10/4/1924 | Babe Ruth & Ty Cobb (flanked by George Sisler on the left) share a more relaxed moment than they had earlier that season (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
I don’t know about you, but I’m waist-deep in the winter doldrums.
Opening Day is 67 long days away and it is currently a frigid 10° outside of my apartment. It’s about this time of year that I need something to thaw me out of my wintry depression and rekindle my hope that spring is indeed on its way. However, my wife won’t let me watch The Bachelor, Russell Crowe belting out a musical number ain’t doing it for me (you think he’d risk screaming, “Are you not entertained?” in Les Miz? Me neither.), and we are at the start of two full weeks of Super Bowl build-up during which ESPN will chase down every conceivable story line, no matter how tangential to the actual game, like Tommy Lee Jones hunting Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. I needed something to chisel the ice off of my cold, sunless world, and as I often do, I turned to the boys of summer.
I went on a Bomber DVD binge, and while taking in Thurman Munson‘s Yankeeography I came alive watching tape of his famous skirmish with Carlton Fisk, prompting me to search for any available clips of Yankee brawls. While watching grown men act like over-medicated children, I felt renewed and rejuvenated, even as the wind thrashed the Yankee wind chimes outside of my living room window. I also decided that the next Yankeeography needs to be titled, “Heroes and Haymakers,” containing footage of every Yankee fight in history narrated by John Sterling and Mike Tyson. Tell me an hour of Yanks exchanging punches wouldn’t keep your attention. You can’t. So while you are fighting the snow, the flu, Seasonal Affective Disorder, or an unforgivable lack of actual highlights on SportsCenter over the next two weeks, may these Yankee brawls inspire you to persevere in your own fight, and emerge victorious.
* * * * *
Honorable Mention | vs. Detroit Tigers | 5/15/1912
This fight earns an honorable mention because it did not involve any Yankees, or rather, Highlanders since the team would not be known by that monicker until the following year. However, it is worthy of being remembered because it paved the way for Ron Artest’s masterpiece in 2004′s “Malice at the Palace” and remains one of the game’s most inconceivable fan/player interactions. If you could pick one player from the early 1900s who would be capable of climbing into the stands and pounding on a fan, you probably would come up with the name Ty Cobb in about as much time as it took the Mick to get down the first base line. In old-time baseball vernacular he was known as a “red ass,” he was a guy you didn’t want to mess with. In Babe Ruth‘s words: “Cobb is a prick.” Well put, Bambino. ”The Georgia Peach” was so tough that when he and his wife were jumped by three men in June, 1912 while walking down the street in Detroit, he pulled out his gun, but instead of firing it he chased down one of the assailants and rearranged the guy’s face with the butt of his pistol. I love that one of the greatest hitter’s in baseball history packed heat for a night on the town. I wish the Babe had a good gun story.
On May 15, 1912 the Tigers were in town for a 3-game set at Hilltop Park. Detroit was already seething from a 10-13 start to their season and were rudely welcomed by the New York crowd. One clamorous fan named Claude Lucker, who I’m convinced is a distant ancestor of Bald Vinny, needled Cobb incessantly from his perch near the Tiger dugout until the Hall of Famer leapt into the stands, knocked Lucker over and began stomping on him with his be-spiked feet. When a spectator cried out, “He has no hands!” (Lucker lost all but two of his fingers while operating a printing press), the enraged Cobb responded, “I don’t care if he has no feet!” If you’re thinking to yourself, Why the hell didn’t another fan deck Cobb?, some fans did attempt to intervene but several Tigers held them at bay with their bats. This makes me wish the camera phone was invented 100 years earlier. That footage should be on an endless loop at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately for Cobb, Ban Johnson, the American League president, was in Washington Heights that day to witness the game. Fortunately for Cobb, things like this were tolerated a lot more before Cable TV, talk radio, and the internet and he was back in centerfield after an 11-day ban. Artest was not as lucky.
