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08/02/2004 Archived Entry: "Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition"
Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition
By Bruce Markusen
Brawling Bosox and Bombers In Beantown
Prior to 2003, the rivalry had seen itself reduced to a level of mediocrity—characterized by feigned anger—and fueled mostly by the media and the fans, more so than by players who actually despised the sight of their opponents. Such is life in the age of a unified Players’ Association, where constant turnover in player personnel can transform public enemies into clubhouse friends overnight. Well, that’s not the case any longer. Beginning with last year’s ugly escapades of beanballs, catcalls, head-pointing, and coach-tossing, which dominated the theme of Game Three of the American League Championship Series, the rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees has found itself revived and reinvigorated. The recent battle royale between Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek only reinforced the newly discovered feelings of resentment, making the following assessment possible: beyond the owners and the front offices, the players on these teams really do dislike each other.
The two bench-clearing brawls, spaced within 10 months of one another, help us recall a time when the Red Sox and Yankees often behaved as sworn mortal enemies. For the first time in decades, this rivalry has returned to a level of nastiness last seen in the late sixties and throughout the 1970s. Let’s consider three particularly vicious incidents that took place during the summers of 1967 (when the Red Sox won the American League pennant), 1973 (when both teams finished as also-rans in the AL East), and 1976 (when the Yankees returned to the pennant perch for the first time in a dozen years).
June 21, 1967:
In a Wednesday night game at Yankee Stadium, Tony Conigliaro gave the Red Sox an early lead by ripping a three-run home run in the first inning. The following inning, Thad Tillotson, an obscure right-hander for the Yankees, threw a fastball up and in against Red Sox third baseman Joe Foy, who managed to duck out of the way. Unsatisfied with his first beanball attempt, Tillotson uncorked another high fastball, this time hitting Foy squarely in the helmet. Though momentarily dazed and staggered, Foy courageously remained in the game and took his place at first base, making no effort to charge the mound or incite Tillotson.
When Tillotson took his turn at-bat in the bottom half of the inning, Red Sox starter Jim Lonborg made sure to exact immediate revenge for his teammate, nailing Tillotson with one of his own fastballs. As Tillotson made his way toward first base, he hurled a few angry words toward Lonborg. Walking over from his position at third base, Foy crossed the field toward the first base side of the diamond and delivered his own message to Tillotson. “If you want to fight, why not fight me?” Foy asked the Yankee pitcher. “I’m the guy you hit to start all this trouble.”
After Foy issued his challenge, the benches cleared and a brawl ensued. The fight resulted in one injury; Yankee first baseman-outfielder Joe Pepitone suffered a strained left wrist. Somewhat surprisingly, neither Tillotson, Foy, nor Lonborg were ejected from the game. The absence of an ejection for Foy proved especially costly to the Yankees. After the fight, Foy executed a fine play in the field and delivered a key hit, helping the Red Sox to an 8-1 victory over the Yankees. Lonborg also jabbed the Yankees with another hit batsman, nailing pinch-hitter Dick Howser in the fifth inning. (And thus Lonborg fulfilled the credo of Don Drysdale, who warned that he would hit TWO batters for every ONE Dodger hit by a pitch.)
The root cause of the Tillotson incident might have been found in the previous night’s game. That’s when Foy clubbed a grand slam against Yankee ace Mel Stottlemyre, which prompted a fastball that later flew over Foy’s head. Perhaps considering Stottlemyre’s attempted knockdown a bit of unfinished business, Tillotson decided to continue the beanball efforts against Foy the following night. Whatever the case, the Yankees seemed clearly to be the team at fault in this instance, with their pitchers simply frustrated over their inability to keep the likes of Foy and Conigliaro inside the park.
