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Thurman and Fisk

Ali-Frazier, Islanders-Rangers, Steelers-Browns, Knicks-Bulls, all great rivalries with epic one-on-one battles. Every once in a while in team rivalries, there is a rivalry within a rivalry. One that recently came to mind was Thurman Munson-Carlton Fisk.

Very few had the life span or were more sensationalized. The thing is, they had a lot in common.

The rivalry arrived at just the right time, when two of baseball’s premier franchises were on the rise. The Red Sox were ahead of the Yankees in that regard, but that would balance out very soon.

Both players were in their prime and played the same position… Catcher. That gave each of them 4 or 5 times a game, 16 games a season, to be inches from each other, trade glares and mutter comments towards each other.

The plot was set.

There were no false flags in this war, and looking back it is challenging to isolate exactly when the rivalry and animosity between them started.

Some say it all began in September of 1971. Fisk, an enthusiastic late-season call-up had a routine of racing hitters down the first baseline to back up the play at first base. On one particular play, Munson grounded to first baseman Carl Yastrzemski who attempted a 3-6-3 double play. Fisk came close to beating Munson to the bag.

Thurman prided himself on his hustle and appeared to be annoyed at this rookie chasing him down the line.

As a hardnosed tough player, it didn’t take too much to get Thurman angry.

I searched it, and there are no box scores that can confirm this particular ground out, but this was a story I was told many moons ago by a lifelong Yankee fan, and later cited by Peter Gammons.

A Year later in 1972, Fisk began to get a lot of national attention, and with that came All-Star votes.

Munson was already widely considered the best catcher in the league and was the only catcher in league’s history to be selected Rookie of the Year. Fisk matched the Rookie of the Year honors, and the rivalry grew.

The following season an event took place that brought the rivalry to a whole new level. That August in a tied game in the 9th inning at Fenway Park, Munson was on third base and Gene Michael was at the plate when Manager Ralph Houk put the suicide squeeze play on. As fate would intervene, Michael missed the pitch. On a suicide squeeze play when the pitch is missed, the runner breaking down the line at full speed would usually be hung out to dry and get caught in a “pickle” between home plate and third base; ultimately tagged out. Thurman would not have any of that on this warm August evening, and ran harder to the plate. Fisk stood his ground, ball in hand and blocked the plate (no Buster Posey Rule!) Munson lowered his right shoulder and BOOM!

The collision propelled Munson on top of Fisk as they both collapsed in the left handers batter’s box amongst a cloud of dust. Fisk held onto the ball and Munson was out. Munson always thinking two plays ahead, laid on top of Fisk; momentarily permitting Yankee runner Felipe Alou to continue running the bases. Fisk tried to knock Munson off and the fight was on.

In the post-game interviews, neither was remorseful. When asked who threw the first punch, Munson said “I did. We said a few things and I hit him. He kicked me off him with his foot pretty good. I don’t know what he was doing. Is he scratched up?” He smiled sarcastically, “What a (bleeping) shame.”

As time unfolded, Munson became more annoyed of the apparent popularity of Fisk among fans; after all, he was actually the better player. Munson was always brutally honest and always said what was on his mind “It’s Curt Gowdy on the Game of the Week always playing him up. He used to be the Red Sox announcer, he loves them, and now he’s on the national games and he’s always talking about Fisk this and Fisk that. And you know what? Fisk is always getting hurt, and I’m always playing through injuries, and he’s getting credit for things he might do if he was healthy. Gowdy has this thing for him.”

In reality he was right, Munson had never been on the disabled list while Fisk was on the DL four times from 1972 through 1976. Thurman won the 1976 AL MVP Award, and hit .529 in the 1976 World Series.

Madison Avenue seemed to be enamored with Fisk over Munson. They definitely did have a contrast in appearance, and that is what sells. Fisk was tall, clean cut and always clean-shaven. Munson was stocky, short-legged, with a Five O’ Clock shadow and a mouth full of tobacco.

In a time when salaries were not remotely what they are today, off field revenue was important. Thurman missed out on commercials and marketing engagements. This only added to the fire as he watched as Fisk’s all American looks landed him Credit Card, Car, and tobacco company commercials. In Munson’s 1978 autobiography, he tells us that he got a new commercial, and wrote, “Guess who did a TV commercial? I did. Eat your heart out, Fisk.”

