Longtime Boston Red Sox slugger Carl Yastrzemski, one of the greatest athletes ever produced by the East End of Long Island, celebrated his 75th birthday on August 22. Born in Bridgehampton and raised on a potato farm, he was a local legend long before becoming a Hall of Fame player in Beantown.
“I’m just a potato farmer from Long Island who has some ability,” a humble Yastrzemski said toward the end of his big-league playing career. “I’m not any different than a mechanic, an engineer or the president of the bank.”
After the legendary Ted Williams, the “Splendid Splinter,” retired from the Red Sox following the 1960 season, the 21-year-old Yastrzemski, with only two years of minor league experience, replaced him in left field. By 1963, he had won his first of three American League batting crowns, with a .321 average.
Having played on a number of bad teams, things changed in 1967, when the “Impossible Dream” BoSox went from ninth place the previous season to winning the Junior Circuit pennant behind the stellar play of American League MVP “Yaz,” who won the triple crown with a league-leading 44 home runs, 121 RBIs and .326 batting average.
Yastrzemski, a left-handed hitter who would win his third batting title in 1968 with a .301 average, would go on to play for the Red Sox for 23 campaigns, through the 1983 season. When he retired, he had totaled 3,419 hits, 452 home runs, 1,844 RBI, seven Gold Glove Awards and 18 All-Star Game selections.
He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989 by the Baseball Writers Association of America in his first year of eligibility.
Yastrzemski attributed much of his success on the field to his upbringing on the sandlots of Long Island. “We never forced Carl to become a ballplayer,” said Yaz’s father, Carl Sr., back in 1961. “It doesn’t pay to force a youngster in sports. Just because I love baseball was no assurance that Carl would.
“But he did start swinging a bat when he was about 3 feet tall. Yes, and he had the uniform, too. He played Little League ball the first year it was organized at Bridgehampton,” he said. “Then we had this ball club at Bridgehampton, made up of our relatives, and we would play weekends and holidays. When Carl got big enough, he played with us, too.”
On the “family team” were Carl Sr.’s brothers—Stanley, Chester and Raymond—some cousins, and a couple of brothers-in-law, among others. When he was about 18, Yaz played shortstop for the Lake Ronkokoma Cardinals, and his father played third base.
Frank Straub, who managed the Lake Ronkonkoma Cardinals in 1958, said in a 1967 newspaper article, “Carl used to win ballgame after ballgame for us. Tough teams from Manhattan and Jersey would come out, and we would beat them all. Carl and his father drove 50 miles three times a week to play.”
“I was about 6 years old and can remember Dad taking me out to practice baseball,” Yaz said back in 1967. “He would work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer, through harvest time. We’d have a 15-minute supper, and then Dad would take me out and hit balls to me until the sun went down. It was great practice.”
Yastrzemski’s father was a standout amateur infielder who couldn’t afford to leave the family farm in Bridgehampton to concentrate on a professional baseball career. “I always wanted to be a big leaguer myself,” admitted Carl Sr., who had an offer to sign with a Brooklyn Dodgers farm team. “But I had to quit high school to help my dad in the fields. He couldn’t afford to hire help during the Depression.”
Someone once said of Bridgehampton, a picturesque village 100 miles east of New York City, that it specializes in russet potatoes—and Carl Yastrzemski.
“I don’t think people realize the size of the towns which some of my friends and I grew up in,” Yaz said back in 1967. “We came from small towns in New York. Bridgehampton was a very small town. I can remember there were only 15 kids in our graduating class in high school.”
Despite its small size, the future big-leaguer admitted that he and his friends kept busy. “I can remember in the center of town we’d play stickball every day,” he said. “We had a set team and a ball field at the Community House. I always played stickball hitting right-handed, because I could hit the ball farther right-handed than I could left-handed in those days.
“I can remember when I was a youngster—6 or 7 years old—going to the farm with my dad, and while my dad was working, I would gather bushels of rocks, and all day I’d continually throw at other rocks. And I’d hit rocks from seven o’clock in the morning to the time I got home. This is all I’d do—hit rocks, day in, day out.”
Merle Wiggins, who coached baseball, football and basketball and taught physical education for 27 years at Bridgehampton High School, benefited from Yaz’s athletic ability.
“It’s such a small school,” said Wiggins in a 1971 interview. “Grades one through 12 were all in the same building, and there were never many boys to pick from. During Yaz’s years, there were only 40 boys, 12 in his graduating class. If you played sports, you played all of them, and Carl was merely sensational in everything he tried.
“One time in gym, we had a badminton game going on, and he had never played before. He grabbed the racquet and kept swinging and missing and looked awful. A week later, he was beating everybody, including me.”
In the early 1960s, before there was an amateur baseball draft, 14 of the 16 major league teams at the time—all except Cleveland and Washington—were pursing the young Yastrzemski. He would eventually sign, during his freshman year at Notre Dame, for a reported $100,000.
Yastrzemski would often acknowledge the role both of his parents, who had family that came to America from Poland in the early 1900s, had in his life. When his mother, Hattie, died in 1978 after a long illness, he shared his thoughts on the emotional loss. “I watched my mother fight cancer for the last three years,” he said soon after her passing. “She was an incredible woman. She showed me what courage really is. She knew what she was up against, but she never gave in to it.
“Seeing the way she handled it changed my life,” he added. “When I was younger, I was always very emotional. I was up and down with each game. If we lost, I’d really get depressed. But watching her these last few years have really calmed me down. I don’t get upset at little things anymore. My whole life doesn’t revolve around winning and losing baseball games like it used to before.”
Yastrzemski, during his 1989 Hall of Fame induction speech, said to the enormous crowd that his father was one of the reasons he was being honored that summer day.
“Take my father. Super athlete himself. Possessing all the talent and dedication needed to make the big leagues, but living at the time of the Depression,” Yaz said. “He had to suppress his own desires in order that his family could survive and prosper, so he worked and labored toward that end. If ever there’s living proof that some people make sacrifices for others, it’s my dad.
“I’ve often been asked during my career, how can you stand up to the rigors of big-league baseball and its pressure-packed situations? And I’ve always answered the same way: Pressure? What pressure? Pressure is what faces millions and millions of fathers and mothers trying to earn a living every day to support a family, to give it comfort, devotion and love. That’s what pressure really is, and that’s what my dear mother, whom I miss today, and my father gave me—and that’s why I specifically mention them today. To acknowledge their heartfelt presence in my life for my accomplishments.”