Fifty years ago today, in the Yankees' home opener at old Yankee Stadium, the erstwhile Bronx Bombers trotted out aging stars and mediocre replacements that were a shadow of the powerhouse teams that had dominated baseball since the days of Ruth and Gehrig. A hobbled Mickey Mantle did not start. Still, future Hall of Famer lefty Whitey Ford took the mound against a skinny 21-year old Boston pitcher named Billy Rohr, who was making his major league debut. Not much was expected of the 1967 version of the Red Sox, nor from their rookie pitcher on this early-season day. Ford would pitch well, but gave up a lead-off home run to rookie Reggie Smith, and a two-run shot to Joe Foy, and leave the game in the 8th, trailing 3-0.
It was Rohr, however, who nearly did the unthinkable. Using a sneaky fastball and a late-breaking curve, the young left-hander befuddled the Yankee line up for the entire afternoon. Working around five walks and his own throwing error, Rohr retired pinch-hitting Mickey Mantle leading off the bottom of the 8th, and erased Horace Clark (walk) on a double play grounder. Going into the bottom of the 9th, Rohr had given up no hits to the Yankees, in this, his first ever appearance in the big leagues.
Leading off the bottom of the 9th inning, Tom Tresh lined a 3-2 pitch into the gap in left center field. Left fielder Carl Yastrzemski turned and sprinted toward where he thought the ball would come down, glancing up just in time to make a leaping, tumbling catch. Sox radio announcer Ken Coleman called it "one of the greatest catches you've ever seen". Below is the video. NBC's Joe Garagiola makes the TV call.
You can see on the scoreboard behind him, 3-8-1 for the Red Sox, and 0-0-0 for the Yankees. Rohr induced Joe Pepitone to pop out for the second out. Rohr was now one out away from baseball immortality. Alas, on a 1-2 count, aging veteran catcher Elston Howard lined an opposite field single to right, breaking up the no-hitter. Rohr would get Charlie Smith on a routine fly to right on the next pitch to end the game, finishing a 3-0 one-hitter win, the very first time he ever walked on a major league mound. (Ironically, Elston Howard would be traded to the Red Sox later in the season, and would be the primary Sox catcher through the pennant race and World Series.)
For Boston Red Sox fans, the storied 1967 "Impossible Dream" season holds a special significance. That year, "Sox Nation" as we know it now was born. By 1967, a decade and a half had passed since the Red Sox had been anywhere near competitive in the American League. They had become cellar-dwellers. Most of the team's great stars, Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr and Jackie Jensen, were long gone. In their places were young players who had barely finished out of last place the year previous. Prior to 1967, left fielder Carl Yastrzemski had a reputation as a moody prima donna, and younger stars such as Tony Conigliaro and George Scott, while decent players on bad teams, had never faced the pressure of a pennant race. 1967 didn't figure to be much different. In Las Vegas, the odds of a Red Sox pennant winner were set at 100-1. However, behind Manager Dick Williams, the Red Sox would shock the baseball world by winning the 1967 American League Pennant.
Carl Yastrzemski would in 1967 have probably the greatest all-around season any major league player has ever had. He won the triple crown, hitting .326 with 44 home runs and 121 RBI. He would win a gold glove, was an all-star, and voted the AL MVP. With Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg, Yaz carried the Red Sox to the most unlikely of pennants, and into a seven game World Series against the heavily-favored St Louis Cardinals.
Billy Rohr, for all the promise of his debut, won only one more game in 1967, also against the Yankees, and one more for Cleveland in 1968, before bouncing around in the minors for a few seasons. But on one cool afternoon fifty years ago, he came within one out of doing something no other major league pitcher has ever done. In that most improbable of seasons, Billy Rohr's near no-hitter was perhaps the unlikeliest of all.