Willie Mays Avenue

This week, we experienced another national paroxysm of “controversy”, the result of which is that a few more formerly obstinate people admitted what millions already found obvious: Donald J. Trump is a hyper-combative, utterly incompetent, ignorant narcissist who cannot do the job he finds himself in.

Also, he may or may not have proven himself to be a racist and Nazi sympathizer, though neither of those possibilities is nearly as important to the world as his utter incompetence.

On the plus side, a few monuments to the Confederacy have been torn down, thereby bringing the Civil War one baby step closer to conclusion, only 152 short years after the last shot was fired.

Also,  in some circles traveled only by the 1% , it has now become de rigueur to prove your bona fides on the subject of race by making some sort of gesture or speech about it, which doesn’t help all that much but doesn’t hurt either.

More than 40 years after the death of Tom Yawkey, Red Sox ownership is making little tiny noises about finally doing the right thing concerning the “legacy” of Tom Yawkey: killing it dead.

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Yawkey bought the Red Sox for himself a few days after he turned 30 years old in 1933 for $1.25 million, thereby sentencing the team and its die-hard fan base to decades of mediocrity. Yawkey had inherited $40 million from the lumber and iron empire built by his grandfather, and could finally access the money, having reached the age specified in the will.

Today, $40 million doesn’t buy that much. Maybe the privilege of watching David Price nurse a hangnail on the bench for two years, or maybe watching Pablo Sandoval eat hamburgers in the minors before recognizing you made another small mistake. But in 1933, it was real money.

Yawkey never earned or produced anything on his own, and treated the Red Sox as a private club, often taking batting practice with “his boys”.

He died in 1976, a year after the greatest World Series ever played, in which the Red Sox lost the seventh game and came up empty for the third time on his watch. They were one player short of success yet again.  The next year, Boston re-named part of Jersey St., on which Fenway Park’s main entrance sits, to Yawkey Way in honor of the great man. It’s been Yawkey Way since then.

In his day, most people in Boston thought Yawkey was a peach of a guy, and most had no problem with his views on black people. He didn’t like them. The Red Sox were the last team in baseball to put a black player on the field, waiting until 1959, and they did so half-heartedly. Pumpsie Green was the man’s name, a .246 hitter with zero power over his five year career.

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The Red Sox had the chance to sign Jackie Robinson and they passed. They did give him a tryout in 1945. A newly elected city councilman, Isadore Muchnick, campaigned to bring black players to Boston, and refused the usual formality of granting permission for the Red Sox and Braves to play on Sundays, unless they gave some guys from the Negro Leagues a tryout.

A day before the 1945 opener, Yawkey had Jackie Robinson, then of the Kansas City Monarchs, take the field for a look, along with Marvin Williams and Sam Jethroe. “We knew we were wasting our time”, Jackie said years later. No one from the press was there, and the whole charade lasted just a few minutes. It ended when someone from the stands yelled out. “Get those n—ers off the field”

In 1945, the Red Sox weren’t alone in their antipathy. But in 1949, two years after Jackie was already in the majors and the direction of history was clear, the Red Sox passed on a 17-year-old prospect named Willie Mays, who they could have signed for $4500.

In the 1950’s, the Red Sox could have, and should have, had Ted Williams in left, Willie Mays in center, and Jackie Robinson at second. But Yawkey was too smart for that. Why try to win games with guys you don’t like when it’s so much more fun to relax with the guys you like?

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The above picture is Yawkey and Carl Yastrzemski, one of his favorites, after the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox backed into the 1967 World Series, surviving the closest pennant race in history.

Yaz had a season for the ages, playing a supernatural left field all year while winning the Triple Crown. Wow. He played great in the Series, too, hitting .400 with three home runs and an On Base Percentage of .500. He carried the team  into the seventh game, where the Red Sox put their Cy Young winner, Gentleman Jim Lonborg, on the mound with only two days rest to face the immortal Bob Gibson. Gibson, of course, cruised to his third win of the Series, striking out ten and giving up only three hits, and ended the Red Sox season in the predictable fashion.

But a good time was had by all, right?

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The Red Sox were short just one player, as usual. Just one Bob Gibson. Or Jackie Robinson. Or Willie Mays. And it took another 37 years on top of that to finally get over the hump.

