Saturday, December 14, 2013

Rivalries: Fisk vs Munson

The American League East was a tight race at the top in 1973.  On August 1st there were four teams less than three games apart.  The Yankees were at the top.  The Orioles sat one game out, Detroit sat two games out and the Red Sox trailed by 3 1/2.  That night Boston faced off against the Yankees.  The rivalry had been in a relatively dormant state but as the teams were tied at 2 in the ninth inning, it was about to erupt.

Thurman Munson led off the Yankee 9th with a double and moved to third on a ground out by Graig Nettles.  Felipe Alou was walked intentionally and that brought up Gene Michael.  As the Red Sox Pitcher, John Curtis, went into the pitching motion, Munson broke for the plate.  Gene Michael squared around to lay down a bunt.  He missed it.  As the ball smacked into the glove of Carlton Fisk, crouched behind the plate, Michael knew he had failed.  Fisk knew they had Munson and Munson was angry.  Tearing down the line, knowing he would be out, Munson had one option and it was one he loved.  Knock Fisk on his ass and hope to God Fisk dropped the ball.  Basically Munson had been given a gift.  The opportunity to charge at the man he hated full speed with the goal of hitting him as hard as possible.  Fisk absorbed the collision and held the ball.  Munson was a smart baseball player.  He knew that if Fisk couldn't get up he couldn't stop Felipe Alou from advancing on the bases.  Fisk knew the same thing.  The result was Fisk pushing Munson off of him, punching Michael and igniting a ten minute brawl.  Fisk and Munson were both ejected and the Red Sox went on to win the game, tightening the AL East race even more.

This was an era of the storied rivalry that was still budding but it was fierce every step of the way.  Both players had come to the majors for short stints in 1969.  Munson played all of 1970 while Fisk spent the year in Pawtucket.  Fisk was a New Hampshire native who grew up wanting nothing more than to play for the hometown Red Sox and was living his dream.  Munson was an Ohio native who wanted nothing more than to play for the Indians, close to his wife and kids so he wouldn't have to be away so much.  Fisk was the good looking ladies' man with the face that magazines loved to display.  Munson was the snarling, mustachioed catcher alternately called Walrus, Tugboat, Squatty Body or Grumpy.

For a competitor as fierce as Munson, he was surprisingly sensitive.  He hated being looked at as second best.  It was partially determination and a competitive nature and partially an insecurity.  Munson's father wanted to play professionally but World War II had seen to it that he didn't make it.  Angry and jealous of the opportunity that his son had which he didn't, the father ridiculed his son to his face and often to others.  When the Yankees scout showed up to his house Munson's dad told the scout "Ya know he ain't too good on pop ups."

In a league filled with great Catchers Munson was clearly elite.  The question was how elite was he?Clearly above Catchers like Bill Freehan, Jim Sundberg and Darrel Porter, was he as good as Bench and Fisk?

He faced off against Fisk every year so it was easy to compare the two.  It was Bench that was considered the elite.  They faced off in the 1976 World Series.  The Yankees were swept by the Reds but Munson hit .529.  Following the final game reporters asked Sparky Anderson to compare the two.  "Thurman is an outstanding hitter, one of the best we have seen all year.  There is no question he would be a .300 hitter in our league but don't ask me to compare Johnny Bench with any other Catcher.  Don't embarrass anyone."  Munson was in the room when it was said, waiting for his own post game interview.  "For me to be belittled after my season and series, it hurts.  I don't appreciate it being rubbed in my face.

Munson worked hard to lead the Yankees.  He was named team Captain.  He was clearly the one who led by his example on the field.  All of a sudden he was called into question publicly.  In 1977 the Yankees signed Reggie Jackson and before spring training began Jackson had already offended Munson.  Jackson gave an interview to Sport Magazine in which he basically said the Yankees were good and Munson was good but they wouldn't be great until Jackson got in the mix.  What resulted was the team known as the Bronx Zoo, two World Series wins and one of the most iconic Yankee-Red Sox moments of all time.

