Commentary

Excerpt: Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk

Originally Published: May 19, 2008
By Rob Neyer | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends" by Rob Neyer. Copyright (c) 2008 by the author and reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. Click here for information on how to purchase the book.

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[+] EnlargeRob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends
Courtsey Simon & Schuster

    In fact, they did have civil exchanges during their encounters at the plate, but -- bottom line -- they really didn't like one another. Though the two persistently denied any feud to the press, actions do speak louder than words. Thurman would frequently check his rival's statistics in the newspaper, while Fisk was infuriated at the mention of Munson's name. Fisk later remembered one instance in which Munson found out in the morning paper that he was losing to Fisk in the assist department during one year late in Thurm's career. With Ron Guidry on the mound sporting a masterful ten-strikeout game, Thurman purposely dropped about a half dozen balls and threw them to first to edge Fisk for the title.
    -- Christopher Devine, Thurman Munson: A Baseball Biography (2001)

This story has been one of my favorites for a long time. It's a hell of a good story. I don't know where I first came across it, though, which is why I turned to the most recent biography about Munson and hoped it would be there, with documentation, as McFarland's baseball books are generally well-sourced.

Indeed, Devine's book is well-sourced ... but there's no source for this particular story. And that it's apparently based on Fisk's memory is obviously a waving red flag. Still, let's check out the particulars.

Guidry first pitched for the Yankees in 1975. He started one game that season and struck out two batters (two Red Sox batters, to be precise). He didn't start any games at all in 1976. He started twenty-five games in '77, thirty-five in '78, and nineteen in '79 before Munson's plane went down. Now, we could easily check -- thanks to Retrosheet -- Munson's fielding stats in each of Guidry's starts, and we could even more easily check Munson's stats in the relatively few games in which Guidry struck out ten hitters. Believe it or not, though, it's even easier than that. Retrosheet, in addition to listing a batting log for each season in Munson's career, also lists a fielding log. So it's easier than easy to simply scan each season and look for games in which he racked up an unusual number of assists. Six -- "Thurman purposely dropped about a half dozen balls" -- does seem like a lot, doesn't it?

[+] EnlargeThurman Munson
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesThurman Munson was a seven-time All-Star before his tragic death in a plane accident in 1979.
In those three seasons, Munson didn't collect more than four assists in any one game. He got exactly four assists in three games, and three assists in six games. Of those nine games, Guidry started twice and relieved once. Those three games:

• April 29, 1977: Munson got four assists, and two of them did come after Guidry strikeouts (he finished with eight in the game); the other two assists came on a caught stealing and a 2-3 groundout.

• August 21, 1977: Munson got three assists, but only one came after a Guidry strikeout; the other two were caught stealings.

• May 6, 1979: Munson got four assists, but none of them came after strikeouts; he caught two guys stealing, got another trying to advance from first to second (on a ball in the dirt?), and got an assist on a sacrifice bunt.

I suppose this is the point at which I could forget about Guidry and check the rest of those three- and four-assist games; not only in those three seasons, but all the seasons before those, too. I want another clue, though. And perhaps the single best source for good baseball stories is Dan Okrent and Steve Wulf's Baseball Anecdotes.

Bingo. Here's their version:

    Thurman Munson, who died in the crash of his private airplane in August of 1979, was a great catcher, a pretty good hitter, and a team leader. He was also something of a mule, as this story told by former Yankees PR man Marty Appel attests:

    Munson did not like being compared with Boston's handsomer, more stately catcher, Carlton Fisk. One day Appel quite innocently listed in his press notes, AL ASSIST LEADERS, CATCHERS: FISK, Boston 27; MUNSON, New York 25. Players rarely read the press notes, but on this day, Munson did. "What's the idea of showing me up like this?" he demanded of Appel. "You think for one minute he's got a better arm than me? What a stupid statistic!"

    Munson stormed off. Then, during the game, he dropped a third strike, recovered, and threw to first base to get the batter. The same thing happened in the next inning, and it began to dawn on Appel what Munson was doing. A short time later, Munson dropped another third strike, thereby passing Fisk as the league's leader in assists by catchers.

This makes more sense, doesn't it? I didn't ask this question earlier because it didn't serve my purpose, but since when are catchers' defensive stats listed in the newspapers? And since when do catchers care who finishes with the assists "title"?

