The Greatest Catch: Rick Monday and the American Flag

rick_monday_autographFrom the second Rick Monday was drafted, his place in history was written in stone. Monday was the first player ever selected in a draft for amateur talent in 1965. The Kansas City Athletics selected Monday who had a stellar career at Arizona State University. His selection marked a turning point in baseball. No longer would the richest teams select and over pay for the best talent, teams would select players in order based on their record from the season before. It was a new era.

The era also was a time of great upheaval. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and the Vietnam War was reaching its zenith. These two great moments in history created a combustion of frustration and protest unlike anything America had seen since the Civil War. Monday reached the majors quickly in 1966 at the age of  20. He made his debut for the Athletics and soon would play alongside his college teammate Reggie Jackson beginning in 1967.

Monday was a good player, not great, but good. He had some power, played CF, and had a good glove.

Courtesy of baseball Reference

Courtesy of Baseball Reference

After the 1971 season, Monday was traded from the A’s to the Cubs for pitcher Ken Holtzman. After the trade the A’s went on to win three World Series Championships in a row without Monday.

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With the Cubs, Monday wore #7 and hit leadoff most days for the next four years. When the 1976 season began, Monday got off to hot start. It would be his best season as a pro. On April 25, 1976, the Cubs traveled to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers.

In the time period, burning the American flag was seen as a sign of protest. To Monday, a former Marine Corps Reservist in the 60s, it was desecration. In the fourth inning, Monday noticed two men running on to the field to try to burn an American flag. The quick thinking Monday did them one better. He stole it from them before they could burn it.

Flag Burning on the Field Stopped by Rick Monday

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Rick’s actions caught the nation’s attention. To many he was a hero.

Chicago Tribune Headline

Chicago Tribune Headline

For Monday, he never thought twice – his actions were just reaction.

He said:

“In between the top and bottom of the fourth inning, I was just getting loose in the outfield, throwing the ball back and forth. Jose Cardenal was in left field and I was in center. I don’t know if I heard the crowd first or saw the guys first, but two people ran on the field. After a number of years of playing, when someone comes on the field, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is it because they had too much to drink? Is it because they’re trying to win a bet? Is it because they don’t like you or do they have a message that they’re trying to present?Rick Monday
“When these two guys ran on the field, something wasn’t right. And it wasn’t right from the standpoint that one of them had something cradled under his arm. It turned out to be an American flag. They came from the left-field corner, went past Cardenal to shallow left-center field. That’s when I saw the flag. They unfurled it as if it was a picnic blanket. They knelt beside it, not to pay homage but to harm it as one of the guys was pulling out of his pocket somewhere a big can of lighter fluid. He began to douse it. What they were doing was wrong then, in 1976. In my mind, it’s wrong now, in 2006. It’s the way I was raised. My thoughts were reinforced with my six years in the Marine Corp Reserves. It was also reinforced by a lot of friends who lost their lives protecting the rights and freedoms that flag represented.

So I started to run after them. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what was running through my mind except I was mad, I was angry and it was wrong for a lot of reasons. Then the wind blew the first match out. There was hardly ever any wind at Dodger Stadium. The second match was lit, just as I got there. I did think that if I could bowl them over, they can’t do what they’re trying to do. I saw them go and put the match down to the flag. It’s soaked in lighter fluid at this time. Well, they can’t light it if they don’t have it. So I just scooped it up. My first thought was, ‘Is this on fire?’ Well, fortunately, it was not. I continue to run. One of the men threw the can of lighter fluid at me. We found out he was not a prospect. He did not have a good arm. Thank goodness.”

Monday would go on to have his best season as a professional. That winter he would be traded from the Cubs after a contract dispute. Ironically, he would be traded to the Dodgers on January 11, 1977, for Bill Buckner and Ivan DeJesus, and he would win a World Championship with them in 1981.

Former Teammate Darold Knowles said of the incident:

Monday with the now famous photograph

Monday with an artist’s rendering of the now famous photograph

“Rick got more recognition out of the flag incident than he got as a player. He was getting letters from all over the country, all the time _ from VFWs (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and American Legions organizations. Every place we’d go, somebody would honor him with a plaque. He let us read some of the letters (from) people thanking him.”

Monday added,

“The letters I’ve received from that day have run the gamut of emotions. They’ve been from children who were not born yet and had only heard about it. They’ve been from Vietnam veterans, including one yesterday. This soldier wrote that there were two things that he had with him in two tours of Vietnam. These two things kept him in check with reality. One was a small picture of his wife. The other was a small American flag that was neatly folded. The picture was folded inside the flag and in the left breast pocket of his uniform.
He would be in mud for weeks and months at a time. Those two things were what he looked at to connect him with reality, other than his buddies, and some of them were lost in battle. He wrote in the letter, ‘Thanks for protecting what those of us who were in Vietnam held onto dearly.’
That means something, because this wasn’t just a flag on the field. This was a flag that people looked at with respect. 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 also have the option, if you don’t like it, [to] pack up and leave. But don’t come onto the field and burn an American flag.”

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Monday with the Flag at Wrigley Field

Later that season, Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis gave Monday the flag back. Monday still has the flag is always eager to talk about the incident. It has survived hurricanes and still hangs proudly at his home in Vero Beach, Florida. Monday now is immortalized in the Hall of Fame as the first player taken in the Amateur Draft and for what many Americans think is the greatest catch in baseball history.

Monday’s selfless act was quite shocking considering the time period. Many players did not take stands about the Vietnam War. But for Monday, this was not a political act. His actions dictate his thoughts only about the flag. For that time period, it was a radical action (as in the Latin definition)  that evoked something America hadn’t seen in a while.

Here is a video tribute from the Dodgers on the 30th anniversary of the catch.

This blog was suggested by Clark Lorensen of the famous Larcher and Lorensen Sports Show in Chicago.

Sources
Chicago Tribune Newspapers Articles from the time period

Quotes came from
MLB.com

and the

Washington Post

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