybody “Big Guy.” When O’Brien names his dog Big Guy, the Hawk is offended.
“You named your dog after me?” he asks.
“Don’t take it personally,” O’Brien replies.
There are no pregame hugs around the batting cage in those days. The opponent is truly the enemy. “They would have sooner shot themselves than do that,” says O’Brien. “They’d go out there every day and want to kill the other team. Now it’s everybody hugging everybody.”
O’Brien, who as a kid used to start out on the trolley from Neponset to get to the Fenway bleachers, had a front-row seat to everything. “I sat at the [clubhouse] card table every day and kibitzed with them — oh, my God, you could never do that now.”
The Sox won the pennant on the last day of the season in one of the tightest races in baseball history. They beat Minnesota but had to wait for Detroit to lose before clinching their first pennant in 21 years. “We sat there like a bunch of statues listening to the game on the radio,” O’Brien recalls.
The celebration is joyful and spontaneous.
“Oh, they’re canned today. Carefully scripted,” he says. “Back then, it was shaving cream and beer. Now it’s freaking champagne and goggles.”
In the World Series, the Sox take the powerhouse St. Louis Cardinals to a deciding seventh game before losing. O’Brien remembers the quiet of the Sox clubhouse, with some players weeping. He shoots only single frames that day, giving his motor drive a rest out of respect for the players’ pain. “It was pretty tough,” he recalls. “They damned near beat a better team. Everybody was pretty crushed — they had put their heart and soul into this thing.”
He kept his own emotions in check. “It was my job to make pictures, it wasn’t my job to be crushed,” he says. The team, though, would remain his favorite in a 43-year career. The players won the hearts of New England then and sparked a baseball fever that endures today.
“They were young and crazy and I was young and crazy, and it just kind of blended together. It was my first championship.”
Remembering the impossible dream
MORE IMAGES FROM THE ’67 SEASON:
SEE MORE GLOBE FRONT PAGES FROM THE ’67 SEASON
The Globe’s front page from October 2, 1967, after the Red Sox clinched a place in the World Series. To see more front pages from that season, click here.