The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have produced some noted rivalries and none was better than Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson.
The late 90s shortstop battle of Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter may ring today but the real Red Sox – Yankee rivalry was between catchers Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk. Nether considered a baserunner coming home anything but a target as both were physical catchers with Fisk being the larger of the two. Both were right-handed hitters and hit is the optimum word with a bat, body, or fist.
Munson had a .292 career average over 11 seasons and that average is better than eight of the 13 catchers in the Hall of Fame. A six-time All-Star, a Rookie of the Year (1970), an MVP (1976), and two Gold Glove Awards. The hitting pedigree speaks for itself. Ditto for defense.
Fisk had a remarkable 24-year career with 11 seasons being with the Red Sox. Fisk has also anointed a Rookie of the Year (1972), is a multiple All-Star (seven with Boston), a Gold Glove Award, and 2,226 games caught. Fisk finished with a career .269 average and almost the entire record book for catchers.
Fisk is immortalized by his dramatic game six home run in the 1975 World Series, but Munson certainly made his impact as being instrumental in two Yankee world championship teams as Munson was a career .357 hitter in playoff action. One item of note is Munson thought of himself as the best in the business behind the plate and had a snit when Reds manager Sparky Anderson stated “No one can be compared to Johnny Bench (Reds catcher) during the 1976 World Series.
The tragedy of Munson is well-known and is the result of his desire to spend more time with his family. Munson took up flying and was practicing touch-and-go’s when pilot error happened. Two others survived the crash and pilot Munson suffered a broken neck. His life and career evaporated at 32-years-old. Why is he not in the HOF?
I have mastered the art of poor analogies and regarding catchers and offense, I will present one. A good hitting catcher is like taking a suit to the cleaners and when you pick it up they hand you a fifty dollar bill you left in a pocket. You don’t expect it, but it is a pleasant surprise. The New York Yankees were no strangers to good hitting catchers.
Bill Dickey hit a career .313 in a 17-year career for the Yankees. Followed by Yogi Berra who put in 18 seasons with the pinstripes hitting .285 and garnering three MVP Awards. Dickey was never so honored but both are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. They could both hit for average and power.
Rick Ferrell played 18 seasons including four with Boston hitting .281 but only 28 career home runs. Brother Wes Ferrell – a pitcher – hit 38. Rick is also in the HOF thanks to defense and not hitting.
Jim Hegan – a local product (Lynn) hit just .228 in 17 seasons, but was a defensive wizard with a cannon arm leading the American League four times in caught stealing percentage, but has not nor will make the HOF – a shame. A good glove maybe can make the HOF but a good glove and great bat are Bench material and a sure thing.
Catchers are excused from the offensive chores or at least minimized if they provide great defense such as Hegan, quality pitch handling, and leadership. Pitchers have a notorious fragile psyche and managing staff from the backstop can be like herding cats. Fisk and Munson were masters.
Both players were physically and mentally tough and a Red Sox – Yankee contest had the potential specter of a flare-up when the teams met that added excitement to the rivalry. The classic Munson-Fisk brawl at home plate in which both were ejected certainly shows the ire both felt as did their teams.
Did Fisk and Munson hate each other? Probably but the respect was certain. The two teams hated each other and it spilled over into many a fracas on the field. Fisk was often in the center of it with crash and bang plays at home plate that has now been minimized via rules changes.
Naturally the fans and media at both forts – New York and Boston – did everything possible to fan the flames that still occasionally flare up – just ask Jason Varitek, Don Zimmer, Alex Rodriguez, and Pedro Martinez. The bad blood is still spilled.
Fisk’s days in Boston ended thanks to the ineptness of another catcher – Haywood Sullivan – who mailed Fisk his 1981 contract too late making Fisk a free agent. Haywood was now the GM and in that period of Red Sox history if something could go wrong it did. Fisk departed and signed with the White Sox and his Boston days were over.
The White Sox almost traded Fisk to of all places the Yankees in a possible swap for Don Baylor in 1985. The deal fell through and Baylor signed with Boston to be DH in 1986. With Chicago, Fisk never lost his competitive edge and just ask Deion Sanders about that. Another classic Fisk confrontation.
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In 1979 when Munson died the Yankees were in turmoil which was not unusual in the George Steinbrenner years. On August first – Munson’s last game – the Bombers were in fourth place where they finished at the end of the season. Billy Martin had replaced Bob Lemon as manager, but would not be back for the 1980 season. Rick Cerone took over behind the plate in 1980 replacing Jerry Narron who had finished out the 1979 season hitting just .171 as Munson’s replacement.
The Red Sox were rather fortunate in that Rich Gedman replaced Fisk as the catcher. Gedman went on to have an 11-year career in Boston hitting .259. That first season Gedman – now a coach in the Red Sox system – finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting and hit .288 for the season.
Players are often compared just like Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter or Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, but from my view, the most intense, bitter, confrontational, and thrilling was Munson and Fisk.