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Now John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox, is entertaining suggestions for re-naming Yawkey Way.  I think “Willie Mays Avenue” would work. My plan is that the next time I’m down there on game day, and I overhear some kid saying to his father, “Dad, why is this ‘Willie Mays Avenue’? Willie never played here!”, I’ll look at them both sadly and say, “Exactly.”

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The death of the “dead ball”

On this day in 1920, Ray Chapman died, and so did the way baseball was played up until that point.

Chapman’s death signaled the end of the “Dead Ball” era and, in theory, the end of many of the “tricks” pitchers used to fool hitters, including the spit-ball, the scuff-ball, the grease-ball, the carved-up-on-my-belt-buckle-ball, and so on.

Chapman was a 29-year-old infielder for the Indians, their best, and was noted for hanging in tough against any pitcher and his willingness to “take one for the team”, i.e. getting hit by a pitch to get to first base. In his nine-year career, he had led the league in runs scored once, walks once, and plate appearances once. A solid guy.

On August 16, 1920, in the fifth inning of a game against the Yankees at the Polo Grounds, he stepped in to hit against Carl Mays, a submarine style pitcher who liked to throw inside. Mays hit Chapman on the left temple and the sound made by the impact reverberated through the Polo Grounds giving the fans the impression the pitch had been hit by Chapman. The ball hit him so hard that although he had been hit on the left temple, he bled from his right ear.

Chapman went down, was helped up and back to the dugout by team-mates, and died twelve hours later. The last words he uttered on a baseball field were, “I’m all right. Tell Mays not to worry”.

It was the only case of a player being killed by a pitch at the major league level, although there have been several serious and career-ending incidents since then.

Statistically, Mays had been a very good pitcher indeed, and went on to win over 200 games before he was done, including five seasons of 20 or more. He was a potential Hall-of-Famer and was last on the Veteran’s Committee ballot in 2007, when he was turned down for the final time. Most people say it was his complete lack of remorse for the Chapman incident that kept him out.  “It’s not on my conscience,” Mays said 50 years later, just before his death in 1971. “It wasn’t my fault.”

At the time of the incident, umpires Billy Evans and William Dineen issued a statement that blamed Mays:

“No pitcher in the American League resorted to a trickery more than Carl Mays in attempting to rough a ball, in order to get a break on it which would make it difficult to hit.” 

The next year, the rules about what kind of baseballs were allowed in play were changed. Until then, the same few balls were used throughput the game, and became very difficult for hitters to see after a few innings of abuse. After that, new, more tightly wound balls were used, and new ones were brought in whenever a ball was no longer white enough for a hitter to see clearly. The balls could be seen better and traveled farther when hit.

The “lively ball” era was born, and the home run would be king from then on. In 1919, the greatest slugger in baseball history and always a statistical outlier, Babe Ruth, led the league with 29 home runs, a total that exceeded the entire output for ten of the other MLB teams that year. In 1920, he hit 54 which exceeded the total for every other major league team except the Phillies, who had 64 in aggregate. Apart from Ruth’s 54, the 1920 Yankees had only 61 home runs hit by all other players combined.

But after the Chapman incident, the trend started changing radically, and, by 1930 the long ball was firmly established everywhere. The pitchers, or at least those that didn’t cheat, had lost their biggest advantages.

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Umpires totally get it wrong

I’m having trouble thinking about anything important lately. There’s nothing left to say about Trump and his enablers in Congress that could make any difference or even shed any new light on things.

America is poisonously split in two because of the alternate realities we are experiencing. If you watch FoxNews, you are simply unaware of what a disaster the Trump presidency has been and what a terrible course he’s put us on, and a LOT of people watch FoxNews.

It will only change when Sean Hannity decides it’s time.

If you don’t care about baseball and its anomalies, you can stop reading right here, because that’s all I have for you today.

Last night’s Yankees/Red Sox game at Fenway was a good one. Red Sox ace Chris Sale was brilliant, striking out 13 and allowing only three hits through 7 and 2/3 innings, leaving a 1-0 lead in the usually capable hands of All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel, who is typically only required to get three people out in the 9th to do his job, was asked here to get the last out of the 8th as well, which he did.

