I discovered baseball in the summer of 1967. I was 9 years old, which seems late nowadays, but my father worked on Saturdays and my Bronx neighborhood offered only asphalt to play on.
So I did not learn the game until we spent a summer at a large bungalow colony in the Catskills, which had plenty of space and plenty of other boys. There was no television in our tiny two-room summer house, so I did not begin watching major league games until we returned home on Labor Day.
I began following the Yankees because they were my mother’s favorite team. They were not very good in 1967, however, so - in my innocence - I also rooted for the Boston Red Sox, who were having a magical season. And the player I heard was the best was Carl Yastrzemski, Boston’s graceful outfielder with the unspellable name (pronounced yah-STREM-skee, though most everyone just said Yaz).
Television announcers, who instructed me in the sport as though they were Moses descended from the mountain, told me that something special was happening as Yaz closed in on a “Triple Crown,” meaning he would lead the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in.
True, Baltimore’s Frank Robinson had won the crown only one year earlier, in 1966, a dreadful season that I was happy I missed since the Yankees finished last in a 10-team league. Before that, Mickey Mantle won the crown in ’56, a long-distant era (to a 9-year-old) when the Yankees were supposedly unbeatable. Real Red Sox fans ignored Mantle, preferring to compare Yaz to Ted Williams, the greatest hitter ever (they said), who had won the crown in ’47 and also in ’42, even though in ’42 his .356 batting average was a full 50 points below the amazing (and since unequalled) .406 he posted in ’41. Williams, naturally, played for the Red Sox.
I knew that I could not expect to see Yaz repeat his feat in 1968. He did well enough that year, winning the batting crown with a .301 average at a time when pitchers so dominated baseball that nobody else in the entire league hit above .300.
But the oracles - excuse me, announcers - never warned me it might take 45 years before someone won the Triple Crown again. I didn’t dream it. They didn’t dream it.
Yet that is exactly what happened. No major leaguer ever led his league in those three categories in the same season again until this year, when Miguel Cabrera did it for the Detroit Tigers.
Much has been made of this 45-year gap, but I have not heard much commentary about how odd it seems that Robinson and Yastrzemski won their crowns in back-to-back years, only to have nearly half a century elapse before anyone did it again.
Is it just statistical noise, a happenstance that has no real explanation? Or did something actually change after that ’67 season? This, by the way, is a question we should ask ourselves about a lot of things to which we ascribe significance, like slot machines that pay out twice in quick succession, or stock markets tending to rise or fall in certain months.
I don’t have the answer to the mystery of baseball’s Triple Crown drought. I do know, however, that some things did change after Yastrzemski’s heyday.
To put some offense back in the game after 1968, baseball owners lowered the pitcher’s mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. That same year, each league split into two divisions (now three), so it was no longer the case that every player in the league saw the same opposing teams the same number of times.
By 1967 there were night games at every big-league park except Chicago’s Wrigley Field, which held out against night baseball until 1988. Still, there were many more day games - when hitters can see the ball better - in the 1960s than in the modern era. Did the change affect some types of hitters, such as those who hit a lot of home runs, differently than others?
The late ‘60s and ‘70s also brought a proliferation of new stadiums, typically with big outfields, that used artificial grass. There were different brands of the stuff, but most people just called it AstroTurf. Baseballs rocketed off the turf the way they did on the asphalt streets back in the Bronx. These new parks probably favored speedy slap hitters over the big, usually lumbering sluggers who had the strength to regularly hit a ball beyond those distant fences. Perhaps this is what made it harder for one player to dominate in both average and homers.
Artificial turf was also harder on players’ bodies. As those Skylab-era stadiums aged, they have been replaced with another generation of parks, often smaller (though Cabrera’s home field, Comerica Park, has a spacious outfield), all equipped with real grass. The new parks are designed to be reminiscent of the smaller, sunlit, grassy fields of yesteryear, when Triple Crowns were an uncommon but not exceptionally rare feat.
So maybe Cabrera’s accomplishment is less of an isolated fluke and more of a swing of the pendulum, recalling an era when baseball was discovered by 9-year-old boys who spent summers in cottages without television and played the game on grass, just like their big-league heroes.