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The Red Sox 'Eras,' 1901-2010

This is the second part of my 30-part project to divide the histories of every major league franchise into distinct (if sometimes messy) eras, with each era connected to a single player. Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes you will agree with me. Sometimes you will not.

I should mention at least once what I'm not trying to do: I am not trying to tell (for example) Red Sox fans everything they already know. If you're a Red Sox fan, you might be surprised that the Ted Williams Era doesn't last longer, and you might be incensed that there's no Carl Yastrzemski Era at all. All I can ask is that you hear me out, and keep in mind that I'm not really writing this for Red Sox fans. You've already got an opinion, and it's probably more educated than mine. But when I looked at the history of the Yankees and now the Red Sox, I came up with some different answers (perhaps because I was asking different questions).

Anyway, it's something we can argue about as long as we live. Here are the 16 eras in Red Sox history and the 15 players who go with them ...

1901-1907: The Jimmy Collins Era

Collins, an outstanding defensive third baseman who spent the latter part of the 1890s starring for Boston's National League franchise, jumped to Boston's American League franchise in 1901, bringing instant credibility to the brand-new franchise. But Collins brought more than credibility; he could still play, batting nearly .300 with power in his first five seasons. But Collins wasn't just a player; he also managed the Red Sox for five-plus seasons, leading the club to a couple of American League pennants and a victory over the Pirates in the first modern World Series.

1908-1915: The Tris Speaker Era

Collins was fired as manager in 1906 but retained as a player, only to be traded in 1907, three months before the debut of a 19-year-old outfielder named Tristram E. Speaker, who picked up three hits in seven September games. Speaker struggled in a slightly longer trial in 1908, but in 1909 took over as the Red Sox's every-day center fielder and quite suddenly became one of the best players in the league. He would only get better, and spent the next decade challenging Ty Cobb for the title of best player in the American League. Granted, he would never quite catch Cobb until 1916 ... and by then he'd been traded to Cleveland for Sad Sam Jones and a gigantic pile of cash.

1916-1919: The Babe Ruth Era

The Babe, all of 19 years old, debuted with the Red Sox in 1914, but was sent back to the minors after just a few games. He arrived for good in 1915, going 18-8 in 32 games. But in 1916 he went 23-12 with a 1.75 ERA, then beat the Dodgers in Game 2 of the World Series, 2-1 in 14 innings. To that point he was still just a pitcher and occasional pinch-hitter; it wasn't until 1918 that Ruth started playing the outfield ... and in a small sign of things to come, led the league with 11 home runs. The next year he would play more outfield, and hit 29 homers. The next year he would ... well, if you're a Red Sox fan you probably don't want to be reminded about that.

1920-1933: The Phil Todt Era

Todt, a fancy-fielding first baseman, didn't join the Red Sox until 1924 and he left the club after the 1930 season. But nobody played more for the Red Sox in these 14 seasons, and in the absence of a single truly memorable player, Todt -- who hit more like a shortstop than a 1920s first baseman -- best characterizes a stretch that saw the Red Sox finish in last place nine times in 14 years.

1934-1938: The Lefty Grove Era

Everything changed in 1933 when 30-year-old Tom Yawkey bought the Red Sox. First orders of business: renovate Fenway Park and buy a bunch of ball players. Yawkey's first big target was Philadelphia Athletics lefthander Bob Grove, the greatest pitcher in the American League. Grove was no longer a young man, but he'd won 24 games in 1933. To acquire Grove, Yawkey sent a couple of minor plays to the A's ... along with $125,000 (then a considerable sum).

Grove struggled badly in 1934, but Yawkey wasn't deterred. After the season he again spent big, this time on Washington shortstop (and future Hall of Famer) Joe Cronin ($225,000). The Red Sox still couldn't contend, even with a nice comeback by Grove. So in '36 Yawkey bought yet another superstar: Athletics first baseman Jimmie Foxx ($150,000). The Red Sox finished sixth. Finally, in 1938 -- with Foxx hitting 50 homers, Cronin driving in 94 runs, and Grove going 14-4 -- the Red Sox went 88-61 to put at least a little pressure on the Yankees. What would happen in 1939, when they added the greatest hitter who ever lived?

