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Fisk vs. Munson: A true war

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July 23

Carlton Fisk and I broke into the big leagues at the same time, September 1971. I grew up in the small New England town of Groton, Mass., up on the New Hampshire border. Fisk grew up on the banks of the Connecticut River in western New Hampshire, in the town of Charlestown.

Carlton Fisk
Carlton Fisk celebrates his game-winning home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.

To Red Sox fans who suffer the insecurities of growing up in the shadow of the Yankees, Fisk was one of them. The Red Sox are often called "The Olde Towne Teame" because they are the team of New England -- not just Boston -- and its history of town teams that played on the weekends from the 1860s until World War II, a tradition that still carries on in places like Maine's Pine Tree League with the Norway-South Paris Twins, the West Paris Braves and the Mexico Reds. They were the real Yankees -- the New England Yankees who don't much like anything about New York.

If you go back to all the fire and hatred between the Red Sox and Yankees in the 1970s, you go back to Fisk. Boston vs. New York, Fisk vs. Thurman Munson.

It started in a meaningless September game in 1971. Munson was jammed and fell back as he hit a ground ball wide of first. Carl Yastrzemski, playing first base, grabbed it on the run and fired to Luis Aparicio, who was coming across the second-base bag. To Aparicio's surprise, he looked up, expecting not to have a play, but there was the rookie Fisk beating Munson down the line. Aparicio threw a changeup and Munson was safe at first.

But Fisk had beaten Munson down the line. There began the rivalry of the '70s. Thurman Munson hated Carlton Fisk because he was jealous of him -- the chisled, handsome Fisk, in contrast to the dumpy, stubbled Munson. On Aug. 1, 1973, the two teams were tied for first place. It was the ninth inning, one out, Munson at third, Felipe Alou at first, Gene Michael batting, John Duffield Curtis III pitching.

As Curtis let his first pitch go, Munson broke for the plate. Michael tried to bunt, and missed. With Munson coming, the scrawny Yankee shortstop tried to step in Fisk's way, but Carlton elbowed him out of the way and braced for Munson, who crashed into him as hard as he could. Fisk held onto the ball, but Munson tried to lie on top of him to allow Alou to keep rounding the bases.

Fisk kicked Munson off him and into the air, and swiped at him with his fist. Michael grabbed Fisk, and as Curtis grabbed Munson -- his former Cape Cod League roommate -- Fisk threw Michael down with his left arm and fell to the ground. "Fisk had his left arm right across Stick's throat and wouldn't let up," said Ralph Houk, the Yankees manager at the time. "Michael couldn't breathe. I had to crawl underneath the pile to try to pry Fisk's arm off his throat to keep him from killing Stick. All the while he had Michael pinned down, he was punching Munson underneath the pile. I had no idea Fisk was that strong, but he was scary."

Fisk fought it out with Dirty Al Gallagher of the Angels, and got into it with Frank Robinson. In 1975, he returned after missing the first 2½ months with a broken arm and immediately homered and led the Sox to three victories in four games against the Yankees in a series that turned around the season and led to a Red Sox pennant.

Then, in 1976, came the great brawl. It started when Lou Piniella crashed into Fisk at the plate, feet first. Both players came up swinging, and when the brawl was over, Bill Lee had injured his shoulder after getting in fights with Mickey Rivers and Graig Nettles. Two years later, "Fisk Eats Rice" T-shirts were on sale outside The Stadium. "It wasn't just Red Sox-Yankees, it was Yankees-Fisk," Graig Nettles once said. "Then (Rick) Burleson said he hated anyone in a Yankee uniform. But Fisk was it."

How bad was it with Munson? One day, Yankees PR Director Marty Appell included in the media notes all the categories in which Munson led AL catchers. He also put that Munson was second among AL catchers in assists. That day, Yankees pitchers struck out seven batters. On every one, Munson dropped the ball, threw it to first for the assist, then gestured toward the press box.

New Englanders looked at Fisk and saw themselves. So when he is enshrined in the Hall of Fame on Sunday, it will be small town New England's day. When his 27 goes up on the right-field roof aside Joe Cronin's 4, Ted Williams' 9, Carl Yastrzemski's 8 and Bobby Doerr's 1, it will be the first time a New Englander's number will hang in the home of The Olde Towne Teame.

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