There was also an intriguing sidenote to the controversial episode. Two nights before the beanball fight—and before he completed his own successful efforts at retribution—Foy found himself in the midst of some personal torment. An offseason resident of the Bronx, Foy was making his way toward Yankee Stadium when he learned that his family’s house was burning down. The house, located only 13 blocks from the Stadium, was almost completely destroyed, along with many of Foy’s possessions. Coincidentally, two of Foy’s brothers, who both served as NYC police officers, were scheduled to work the Stadium for the antagonistic series with the Red Sox, but remained home to help with recovery efforts at their former residence.
August 1, 1973:
In a Wednesday afternoon game at Fenway Park, the Red Sox and Yankees played to a 2-2 tie through eight innings. In the top of the ninth, Thurman Munson doubled and then moved up to third on an infield groundout. With one out, Yankee manager Ralph Houk called for a suicide squeeze bunt. Light-hitting Gene “Stick” Michael attempted the squeeze bunt but missed the ball completely, leaving Munson a seemingly easy out at the plate. Rather than concede the out, Munson continued to run hard and crashed into Red Sox catcher Carlton “Pudge” Fisk. After Fisk applied the tag to Munson, the two personal rivals started grappling with each other, leading to another bench-clearing affair. Michael quickly stepped in as the third-man-in, angering the Red Sox. With Michael and Munson double-teaming him before the rest of the players reached home plate, Fisk endured a scratch to his face and a bruise near his eye. Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, never one to back away from a pithy comment, suggested that Michael was less than manly in deciding to jump into the fracas. “Did Michael scratch you with his purse?” Lee asked Fisk sarcastically.
Like the Foy-Tillotson incident, the fuse might have been lit by circumstances in the previous night’s game. In that game, Fisk had skillfully blocked Roy White from scoring a run by extending his league in front of the plate and tripping the Yankee baserunner. Failing to touch the plate, White was properly called out by the home plate umpire. Already garnering a reputation for his tough stands and sly trickery at the plate, Fisk’s maneuver against White may have motivated Munson in seeking out a collision rather than politely conceding the out at the plate. Of course, Munson didn’t like Fisk to begin with, in large part because he felt the baseball media played favorites in labeling Fisk the superior player. Given the chance to knock down Fisk, Munson took full advantage of the opportunity.
Unlike the Foy-Tillotson brouhaha, blame was harder to assess in the case of Fisk-Munson. Assessing both catchers to be mutual instigators, the umpires ejected both players, forcing the Red Sox and Yankees to turn to their backup catchers. In the bottom of the ninth, Fisk’s replacement, veteran Bob Montgomery, started a rally with a single. Two batters later, shortstop Mario Guerrero (of Raul Mondesi fame) delivered another single, scoring Montgomery with the winning run. Yankee catcher Gerry Moses could only stand by helplessly as the Red Sox tallied a 3-2 victory.
May 20, 1976:
In a Thursday night game at Yankee Stadium, Boston’s Fisk and New York’s Lou Piniella initiated what became the nastiest fight between the two rivals. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Piniella tried to score on a single to right by Otto Velez but was tagged out by Fisk, precipitating another entanglement between a Yankee baserunner and the Red Sox’ catcher. The two combatants threw punches at each other, once again prompting both benches to empty. Curiously, Red Sox starter Bill Lee was one of the first Bostonians to arrive to Fisk’s defense, despite the fact that he and Pudge didn’t particularly care for one another. Lee claimed that he was simply trying to stop Yankee strongboy Otto Velez, a young backup first baseman-outfielder, from jumping onto Fisk. Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles then entered the fray, tackling Lee, first grabbing him and picking him up, and then body-slamming him into the Yankee Stadium turf. In the process, Nettles began grinding Lee’s shoulder into the grass and dirt, causing serious damage to Lee’s pitching arm—and ultimately his career.
The on-field histrionics seemed to have come to an end, but Lee resuscitated the fight. Stunned with pain in his left shoulder, Lee began shouting at Nettles. “If you ever hurt my shoulder again,” Lee yelled, “I’ll kill you.” Stalking Nettles as he staggered away from the home plate pileup, Lee advanced the brawl to stage two. Lee tried to throw a punch at his nemesis, but couldn’t raise his arm above the level of his belt. Nettles then fired back with a series of punches, and was aided by teammate Mickey Rivers, who delivered several cheapshots to Lee’s back.