1939-1942: The Ted Williams Era

Even at 19, Theodore S. Williams was obviously good enough to play in the majors. But he was a cheeky sort with little or no interest in playing defense, so the Red Sox sent him to Minneapolis for an entire season. There, he batted .366 and hit 43 home runs. Still, it must have been at least a little shocking in 1939, when the 20-year-old rookie terrorized American League pitchers to the tune of 145 RBI and 344 total bases (both figures leading the league). Over the next three seasons, he led the league in runs scored each year, batted .406 one season, and twice led the league in home runs. Then, like so many of his colleagues, Ted Williams enlisted. His vision was the best the military doctors had ever seen.

1943-1945: The Mike Ryba Era

Every wartime franchise gets a wartime wonder like Ryba, a swingman (and ex-catcher!) in his early 40s who went 26-18 with a 3.05 ERA while Ted Williams learned to fly airplanes, then taught other young men how to fly airplanes. Ryba did hang around long enough in 1946 to throw 13 innings (including a very brief outing in the '46 World Series) before returning to the minors in 1947 as a manager.

1946-1953: The Ted Williams Era (II)

Williams, who wasn't sent into combat (few star players were) and managed to avoid any serious training accidents (many pilots didn't), rejoined the Red Sox in 1946 and posted numbers that were virtually identical to what he'd done in 1942. It was as if he'd never left, or had left but still managed to take batting practice every day (he hadn't). In his first four seasons back, Williams finished first, second, third, and first in the American League's MVP balloting. He missed much of 1950 with an elbow injury suffered in the All-Star Game, but came back strong in '51. And then in '52, he became one of the very few players to serve in the military in World War II and be called upon during the Korean War. This time Williams flew combat missions, and at least once his jet took heavy damage. He finally returned to the Red Sox for good late in the 1953 season.

The Red Sox had won 84 games in '53. So what might they do in '54, with a Williams back for a full season? Well, he came back and he was brilliant when he played, but he missed more time with injuries and the Red Sox went 69-85. For the rest of Williams' career, the Red Sox would never come close to challenging the league's front-runners.

1954-1961: The Jackie Jensen Era

That optimism in 1954 wasn't solely because of Williams' presence in spring training. The Red Sox had just traded for former baseball and football All-American Jackie Jensen, who'd been pushed out of New York by Mickey Mantle in 1952, then posted solid numbers in two seasons with Washington. When Boston got him, Jensen was just hitting his peak seasons and figured to give the Red Sox one of the game's best outfields (with Williams and Jimmy Piersall manning the other spots).

Jensen was quite good. In 1954, he drove in 117 runs and led the league with 22 steals. In '55 he led the league in RBI, and later would do that twice more and win an MVP Award (in 1958). Of course he was never as good as Ted Williams. He was a lot healthier than Williams, though, playing around 150 games every season (when teams played 154-game schedules). But still the Red Sox didn't win, and it didn't help when Jensen sat out the 1960 because of his debilitating fear of flying.

OK, here's the heart of the thing: Jackie Jensen typified the Red Sox in the '50s, who were loaded with good white players -- Jensen, plus Frank Malzone, Sammy White, Jimmy Piersall, Pete Runnels, Billy Goodman, etc. -- but didn't have even one black player. Let alone a good (or great) one, while every good team in the majors (except the Yankees, for too long) did employ brilliantly talented black players. That wasn't Jensen's fault. But the Red Sox wanted their "Golden Boy" and they got him and that's essentially all they got.

1962-1966: The Dick Radatz Era

So many possibilities for this period of institutional mediocrity, from the estimable Carl Yastrzemski to control-challenged Don Schwall and Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart. But the 1960s were all about power, and nobody in Boston personified power more than Dick "The Monster" Radatz. In his first three seasons, Radatz -- pitching solely in relief -- averaged 13 wins and 138 innings per season, and struck out nearly 11 hitters per nine innings. Nobody had ever seen anyone remotely like him.

There's a legendary story about Radatz striking out Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and Elston Howard -- all of them former Most Valuable Players -- on 10 pitches in the ninth inning to save a Red Sox victory. That never actually happened, but Radatz did once pitch nine innings in relief, and three or four frames was nothing to him. Of course, maybe that's why Radatz flamed out after just three incredible seasons. But he was great fun while he lasted.

