By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
THE MOST UNDERRATED RED SOX
In the midst of all the hoopla over the 50 th anniversary of the Impossible Dream team of
1967, I got to thinking about someone whose name I’ve hardly heard mentioned. He is, in
my opinion, the most underrated Red Sox in history. He did not play, coach or manage,
but his contributions to the organization were enormous and his legacy is unquestioned.
William H. (Dick) O’Connell, who was a native of Winthrop, Massachusetts and an
alumnus of Boston College, was not only the architect of the 1967 Impossible Dream
team but of the also 1975 pennant winning team as well. He began his career with the
Red Sox after World War II as the business manager of the their Lynn, Massachusetts
minor league affiliate. When that ended he was brought into the home office on what was
then Jersey Street (who knows, it might be that name again). He worked his way up the
ladder, becoming executive vice president of business affairs in 1961. At the end of the
1965 season Mike Higgins, the vice president of baseball affairs (general manager) was
fired and O’Connell was put in charge of the entire operation.
The Red Sox were at that time all but moribund. The team had become worse than
mediocre, it stunk. And it had been stinking since the early fifties. The fan base had
become apathetic; nobody, it seemed, even cared anymore. It all came to a head in 1965
when the team finished in last place with 100 losses and its lowest attendance since
World War II.
Such was the state of the franchise that O’Connell inherited. At the outset, 1966 looked
like more of the same. But he started to bring some young players up from the minors,
among them were centerfielder Reggie Smith, first baseman George Scott and third
baseman Joe Foy - all of them African-American. In the off-season O’Connell said that
he didn’t care what color a player was as long as he could play. Not everyone had
believed him given the team’s sorry record of dealing with minorities. Now he showed
that meant what he said and the Sox, despite their ninth place finish, showed signs of
turning things around by posting a winning record of 42-39 in the second half of the
O’Connell knew that an ingredient the team lacked was discipline; the Red Sox had a
long-held reputation of a being country club, and it was not unearned. He knew the team
needed a tough, hard-nosed disciplinarian as its manager and he knew just where to find
him. Dick Williams had for the past few years held the reins in Toronto, then the Sox’s
minor league affiliate in the International League. O’Connell hired Williams as manager
of the big club and the pieces started to fall into place.
One of the first things Williams did was announce that the only captain of the team would
be himself which brought speculation that Carl Yastrzemski, the Red Sox marquee star,
might be put off that his title of team captain had been taken away. To the contrary, Yaz
was greatly relieved; by nature a private person, he had never wanted be to the team
spokesman in the first place. O’Connell had also assured Yaz, who had been the constant
subject of trade rumors, that he would not be moved by the Red Sox, which allowed him
to concentrate on playing. And did he ever.
By the time the 1967 season got underway O’Connell had put together a young, hungry
team. The infield consisted of George Scott at first, Mike Andrews at second, Joe Foy at
third and Rico Petrocelli at shortstop, none of them over the age of twenty-four. In the
outfield were, from left to right, Yaz, Reggie Smith and Tony Conigliaro. Yastrzemski,
the grizzled veteran of the group, was all of twenty-seven. The pitching staff, though a
little thin, was anchored by Jim Lonborg, a blossoming star. John Wyatt, another player
of color O’Connell had obtained, was installed as the closer. Catching was done by
committee which included Mike Ryan, Russ Gibson and Bob Tillman. Almost without
anyone noticing, O’Connell had assembled the nucleous of a strong team.
As the year progressed he added to that nucleous. On June 2 nd he acquired Jerry Adair,
who became a supersub, a sixties version of Brock Holt. Just three days later he traded
for Gary Bell, a quality veteran pitcher who would win twelve games over the final four
months of the season. In early August he shored up the catching crew by adding Yankee
veteran Elston Howard (another player of color, by the way) to the roster.
On August 18 th the Red Sox pennant hopes suffered what seemed to be a fatal blow when
Tony Conigliaro was beaned and lost for the season. But O’Connell pulled a rabbit out of
the hat by signing the hard hitting Ken “Hawk” Harrelson just ten days later.
That was the team that fulfilled the Impossible Dream, and it was built from the ground
up by Dick O’Connell. He had remade the Red Sox into winners, and they remained so
for as long as he was at the helm.
And he wasn’t through. In ensuing years he signed young prospects Carlton Fisk, Jim
Rice, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans. They were the core of the 1975 pennant winners.
On the business side things were humming along under O’Connell’s leadership.
Attendance more than doubled. The Red Sox would never again draw fewer than a
million fans a year, something they hadn’t done since Ted Williams retired when
O’Connell took over. The team’s local TV and radio revenue was the highest in baseball.
There was just one problem. Jean Yawkey did not like Dick O’Connell.
Tom Yawkey died in 1976 and in 1977 the team was sold to a partnership that included
Haywood Sullivan, a former backup catcher and lieutenant of O’Connell, Buddy LeRoux,
the team’s former trainer, and Yawkey’s widow, Jean. She essentially sold the team to
Almost the first act of the new ownership was to unceremoniously fire Dick O’Connell. It
would be years before he even stepped foot in Fenway Park again.
But no one, no player, manager or executive, has ever done more to make the modern
Red Sox the successful franchise it is than he did.
He is the most underrated Red Sox in history.