#10 | vs. St. Louis Browns | 4/28/1953
In a memorable donnybrook at Sportsman’s Park, the Yankees and the hapless Browns, who would move to Baltimore and become the Orioles the very next year, tussled during an eventful 10th inning. In the top of the frame Gil McDougald flattened Clint “Scraps” Courtney, a former catcher for the Yanks, to give New York a 7-6 edge. In the home half of the inning, Scraps retaliated by stretching a single into a no-chance-in-hell double before sliding spikes up into the diminutive Phil Rizzuto. Both benches cleared and plenty of punches were thrown, but umpire John Stevens got the worst of it, suffering a dislocated collarbone while trying to separate the combatants. The game was delayed close to twenty minutes while fans littered the field with garbage. When the chaos finally subsided the Yanks went on to win 7-6. A then-record $850 worth of fines were handed out.
#9 | vs. Toronto Blue Jays | 9/15/2009
In a late-summer matchup at the Stadium, a ho-hum game turned into a tense affair after pitchers on both sides exchanged missiles. With the Yanks trailing 9-2 in the 8th inning, Mark Melancon drilled Aaron Hill in the back, then Toronto’s Jesse Carlson reciprocated by whistling a fastball behind Jorge Posada, who took umbrage to the pitch. Both benches cleared, but things settled down without any punches being thrown. When the game restarted Posada drew a walk and moved to second on a Robinson Cano single. Then Brett Gardner doubled down the line, Posada came home and gave Carlson an elbow to the shoulder, igniting a fracas that looked more like a rugby scrum than a basebrawl. For his part, it looked like Jorge got the best of Carlson who ended up with a sizable knot on his bald dome. Thankfully, no one got hurt with a World Series run just around the corner. Check out a video of the brawl here.
#8 | vs. Boston Red Sox | 5/24/1952
[Spoiler Alert: the Sox make this list like 5 times.] This is one of my all-time favorite fights in any sport because the plotline sounds like something that would have happened at recess and not between two professional athletes. It also stands out because it occurred before the game, which shows you how heated the Yanks/Sox rivalry was even then. In the tunnel beneath the stands, rookies Billy Martin and Jim Piersall passed each other before the game. Piersall jeered at Martin by calling out, “Hey, Pinocchio,” poking fun at Martin’s schnoz (Can you picture Dustin Pedroia saying something like that to A-Rod? I love 50s smack talk.). The centerfielder paid for it when Martin dropped him with two slugs to the face. The fight lasted all of a minute before Bill Dickey and Sox pitcher Ellis Kinder broke it up. The next morning the Boston Globe reported, “Jim Piersall of the Red Sox had the sharper tongue. But the Yankees’ Billy Martin had harder punches.” I like to think of this as Martin’s breakout moment in a lengthy career filled with tirades and fisticuffs.
#7 | vs. Boston Red Sox | 7/24/2004
With the Yanks up 3-0 in the 3rd inning, Bronson Arroyo drilled A-Rod in the arm, all the spark that was needed for two rivals in the heat of a division race. As A-Rod unbuckled his body armor, Jason Varitek (one of my least favorite Red Sox of all-time) got in his face, prompting Rodriguez to spray him with four-letter words. When Tek smeared A-Rod’s lip gloss with his mitt, while bravely wearing his catcher’s mask, it was on. A-Rod put the Sox’ captain in a headlock while white and gray jerseys swarmed the pair. In the classiest move of the day, a scene straight out of The Shawshank Redemption, David Ortiz, Trot Nixon and Gabe Kapler triple-teamed Tanyon Sturtze, throwing him to the ground and hitting him with a barrage of punches.
