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40 years ago, they shared the Dream

Mike Andrews glances around the Fenway Park stands when he comes back for a reunion of the Impossible Dreamers.

"I'm thinking, it's been 40 years," says the man who played second base during that unlikeliest of summers. "How many people in this ballpark really remember it?"

Who remembers Yaz and Lonnie having the years of their lives? Who remembers Tony C lying in the dirt on that Friday night in August, his career ruined? The brilliant, vanishing comet that was Billy Rohr? Jose Tartabull throwing out Ken Berry at the plate in Chicago?

The Boston Redevelopment Authority, which keeps track of such numbers, estimates that only one in five current Boston residents was living in the city in 1967, when the Red Sox pulled off the greatest turnaround in baseball history, soaring from ninth place to the pennant in one season and taking all of New England with them on their dizzying ascent.

"We were doing the impossible," says shortstop Rico Petrocelli, "and we were doing it together."

It was a season of shared joy and ridiculous hope, Roger Angell mused in the New Yorker, and when it was over, after the Cardinals had won the seventh game of the World Series, thousands of fans remained in their seats in the Fens, reluctant to let it go.

It was the last great pennant race, with four teams changing places almost hourly until the final weekend.

"You were in first place or fourth, depending on the time of day," recalls manager Dick Williams.

When the Sox clinched their first flag in 21 years, they did it in the clubhouse, listening to the Angels beat the Tigers on the radio after rallying to beat the Twins in the season finale.

"For us to be sitting around a radio instead of a TV, it reminded me of an old-time movie, where you were listening for news of some important event," says Jim Lonborg.

It was a time before playoffs and free agency and the designated hitter, when the Series was played in daylight (and was finished by Oct. 12), when players worked during the winter and missed games for military duty, when a ball club's entire payroll was well under $1 million and when the Yankees were at the bottom of the league.

Boston was a different city then, in the middle of being torn up and remade after decades of decay and disinvestment, and the racial tensions and social upheaval that erupted in the '70s were just beginning.

What brought the city together, against 100-1 odds, was its ball club, which had been moribund for years. They were the Dead Sox, Tom Yawkey's country club, and they hadn't won anything since 1946, when Ted Williams put away his Marine pilot's wings and picked up a bat again.

An Allston tavern put a photograph of that team in its window. By 1967, it had turned sepia with age, its corners curled and cracked. The Sox hadn't had a winning season in nine years, finishing seventh or lower six times and losing 100 games in 1965, finishing 40 out. "Nobody really cared about winning," says Williams, who was a reserve infielder on the 1963 and 1964 clubs.

Nobody cared and nobody came. Attendance in 1965 was 652,000, the lowest since World War II. When Dave Morehead pitched his no-hitter in September of that year, only 1,247 were in the stands. A couple of weeks later, 461 turned up to see the Angels. "When I was with Kansas City, we played in Fenway one day and I was in right field, counting people in the stands," remembers Ken Harrelson, who was picked up by the Sox late in the 1967 race. "There couldn't have been more than a couple hundred."

Yawkey, the owner who'd made millions in lumber and mining, could live with the empty seats. But the ineptitude drove him daffy. One day in 1960, after watching Bobby Thomson, the former Giants pennant hero, let four balls get by him at first base while playing without a first baseman's mitt, the owner swore he'd sell the club. "Seven million will take it," Yawkey told broadcaster Curt Gowdy. "A finger glove at first base? This is the major leagues?"

New sheriff in town

Nobody, not the fans and not the players, understood what winning looked like. But Williams, who'd managed the club's minor leaguers in Toronto for two years, knew there was plenty of promise in the clubhouse in Andrews, Joe Foy, George Scott, and Reggie Smith.

Even though they'd finished only a half-game out of the cellar in 1966, the Sox had posted a winning record after the All-Star break.

"Dick thought with all that talent, if we could just catch the ball and throw the ball, we'd win a lot more than we had in the past," says Lonborg, who won 22 games and the Cy Young Award in '67.

Williams, the eighth manager in nine years, had only a one-year contract, which he realized was oddly liberating. "I decided, if I'm going to go down," he says, "I'm going down my way."

So he went back to fundamentals, to the astounding novelty of "playing the game the right way" and disciplining those who didn't.

"I was very strict with them and some of them didn't like it at first," says Williams, who promised that the club would win more than it lost. "But they came into the fold."

