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.


  1. Loved this memory, so much! At the time of this basebrawl story I was twelve years old. A huge Yankee fan from Long Island, who would spend every day after delivering newspapers on my route, reading about my favorite team. I fed on all the local hype about this brewing rivalry and of course, hated Carleton Fisk more than any other Red Sox player. However, years later after Munson had died in that plane crash, there was a small incident that took place at Yankees Stadium a decade later that involved Fisk of the ChiSox and a young Deon Sanders, when he was a top baseball prospect with the Yankees before he committed to football. In an early inning at bat, Sanders trickled a slow roller in the infield that was easily handled and thrown to first base for the out, which was also conceded early after leaving the batters box by the young rookie. Not realizing it until his next at bat, a seething mad Fisk mouthed off to Mr. "Prime Time" about making sure he completely runs out the next infield grounder, at which point Sanders said something back and both benches instantly cleared. For the rest of my life, I will never forget what Fisk said in the newspapers, the next day. Simply stated, it read "I don't know what it is about this place (Yankee Stadium), but I'm sure there are some ghosts rolling over in their graves when they see someone not trying their best" From that day on, my opinion of Fisk forever changed and I hope he fares well in whatever life has in store for him. All the best, Pudge.

  2. great article. this incident was, in my opinion, the real first salvo that reignited a rich rivalry that still hasn't let up even to this day

  3. It really was the end of the mediocrity-enforced detente of the late '60s and early '70s. Both teams were very good and knew they stood in each other's way for the division. And Fisk and Munson, playing the same position and were both leaders and almost really the same person, just in a different uniform--their decade-long rivalry was great for baseball.

  4. My first time at a big league game was when I was 6 years old.It was the summer of '71 and my Dad being a diehard Red Sox fan,gave the family our 1st experience at Fenway.A beautiful Summer Saturday and the KC Royals had just lit up Gary Peters and the Sox with 6 runs quickly.Out of the bullpen comes a guy who strikes out 10 and doesn't allow a run in relief.His name is Luis Tiant.Dad says to me that Tiant will do great things for Boston.Boy was he right.In '72 we had the delight of seeing Gaylord Perry and the Indians come to Fenway .Next up was a game against the hated Yankees.Like I said earlier,Dad was a Sox fan.My brother a Yankee fan,became one on account of witnessing Mickey Mantle's 500th homer(Father's Day '67) and me a Red Sox fan who loved Yaz so much(I Batted Left And Threw Right)were there on 8/1/73,the day before my brother's 16th birthday.The Yankees had the game won and then that fight happened and the Sox took the game! You can never forget the memories that the ballparks give to you.

  5. That was the first baseball game I ever attended.

    It was a Wednesday afternoon, August 1, 1973, a month shy of my 7th birthday. My grandfather and I took the bus and subway to Fenway, where we had seats in the grandstand behind home plate. Not only was it my introduction to the incomparable
    sights, sounds and smells of Fenway on a summer afternoon, but I also saw Mel Stottlemyer “accidentally” bean Fisk in Pudge’s first at-bat, and I had a close-up view of Gene Michael’s botched suicide squeeze in the top of the 9th, his clumsy interference with Fisk’s attempt to tag Munson, the ensuing ass-over-teakettle collision, and the culminating haymaker-filled, bench-clearing brawl.

    Then it got even more exciting in the bottom of the same inning, with the Red Sox winning the game on a Mario Guerrero walk-off single with 2 outs in the 9th.

    I was (and remain) hooked.

    And when I became a catcher myself, I remembered to keep the ball in my right hand during any contretemps, just as Fisk had done that day.

    1. Thanks for sharing that story. What a great game to witness--an indelible part of Sox vs. Yanks culture. Hope you kept the ticket stub.

  6. Carlton Fisk IS the reason I became a catcher growing up South of Boston. I still have the bad knees, sore back, rotator cuff issues and Achilles Heel problems to prove it. And I wouldn't trade even one of them anything.

  7. I attended all the games of this series. The only time I ever attended any games in Fenway
    Along with the Fisk Munson fight I recall numerous fights between Yankee and Soxs fans.

  8. I am a diehard Yankee fan & was attending summer school at Northeastern Univ in 1973. A few of my BoSox friends were to attend that game with me but chickened out as it had rained heavily that morning. I sat in the bleachers and walked up to Fenway box office & bought a bleacher ticket for around $1.50, imagine that. Was an exciting game & the next day my friends were sorry they did not go. The sad part is that it was an afternoon game and was not televised in either NY or Boston, so no video exists that I know of.

    1. I imagine you'd have a hard time getting a bottle of water for a buck and a half now, certainly not a ticket.