At the end of the 1978 season the Yankees and Red Sox were tied for first.  There was a one game playoff for the American League pennant.  With two out in the seventh and runners on first and third, Bucky Dent hit a home run that defined a generation of heartbreak for Red Sox fans and a generation of winning for the Yankees.  Behind the plate, praying for the ball to bounce off the green monster was Carlton Fisk.  At the top of the dugout steps, praying for the ball to get up in the wind and sneak over the wall was Thurman Munson.

Although some of the rivalries we have seen in this series have been friendly, this one was not.  Munson and Fisk were extremely competitive with each other.  Constantly fighting for first place in the standings and for headlines.  Munson won the World Series twice.  Fisk never would.  Munson would show anger at the mention of Fisk's name and his teammates used that to their advantage.  Gene Michael would hang articles in Munson's locker that compared the two and he knew Munson would come out swinging that night. 

The press loved it because it sold papers.  The teams loved it because it fed into the Yankees-Red Sox feud.  Munson and Fisk just wanted to win.  They were competitive and may have hated losing to the other but it was business, not personal.  Once, as the two were warming up before a game, Thurman yelled over to Fisk. "Hey Fisk, I just wanted to let you know that I never said anything bad about you."

Fisk, possibly with the benefit of twenty years of reflection, said that he and Munson were rivals (and certainly not friends) but not enemies.  "We never hated each other. It was the uniform more than anything.  We were so much alike in our attitudes about baseball.  I think one of the things I regret most about my career is that Thurman and I were never teammates.  I know that if it wasn't for the Yankees uniform he wore, we would have gotten along great.  I never hated Thurman."

The question is, if they were teammates, which one would have moved from Catcher?

Bucky Dent famously hit his Home Run after fouling the previous ball off his ankle.  Dent hobbled around, the trainers came out and checked on him and the game was delayed.  While Dent was getting treatment, the on deck batter noticed that Dent had cracked his bat on the last swing.  The on deck batter told the bat boy to go get a bat, one of his own, for Dent.  The bat that was handed to him was the one that launched the Home Run.  Who provided the bat for Dent?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
Casey Stengel first took part in a World Series in 1916 as a member of the Brooklyn Robins.  The Robins lost to the Boston Red Sox.  Stengel also played in two World Series as a member of the New York Giants in 1922 and 1923.  Although he managed nine seasons prior to taking over the Yankees he had no World Series appearances in that time.  Stengel took over the Yankees in 1949 and won the World Series in his first year.  Stengel would reach the World Series as the Yankees manager in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958 and 1960.  He won the World Series in seven of those seasons.  This would give him a total of 13 World Series appearances.  


  1. I never knew these 2 had a rivalry. In your opinion was it more personal or more a team rivalry.

    Is there anywhere where I can see highlights of that collision at home plate that started the brawl?

    My guess on the trivia is Reggie Jackson. The way the article reads I am assuming it was not Munson.


    1. I have seen the highlight quite often on retrospectives of the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. I don't know of a specific place to see it though.

      This rivalry was one of the most vicious in our series although the final two in the series are also quite vicious.

  2. Interesting rivalry. I like that Fisk said that it was more the uniform than personal. Considering that Fisk never tasted World Series victory, you would think that that would make his disdain for Munson stronger because Munson tasted it twice. I have no idea on the trivia question this week.

    1. I am sure that Fisk never having won the World Series certainly did not sit well. Fisk was a hometown New England boy who grew up dreaming of a Red Sox World Series and he played in that ear of "the curse". Fisk, of course, hit one of the most famous Home Runs in World Series history but his team eventually lost in the 7th game. Munson, on the other hand, won the American League for three straight years following Fisk's World Series appearance, including the 1978 AL pennant which was won after second half charge by Munson and the Yankees.


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