The winning took a while. After losing four of their first six, despite rookie Rohr's one-out-away no-hit bid in the Bronx, the Sox were in ninth place. Then they won six of seven, rallying to beat Kansas City in the bottom of the 15th, and found themselves tied for first.

"How do you like our chances now?" crowed Carl Yastrzemski, after his mates had prevailed, 11-10, in the Fens.

Thus began the wild carnival ride - the Sox dropped nine of their next 12, then won 7 of 10, then lost three, then won four, bouncing between third place and eighth. It was mid-July, after they'd been skunked, 10-0, for the second time by the Orioles, when the magic kicked in. The Sox won 10 straight, the last six on the road.

"We said, hey, we're as good as anyone," Yastrzemski says.

Yet it wasn't until they landed at Logan on a late flight back from Cleveland and found 15,000 fans (more than had greeted the Beatles) waiting to salute them, that the players understood what they'd done.

"Our mouths were open; we were shocked," remembers Petrocelli. "That's when we started believing."

The low moment

It was a giddy and magical run, with Lonborg (Gentleman Jim no longer) intimidating hitters, Yastrzemski wearing out pitchers, and everybody else stepping up on demand.

Then, on Aug. 18 at Fenway, Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton drilled Conigliaro in the face, breaking his left cheekbone and damaging his eye.

"I thought I was going to die," said Conigliaro, who remembered only hearing a hissing sound before the ball smashed into him. "Death was constantly on my mind."

Conigliaro missed the rest of the season and all of the next one and was never the same player. His teammates, who thought Hamilton was head-hunting, were furious. "Yaz had fire in his eyes," remembers Petrocelli, who was on deck when Conigliaro went down. "Everybody got very angry - and we played angry."

The Sox won that night, prevailed in a 12-11 marathon the next day, then swept the Angels in a Sunday doubleheader, coming from eight runs down to win the nightcap, 9-8. Before long, the erstwhile Dead Sox were in first place alone that late in a season for the first time in 18 years.

That was the setup for the screwiest of Septembers, with four teams - Boston, Minnesota, Detroit, and Chicago - all within a game and a half of the lead. For the rest of the season, the Sox were never more than a game out of first, even after they dropped three straight to the Orioles in the Fens. Three nights in a row, they won in the ninth or 10th inning. That's how it was.

"I can remember people saying, 'How can you stand the pressure?' " recalls Yastrzemski, who won the Triple Crown, was named league MVP, and ended up on the cover of Life magazine. "I'd say, 'Pressure? This is fun. This is what the game is about.' "

Scoreboard-watching became an obsession. How were the Twins doing against the Yankees? What was happening in Washington?

"At Fenway, we had the best way of keeping score - the guy in the Wall," says Lonborg. "You would see that number disappear and wait for the next one to come up. It wasn't like it was being blurted out on a Jumbotron."

Going into the final week, the four contenders were separated by a game and a half with the Twins on top. The schedule favored the pitching-rich White Sox, who had five games against last-place Kansas City and seventh-place Washington and aces Gary Peters and Joel Horlen available twice.

Though the Red Sox were finishing with four games at home and three days off, they squandered the advantage with two ugly losses to the Indians, the second a 6-0 shutout with Lonborg on the mound.

"Luis Tiant would strike out the side, then he'd look over and say, 'You guys tight?" ' remembers Petrocelli. "And he'd laugh."

The Sox trooped glumly into the clubhouse on Wednesday. Six months of frenzied fantasy had vanished in two days.

"We thought it was over," says Yastrzemski. "Everyone was saying, 'Well, we had a great year.' "

Magical weekend

Then the unlikeliest of parlays broke their way: The Athletics swept the White Sox in a doubleheader while the Twins were losing at home to the Angels.

"Lonborg lost, [Dean] Chance lost, Peters lost, Horlen lost," Detroit manager Mayo Smith mused, shaking his head after his idle Tigers had gained ground on everybody.

And Boston, despite having dropped four of six, was only a game out of first with two to play.

"We got up the next morning and said, you know, we still have a chance," Lonborg remembers.

All the Sox had to do was take two games from the Twins, who'd won 11 of their 16 meetings, and beat aces Jim Kaat and Chance. Both days, they fell behind. Both days they prevailed with grit and guile, a little bit of luck and a lot of Yaz, who was 7 for 8.

"Carl was a man possessed," Lonborg says.

Who'd ever had a season, or a September, like his? During the final fortnight, Yastrzemski hit .523 with 5 homers and 16 RBIs.