Although both teams shared blame in initiating the latest brawl, the behavior of Nettles and Rivers in using excessive physical force placed the Yankees in the roles of villains. As if Lee hadn’t felt sufficient victimization at the hands of the two Yankees, he encountered more pain when he discovered that he and Nettles had been ejected from the game. (Curiously, neither Fisk nor Piniella were given the boot.) The ejection was particularly frustrating for Lee, who was the starting pitcher that night and had allowed only one unearned run over the first six innings. The Red Sox did their best to avenge their pitching teammate, however, scoring eight runs over the final three innings (including two Carl Yastrzemski home runs) to post a come-from-behind 8-2 win over the hated Pinstripers.
Sadly, the Red Sox comeback meant little given the long-term prognosis for Lee. During the initial part of the melee with Nettles, Lee had suffered a tear to the acromid clavicular ligament in his left shoulder. Expected to be sidelined a minimum of six weeks by the setback, Lee sounded off angrily against what he considered dirty tactics by his Yankee enemies. “If it was just a fight, then that would be OK,” Lee reasoned to reporters. “But Nettles shouldn’t have been grinding my shoulder like that.” Lee didn’t spare Rivers from his diatribe, either. “I’m going to rest for six weeks and drill Nettles and drill Rivers.”
Lee did get his chance for retribution later that season, returning from the disabled list on July 15 and making his first start against New York on July 23 at Yankee Stadium. Lee failed to “drill” either Nettles or Rivers; instead they “drilled” him, each hitting home runs against the outspoken left-hander. Nettles’ two-run shot and Rivers’ three-run blast lifted the Yankees to a 9-1 win against Lee and the Sox.
A three-time 17-game winner, Lee failed to regain his pre-injury form during the rest of his days with the Red Sox. He struggled so badly during the second half of 1976 that Boston banished him to the bullpen. Still pitching at less than optimum strength, he also posted sub-par seasons in 1977 and ’78. During the winter of ‘78, the Red Sox traded Lee to the Montreal Expos, where he finished out his career with one good year before succumbing to injuries the following three seasons.
Cooperstown Comings and Goings
While major league baseball enjoys record levels of attendance throughout both leagues, the degree of tourism in Cooperstown has reached alarmingly low levels this spring and summer. Conservative estimates placed attendance for Sunday’s annual induction ceremony at 8,000 to 10,000, even below last year’s mediocre turnout for Gary Carter and Eddie Murray, and the Hall’s lowest since the sparsely attended 1996 induction. In the meantime, some Main Street merchants are reporting that seasonal traffic is down 20 per cent from last year, which was already a light year for the village. The reasons? Escalating gas prices have discouraged visitors from making the drive to Cooperstown, while the lack of a glamorous inductee in 2004—Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor are unquestionably Hall of Famers but lack the fan appeal of a Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt or Tom Seaver—only exacerbated the apathy for this year’s Hall of Fame Weekend.
In contrast to the fan turnout, the Hall of Fame received unprecedented support from its living members. A record 50 Hall of Famers returned to Cooperstown in late July for the annual induction ceremonies, leaving only eight living inductees who could be classified as no-shows. The list of the missing included the following: Hank Aaron and Luis Aparicio, who have been infrequent participants in Hall of Fame inductions; Al Lopez, who at 95 is the oldest living Hall of Famer and rarely travels due to his age; Stan Musial, who did not attend for undisclosed health reasons; Frank Robinson, who is busy managing the Montreal Expos; Nolan Ryan, who has never returned to Cooperstown since his election and induction in 1999; Mike Schmidt, who received a short leave of absence from his minor league managerial duties but opted to attend the National Sports Convention instead of the Cooperstown ceremonies; and Carl Yastrzemski, who is probably the most intensely private of the Hall of Famers and rarely attends induction weekend.
