Friday, May 1, 2015

Baseball's Other Fights of the Century

After my last post regarding the fight of the century in baseball, some friends noted that there have been a number of baseball rumbles that could lay claim to the title fight of the century. And why not? It seems that boxing, college football and college basketball have fights or games of the century each week. With that in mind, I searched my memory for some other memorable days when baseball fans went to the ballpark and a hockey game broke out.

Marichal vs. Roseboro, August 22, 1965

One of the most celebrated, and scary, baseball fights occurred during the dog days of 1965 when Giant pitcher Juan Marichal, number 27, took matters into his own hands. The Giants and Dodgers, of course, had a long history of bad blood and the 1965 tight pennant race certainly did nothing to encourage them to play well together. While batting against Sandy Koufax, Marichal felt that catcher Roseboro was intentionally throwing the ball close to his ear when returning it to Koufax. Without a word, Marichal turned and cracked Roseboro over the head with his bat. He landed at least two blows before he was stopped. Roseboro left the game bleeding profusely from a scalp laceration but was otherwise, miraculously, left with no permanent damage. The damage to the psyche of the American baseball fan, however, was considerable. If baseball is, as lyrical wags frequently claim, a metaphor for American society, the image of Marichal, holding his bat with two hands high in the air, preparing to take another swat at Roseboro's unprotected head, should have scared the hell out of anyone contemplating what lay ahead for us as a country in the next five years.

Campaneris vs. LaGrow, October 8, 1972

The 1972 A.L. playoff series between the Oakland A's and the Detroit Tigers was a tense affair between two teams led by ultracompetitive managers. Tiger manager Billy Martin felt that Oakland shortstop Bert Campaneris was the key to the A's attack with his pesky base running habits and Campaneris did not disappoint early in the series. In the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 2, as Campaneris came to bat, he had already gotten 3 hits, scored 2 runs and stolen 2 bases in the game. Tiger pitcher Lerin LaGrow promptly nailed Campaneris in the ankle with a pitch. Campaneris, under the impression that the pitch was intentional, got up and hurled the bat at the pitcher. A shocked television nation watched as the projectile helicoptered its way 60 feet, 6 inches toward LaGrow, who ducked out of harm's way. Campaneris and LaGrow were ejected and suspended for the rest of the series.
This one really needs to be seen to be appreciated.

Also interesting is the reaction of Tiger manager Billy Martin who is apparently shocked--shocked--that someone would even suggest that his pitcher would deliberately throw at a batter.

Rose vs. Harrelson, Ocotber 8, 1973

The league championship series brings out the competitive spirit like no other time. The 1973 N.L. playoffs, between the Reds and the You-gotta-believe Mets was no exception. Pete Rose, loved in Cincinnati but viewed with annoyance throughout the rest of the league for his arrogance and annoyingly exuberant play, had just concluded an MVP season. In Game Three, in New York, Rose slid into second base to break up a double play. Actually "slid into second base" is a euphemism for "used his body as a weapon and hurled it in the general direction of the shortstop, Bud Harrelson, who had already stepped on second and pivoted and was about three feet north of the bag." The 150-pound Harrelson objected to the 200-pound Rose recklessly barreling into him and offered a few choice words. Later accounts of the words varied greatly depending on where they were published, but apparently the words referenced either Harrelson's opinion of what Rose did with his mouth or who he had intimate relations with. Whatever the exact exchange, Rose did not take it well and got up and shoved Harrelson. Both benches cleared and a general mob scene followed.

After order was restored among the players, manager Sparky Anderson threatened to pull his team from the field as Shea Stadium partisans demonstrated their opinion of Rose by showering him with all manner of refuse when he took his position in the outfield. A peace delegation led by Yogi Berra and Willie Mays made its way to the outfield to plea for calm and the game was finally finished.

Rose got his revenge the next game, hitting a 12th inning home run and sprinting around the bases while defiantly shaking his fist at the Shea Stadium crowd, but the Mets took the series in five.

Ryan vs. Ventura, August 4, 1993

Robin Ventura, who had earlier had an RBI hit, was plunked in the back by Nolan Ryan's first pitch when he faced him in the third inning. Ventura, feeling that the pitch was not an accident, dropped his bat and charged at the 46-year-old pitcher, who appeared shocked that a batter would come out after him. Ryan recovered in time to show the baseball world how Texans punch them dogies when they get out of line.