Thus armed, I turned to Marty Appel's memoir, which was published in 2001 (the same year as Devine's book about Munson) and is quite a fun read.

Bingo Bango. Here is Appel's official version:

    Munson was cocky and confident and full of self-assurance, but he was not without his own insecurities. It aggravated him terribly that Carlton Fisk, who was always getting hurt, seemed to get more attention.

    "It's that [Curt] Gowdy on NBC," Munson told me. "He's from Boston. He can't stop talking about Fisk on national telecasts."

    I accidentally pushed a Munson button one day in June when I put some fielding stats in the daily press notes. In those days, fielding stats were only published monthly in The Sporting News. I would cull some interesting ones and make a small note of them.

    So one day I showed "Catcher, Assist Leaders: Fisk 48, Munson 46, Sundberg 40." Not a real big deal. In the clubhouse before the game, Munson was in my face. "What the hell is this?" he said. "This is a [expletive] statistic. How could you print this?"

    That evening, a batter struck out in the first inning and Munson dropped the ball. He had to throw to first to retire him. Joe Garagiola Jr. tapped me on the shoulder and told me to look down. Munson was pointing a finger at me, as though to say, "That was for you."

    Twice more in that game, he dropped third strikes and threw to first. Each time he looked up at me. Three assists. He had passed Fisk. And he was right, at least as far as that was concerned; it was a [expletive] statistic.

    "Did you drop those on purpose because of that press note?" I asked him after the game. He ignored me. He was strolling from the shower to his locker, toweling himself off and singing "America loves burgers, and we're America's Burger King!"

Appel places this incident in 1976, when Munson first assumed the role as Yankee captain -- the first since Lou Gehrig -- and also won the American League's MVP Award. Not just 1976; June of '76. Checking Retrosheet again, we find two June games in which Munson was credited with at least three assists: the 4th and 5th in Oakland. He got three on the 4th; all three were caught stealings. He got four on the 5th; three caught stealings and one pickoff at third base.

[+] EnlargeCarlton Fisk
Rich Pilling/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesCarlton Fisk played his first 11 seasons in Boston and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000.
So much for June of '76.

There's nothing else for it, then: I'm going to check every game during Munson's career in which he recorded at least three assists. This time I'll spare you the details, and so I'll be back in a moment -- well, for me it'll be more like thirty moments -- with some final words …

Over his entire career, 1969 through 1979, Munson totaled more than two assists in thirty-two games. In all those years and all those games, not once did Munson record three putouts after strikeouts. In only two of those thirty-two games did Munson record two putouts after strikeouts, but even those can't be the source for this tale. One of those games was in 1971, when Fisk didn't play with the Red Sox until September. The other was in 1977, but by then Appel had left the Yankees for greener pastures.

Which brings us back to … where? Nineteen seventy-six, I guess. We know that Munson never dropped three third strikes and turned them into assists. Not in one game. Not according to Retrosheet. But maybe he did intentionally drop two third strikes, in a game in which those were his only assists? Because I love this story, and because Appel tells it with such gusto -- America loves burgers! -- I'm going to check each of Munson's two-assist games in 1976. But that's it. Really.

Munson got exactly two assists in seven games in '76. Of those fourteen assists, only one was of the K23 variety. Aside from '76, only two and a half other seasons fit the parameters as we know them. Why? Fisk's first full season with the Red Sox was 1972. He played regularly that season, and also in '73. In '74, he didn't play after June 28, which gives us half a season. In '75, he didn't play at all until late June. So his assists could never have matched Munson's that season. You know about '76. And after '76, Appel no longer worked for the Yankees. I checked those other seasons. Nada.

So I suppose I give up. Obviously, something happened. Somewhere. At some time. But I've got three versions of the same story, and none of the versions checks out. Here's one last stab, though....On the 20th of May in 1976, the Yankees were playing the Red Sox. With two outs in the first inning, and nobody on base, Fred Lynn struck out. Munson didn't catch the ball cleanly and had to throw to first to record the out. Later in the game, Munson picked up two more assists, both on caught stealings. Before the game, he trailed Fisk in assists, 15-13. Fisk played in this game, but didn't get any assists. So after the game, Munson was on top, 16-15.

But that one doesn't make for a particularly good story, and I'm sorry for that. Truly.

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