In Sturtze’s only memorable moment in pinstripes, he emerged from his baptism to pitch the rest of the 3rd inning with blood on his jersey from a cut over his left ear. It was a solid fight and could be ranked higher, except it was a watershed moment for the Sox in ’04. They used the scuffle as a springboard for a furious comeback, winning the game 11-10, the first of a few improbable comebacks that continue to haunt me to this very day. Watch a clip of the fight here. [Skip to the 1:30 mark]
#6 | vs. Kansas City Royals | 10/9/1977
This is why baseball was great in the 1970s. Only in the 70s could you have a fight break out between two 1st ballot Hot Head Hall of Famers and have both of them stay in the game. Here’s the sequence: It’s Game 5 of the ALCS (and remember it was a best-of-five series at the time). George Brett hits a 1-out triple that scores Hal McRae, but as he comes in hard to 3rd base, he gives Graig Nettles a forearm to the face as the throw comes in. As Nettles recoils he simultaneously kicks Brett, prompting Brett to stand up and throw a haymaker. Ron Guidry tackles Brett as the benches clear, but when the dust settles no one is ejected, which makes me wonder what it would have taken to get thrown out of that game. I respect the umps for realizing the situation: a deciding game and a dust up between two stars; but really, what would it have taken to be sent to the showers in that one? Would it have taken Brett covering Nettles in pine tar and setting him on fire? We’ll never know, but the Yanks went on to win the game 5-3 and with it the pennant en route to their first World Series crown in thirteen years. Watch a clip of the feud here. [The brawl portion begins at 2:55.]
#5 | vs. Detroit Tigers | 6/13/1924
The Yankees arrived at Navin Field with a 1-game lead in the pennant race, a series that player/manager Ty Cobb desperately wanted to win over the defending champions. The Yanks jumped out to a 6-2 lead in the 3rd inning, prompting Cobb to trot in from centerfield and take the ball from starter Lil Stoner. The Yankee bench took the opportunity to hurl insults on the aging slugger, but Cobb retaliated with a hard slide into shortstop Everett Scott in the 4th. In the 5th Bob Jones elbowed Yankee first baseman Wally Pipp on his way down the line, prompting Sam Jones to buzz a pitch by the head of Johnny Bassler.
In the 8th Tigers’ pitcher Bert Cole sent pitcher Milt Gaston to the dirt with a fastball, then fired a pitch at Babe Ruth’s head in the 9th. Bob Meusel followed the Babe, who continued to berate Cobb in centerfield, and was beaned in the ribs on Cole’s very first pitch. Meusel threw his bat down and charged the lefty. Ruth wasted no time entering the fray as both teams charged the field. When things started to settle down after several minutes, Ruth and Meusel restarted the hostilities by charging at the Tigers’ bench. Even manager Miller Huggins, all five feet-six inches of him, scuffled with Cobb and Cole, aided by Scott. Toward the end of the twenty-five minute melee, fans began coming onto the field, with one being leveled by umpire Billy Evans. The game was eventually called, giving the Yankees a 10-6 victory.
#4 | vs. Boston Red Sox | 10/11/2003
In the 4th inning of a Game 3 ALCS matchup at Fenway, one of the most bizarre moments in the rivalry’s history ensued. After Hideki Matsui gave New York a 3-2 lead on a ground-rule double, Pedro Martinez hit Karim Garcia in the back on the very next pitch. With tensions already at a boiling point, Alfonso Soriano grounded into a double play and Garcia, already out at 2nd, slid past the bag and into 2nd baseman Todd Walker. Walker, unhappy with what he deemed an unsafe play, began jawing with the Yankee right-fielder and the benches cleared, but for the moment a brawl was averted.
However, as Roger Clemens stepped onto the mound in the bottom half of the frame, he threw an inside pitch to Manny Ramirez, and in one of the great overreactions of all-time, right up there with Double Rainbow Guy, Ramirez charged the mound, unleashing a melee. In the most memorable moment from the fight, 73-year-old Yankee bench coach, Don Zimmer, charged Martinez, who side-stepped the septuagenarian and threw him to the ground. While hostilities frothed around the infield, Yankee reliever Jeff Nelson and Sox groundskeeper Paul Williams got into a scuffle in the bullpen, making this dust up a true classic. The Bombers won the game 4-3 and would go on to win the pennant in seven games. Watch footage of the fight here. [Start at the 3:23 mark]
#3 | vs. Boston Red Sox | 8/1/1973
The Yanks and Sox were tied for 1st place heading into to a big matchup at Fenway on August 1st. In a 2-2 game in the top of the 9th, Gene Michael stood at home plate with Felipe Alou on 1st and Thurman Munson on 3rd. Munson broke for home as John Curtis went into his wind-up, anticipating a suicide squeeze, but when Michael missed the pitch Munson was left with one option: jar the ball from Carlton Fisk‘s grasp. Michael, attempting to aid his charging teammate, stepped in the way of Fisk, but the Boston backstop shoved him out of the way and braced for Munson. Munson lowered his shoulder into Fisk and remained on top of him, trying to allow Alou to move into scoring position, a move Fisk did not appreciate.
