Happy 70th birthday, Billy Rohr!
While celebrating many happy returns on July 1, Rohr will no doubt recall his greatest day in a baseball uniform.
The date was April 14, 1967, and Rohr produced one of the most amazing debut performances in major league baseball history.
That Friday was Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, with the rival Red Sox on hand for the occasion.
Pitching for the Yankees was their long-time ace, Whitey Ford. Beginning his 16th season, Ford was making his 432nd career start. He had 234 wins, plus another 10 in the World Series. He owned six World Championship rings, and the record for consecutive shutout innings pitched in the Series, a record previously held by Babe Ruth of the Red Sox. Ford would retire in a few months, and be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Rohr, only 21, was the scheduled starter for the Red Sox. So nervous the night before that he couldn’t sleep, he wound up going over the Yankees lineup with the Red Sox ace, Jim Lonborg.
Rohr was signed by the Pirates after graduating from Bellflower High School in San Diego in 1963. The Red Sox drafted him that November. By 1965, Rohr had advanced to the Red Sox Triple-A team in Toronto, where his manager was Dick Williams. They both spent the entire1966 season there as well.
After their second straight ninth place finish, the Red Sox named Williams their manager for the 1967 season. And when the Red Sox left spring training, Rohr was named their No. 3 starting pitcher.
Rohr’s nerves still hadn’t calmed during his warm-up.
“If he gets by the first inning, he’ll be OK,” pitcher Dennis Bennett told announcer Ken Coleman. “But he’s a nervous wreck right now.”
Another Red Sox rookie, Reggie Smith, staked Rohr to a 1-0 lead with a leadoff homer. Rohr then retired Horace Clarke, Bill Robinson and Tom Tresh in order in the bottom of the first.
Rohr set down Joe Pepitone, Elston Howard and Charley Smith in the second; Ray Barker, John Kennedy, and Ford in the third.
He walked Robinson and Pepitone in the fourth, and Barker in the fifth, but they were the only men to reach base.
“I knew I was catching a no-hitter,” Russ Gibson told Alexander Edelman in the book, The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox. “And he knew he was throwing one.” But get this: not only was it Rohr’s first game in the majors, it was Gibson’s as well. This was a rookie battery dealing with a no-hitter.
In the sixth, Robinson lined a shot off Rohr’s leg. It ricocheted right to Joe Foy at third, who threw to George Scott at first for the out. Williams was ready to remove Rohr from the game if the injured leg forced him to alter his pitching motion.
An inning later, Gibson reported, “The kid has better stuff than he had before he got hurt!”
Howard, Smith and Barker went down meekly in the seventh, the ball never leaving the infield.
In the eighth, Gibson singled and scored on a Foy homer. In the bottom half, a bit of drama as Mickey Mantle pinch-hit. He lofted a soft fly to Tony Conigliaro in right.
Lou Clinton reached on a throwing error by Rohr, and Clarke walked, but Robinson grounded into a double play.
Tresh led off the bottom of the ninth with a wicked line drive into left-center. Coleman was at the mike: “Fly ball to deep left, Yastrzemski is going hard, way back, way back…and he dives, and makes a tremendous catch! One of the greatest catches I’ve ever seen! Everybody at Yankee Stadium is on their feet!”
Pepitone flied to Conigliaro, and Howard came to the plate. Williams came out to the mound to remind Rohr that Howard liked to swing at the first pitch. He did, missing a pitch low and away.
With the count 1-and-2, Rohr threw a fastball that Gibson swears was a strike. Umpire Cal Drummond called it a ball. On a full count, after throwing fastballs all day to Howard, Rohr threw him a curve. Howard blooped it over second base. It was the only time Howard was ever booed for getting a hit in his home park.
Charley Smith flied out to Conigliaro, and Rohr had his 1-hit shutout.
“I told him I’ve beaten myself over the head about that trip to the mound,” Williams recalled in his book, No More Mr. Nice Guy. “He had one shot at fame and my meddling may have blown it for him.”
A week later, Rohr beat the Yankees again, the only run scoring on a single in the eighth by Howard.
Rohr would never win another game for the Red Sox. He’d finish the season with a 2-3 record and 5.10 ERA in 10 games (eight starts), pitching 42 innings. He’d pitch 18 innings, all in relief, for the Indians in ’68, going 1-0 with a 6.87 ERA.
And that was his entire major league career.
In many ways, Rohr’s improbable game epitomized the Red Sox improbable season. “Billy Rohr was 1967,” Peter Gammons has written, “even if he won only two games and was out of town by June.”
Those Impossible Dream Red Sox would go on the win the American League pennant, their first in 21 years. They finished ahead of the Twins and Tigers by a single game.
Without Billy Rohr’s two wins, they’d have fallen a game short.
Happy birthday, Billy.