When Yankees-Red Sox meant something

It’s a little hard to remember now, but years ago it was a pretty common to see bench-clearing brawls between the Yankees and Red Sox. Catchers Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson absolutely hated each other. Bill Lee vs. Mickey Rivers. Graig Nettles vs. Everybody.  You could almost bet something unusual would go down whenever the two teams met.  One brawl at Fenway Park was a little different, though.

It happened forty years ago yesterday. With Fred Lynn on first base, Jim Rice tried to check his swing off the Yankees’ Mike Torrez, but accidentally hit a blooper that dropped in front of right-fielder Reggie Jackson. Jackson came in a little casually to get it, waving off second-baseman Willie Randolph who had gone back for it. Rice took advantage of Jackson’s lack of hustle to steam into second with a double. He hadn’t meant to swing at all, but, hey, those things happen, and it should have resulted in Rice on first. But, because of Jackson, this time he was on second. Manager Billy Martin went ape-shit.

He came out to take Torrez out of the game, calling for Sparky Lyle, and, while he was at it, sent Paul Blair in for Jackson.  Embarrassed in front of 35,000 Red Sox fans (who always had plenty to say to Reggie even when things weren’t crazy), the astounded and insulted Jackson went at Billy as soon as he reached the dugout.

This dramatization from “The Bronx is Burning” shows what happened next, with actual footage interspersed with re-created dialog:

Trying to explain the rivalry in those days to someone who was unaware of it wasn’t easy. They’d say, “so, you mean it’s like Harvard vs Yale”, and you’d have to say, “No, more like Israel vs. Palestine”.

When Massachusetts native Jerry Remy was traded to the Red Sox from the Angels in 1978, Carlton Fisk, a New Hampshire guy, was the first to welcome him home. A couple of Remy’s Angels team-mates had been traded to New York at the same time, and when the Yankees played the Red Sox for the first time that year, Remy went over to old friend Mickey Rivers during warm-ups to say “hi”. Fisk ran out and grabbed Remy and told him, “We don’t talk to those guys”.

It’s different now. When you’re getting paid $15 million, you can’t afford to break a fingernail, much less dis-locate your shoulder, while shoving an opposing player. And anyway you really wouldn’t want to beef with someone that, in the free agent era, might very well be your team-mate next year, or maybe even later this year.

Free agency changed everything. Before 1975, the players were the property of the team, and could expect to spend their whole career with whoever owned their contract, unless they were traded away first, often without their advance knowledge or consent.

The Reserve Clause, which codified this indentured servitude, was overturned in 1975, mainly through the efforts of the director of the Major League Baseball Players Association,  Marvin Miller, now enshrined in the Hall of Fame. During Miller’s time in that job the average salary of an MLB player rose from $19,000 in 1966 to $326,000 in 1982. Jim Bunning was instrumental in getting Miller the job, and Miller talks about him in this piece, which says,

And to find Jim Freaking Bunning at the center of this relatively progressive piece of history is a little like learning that Dick Cheney once ran guns to the Sierra Maestras.

Now, the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction. Now, it’s all about the players and their money.  The economics of the game has changed and so has the game itself. The players are the big winners and, in IMHO, the fans are the big losers.

Back then, it was about more than money. It’s gonna be a while before we see anything like this again:

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