A number of non-Hall of Famers also traveled to Cooperstown, some to participate in autograph and book signings and others as part of the Eckersley and Molitor guest lists. The contingent of former major leaguers included three frequent Cooperstown visitors, Paul Blair, George Foster and Jim “Mudcat” Grant; current A’s broadcaster Ray Fosse; 1960 National League batting champion Dick Groat; former Mets and Dodgers catcher Jerry Grote; 1960s journeyman Don Schwall (who participated in multiple signings, no less); and three former Oakland teammates of Eckersley: Ron Darling, Rick Honeycutt, and Scott Sanderson. Bob Uecker, still broadcasting with the Brewers and a friend of Molitor, returned to Cooperstown one year after receiving the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence. Don Zimmer, currently working in a front office role with the Devil Rays, also attended the weekend events, signing copies of his new book, The Zen of Zim…
Another ex-big leaguer, Gold Glove third baseman Clete Boyer, remains a Cooperstown fixture, residing in the village during the summer months. Unfortunately, Boyer is suffering from colon cancer, which he was diagnosed with last winter. After completing a round of chemotherapy treatments in late June, his doctor gave him permission to travel north from his home in Florida to participate in his annual summer rituals in Cooperstown. Boyer signs autographs on nearly a daily basis in Cooperstown and also owns a restaurant located just three and a half miles outside of the village…
In addition, three former major leaguers from the Syracuse area (located about two hours from Cooperstown) made it to town for the final day of Hall of Fame Weekend. Ex-pitchers Frank Dipino, Steve Grilli, and Peter Hoy participated in a skills clinic for youngsters at Doubleday Field, Cooperstown’s historic 10,000-seat ballpark. The Hall of Fame devised the clinic as a way to fill out the weekend and replace the Hall of Fame Game, which is now held in the middle of June. Although the skills clinic is a noble idea geared for the kids, at least one Cooperstown merchant claims that it lacks the allure of the Hall of Fame Game, which was a strong enough draw to keep people in Cooperstown for the Monday of Hall of Fame Weekend. The same merchant suggested that the Hall of Fame sponsor an Old-Timers’ Game on Monday as a way of capping off the weekend, but his conversations with Hall officials indicate lukewarm interest in staging such an event.
The Nickname Game
One of the best parts of Hall of Fame Weekend is the chance to meet and greet the Hall of Famers up close and personal. With few exceptions, the Hall of Famers are generally an agreeable sort, and none is friendlier than perennial Gold Glover Brooks Robinson. While Roberto Clemente is my favorite player of all-time, Brooksie ranks as my No. 1 choice among the living Hall of Famers. The consummate gentleman, Robinson is one of the most generous of the old-time players, contributing his time and money to a variety of causes that benefit retired ballplayers. He also has two of the best nicknames of the expansion era, one moniker that is well known, and one that is a bit more obscure. Robinson’s ability to inhale groundballs with his soft hands earned him the nickname “Vacuum Cleaner” a nickname that became popular among fans and media and seemed all the more appropriate when artificial turf began to come into vogue in the late 1960s. And then there was the nickname that his Oriole teammates preferred, one that might be considered a little less flattering. Major league players being a cruel sort when it comes to relations with teammates, some of the Orioles enjoyed calling Brooksie “The Head,” since his receding hairline made his considerable skull appear a little bit larger than it actually was. I don’t know that anyone’s officially measured it, but Robinson’s head is still a lot smaller than that of the Rangers’ Kevin Mench, who ranks as the current king of major league noggins.
