Friday Night At the Fights
October 8, 1973
Pete Rose could see his team’s pennant chances slipping away. Despite squeaking by Mets ace Tom Seaver in Game 1, the powerhouse Cincinnati Reds had scored just two runs in each of the first two games of the 1973 National League Championship Series. In the fifth inning of Game 3, they trailed the underdog New York Mets 9-2 in the unfriendly confines of Shea Stadium.
It was the perfect time for Charlie Hustle to intervene. In a desperate move designed to kick-start his team, Rose throttled lightweight Buddy Harrelson after the Mets shortstop landed hard on him while trying to turn a double play.
Harrelson had drawn the Reds’ wrath by opining that the Big Red Machine reminded him of himself — a light hitter, to say the least — while being shut out by Mets hurler Jon Matlack in Game 2. Even though Harrelson insisted he in no way intended his comments to be read as an insult, the Reds certainly thought he did. Reds second baseman Joe Morgan grabbed Harrelson during batting practice and issued the warning, “If you ever say that about me again, I’ll punch you.”
Halfway through Game 3, the Reds were being manhandled by Jerry Koosman and found themselves behind by seven runs. From the dugout, Tom Seaver was keeping a close watch on Rose. “You knew somehow, somewhere Pete was going to do something.” Seaver recalled. Now Koosman hits Pete with a pitch and I thought to myself he’s going to go to the mound after Jerry. He started on the grass, then he came back to the baseline and went directly to first base, so I said, ‘I got that one wrong, too.'”
Seaver decided to get a cup of coffee; by the time he had reached the clubhouse, a brawl was underway. After the Mets turned a beautiful 3-6-3 double play, Rose and Harrelson exchanged words, and the next moment a fight had started. “I gave him my little pop-up slide,” Rose explained later. “Buddy says to me, ‘You blankety-blank,’ and I told him, ‘Hey, you don’t know me well enough to say that.’ I grabbed him and [Mets infielder] Wayne Garrett came tumbling into me from third and all hell broke loose.”
The bout erupted as Rose (5’11”, 195 pounds) jumped on top of the slight-built Harrelson (5’11”, 160). Baseball writer Roger Angell described the ensuing scene: “First the benches emptied and then the bullpens, with the galloping Met battalion led by — ta ra! — Teddy R. McGraw.”
The excitement almost ended there as both teams just milled around second base. Then, Reds reliever Pedro Borbon landed a sucker punch to the right temple of Buzz Capra, a Mets reliever who hadn’t seen any action in several weeks. Capra, joined by backup catcher Duffy Dyer, got in some retaliatory punches of his own before being pulled out of the melee by Willie Mays.
When Rose returned to his position in left field, the fans let him know how they felt. A variety of objects showered down from the upper deck, and when a whiskey bottle landed just feet away from the Cincinnati star, Reds Manager Sparky Anderson pulled his team from the field.
At risk of losing the game to forfeit, the Mets sent a delegation of Seaver, Mays, Rusty Staub, Cleon Jones and Manager Yogi Berra out to left field to appeal to the rowdy fans to stop. The New York faithful complied and returned the next day with banners reading “Rose is a Weed “and “This Rose Smells.” This only added incentive for Rose to have a big day, and he did. His 12th-inning homer evened the series at 2-2.
In the finale, the Harrelson and Rose’s tussle was overshadowed as the arms of Seaver and McGraw and clutch pinch-hits by Mays and original Met Ed Kranepool carried the Mets to the World Series.
As the fans at Shea Stadium edged closer and closer to the field in the ninth inning, players from both sides — including Rose, who was at first base — and the Reds’ wives in their special box seats, planned the quickest route to safety. Indeed, when Morgan made the final out a swarm of fans stormed the field; Rose and his teammates made a hasty escape. “Right there at the end of the game, that’s the most scared I’ve ever been in my life,” Rose said.