"I was in the zone," recalls Yastrzemski, who superstitiously didn't change his shirt or socks during his out-of-body run. "You usually stay in it for 10 days, but I was in it for a month."

Everything broke Boston's way that weekend. On Saturday, Kaat's elbow blew out in the third inning. With two out in the fifth, the Sox managed two runs after Dalton Jones's tapper to second bounced up and off Rod Carew's shoulder and reliever Jim Perry neglected to cover first on Yastrzemski's grounder. Then, after the Twins had drawn even at 2-2, Scott hit a homer to center, Yastrzemski hammered a three-run shot into the bullpen, and his mates went on to win, 6-4.

Now it was up to Lonborg, the Stanford grad who fell asleep that night reading "The Fall of Japan." He'd never beaten the Twins, and his mates, down, 2-0, after five innings, weren't touching Chance. So Lonborg, leading off the sixth, laid down a perfect bunt that caught third baseman Cesar Tovar napping and sparked a five-run rally, including a two-run single by Yastrzemski.

It seemed hours later that there were two out in the ninth with a full house on its feet and Petrocelli settling under Rich Rollins's popup.

"As soon as the ball went up, the park went silent," he recalls. "Thank God I caught it, otherwise I would have been murdered and there really would have been pandemonium on the field."

As it was, the fans went berserk, falling out of the bleachers onto the field and trying to scale the backstop. "It was an unbelievable scene," recalls Mel Parnell, who was handling the TV broadcast. "I'll never forget that as long I live."

Lonborg, his cap gone, his jersey torn asunder, was borne across the diamond toward the Pesky Pole on a thousand shoulders. It was, he remembers, both exhilarating and a bit scary. And, of course, premature. The Sox hadn't won anything yet.

Birth of the Nation

The Tigers had won the first game of their doubleheader with the Angels. If they won the second, there would be a one-game playoff. "Take it easy with that stuff, Stinger," Williams advised pitcher Lee Stange, who was draining a bottle of beer. "If there's a game tomorrow, you're going."

The uncertainty made for the oddest of celebrations. "There was no celebration," remembers Yastrzemski. "No champagne. You're just sitting there, waiting for the second game to be over."

And, then, it was. With the Angels leading, 8-5, in the bottom of the ninth, Dick McAuliffe, who hadn't hit into a double play all year, went 4-6-3. "Knoop to Fregosi to Mincher," remembers Andrews. "And then we went crazy."

Yawkey went from locker to locker, hugging everyone. "This is the happiest moment of my life," he proclaimed. Bottles of Great Western were uncorked and sprayed, heads were smeared with shaving cream, cigars protruded from grinning mouths. "It was," says Petrocelli, "baseball utopia."

After that, the World Series with St. Louis almost seemed an anticlimax, especially after Boston fell behind, three games to one. But Lonborg, who'd pitched a one-hitter to win Game 2 behind two Yastrzemski homers, beat the Cardinals on three hits in Game 5 and the Sox bashed four homers (two by Petrocelli) to win Game 6.

"What are your plans for tomorrow?" Williams was asked.

"Lonborg, then champagne," he replied.

The Sox had achieved the improbable for so long that the impossible seemed inevitable. But Lonborg, after just two days' rest, was operating on fumes and Cardinals ace Bob Gibson, who'd allowed just one run in two complete-game outings, was masterful. The final was 7-2 and the dream was done.

"I look back and say, I can't believe we lost the seventh game of the World Series because the script didn't go that way," says Andrews. "We were supposed to win it and it would be the greatest movie ever made."

Hopes were high for a sequel the following year. "You think, well, this could be a dynasty," says Yastrzemski, who hit .400 with three homers in the Series. "We were young - I was the oldest starter at 28. But Tony didn't come back, Jim injured his knee skiing, and Jose Santiago hurt his elbow. You don't lose three players like that."

The Sox finished fourth in 1968, 17 games behind the Tigers, but the game had been reborn in Babe Ruth's old town. Attendance was nearly 2 million the next year and victory no longer was an aberration. The Dead Sox were reborn.

"I call Yaz the Renaissance Man," says Harrelson. "Because he was the renaissance of baseball in New England."

Since then, the Sox have played in three more World Series, sweeping St. Louis in 2004. Fenway, once a pigeon-infested echo chamber, now is sold out for the season. And fans who wouldn't get on a trolley to watch the team now fly to San Diego for a weekend.

"Red Sox Nation," Williams muses. "I'd never heard that before, but I hear it now. They say we started that."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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