Mathews vs. Robinson, August 15, 1960

This one is not as well-known now, but it was a big deal when it happened. In the 1950s and 1960s two of the baddest dudes on any field were Frank Robinson of the Reds and Eddie Mathews of the Braves. They were extremely competitive guys who never backed down. Mathews, particularly, had a mean streak and would fight at the drop of a hat--and often dropped the hat himself.

Robinson was known to maul more than one baseman with hard, spikes-high slides. When he plowed into third base with a triple and spiked Mathews, the Braves' slugger immediately launched several shots to Robinson's face. While Mathews was ejected, Robinson, bleeding from both his nose and a nasty cut over his eye, stayed in the game. In the second game of the double header, playing with one eye nearly swelled shut and a badly jammed thumb, Robinson hit a 2-run home run and a 2-run double to lead the Reds to a 4-0 victory, prompting a rival coach to say, "Robinson beat the Braves with one eye."

After the game, wearing a face that should have been screaming, "Yo Adrian," a battered-appearing Robinson told reporters, "I won the fight because we won the game."

Piniella vs Fisk, May 20, 1976

By the mid-seventies, no one expected a cotillion when the Sox and Yanks got together, but this time they outdid themselves. Lead-footed Sweet Lou Piniella lumbered around third and unwisely tried to score from second on a line drive single to howitzer-armed Dwight Evans in right field. Evans fired a missile and Piniella was out by a mile. Piniella never slowed down, however, and attempted to steamroll Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, who responded by shoving Piniella down and punching him as the two teams raced each other onto the field.

While this one was billed as Piniella vs. Fisk, the undercard of Lee vs. Nettles turned out to be more interesting. Nettles grabbed the Boston lefty from behind, picked him up and body-slammed him to the turf on his left shoulder--fracturing it and knocking him out for the year. Lee, who had inspired Yankee ire after the 1973 fight by saying that they "fought like a bunch of hookers, swinging their purses," got up, realized that his pitching arm was dead and tried to unleash a lethal verbal barrage at Nettles. Perhaps realizing that he could not match words with Lee, Nettles did the only thing he could think of--he slugged him in the face with a haymaker, scoring a second knockdown. Nettles later said, "I wanted to make sure he knew he wasn't being hit by a purse."

Piazza vs. Clemens, October 22, 2000
These two already had a history as Clemens had drilled Piazza in the head during an interleague game earlier in the season, sparking much back and forth banter through the media. When they met for the first time in Game Two of the World Series between the Mets and the Yankees, an inside Clemens pitch shattered Piazza's bat on a foul ball, Clemens picked up the barrel and inexplicably fired it at the startled Piazza. Can you say, "Roid rage?"

Martin vs. Jackson, June 18, 1977

Yankee nerves were wearing thin as the expensive, talented team struggled to put it all together during the summer of '77 while the Bronx was burning. Manager Billy Martin and his star Reggie Jackson butted heads throughout the season. Martin particularly resented Jackson's lackadaisical approach to outfield play. When Jackson appeared to loaf after a blooper by Jim Rice, allowing him to take second, as the Red Sox were drubbing the Yanks in Fenway Park, Martin ordered outfielder Paul Blair to grab a glove and replaced Jackson in the middle of the inning. Jackson, always acutely aware of his image, particularly did not appreciate being shown up on national television. Jackson went directly to Martin in the dugout and the two argued face to face in full view of the television audience.
As everyone knows, the two later made nice (temporarily) and Reggie responded with three home runs in the final game of the World Series that fall.

Martin vs. Boswell, August 6, 1969

Billy Martin, in his first managerial gig, set a tone which would be oft repeated. He immediately turned the team into winners, and very soon afterwards he began to get on people's nerves. And get on people's nerves is a nice way of saying that he beat them up. Dave Boswell was on his way to a 20-win season for the Twins, who would win the A.L. West that season. After a game in Detroit, a few players and Martin were relaxing in a favorite post-game nightspot not far from Tiger Stadium, the Lindell AC. Martin was apparently upset that Boswell had not finished his required running for pitching coach Art Fowler and decided to calmly discuss the matter. They continued their polite discussion out in the alley, where things soon took a turn for the worse. Martin described his version of managerial tough love for an AP reporter, telling him he landed "about five or six punches to the stomach, a couple to the head and when he came off the wall, I hit him again. He was out before he hit the ground." With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Yankees vs. Loudmouth drunks at the Copacabana, May 16, 1957

Even more notorious than Barry Manilow's celebrated Rico vs. Tony fight at New York's Copacabana (the hottest spot north of Havana) was the late-night brawl between several New York Yankees and members of a Manhattan bowling team who had a few too many drinks. One of the loudmouths woke up on the floor of the men's room with a broken jaw. The Yankees involved, not surprisingly, were Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford. No one ever said for sure who threw the punch, but it was apparently a good one.