Kimbrel has not blown a single save in Fenway Park since he got there last year, but last night was the night. Matt Holliday, just off the Disabled List, led off the 9th with a game-tying home-run, sending the affair into extras. It was ultimately decided in the 16th, when the Yankees took advantage of the exhausted Sox bullpen, getting a bunch of hits off Doug Fister, a recent acquisition not usually used in relief. The final score was 4-1, Yankees.

But the game is under protest because of a really weird play in the top of the 11th. Matt Holliday (again) was on first when Jacoby Ellsbury hit a sharp grounder to first baseman Mitch Moreland, a clear double-play opportunity. Moreland fielded it cleanly and threw to Bogaerts covering second for the out there, and Bogaerts threw back to first in plenty of time to double up the speedy Ellsbury. But it didn’t work that way. Here’s what happened:

It was a senior moment for Holliday, who has been around a long time and has no excuse for this kind of mental lapse.

But it’s the umpires who are at fault here. They gave Ellsbury first base, despite Holliday’s interference which prevented Moreland from catching the relay that would have completed the double play. Ellsbury should have been called out. They said Holliday didn’t “intend” to interfere, and therefore it wasn’t interference. Huh?

Holliday is out at second. His crazy move of sliding back into first after being called out broke up the double play. Under the Official M.L.B. rule 6.01(a)(5):

(5)  Any batter or runner who has just been put out, or any runner who has just scored, hinders or impedes any following play being made on a runner. Such runner shall be declared out for the interference of his teammate (see Rule 6.01(j)).

It’s petty simple.

So they review the play, causing a five minute delay, and they decide that the ruling would stand! The Red Sox played the rest of the game under protest, probably thinking the Yankees would get a run out of this situation and that would be the game. They didn’t and the game continued.

You’re probably thinking, “if that play didn’t affect the outcome, the protest is silly”. Not so fast. The game was ultimately decided by attrition – the Red Sox ran out of relievers – and, had that double-play stood, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have had to resort to Fister, at least not as soon as they did. Fewer pitches would have been thrown by the real relievers, thereby allowing them to go deeper into the game.

It’s shaping up to be a tight pennant race, and this game may be well be affect the outcome, so there’s potentially something bigger at stake here. Your view of all this probably depends on which team you support, not unlike your view of politics, I suppose. The pro-Yankee media may see it one way while the pro-Red Sox media disagrees.

One thing I’m sure of, though, is that the divide between the Red Sox and Yankees world views, as great as it always has been, is nowhere near as great or as dangerous as the divide caused by the pro-Trump vs. pro-reality media divide.

The 7% Solution

Of the 16,000 or so people that have played baseball at the major league level, there have been only 26 players that have managed a career batting average of .333 or better, and four of those ended their playing days before 1900. The others are all in the Hall of Fame, with the exception of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Lefty O’Doul (a pitcher/outfielder who really only had five full seasons).

In other words, if you get a hit once out of every three tries, you are in the elite company of the greatest to ever play the game, better than 99.85% of the rest.

The really weird thing is that to attain this level of greatness, you have to be only 7% better than average, as the aggregate batting average of all the players who ever played is .262.  That’s how hard it is to be “great” hitting a baseball.

But, over the years, the statisticians here at GOML have noticed that there is a shortcut to greatness if you are above average, but not the whole 7% above. What you have to do is get traded to the New York Yankees, where good players are regarded as great, and great players are regarded as Gods, or at least Saints. Expectations are high in New York and so is the pay.

Dave Winfield is a pretty good example of this. He was a very good player in San Diego for eight years, a .284 hitter there with decent power. George Steinbrenner brought him to the Yankees in 1980 and made him the highest paid player in the game. Once in New York, the expectations for him were sky high, but paying a .284 hitter all the money in the world doesn’t make him a .333 hitter. Steinbrenner was disappointed with his new toy right away (even though Winfield actually did hit .290 over nine seasons in New York) and tried all manner of trickery to discredit him to escape the contract. It led to Steinbrenner being  banned from baseball.

