Yastrzemski was born in Southampton, New York to Carl Yastrzemski, Sr. and Hattie Skonieczny. Both his parents were of a Polish background, and young Carl was bilingual from an early age. Raised on his father's potato farm, Carl played on sandlot baseball teams with his father, who, he maintains, was a better athlete than he was. "Yaz" attended Notre Dame on a basketball scholarship (his career Long Island high school scoring mark at Bridgehampton broke one previously held by Jim Brown) briefly before embarking on his baseball career.
Yastrzemski signed with the Red Sox organization, which sent him to the minor-leagueRaleigh Capitals in 1959, where he led the league with a .377 batting average, They then moved him to the Minneapolis Millers for the post-season and the 1960 season. Yastrzemski, who had studied business at Notre Dame, fulfilled a promise to his parents by finishing his degree at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., in 1966.
Yastrzemski began his major-league career in 1961. From the beginning, there was tremendous pressure on him to perform, as he succeeded to the position of the great Red Sox legend Ted Williams. He would prove to be a worthy successor at the plate, and a far superior defensive player with a strong arm, expert in playing off the Green Monster, Fenway Park's left-field wall. In 12 years as a left fielder, Yastrzemski won seven Gold Gloves and led in assists seven times.
While his first two years were viewed as solid but unspectacular, he emerged as a rising star in 1963, winning the American League batting championship with a batting average of .321, and also leading the league in doubles and walks, finishing sixth in the Most Valuable Player voting.
1967 was the season of the "Impossible Dream" for the Red Sox (referring to the hit song from the musical play Man of La Mancha), who rebounded from a ninth-place finish a year before to win the American League pennant (their first since 1946) on the last day of the season. With the Red Sox battling as part of a four-team pennant race, Yastrzemski hit .513 (23 hits in 44 at-bats) with five home runs and 16 runs batted in over the last two weeks of the season, and finished a mere one game ahead of the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins. The Red Sox went into the final two games of the season trailing the Twins by 1 game and leading the Tigers by 1/2 game. The Red Sox final two games were against Minnesota with the pennant and home run title (and hence, the triple crown) on the line. In the Saturday game, Yaz went 3 for 4 with a home run and 4 RBI. Klllebrew also homered, but the Red Sox won, 6-4. Thus, the teams went into the final game tied for 1st place, and Yaz and Killebrew were tied with 44 home runs apiece. In the final game, neither player homered, but Yaz went 4 for 4 with 2 RBI in the Red Sox 5-3 win. So in the two games with the pennant on the line, Yastrzemski was 7 for 8 with 6 RBI
In an article he co-wrote for the November 1967 issue of SPORT Magazine, Yastrzemski credited Boston's remarkable season to manager Dick Williams and an infusion of youth, including Rico Petrocelli and Tony Conigliaro. Referring to Williams, Yastrzemski wrote: "He got rid of all the individuality, made us into a team, gave us an incentive, and made us want to win."
In 1968 Yastrzemski again won the batting championship. Because of the competitive advantages pitchers enjoyed between 1963 and 1968 (prior to the lowering of the pitcher's mound), Yastrzemski's .301 mark in "The Year of the Pitcher" is the lowest average of any batting champion in major league history; however, he was the only hitter in the American League to hit .300 for that season against such formidable pitching, as well as leading the league in on-base percentage and walks. He had many more strong seasons, consistently finishing in the top ten in the league in many statistical categories.
In 1969, Yastrzemski enjoyed the first of two consecutive 40-home run seasons as he led the Red Sox to third-place finishes that year and the next. He got four hits, tying the record, and won the All-Star Game MVP in 1970, although the American League lost. He is one of two players to win the All-Star Game MVP Award despite playing for the losing team, Brooks Robinson having done so in 1966. Yastrzemski's .329 batting average that season was his career high, but he finished second behind the California Angels' Alex Johnson for the batting title by less than .001. In 1970 Yaz led the league in slugging and on-base percentage, finishing third in home runs.
Although he hit but 61 home runs over the next four years (1971 through 1974) as the Red Sox finished second twice and third twice, he finished in the top 10 in batting, and top three in on-base percentage and walks in 1973 and 1974, and led the league in runs scored in 1974.
In the 1975 All-Star Game, Yastrzemski was called to pinch-hit in the sixth inning, with two men on base and the American League down 3-0. Without wearing a batting helmet, he hit Tom Seaver's first pitch for a home run to tie the score. The three-run homer was the only scoring the American League did that night as they lost 6-3.