No, Larry Haney was not a left-handed throwing catcher. It only looks that way in this 1969 Topps card. In contrast to the way that Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy achieved baseball card glory by being featured in reversed negative photographs, Haney earned only a momentary glimpse of trading card fame. In 1957, Topps released an Aaron card that showed the eventual home run king in a left-handed batting pose. And then in 1989, Upper Deck issued its Murphy card with a similarly wrong-handed pose, again the result of the photo negative being accidentally reversed. Haney never received as much attention as either of these more celebrated cases, in large part because of his mediocre status as a good-field, no-hit backup catcher. There might have been another factor at play here, as well. Some collectors might have thought that Haney was trying to gain some notoriety by intentionally wearing a left-handed catcher’s mitt and pretending to play the position with the wrong hand. Yet, a conversation with former Topps president Sy Berger reveals otherwise. Topps simply made a mistake in its photo processing; Mr. Haney had nothing to do with the “error.”
After being taken in the 32nd round of the 1968 expansion draft by the Pilots from the Baltimore Orioles, Haney appeared in only 22 games for Seattle. In his lone Seattle claim to fame, he set a Pilots’ team record for catchers by committing two errors in a game. Such uncharacteristic defensive pratfalls may have influenced Seattle’s decision to trade him on June 14, 1969 (just before the old trading deadline), as they shipped the veteran receiver to the Oakland A’s for second baseman John Donaldson. From there, Haney went to the San Diego Padres’ organization (but never actually donned the brown and yellow of the Pods), then came back to the A’s, spent a brief time with the St. Louis Cardinals, came back to the A’s yet again, and finished his career with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1977 and ’78. Long since retired as a player, Haney now works as a scout for the Brewers—who used to be the Pilots, the same team featured on that 1969 Topps card.
Coincidentally, Haney was involved in another card error, albeit of a different kind. His 1975 Topps card displays an in-action photograph of an Oakland catcher awaiting a throw at home plate, but it’s not Haney in the picture. It’s actually former A’s catcher Dave Duncan, who had long since been traded away to the Cleveland Indians as part of the George Hendrick-Ray Fosse swap.
Ruben Gomez (Died on July 26 in San Juan, Puerto Rico; age 77; long illness): A member of the 1954 World Champion New York Giants, Gomez won 17 games that season, posted a career-best 2.88 ERA, and became the first Puerto Rican native to win a World Series game. The thin right-hander never achieved similar success again, instead gaining more notoriety for his tendency to hit batters with pitches. During his rookie season in 1953, Gomez hit Carl Furillo of the Brooklyn Dodgers, prompting a brawl between the New York City rivals. Believing that Giants manager Leo Durocher had ordered the knockdown pitch, Furillo became angry and both benches cleared. During the fight that followed, Furillo suffered a broken hand. In 1956, Gomez hit Milwaukee Braves star Joe Adcock in the wrist, prompting the slugger to charge the mound. As Adcock made his way toward the pitcher, Gomez fired the ball at him a second time. And then in 1957, Gomez beaned Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds, resulting in a hospital stay for the future Hall of Famer.
Gomez later pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies, Cleveland Indians, and Minnesota Twins over a career that spanned 10 major league seasons. He retired in 1967, leaving behind a record of 76-86 with an earned run average of 4.09.
Rob Derksen (Died on June 16 in New York City; age 44; heart attack): An international scout for the Baltimore Orioles, Derksen was preparing for his role as the manager of the Greek Olympic baseball team and was heavily involved in the selection of team members. Derksen had previously managed the Australian team at the 2000 Olympic Games. Derksen began his professional baseball career in 1982, when he was drafted as a pitcher on the 16th round by the Milwaukee Brewers. After retiring as a player, he began a 20-year career as a coach and scout.
Cooperstown Confidential author Bruce Markusen is co-host of “The Heart of the Order: Old School Baseball Talk,” which airs each Thursday at 12 noon Eastern time on MLB.com Radio. He is also the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, Roberto Clemente: The Great One, and The Orlando Cepeda Story. A fourth book, Ted Williams: A Biography (Greenwood Press), is scheduled for release this fall. Markusen is also available for lectures and presentations on baseball and baseball history. For more information on lecture availability, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.