Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Fight of the Century: Fisk vs. Munson, 1973

Amid all the hype and build-up regarding each week’s boxing “fight of the century,” you’ll have to excuse me if I don't seem too excited. I think I represent all baseball fans as we view it with a condescending, knowing smirk on our faces. You see, we know that this is all artificial: the nasty words being thrown around, the supposed bad blood and, of course, the prefight stare down. Yeah, these guys don’t like each other and for $300 million they’re going to climb into a ring in front of a bunch of rich people and have it out. We're not excited because we remember the fight of the last century. And we know that there was absolutely nothing contrived or artificial about it. That one was real and it was spectacular.

I’m not talking about Clay-Liston, Ali-Frazier, or even Balboa-Crede, I’m talking about Fisk-Munson I, the 1973 version.

While there have been a number of famous brouhahas in baseball, I am partial to Fisk-Munson because of the historical context. You had two great players, closely related by geography, who played the same position, who were both in their prime and who were leaders of their teams; teams which, seemingly since the game was invented, had hated each other--all the ingredients were there.

The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox had carried a long and distinguished animosity for each other throughout the twentieth century, but the Yankees, as rich, privileged heirs, had always seemed to maintain the upper hand and rubbed the collective New England noses in the infield dirt. It had been one of baseball’s best rivalries, but during the 1960s, it had faded without much fanfare as both teams were rarely good enough at the same time to stir any feelings whatsoever. In 1967 as the Sox were charging to a pennant, a beanball war erupted in Yankee Stadium that resulted in a celebrated brawl, but both teams soon fell into disrepair and the feelings of hate, however welcome, were soon lost.

Enter Mr. Munson and Mr. Fisk. Munson arrived first, a rare combination of athleticism and hitting ability for a catcher. He became the first American League catcher to win the Rookie of the Year Award in 1970 and quickly became acknowledged as the best catcher in the league.

But before Munson could bask in the glow of celebrity, Fisk arrived in Boston in September of 1971. By mid-season 1972, Fisk was beginning to annoy Munson greatly. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing--Munson lived to be annoyed, he thrived on it. He saved up little tidbits of hostility and perceived insults by opponents and used them for motivation, but with Fisk, things quickly elevated to an obsession as he watched the spotlight being stolen.

Fisk was tall with chiseled good looks and, although he played hard, always seemed neat and clean-shaven. Munson was short, squatty, wore a perpetual scowl through a three-day stubble and seemed to always have tobacco juice dribbled on his shirt.

In the days of one nationally televised game a week, on Saturdays, the Red Sox seemed to always appear and announcer Curt Gowdy, a former Red Sox man, continually gushed about Fisk.

Fisk had the audacity to win the Rookie of the Year Award in 1972, the second AL catcher ever (after Munson), along with the Gold Glove and was selected to the All-Star team. That immediately put him at the top of Munson's very long shit list.

Thereafter, Fisk and Munson vied for the title of best catcher, pound for pound, in the league.
Both were very proud, very competitive men who had not the slightest inkling to ever back down from a challenge or an opponent.

As the Yankees and Red Sox squared off for a series in Boston in August of 1973, a confrontation was inevitable. Only weeks before, Fisk had started the All-Star game--an unfathomable affront that Munson loudly dismissed to anyone who would listen. Fisk had appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated that week, strutting his famously arrogant walk and looking back at the camera in a pose that eerily evoked a Sasquatch.

As fate would have it, Munson found himself standing on third base in a tie game, ninety feet away from his increasingly intrusive rival. Munson broke from third with the pitch from lefty John Curtis and Yankee shortstop Gene Michael (aka Stick) squared to bunt—a suicide squeeze. Michael whiffed at the pitch and Munson was hung out to dry. Rather than concede defeat, however, Munson lowered his shoulder and increased to ramming speed.

Michael stood in the way of the play. Fisk roughly elbowed Michael out of the way, straddled the baseline with the ball and held his ground.

The collision left both men sprawled in the dirt.
Fisk jumped up, the ball still held firmly in his hand, and began swinging. All hell broke loose.

Players from both teams flooded the field and crowded around home plate. While Fisk was squared off with Munson, Michael took several shots at the back of Fisk's head. Fisk then grabbed Michael in a headlock and, while holding Michael firmly with one arm, slugged Munson with the other. They were then buried under both teams. At one point as peace-makers tried to separate the combatants, Yankee manager Ralph Houk slithered through the dirt under the pile with his hands on Fisk’s arm, trying to break the vise-like grip with which he held the scrawny neck of Gene Michael.


     In the aftermath of Fisk-Munson I, Red Sox Nation found that they had a new champion, a hero who would stand up to the evil Yankees and never back down. Yankee fans also found something they cherished--a new opponent to despise. Yankee and Red Sox fans knew, without a doubt, that it was on again. It was go time. Baseball fans in general found that there was a new, great rivalry in their midst, something to enliven debates and viewing pleasure for the next decade.

   And for Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.