1967-1971: The Reggie Smith Era

Yes, I know: When you think of the Impossible Dream season, you first think of Yaz's big hits and next you think of Big Jim Lonborg's 22 wins. But maybe we should think instead about Reggie Smith, Boston's rookie center fielder, who Howard Bryant has described as "the first exceptional black player in Boston, the first to actually attract attention for his playing ability."

Of course, Smith wasn't the first black Red Sox. When the Sox finally integrated the roster in 1959, it was infielder Pumpsie Green. A week later Earl Wilson joined the club -- in part because Green needed a roommate -- and a few years later Wilson would throw a no-hitter. In 1966, Wilson was traded to Detroit, perhaps because he refused to ignore to take the Red Sox' suggestion that he forget about a Florida night club that refused to serve him during spring training.

Wilson had been a fine pitcher, but Reggie Smith was a supreme talent, with phenomenal physical tools and (nearly) the performance to match. In 1965 and '66 the Red Sox had lost 190 games. But as one Red Sox fan told me, "Everything changed in 1967." The Red Sox wouldn't really build on their '67 pennant. But 1967 is when the fans came back, and the franchise wouldn't finish with another losing record until 1983.

1972-1980: The Carlton Fisk Era

When you think of the Red Sox in the '70s, who do you see in your mind's eye?

Well, yeah: Bucky #%@&$ Dent. Sometimes life isn't fair.

But after him, you see New England's own Carlton Fisk in Game 6, waving that baseball fair. Fisk got into a couple of games with the Red Sox in 1969 and 14 more in 1971, but in '72 he arrived for good and nabbed Rookie of the Year honors. In some quarters it's still a bit shocking to recall that Fisk actually played more for the White Sox than the Red Sox.

1981-1992: The Wade Boggs Era

Boggs didn't join the Red Sox until 1982, but that was an accident; in '81, his second full season with Triple-A Pawtucket, Boggs hit .335/.437/.460 and obviously didn't belong there. As a rookie in '82, he finally got his chance to play when Carney Lansford went down with injury, and hit .349/.406/.441 in 104 games. The next year, finally installed at third base, Boggs won the first of his five batting titles.

Boggs, like most of the great Red Sox hitters before him, batted left-handed. Unlike some of the others, Boggs was accomplished at slicing line drives off the Green Monster, and in his prime averaged around 45 doubles per season. And he always seemed to be the center of attention, whether because of his many superstitions (he called them "habits") or the six straight seasons he led the league in intentional walks, or (of course) the unwelcomed emergence of Margo Adams as a national celebrity.

1993-1997: The Roger Clemens Era

After his first subpar season (1992), Boggs was sent packing (and signed with the Yankees, for whom he played well for a few more years and won his only championship ring). With Boggs gone, there was room in the spotlight for someone else. Unfortunately, Roger Clemens, for all his talents, wasn't really equipped for the spotlight. Not in Boston, anyway. Clemens' last four seasons with the Red Sox were a massive disappointment as he spent some time on the disabled list and averaged just 10 wins (and 10 losses) per season.

1998-2003: The Pedro Martinez Era

Clemens hadn't actually pitched for the Sox in 1997, but he cast a long shadow from Toronto, where -- coming off a 10-13 record in Boston -- he went 21-7 and won his fourth Cy Young Award (and first of two straight as a Blue Jay). Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette looked foolish after showing little interest in retaining Clemens ... and then he looked like a genius after trading Carl Pavano and Tony Armas for Montreal's Pedro Martinez. Cy Young Awards? Pedro won two of his own and packed Fenway Park almost every time he pitched.

2004-2010: The David Ortiz Era

In 2005 and '06, Big Papi led the American League in RBI, and there's not enough space here to list all his key October hits that propelled the Red Sox, so long without a championship, to two World Series titles in four years. But with Ortiz struggling for the second straight spring and his contract expiring at the end of this season, it seems that his era is almost over. And while it's far from clear who will take his place in the lineup, the best candidate to succeed him as the franchise's key figure is probably Dustin Pedroia, who's heading for his fourth straight sterling season. Like Ortiz, Pedroia is another great player who a lot of people thought wasn't even good enough to play.