The New York effect can work against you as well, particularly if you’re already “great” and perform only at the “great” level but no more. Then you can go from God to goat pretty quickly. Just ask Randy Johnson. The Yankees paid him more than he’d ever made, but he managed only two close-to-great years there. The spotlight was too bright, and the privacy-loving Johnson was at war with the media for two years. Getting the extra attention didn’t really matter to someone who already was headed for the Hall of Fame.

Very good players like, say,  Don Mattingly or Thurman Munson, were accorded super-star treatment in New York, though they were “just” very good.

Which brings me to the subject of Robinson Cano, a very, very good player with New York (hitting .309 over nine years there). Cano never led the league in any category whatsoever, though he made the All- Star team five times and won the Silver Slugger award (best offensive player at his position) four times. But, of course, this was enough for the “God” treatment in New York, and his market value was raised considerably.

Cano became a free agent in 2014 and signed a huge contract with the Seattle Mariners, $24 million a year for 10 years! The most he made in New York was $15 million. Of course, no one is worth this much money, no matter how they were viewed in New York, and Cano has been not quite the player for Seattle that he had been in NY (hitting .296 in his four years there). It’s good but not great, and it’s Seattle not New York, so you have not heard the name Robinson Cano in four years.

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I had forgotten completely about him and wasn’t even sure he was still in the game. Until Tuesday night, that is.

Cano was the hero of the All-Star game, hitting a home run in the 10th inning to give the Americans the win. Even though Cano has not been in New York for four years, the Yankees still own the Hyperbole Rights on him, so the headline of the story was:

Ex-Yankee Robinson Cano provides closing act at Aaron Judge’s All-Star party.

For those of you who don’t pay attention to such things, Aaron Judge is the Yankee rookie phenom who won the All-Star Home Run contest, so this was going to be about New York with or without Cano.

Cano’s been a Mariner for four years, but if he does something “great”, he is an “ex-Yankee” first, and a whatever-else second.

I ♥ NY

 

Baseball’s All-Star Game: a Useless Relic

It’s been a very long time since baseball’s All-Star game was worth watching and looking forward to. In those long-ago days, there was nothing at stake more than bragging rights, but both leagues were serious about winning.

Unless you lived in Chicago or New York in those days, you followed the league your favorite team was in, and never saw the players from the other league in action. You would read about them in the box scores, but that was it.

The All-Star game was your only chance to see the guys from the other league. If you lived in an American League city, the National League was never on TV and you almost never even got a guy in trade from the N.L.  You just never saw them at all. Maybe their league and their players really were better than yours. The only way to find out was at the All-Star game.

Imagine a team like the one the National League fielded in 1960. A few of the guys they ran out for that one: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, and Eddie Mathews.  All on the same team! Almost all in their prime (Musial was 39 at that point). There wasn’t even enough room on their roster that year for the likes of Frank Robinson!

It was a team of supermen. How could anyone beat them? The Americans that year were mostly Yankees: Mantle, Maris, Berra, Elston Howard, Whitey Ford, and Bill Skowron, plus the 41-year old Ted Williams, then in his final year (he still managed a .316/.451/.645 season, though!). They actually played two All-Star games that year, one in Kansas City and one on New York, and the Nationals did win them both. But it was a show well worth watching.

That was a long, long time ago. These days, no one really cares about who wins the All-Star game – it’s just an exhibition and nothing more. There are a lot of reasons why, not the least of which is that baseball itself is so boring now. But there are structural and other changes that make the whole thing too silly to bother with now. Here are a bunch of reasons, but I think they’re all symptoms of the same disease, namely too much money sloshing around the sport and too much greed for even more.

Inter-league play is the main reason the game is no longer interesting. I see the guys from the other league all the time, now. I’d actually like to see them less.  The whole idea that it’s a chance to see something I couldn’t otherwise see is lost.

Free Agency has a similar effect.  These days, players move from league to league all the time. No one thinks of himself as a “National Leaguer” any more. The whole concept of “Us” vs. “Them” is lost.

Cable TV – I can see every game of every team all year long if I want. I don’t have to wait for the All-Star game to have a look at some new phenom in the other league. There’s no mystery about what’s happening out of your view, as everything is always in your view.

Fan voting is stupid. The way the teams are selected is meant to promote interest in the game, not produce a side with the best chance to win.

