Some people make life decisions that lead them to a good, secure if not exciting life.
Other people take a risk, succeed, and become famous and beloved by millions of strangers for a short but glorious highlight.
And then there are the very few who get to do both. An example of the ones who had their cake and ate it too would be a dentist named Dr. James R. Lonborg.
The California native was studying dentistry at Stanford and played some baseball as well. He played for the Red Sox minor league teams in 1964 before getting his shot with the 1965 team. Between 1965 and 1966, Lonborg was not exactly a superstar. His ERA was in the 4’s in the middle of a pitchers era and his win loss record was 19-27. Then again the Red Sox were not exactly world beaters in the middle of the 1960’s.
In 1967, Lonborg and the Red Sox got a new manager, Dick Williams. The first few starts of 1967 seemed like more of the same for Lonborg. He had trouble making it through 6 innings and posted an ERA of 5.40.
Then on April 28th, he threw a complete game shutout against the Kansas City A’s, striking out 13. He pitched into the 9th again in his next start. Two more complete games in May were logged, striking out 12 in one and 11 in another.
As the Red Sox got entangled in the greatest pennant race anyone had ever seen, they turned to Lonborg to be their unexpected ace. 8 times in the regular season, he posted a double digit strikeout total. 14 times he allowed 1 earned run or fewer in a start.
On September 27th, he had one of his worst starts, allowing 4 runs in just 3 innings to Cleveland, who took the game 6-0. With only 2 games left, the Red Sox were tied for second with the Tigers, just one game behind first place Minnesota and half a game ahead of the White Sox. 4 teams were within reach of the pennant on the final 2 days.
The White Sox were eliminated the next day and the Sox beat the Twins head to head, setting up a season ending showdown with the Twins and Lonborg pitching on short rest.
On October 1, 1967, the Twins and Red Sox played a game whose results are felt to this day in Boston.
Early RBI singled by Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew but Lonborg and the Red Sox in a 2-0 hole. Dean Chance and the Twins held that lead into the 6th. Jim Lonborg led off the 6th and reached on a bunt single. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Carl Yastrzemski singled home Lonborg and Jerry Adair with the tying runs, en route to Yaz’s triple crown.
Hawk Harreleson, George Boomer Scott and Reggie Smith all drove in runs to give Boston a 5-2 lead.
Lonborg with the lead, pitched aggressively. He got help from his defense with Yaz threw out Bob Allison advancing to second on a single, killing a Twins rally.
In the 9th, Rich Rollins popped up to Rico Petrocelli and sent Fenway Park into pandemonium. Granted, it did not clinch the pennant. They would have to wait for the Tigers to lose their game against the Angels to make the title official a few hours later. But Red Sox fans finally had reason to celebrate.
There is no way to downplay the significance of the 1967 pennant for the Red Sox. Apathy swept over Red Sox and their fans in the 1960’s. The awful Yawkey family threatened to move the team if they did not get a new stadium to replace Fenway Park. Plans were floated for suburban parks and domes for the Red Sox to play in instead of empty dreary Fenway Park.
Baseball leaving Boston was on the table, just like how the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn less than a decade before.
Then 1967 came along. A romance with Fenway Park began that has not ended. What is now called “Red Sox Nation” can be traced to the joy felt by Boston fans in 1967 as a generation finally had reason to cheer. It had been 19 years since the Red Sox had won a pennant and Lonborg’s season was a big reason they were there.
In the World Series, Lonborg threw complete game victories in Game 2 and a series saving win in Game 5 against the Cardinals. But on short rest, he was no match for Bob Gibson, who threw the series clinching complete game for St. Louis and homered for good measure.
The Red Sox fell short but were back on the map. Lonborg was named the AL Cy Young winner and looked forward to 1968. Sadly for Lonborg, his superstar days were short lived. A skiing accident postponed the start of his 1968 season. He fell to 6-10 and his ERA ballooned to 4.29. After a few more unremarkable seasons, he was dealt to the Brewers. He found new life in Philadelphia, winning 18 games for the 1976 Eastern Division champs, posting a lower ERA (3.08) than he did in his Cy Young season (3.16.)
But his star continued to fade and by age 37, he was done, pitching his final days with the Phillies as this Topps card was being issued.
With a 15 year big league career wrapped up, Lonborg returned to dentistry. He attended Tufts and became a dentist in the Boston area.
No doubt many young New England mouths were cleaned by Dr. Lonborg. Many of those kids are certainly huge Red Sox fans. I hope they all know that the person telling them to brush and floss is a big reason Red Sox fandom exists the way it does today.
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