In 1976 he stated “For a while it was like I didn’t even exist, He got all the publicity and most of the All-Star votes. I don’t hold it against him personally, but he’s never been as good a catcher as I am. If we were on the same team, I might even like him. But he’d have to play another position.”

Teammates and coaches knew how much Munson disliked Fisk and used it for club house humor. Gene Michael, his roommate for 5 years and fellow Kent State Alumni, used to tear out Fisk stories and pictures from magazines and newspapers and put them in Munson’s locker, while the rest of the team would wait in the locker room for Thurman to open his locker. Munson never knew it was his good friend Michael just trying to lighten the mood.

The rivalry was unique though, on occasion Munson would talk to Fisk about things he saw in the newspapers that he didn’t like when Fisk would come to bat “Listen, Fisk, I saw what you said in the paper this morning and it’s BS.”

They both were very open and candid about it; “We don’t send each other Christmas cards, put it that way,” Fisk told a reporter in 1977.

During a spring training game reporters picked up on an aggressive way in which they passed each other on the field, when asked about it Fisk stated “he’s not one of my best friends, nor is he my worst of enemies.”

When pressed further he concluded with “It means I don’t like him worth a damn,”

Fisk made six All-Star games between 1971 and 1978 and Munson made seven. Fisk had more home run power and Munson hit for a better average. They were both great catchers with strong arms, although Munson had much quicker feet and got rid of the ball faster. Both outclassed their peers at handling pitchers and calling games. Munson won more Gold Gloves.

In reality, what probably caused their dislike for each other was that they both knew they were very much alike. Since each was intensely driven and competitive to the point where they set team responsibility and winning above friendship, they never cared to know more about the other. That’s just how it was. Players did not fraternize with each other like they do today, especially Yankees and Red Sox.

They were both the type of players other teams disliked, and teammates loved. Both were abnormally athletic catchers who hustled, hit, ran the bases hard, and never backed down.

We could definitely use more of them today!

As time passed the rapport between the two became less confrontational. They may not have been on each other’s Christmas card lists, as Fisk had stated, but they established a connection based on respect.

Sometime in 1977 or 1978, they started having small conversations at the plate that only a catcher would understand regarding how much their bodies ached from catching every day and night. In 1977, Fisk was coming off a knee injury and there was a play at the plate when Munson could have run into him, but instead he pulled up and just came in standing up. Afterwards Fisk said something to Munson about it and he said ‘If your legs feel like mine do, I wouldn’t try to hurt any other catchers’ legs.”

After Munson’s untimely death in 1979, Fisk said, “People always said Boston-New York was Fisk vs. Munson and there was a personal rivalry. If we were, as people said, the worst of the best enemies, it was because we had the highest amount of respect for one another. We both thought for a while that we were the two best catchers in the league, and we tried to prove to one another that each of us was better than the other. I talked to him more than anyone else when we played them. We’d talk about catching, about how we hurt. I’ll really miss him.”

In 1980, Fisk said, “Thurman was a part of my life, no question. That part is gone. That part of my career is gone too. It’s over. It just isn’t the same without him.”

Munson-Fisk; a couple of old school hard-nosed players that paths crossed over a 7 or 8 year period. What appeared at first to be a rivalry based on an ancient virus turned into mutual admiration and respect.

In 1981, Fisk left Boston for Chicago and number 27 became number 72. But in Boston, number 27 still has a strong connection to the fans.

In New York, a number 15 plaque hangs in Monument Park, while his uniform still hangs in his old locker that was moved when the new stadium opened in 2009.

Whenever I go to the Stadium, I see plenty of number 15 jerseys, and I even took the tour just to see Thurman’s uniform hanging in his locker.

The connection lived on. In 2000, when Fisk was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he mentioned Thurman Munson in his acceptance speech.

New Englanders looked at Fisk and saw themselves, and New Yorkers looked at Munson and saw themselves. Two very different men and cities, with some common ground and mutual respect who impacted each other and millions of fans!

As memories become muddy and time moves forward, I hope the current generation of ball players take the time to appreciate players like these two, and the intensity in which they played with every single game.


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