Every franchise has to be represented on the team, even if it means denying a better player a spot. Again, this is supposed to raise fan interest, as you eagerly await the turn of “Your” guy to see what he’ll do.

And this means everyone has to play, whether the situation calls for it or not. Pitchers pitch one inning at most now, and the starting position players are all on the bench by the fourth inning.

Your best squad is not out there when it matters (and even when it doesn’t)  – especially if the game goes into extra innings. The 2002 All-Star game was controversially called a 7-7 draw, when both teams were out of pitchers to use. No player was awarded the game’s MVP. That should tell you all you need to know.

At that point, everyone realized how stupid the whole thing had become, and tried to revive the “meaningfulness” of it all by giving home field advantage in the World Series to the winning side. That idea was dropped this year because everyone understood that, unless you went back to a more serious team-selection and managing format, it was unacceptably random.

The players don’t care about the All Star game any more. The best players, particularly those who have already gone to an All-Star game before, would prefer just to have a three-day break with their family than participate in this charade, possibly risking injury and reducing their future earning power for no real reason. Derek Jeter famously skipped in in 2011 and Mike Trout this year just to name a couple of many examples.

They’ve tried to spice up the whole spectacle with bogus competitions like “Home-run Derby”. Yawn

If you think it hasn’t changed over the years, have a look at this play that ended the 1970 All-Star game in the 12th inning, featuring a guy who wanted to win more than anything – even an All-Star game. Could this ever happen today?

 

Best Sports Movies

I guess I mostly agree with a lot of the standard lists you’ll find looking around the net, but I also have major issues with some of the usual suspects. They’re generally too silly, too implausible, too worshipful, too something. But usually, it’s because the on-field stuff doesn’t cut it. Pride of the Yankees is in this category, as is A League of Their Own (I know, sorry). Also Bad News Bears, which, weirdly, makes many lists you’ll find out there.

To me a great a sports movie has to meet three criteria:

First and foremost, it must be a very good movie, irrespective of the subject matter. In other words, it has to be something that will draw in someone who thinks they hate sports or at least the particular sport the movie in question is about, and it has to keep them engaged throughout.

Second, at least one but preferably both of these things must be true: 1) the on-field stuff has to be completely authentic and believable to someone who is intimately familiar with the game and perhaps has played it at a high level, and 2) the off-field stuff has to be very accurate and make sense.

Third, the movie should be about something more than the sport itself, and being a good love story doesn’t count. It should leave you thinking about it the next day and for a long time after, and it won’t matter if the good guys don’t win the big game. Better if they come up short, actually.

There are very few movies that meet all three of these criteria, so if a flick gets two of the three, it makes my Top Ten, and if it gets one of the three, it gets an Honorable Mention.

So let me start with some Honorable Mentions, in no particular order.

1) Every single “30 for 30” ever made. I’ve seen them all and really like just about every one. Many of them could be in the all-time Top Ten, but I can’t put them there because they’re all documentaries so they really don’t have anything at risk for my Criteria #2. Also, it could be argued that they’re not really “movies” as they were made to be shown on TV, not in the theater, though this distinction is becoming more irrelevant every day.

Here’s a ranking done in 2013 that gives you a flavor, and here’s a more recent Top Ten. But you could pick any one randomly and not be disappointed. I just finished watching the 3-part four-hour long “Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies” and wasn’t bored for a second. Of course, that one was about something I did care about, so YMMV.

2)  The Hammer. Little seen Adam Carolla project (his politics apparently exclude him from Hollywood promotion), that is very funny, has a heart, and will teach you something about boxing. See if you can find it somewhere – you’ll thank me.

3) North Dallas Forty. Nick Nolte is pretty convincing as a pro wide-out, and Mac Davis is good, too. The locker room and off-field stuff seems about right. Bo Svenson has the best line in the movie: when asking for a raise, “When I call it a business, you call it a game, and when I call it a game, you call it a business.”  Tru dat.

4) Eight Men Out. The on-field stuff is not great, but it’s a decent movie about an interesting subject, and they get the gambling culture of the time right. Irritating “dixieland” sound track diminishes it, but worth a watch over all.