Fisk kicked Munson off and took a swipe with his fist. Michael responded by grabbing Fisk, who threw him down to the ground. Munson came to his teammate’s aid, hitting Fisk with a barrage of punches to the head and body like a prize fighter smelling a knockout. In the locker room after the game, a charged up Munson told the assembled press, “Go ask him who won the fight, he knows.” I can’t tell you how many times I wished I could have grown up watching that 1970s Yanks/Sox rivalry, but I guess watching the modern Yankee dynasty come together wasn’t bad either.
#2 | vs. Baltimore Orioles | 5/19/1998
I hated Armando Benitez and still would if he was at all relevant in 2013. In a completely gutless move in 1998, the fireballing righty drilled Tino Martinez, my favorite Yankee from those championship years, in the middle of the back in anger after yielding a game-breaking, 3-run, 8th inning home run to Bernie Williams. As Tino remained doubled-over in pain, both teams met on the diamond in a stalemate until Graeme Lloyd, our big Aussie, went after Benitez, followed by Jeff Nelson. Then Yankee after Yankee charged at him until he was finally pushed into the Oriole dugout where Chad Curtis and Darryl Strawberry put a hurting on him. At the close of the season, in which the Yanks won 125 games and a World Series, you could look back at that brawl as a moment when that team bonded together and then ran roughshod over baseball. Check out a clip of the brawl here. [Start at the 2:53 mark]
#1 | vs. Boston Red Sox | 5/20/1976
All that happened on a Thursday night at the Stadium was a moment that would define the ’76 AL East race, effectively end the career of a great pitcher, and sow the seeds of a rivalry for the next three and a half decades.
Bill “Spaceman” Lee was known as much for his gritty pitching as for his sharp tongue. After the scuffle at Fenway in August of 1973, Lee said that the Yankees fought “like a bunch of hookers swinging their purses,” a comment Mickey Rivers and Graig Nettles would not forget.
Heading into a weekend matchup at the Stadium, the Sox’ first since its renovation, the Yanks led the division while Boston was six games back in 5th place. The Yanks, leading 1-0 in the 6th with Lee on the mound, recorded two quick outs before Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles reached on singles. Otto Velez followed with a third straight single, setting up a memorable confrontation at home plate. Piniella, attempting to score from 2nd, charged around 3rd base. As he barreled down the line, Sox right-fielder Dwight Evans fired a one-hopper to Carlton Fisk who had time to plant himself in Piniella’s path. Piniella hit Fisk in the head with an elbow and bowled him over. Fisk held onto the ball, but was not content with the out and began slugging Piniella, giving Sports Illustrated one of its immortal cover shots. Chaos instantly broke out as the benches cleared and the pitchers raced in from the bullpen.
As the melee unfolded Rivers and Nettles had one thought on their minds: ‘Where the hell is Bill Lee?’ Spaceman had Velez wrapped up when Rivers slugged him and Nettles ran him over, driving the pitcher’s right shoulder and elbow into the ground. When order appeared to be restored, Lee instigated Nettles by spewing a stream of vitriol his way, which Nettles silenced by slugging him in the face. When the dust cleared Lee had suffered a torn capsule and a ligament tear in his throwing shoulder. He did not return to the Sox until mid-July and pitched seven or more innings just twice the rest of the season, finishing with a 5-7 record. Lee claimed that after the fight he lost ten miles off of his fastball, which resulted in his winning just 44 games over the final 6 years of his career.
After the game neither side had settled down. Nettles said to the press, “I’d like to know, does he look like he’s been hit with a purse?” while Lee called manager Billy Martin a “Nazi.” Martin responded by sending Lee a dead mackerel with a note telling him to stick it in his purse. The Yanks would go on to win the divison by ten games while the Sox, one year removed from the World Series, finished sixteen games out in 4th place. Check out footage of the fight here. [Begin at the 1:36 mark]
Follow Dan on Twitter @161st_and_River.