The article reporting on the incident in the New York Post which stated, "The great battlefields include Bastogne, Verdun, Gettysburg and the kitchen of the Copacabana," was guilty of hyperbole and inaccuracy (I thought Verdun was overrated). In the aftermath,Yankee owners were so mad at Mickey and Whitey that they traded Billy.

Lonborg vs. Tillotson, June 21, 1967
 The Yankee-Red Sox feud had been dormant for years by 1967, but heated up as the Red Sox unexpectedly charged toward the pennant. In a game at Yankee Stadium, New York pitcher Thad Tillotson's first pitch to Joe Foy, who had been swinging a hot bat, was high and very tight. The next pitch clunked him on the head, knocking his batting helmet off. As so often happens in baseball, Tillotson led off an inning later for the Yanks. Gentleman Jim Lonborg, on the mound for the Red Sox, as per the time-honored tradition of protecting his peeps, nailed Tillotson on the shoulder. When Tillotson made some threatening comments regarding what he would do when Lonborg next came to the plate, Foy charged across the infield and the fight was on. Benches cleared, fists flew.
During the melee, Red Sox Rico Petrocelli and Yankee Joe Pepitone, buddies from their early years in Brooklyn, were apparently jawing and joking but were soon swallowed up in the fight. Pepitone, famous for his blow-dried coif, became enraged when someone in the pile pulled his hair.
Another curious sight in the mob scene was the appearance of a New York cop, a member of the special stadium security detail, who joined the fray and was noted to be threatening Yankees. It was later discovered that he was the brother of Petrocelli, who jumped in to protect his  sibling.

A Rod vs. Varitek, July 24, 2004

In 2004 Alex Rodriguez was not yet the universally reviled pariah he would become in the next decade. He was simply the most destructive offensive force in the game. With the Yankees leading 3-0 in the top of the third inning, A Rod was drilled in the back by pitcher Bronson Arroyo. An unhappy A Rod exchanged angry words and threats with Arroyo as he slowly walked up the first base line. Lip readers could make out several words that begin with F. Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek apparently heard enough and responded on Arroyo's behalf with a shove to the face which was captured perfectly and for all time in the above photo.

Pedro Martinez vs. Don Zimmer, October 11, 2003

Red Sox-Yankee nastiness had been the norm for years by the time the two teams squared off in the 2003 ALCS. In Game Three, Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez, a man known for his impeccable control, drilled Yankee batter Karin Garcia in the upper back, triggering some spirited yelling and gesturing between Martinez and the Yankee bench, but little else. Yankee bench coach, 72-year-old bald, round-faced cherub Don Zimmer seemed to have the most to say among the penstripers.
In the bottom of the inning, Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens threw very close to the head of Manny Ramirez. Manny took exception and yelled out to the mound. Clemens stalked toward the plate, yelling choice words of his own. During the exchange of unpleasant words between teams, Pedro seemed to be gesturing at someone on the Yankee bench, saying, "Come at me bro."
Then the gates opened and both teams charged the field. One of the first men into battle was Zimmer, who targeted Martinez. Pedro sidestepped the charging septuagenarian like a bull fighter, grabbed him by the head and hurled him to the ground, thereby instantly becoming Public Enemy Number One in nursing homes throughout the country.

Phillips vs. Molina/Cueto vs. entire Cardinals team, August 10, 2010

The Cardinals had been bending their division rivals over their knees and spanking their little butts for several years. Instead of answering with his play on the field, Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips offered shots in the media to the effect that the Cardinals were a bunch of crybabies. When Phillips came to the plate in the first inning of the game in Cincinnati, he tapped Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina on the shinguards with his bat. Molina responded angrily and the benches quickly cleared.
This one turned very ugly when Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto, pinned against the backstop by the frenzied mob of players from both teams, began kicking wildly with his metal-cleated shoes. One of his kicks landed on the head of Cardinal back-up catcher Jason LaRue. Cueto was suspended for seven games, but LaRue sustained a concussion, later developed severe post-concussion syndrome and was forced to retire from the game.

So there you have it, my list of baseball's fights of the century. If you feel that I left out a better one, or if you take exception to anything I might have written about one of your favorite players, just throw one high and tight the next time I come up, I'll get the message.

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