5) Mr. Baseball. Tom Selleck, who went to U.S.C. on a basketball scholarship, is clearly a good athlete who looks good swinging the bat, though he did strike out in his one at-bat in a Spring Training game for the Tigers.  The subject of ex-Big Leaguers trying to hang on in Japan is a good one, and the movie is as much about Japanese culture as Baseball. Haven’t seen it in a while, but I remember it as meeting at least one and maybe two of my criteria for inclusion, so it’s here. Watch it and then remind me if I’m a moron with a poor memory.

6) The Natural. I’m usually not a big fan of magical interventions in sport, but this is very watchable and Redford looks right.

7) The Longest Yard. Burt Reynolds played college football at Florida State and looks very good here, which qualifies this flick for an Honorable Mention.

8) Field of Dreams. Hmm, maybe I like magical intervention in sports more than I thought, as that’s exactly what this is about. The baseball stuff is OK. James Earl Jones is not my favorite, but Kevin Costner always looks good tossing a ball around. Mainly, it’s a very well-made movie that draws you in. Oh, and good, realistic scenes in Fenway.

9) Major League. Charlie Sheen was a star pitcher and shortstop in high school, and is completely believable in this flick as a big-league pitcher (also as an outfielder in Eight Men Out). Tom Berenger and Corbin Bernsen also look right. This one is a bit formulaic, but scores well on Rotten Tomatoes, so worth a look I think.

10) Fever Pitch. Fantastic aerial pictures of Fenway Park and Boston. Gets the crazy Red Sox fan mentality right. Shot during the 2004 run that broke the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino, with ending re-shot after it was already in the can, because there were actual miracles and a story-book ending better than the original screenplay.  At bottom, kind of a silly movie, but I like it anyway.

OK, those were the Honorable Mentions . Now here are Stewie’s Top Ten sports movies – again, NOT in order of rank. Just random.

1) Breaking away. I don’t know enough about bike racing to tell you if they have it right here, but I think they do. A very good movie about more than just the sport, in this case town/gown conflicts and family expectations. Lots of good supporting performances.

2) Raging Bull. Many people put this on their all time Best-Movie-Ever-Made list, some even putting it first all time, so it obviously must be included on any Best Sports Movie List. DeNiro-Pesci interactions are brilliant, and Scorsese’s direction of the boxing scenes is extraordinary.

3) The Hustler and The Color of Money. Both well worth the watch. Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman both shot a mean stick in real life, so no coaching or stunt doubles needed in The Hustler. George C. Scott adds a lot, but The Great One steals the flick. In the Color of Money, Tom Cruise does a nice job, and the photography is awesome. Seems to me some real pool hustlers also appear in this one, adding back in any authenticity that Cruise subtracts.

4) White Men Can’t Jump. Wesley Snipes is not really believable as a playground B-ball player, though he does get the trash-talk right. Come to think of it, he wasn’t that believable as a baseball player in Major League, either. Woody Harrelson, strangely, is far more believable and sympathetic, too. A couple of NBA stars, notably Marques Johnson, bring the playground culture to life. Good story, good performances, good movie

5) Bull Durham. Again, Kevin Costner looks good on a baseball field, The flick evokes life in the minors pretty well, I think.

6) Moneyball. Brad Pitt does a great job as a failed major league prospect and front office success. The subject is interesting, and the real-life clips are well-integrated in the story and add authenticity.

7) Bang the Drum Slowly. Robert DeNiro probably isn’t much of an athlete, but then neither was Bruce Pearson, the back-up catcher he plays here. Michael Moriarty is excellent, evoking Tom Seaver to me for some reason, and the off-field stuff is well done. Good story, good movie.

8) Hoosiers. I like Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper, so I was probably going to like this movie no matter what. Somewhat predictable story, though based on real events, so I shouldn’t complain about that. Nice portrayal of small-town basketball culture.

9) Chariots of Fire. Won “Best Picture” and is about sports, so, uh, yeah.

10) The Fighter. Christian Bale is brilliant as is Melissa Leo. Her litter of daughters is perfection. Evokes down-in-the-mouth Lowell, Mass. just right. Mark Wahlberg is excellent and more than believable as Micky Ward. And, for a change, good Boston accents all around (easy for Wahlberg, a tour-de-force for Bale).

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OK sports fans, where did I screw up and what did I leave out?

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: