Terrific new book out about the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry-called "The Greatest Game". Interesting how throughout the years it's been a constant that the highest profile players in certain eras played the same positions. DiMaggio and Williams were both outfielders, Garciaparra and Jeter shortstops. No question that the most talent was found in the outfielders, but the following excerpt makes it pretty clear that the most hate was found between the catchers in the mid to late 70s.
Baseball's sportswriters weren't the only ones to notice Fisk's arrival; so did Thurman Munson, who didn't take long to commence disliking Fisk. "It was kind of a territorial demand," Fisk said. "He was the reigning catcher in the league and I was the new kid on the block."
Fisk's analysis was probably charitable, because Munson's sentiment may have been more base. Something about Fisk -- his looks, his swagger -- either exacerbated Munson's insecurities or irritated his sense of baseball decorum. The catcher who never thought he got the attention he deserved was being eclipsed by a younger catcher who, in Munson's opinion, was earning more praise than he merited.
"Munson really created this rivalry between him and Fisk, because he was jealous of the attention Fisk was getting," biographer Marty Appel explained. At the time, baseball fans across the country got to see a national game every Saturday on NBC's Game of the Week, and for the first half of the decade NBC's play-by-play announcer was Curt Gowdy, who had been a Red Sox announcer for fifteen years before moving to the NBC broadcast. "To Munson's thinking, Curt Gowdy was always building up Fisk, because of his Boston connection," Appel said. "It would annoy Munson because Munson was accomplishing really good things and Fisk was always getting hurt. And still Gowdy was always going on about Carlton Fisk."
Of course, it wasn't just what was written and said about Fisk that irritated Munson; just as noxious were conflicts that developed on the field. In a 1971 game, Fisk embarrassed Munson, who was hitting, by beating him down the first base line on a ground ball Fisk was backing up. Two years later, on July 31, 1973, the Yankees and the Red Sox were playing at Fenway when Roy White tried to score on a play at the plate. Confident that he was comfortably ahead of the incoming throw, White remained standing as he neared the plate. But as the ball neared his glove, Fisk stretched his left leg backward and tripped White, who went airborne and missed the plate entirely -- giving Fisk time enough to tag him. The Sox won the game and moved into a tie for first with New York. In the locker room later, Yankee manager Ralph Houk reminded his players that it was better to run into the catcher than to be tripped, fall over, and get tagged out.
The two teams met again, the next night with John Curtis on the mound for the Sox and Mel Stottlemyre pitching for New York. In the second inning, Stottlemyre zipped a pitch past Fisk's head, a notice that the events of the previous night had not been forgotten. The game was tied at two when the Yankees came up in the top of the ninth. After Munson doubled, Graig Nettles grounded out, moving Munson to third. First baseman Felipe Alou then walked. With light-hitting shortstop Gene Michael coming up, Ralph Houk called for a suicide squeeze.
On the first pitch, Munson broke for the plate and Michael pivoted to bunt. But Michael missed the pitch, and Munson barreled toward home looking like an easy out. So Munson did what Houk had suggested; he slammed into Fisk with all his force. Fisk held on to the ball, and as Felipe Alou headed toward third, Munson lay on top of Fisk. The Red Sox catcher kicked Munson off him; Munson promptly jumped up and punched him. Then Gene Michael got into it, and suddenly Fisk was fighting both Munson and Michael at the same time, and holding his own. (Michael was a better shortstop than fighter, and Fisk was strong.) Within seconds the field was flooded with players from both dugouts. When Munson, Fisk, and Michael were separated, Fisk went back to the dugout bleeding, his face slightly swollen. An angry Bill Lee asked if Gene Michael "had scratched [Fisk] with his purse." Later, Lee would tell reporters that the Yankees were like "a bunch of hookers, swinging their purses." The Yankees would remember that insult. "Ask [Fisk] who won the fight, he knows," Munson would say.
When play resumed, the Sox went on to win the game, 3-2, in the bottom of the ninth. They would finish second in 1973, eight games behind the Orioles but nine ahead of the fourth-place Yankees. Fisk, meanwhile, was earning a reputation as a player with a knack for getting on opponents' nerves. "If a fight starts, Fisk is sure to be in it," the Sporting News said. Shortly after the Yankee incident, Fisk got embroiled in another home plate altercation with the Angels' Alan Gallagher, and then days later nearly landed in another with the Angels' venerable Frank Robinson. "Tell him that people don't like him in this league," Robinson said afterward. "He's got a lot to learn." From Fisk's point of view, he was not merely defending his turf, but was also sticking up for a certain way of playing the game -- tough, physical, relentless, old-school. If Fisk had been a Yankee, Billy Martin would have loved him. But Carlton Fisk could never have been a Yankee. Perhaps even more than Carl Yastrzemski -- who, after all, had hoped to play for the Yankees before his father told him otherwise -- Fisk personified the Red Sox.