Rico traded in bats for clubs, diamonds for links

Today, the Boston Red Sox are a sports marketing juggernaut, boasting over 730 consecutive sellouts at 100-year-old Fenway Park – which annually attracts over three million paid admissions.

Including NESN, a regional sports television network, and other subsidiaries, the Red Sox are now one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world.

In the 1960’s the Red Sox were on the bottom of the totem pole for sports fan interest. The NBA’s Boston Celtics were in the midst of consecutive championship seasons, the Boston Bruins – of the then six-team NHL – regularly sold out the old Boston Garden, and pro football came to town in 1960 when the Boston Patriots became one of the original American Football League franchises.

The Red Sox drew 1.1 million fans in 1960 but then began a decline in attendance that hit rock bottom in 1965 when only 652,000 fans (an average of a little over 8,000 per game at the 33,000 capacity ball park) visited Fenway for the season. As some talented homegrown players joined the team in 1966, attendance improved to over 800,000, but the team still finished ninth in the 10-team American League.

But in 1967 magic happened when Rico Petrocelli caught the final out of the regular season and changed the Boston Red Sox fortunes forever.

The 1967 season started in the off season when the Red Sox hired no-nonsense manager Dick Williams to run the team and proceeded to the greatest one season turnaround in the history of baseball, catching the imagination of New England sports fans. It became known as the Impossible Dream team.

Propelled by Carl Yastrzemski’s incredible Triple Crown, MVP season and pitcher Jim Lonborg winning 22 games and striking out 246 batters to capture the AL Cy Young Award, the Red Sox made it to their first World Series since 1946 and in doing so set a team attendance record of over 1.7 million, more than double the previous season. The Red Sox franchise has never looked back.

A Nashua resident since 1999, Rico Petrocelli is possibly best known for that particular moment in time in Boston sports history, but he was much more than that to the Red Sox team.

Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Petrocelli signed with the Red Sox in 1960 as a 17 year old and reached the major leagues five years later as a shortstop. He played from 1963 to 1976 – playing in two World Series and making two American League All Star teams. He set the major league record for shortstops (since broken) with 40 home runs in 1969 and led the league in fielding percentage in 1968 and 1969.

Moving to third base in 1971 Petrocelli again led the league in fielding and holds the fourth-best all-time fielding percentage at that position.

Today, Petrocelli’s main game is golf. His introduction to the game is a funny story. When he reached the major leagues, the only bat supplier was Louisville Slugger, who would compensate the players for the right to put their names on the bats. Louisville Slugger was owned by sporting goods manufacturer Hillerich and Bradsby, who also made golf clubs. Petrocelli was offered $200 or a set of new clubs. He chose the clubs, and made his first trip to the golf course in Brooklyn with his brother in 1962.

“I thought it would be easy but was I was terrible,” Petrocelli said. So he put the clubs away for years but tried it again after his retirement from baseball.

“It is such a great game,” Petrocelli said. “I love it. I really enjoy just playing against the course now and not so much against another person.”

He took up the game more seriously when he moved to Sky Meadow in 1999 but was slowed by a hip replacement a couple years ago, the result, he says from “too many swings and misses when I was playing baseball.”

He plays to about a 15 handicap these days, but is a true golf nut who subscribes to all the golf magazines and buys instructional videos and threatens to take lessons this year and get his handicap down.

When not at the golf course Rico keeps busy helping his son Michael of Merrimack with a marketing business and does a lot of public speaking at various functions. He has some very entertaining stories from the old days and tells them with great humor. For those of us who remember the Impossible Dream season those 45 years ago Rico’s tales conjure up such great memories.

Wayne Mills can be reached at sports@nashuatelegraph.com.