One of the things I have long loved about baseball is its rich history. The statistics of individual players and the box scores of virtually every game played over nearly 150 years has been preserved. As Casey Stengel, The Old Perfessor himself, put it, “You could look it up.” With online resources like Baseball-Reference, 150 years of history can come alive with a click.
Pick a game, any game. Well, let’s see what happened 40 years ago today — April 25, 1976 — between the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers. On that Sunday afternoon, 25,167 people assembled at Dodger Stadium and got their money’s worth. The Dodgers beat the Cubs 5-4 in 10 innings on a walk-off single by Dodgers’ third baseman Ron Cey (a.k.a. The Penguin) scoring Ted Sizemore who was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1969.
Although the Dodgers won the game, the man who was undoubtedly the player of the game that Sunday afternoon was Cubs center fielder Rick Monday. Batting leadoff for the Cubs, Monday went 3 for 5 scoring two runs and driving in the game tying run in the 8th inning off Mike Marshall, who was just over a year removed from winning the NL Cy Young Award.
But what made Monday the player of the game didn’t appear in the box score. There was one out in the bottom of the fourth inning. Sizemore had just popped out to Cubs’ second baseman Manny Trillo. The Dodgers’ light hitting outfielder John Hale had just taken ball one from Canadian-born Cubs reliever Ken Crosby. At this point, let’s turn it over to Vin Scully for the play by play:
Wait a minute! There’s an animal loose. Two of them. Alright! I’m not sure what he’s doing out there. It looks like he’s gonna burn a flag and Rick Monday arrives and takes it away from him. And so Monday.… I think that guy was gonna set fire to the American flag. Can you imagine that?
When Monday came to bat in the top of the fifth, he was greeted with a standing ovation. The Dodgers’ scoreboard read, “Rick Monday…You Made a Great Play.” Nobody seemed to mind when Monday singled off Dodgers’ starter Rick Rhoden. After all, it was America’s bicentennial year and was 20 months removed from Richard Nixon’s resignation and a year removed from the fall of Saigon with the malaise of the Carter years still to come. For all of this country’s shortcomings and troubles, our flag still represents freedom and liberty to most Americans. I suspect that nearly all of those 25,000 plus people in Dodger Stadium that day would have done what Monday did had they been playing center field that day. Even with all the efforts to cast this country as the bad guy up to and including President Obama, I believe most Americans would still do what Rick Monday did if they saw the flag being burned.
Prior to rescuing the American flag, Rick Monday was best known for being the first player selected in the inaugural MLB Draft in 1965 by the Kansas City Athletics and make his big league debut late the following year. Although named to the AL All-Star Team in 1968, Monday never quite lived up to expectations. He would miss the A’s three consecutive World Series titles from 1972 to 1974 as Charlie Finley dealt Monday to the Cubs for pitcher Ken Holtzman prior to the 1972 season. As for Monday, he would have a banner year in 1976 attaining a career high 32 home runs and 77 RBIs. But saving the flag was his greatest play of that season.
The Cubs would trade Monday to the Dodgers the next season in a five player deal that sent Bill Buckner to Wrigley. Buckner, of course, would have his day of infamy. Monday would play with the Dodgers until 1984. For the past three decades, Monday, now 70, has broadcast Dodgers games on both TV and radio.
In 1981, Monday would earn his lone World Series ring. Monday would win the Dodgers the NL pennant against the Montreal Expos with a game-winning home run off Steve Rogers in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. On my way home from school that October afternoon I was told about the home run and guessed that Monday had hit it. As beloved as Monday is by many for saving our flag, he is reviled in Montreal for that home run. October 14, 1981 is simply known in Montreal as Blue Monday.
So what about the two people who burned the flag? It turned out they were a father and his 11-year old son. The man, William Errol Thomas, claimed he burned the flag to draw attention to his wife’s confinement to a mental institution in Missouri. Whatever the reason Thomas and son tried to burn the flag at Dodger Stadium, Rick Monday wasn’t having any of it. As Monday put it in 2006, “We have a lot of rights and freedoms — not to sound corny — but we all have the option if we don’t like something to make it better. Or you have the option, if you don’t like, pack up and leave. But don’t come onto the field and burn an American flag.”
When you consider all the things for which the American flag stands, we were very fortunate 40 years ago when Rick Monday was there to stand up for it.