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In epic clash, Game 6 -- and Fisk's homer -- everlasting

The 1975 World Series was a movable feast that charmed the nation. The nightmare of Vietnam had just ended. We were still shaking off Watergate. In Boston, the ordeal of busing featured class warfare in the streets. They were not the best of times. Then along came the Reds, the Red Sox, and Game 6 and we discovered baseball could still inspire us. It was joyous.

The teams were well matched. Both had cruised to pennants though neither had superior pitching. Boston had the slight edge in offense while Cincinnati had more speed, deeper defense. Combined, they had six chaps (Morgan, Bench, Perez, Anderson, Yastrzemski, Fisk) since enshrined in Cooperstown and another four (Rice, Tiant, Rose, Concepcion) who might yet join them. Boston's entire nucleus of position players was home-grown, while Joe Morgan was the only cog in The Big Red Machine not produced by Cincinnati's farm system.

A power throughout the '70s, the Reds were favored. But the Sox had a highly emotional if unstated edge: a burning desire to win for long-suffering owner Tom Yawkey. For while no one talked about it, we all knew the old man was dying. Yawkey made it to Oakland to see his boys bury the remains of the A's dynasty in the playoffs. He came down to the field and hobnobbed before the finale, then mingled briefly with his champagne-spraying revelers after they clinched. While weak, he was beaming that night in the bowels of the A's ballpark. But he looked 100 years old. Few of us ever saw him again.

So it came to the Series. Given what was to come, the first two games at Fenway were tame. Luis Tiant, the heart of the team, blanked the Reds, 6-0, in the opener. ``Two ears and a tail for El Tiante,'' read one headline. Spaceman Lee, striving to live up to his image at all costs, almost put them two up, but then, ``almost'' was Lee's middle name. The Reds won Game 2, 3-2.

On to Cincinnati. Game 3 was the Larry Barnett epic. While attempting a sacrifice bunt in the 10th, Ed Armbrister egregiously interfered with Carlton Fisk. Out of the tangle of arms and legs, Fisk threw the ball away. It was a no-brainer, but the notably inept Barnett wouldn't budge. Morgan, utter poison in such situations, followed with a single, pinning Boston with a painful 6-5 loss. With his bonehead noncall, Barnett took the Sox off the hook, allowing their apologists to forever maintain that it was a befuddled umpire, not their own flaws, that cost them the Series.

Tiant, never more magnificent, squared it the next day. Bearing on and on seemingly on fumes, Looey threw 163 pitches, simply refusing to lose. Globe wordsmith Leigh Montville compared him to Hemingway's Old Man who fought the Great Fish to an epic draw. There could be no higher praise. Red Sox, 5-4. Game 5 was a boring 6-2 Reds cakewalk behind Don Gullett. Yawkey made the trip to Cincinnati but, gravely weakened, never left his hotel room.

As the feast rolled back to Boston, conventional wisdom held that it was over. And then the rains came. It rained hard for three days.

Such magic as reared after the foul weather passed remains amazing a quarter of a century later. There seemed an ineffable glow to the old ballyard that night. It produced what the late, still incomparable Ray Fitzgerald called ``a Picasso of a baseball game, a Beethoven symphony played on a patch of grass in Boston's old Back Bay.'' If the glow lingers, it is not easily conveyed. As Roger Angell, bard of the New Yorker, has written: ``What can we say of Game 6 without seeming to diminish it by recapitulation or dull it with detail?'' Like most epic dramas, it was also messy and filled with failed valor and missed opportunities. ``A bitter, glorious, stupid, marvelous, damnable game of rounders,'' the Herald's Tim Horgan termed it, and he was right-on.

The highlights still resonate. Freddie Lynn's early majestic homer. Lynn's violent collision with the wall, knocking him cold. The bone-weary Tiant, down by three runs, finally surrendering in the eighth as the great crowd wept. Bernie Carbo wandering in from his own private planet to tie it at 6-6 with a scorching drive into the center-field seats. George Foster nailing Denny Doyle at the plate in the ninth. Dick Drago's high-wire, three innings of relief. Dwight Evans's desperate, twisting, impossible catch of a certain Morgan homer; still the finest defensive play, in terms of gravity, I've ever seen. Finally, Fisk's homer ringing off the foul pole at 12:34 a.m. as John Kiley's rendering of the ``Hallelujah Chorus'' rose above the bedlam and soared into the night.

Said Pete Rose, one of the more joyful celebrants, ``This was the greatest game in World Series history and I'm just proud to have played in it. And if this ain't the national pastime, tell me what is.''

Losers are more interesting than winners, which accounts for the Red Sox' ongoing mystique. Cosmic necessity was doubtless served when they lost the next night with Lee in the starring role. Lee was sharp, leading, 3-0, in the sixth when he was seized with the impulse to fool Tony Perez with his slow blooper-curve, which he called the ``Leephus.'' It was the sort of fantasy that regularly beset Lee's feverish imagination. The meatball landed in Norfolk County.

By now, Darrell Johnson was managing in sheer terror. He got great relief work from Jim Willoughby, then, inscrutably, lifted him for a pinch hitter with the bases empty. For the ninth, Drago was available. The whole staff was available with nothing but winter beckoning. But Johnson turned instead to a polite, God-fearing kid who was shaking in his cleats, Jim Burton. It was Morgan again who got the winning hit, a mere shanker that plopped into center, plating Ken Griffey. It was all so predictable.

In a series full of heroes, the old guard regarded Lee as the goat. I can still hear Clif Keane and Jake Liston, two of the more colorful Knights of the Keyboard, cursing Lee in the press box late into the night. ``He broke the old man's heart,'' said Jake. ``It's criminal.'' As for Burton, he made only one more appearance in the big leagues.

Yawkey clung to life until the following July; his last days of ownership were dominated by bitter contract disputes with Fisk, Lynn, and Rick Burleson, cornerstones of his club. It was the wave of the future. Two months after Game 6, arbitrator Peter Seitz effectively ushered in the era of free agency with his historic ruling in the Messersmith-McNally case. It was a new ballgame, never again to be as sentimental.

So the '75 Series was really the last waltz; a brilliant coda to an entire era and a tender parting with a simpler time. "I always thought that baseball was the real winner of the '75 World Series,'' Carl Yastrzemski remarked years later.

Which of course did not make the Red Sox any less losers. But then, we had already become adept at rationalizing these heartbreaks. Wrote Fitzgerald: "This was a set of baseball games that almost transcended winning and losing; a string of pearls to be tucked away in a drawer and brought out from time to time to bring back a memory or two.''

A quarter of a century later, we are still doing it. That, too, is amazing.

Clark Booth is a veteran Boston journalist who now writes a weekly sports column for the Pilot.

The Fall Classics
The Fall Classics
Photo Gallery The Fall Classics
1918, 1918, 1918. The year is ingrained in the minds of Red Sox followers. In the 86 years since the Red Sox last World Series title, the tortured history — the curse, if you believe it — has been well chronicled. A series of illustrations and stories depicts the team’s Series travails.
 1903, '12, '15, '16: Tradition
 1918: The last title
 1946: A mad dash
 1967: 'Impossible Dream'
 1975: Epic clash
 1986: One strike away
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