Yastrzemski and the Red Sox would suffer another World Series loss in 1975, losing four games to three to the Cincinnati Reds. Yastrzemski made the final out in Game 7 on a fly out to center, trailing by one run. Coincidentally, he also made the final out of the 1978 American League East tie-breaker game with a foul pop to third base. This game featured Bucky Dent's famous homer (although Reggie Jackson's home run was the eventual winning run). Earlier in the game, however, Yastrzemski began the scoring with a home run off left-handed pitcher Ron Guidry, who was having a career year (25 wins, 3 loses and a 1.74 ERA). It was the only homer the Cy Young Award winner allowed to a left-hander all season.
On May 19, 1976, Yastrzemski hit three home runs against the Detroit Tigers at Tiger Stadium. He then went to Yankee Stadium and hit two more, tying the major league record of five home runs in two consecutive games. In 1978 Yastrzemski, then 39, was one of the five oldest players in the league. On September 12, 1979 Carl Yastrzemski achieved another milestone becoming the first American League player with 3000 career hits and 400 home runs. In 1982, playing primarily as a designated hitter, an early season hitting streak placed him among the league's leading hitters and saw him featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and played in that year's All-Star game.
Yastrzemski retired in 1983 at the age of 44, although he stated in his autobiography Yaz that he was initially planning on playing the 1984 season, until he tired from a long midseason slump. He also stated that had he known how good Roger Clemens would have been as a pitcher, he would have played in 1984 to have had a chance to play with him.
No player has had a longer career with only one team, 23 seasons, a record which he shares with Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles. His final career statistics include 3,308 games played (second all-time and the most with a single team), 646 doubles (seventh all-time), 452 home runs, 1,844 RBIs (12th all-time), and a batting average of .285. He had 1,845 walks in his career (sixth all-time), and 1,157 extra base hits (ninth all-time). Yastrzemski was the first player to ever collect over 3,000 hits and 400 home runs solely in the American League (the feat has since been accomplished by Cal Ripken Jr.). He was named to the All-Star Game 18 times. Yastrzemski won three American League batting championships in his career. In addition, Yastrzemski only trails Ty Cobb in hits collected with a single team, and trails only Cobb and Tris Speaker in hits collected playing in the American League, both of whom played before World War II. Yastrzemski is also Fenway Park's all-time leader in hits, doubles, and RBI's.
Yastrzemski signing an autograph at Fenway Park in 2008.
As one of the top players of his era, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989, his first year of eligibility, with the support of 94% of voters. Notably, this makes him one of the few Hall of Famers to directly succeed another Hall of Famer at the same position. For his entire career with the Red Sox, he wore uniform number 8. The Red Sox retired this number on August 6, 1989 after Yastrzemski was elected to the Hall of Fame. In 1999, Yastrzemski ranked number 72 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. That same season, he was named a finalist to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Prior to his induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1986, Carl Yastrzemski was inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.
Yastrzemski was well known for his batting stance, holding his bat exceptionally high, giving his swing a large, dramatic arc, and more power at the plate. However, in his later years, he adjusted his stance and held the bat lower. He was also known for modifying his batting helmets by enlarging the right ear hole (for comfort) and removing part of the right ear flap (for better vision of the ball as it was being pitched).
A record album of the Red Sox's 1967 season, aptly titled "The Impossible Dream", featured a song by DJ Jess Cain of praise for "The man they call Yaz", which included the line "Although 'Yastrzemski' is a lengthy name / It fits quite nicely in our Hall of Fame." (A link to the song appears below.) The song can be heard, and the album cover can be seen, in the apartment of Ben Wrightman (played by Jimmy Fallon) in the 2005 filmFever Pitch. Earlier in the film, Ben's girlfriend, Lindsay Meeks (Drew Barrymore), not yet familiar with the triumphs and tribulations of the Red Sox, is unable to properly pronounce Yastrzemski's name, and has to be corrected by the surrounding fans: "Ya-STREM-ski!" The final scene of the movie indicates that if the couple's unborn child is a girl she will be named "Carla Yastrzemski Wrightman."
Yastrzemski's son Mike Yastrzemski was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the third round in 1984 and eventually played for the White Sox Triple-A affiliate until 1988. He died of a heart attack in 2004 at age 43.
In June 2009, Boston drafted Carl's grandson Michael, an outfielder out of St. John's Prep, in the 36th round; Michael did not sign with the team and went to Vanderbilt. In 2012, Michael was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 30th round, with the 911th overall pick. He signed with the Baltimore Orioles as their 14th round pick in 2013. While with the Aberdeen IronBirds, he started in the 2013 New York-Penn League All-Star Game. Michael started the 2015 season with the Double-A affiliate Bowie Baysox.
As of the 2014 baseball season, on the all-time lists for Major League baseball, Yastrzemski ranks at #1 for games played for one team, #2 for games played, #3 for at-bats, #6 for bases on balls, #8 for hits, #8 for total bases, #8 for doubles, and #13 for RBIs.