Thirty years ago to the day, baseball met the Bicentennial head on. It became one of the most memorable events in the sport’s history, marking a collision between patriotism and the National Pastime.
In 1976, the United States celebrated its Bicentennial with a number of carefully planned ceremonial events throughout the spring and summer, highlighted by the much-publicized parade of Bicentennial ships that made their way into the New York Harbor. Yet, it was an unexpected and unrehearsed event on April 25, 1976, that stirred the patriotic feelings of many Americans searching for something positive to believe in after the bitterness of the Vietnam War and the scandal of Watergate.
On that late April afternoon, the Dodgers hosted the Cubs at Chavez Ravine—100 years to the day after the Chicago franchise played its first game ever. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Dodgers second baseman Ted Sizemore stood in the batter’s box awaiting the next delivery of Cubs left-hander Ken Crosby. Without warning, a man and his 11-year old son jumped out of the left-field stands and raced toward left-center field, stopping only after running past Cubs left fielder Jose Cardenal.
Initially, Cardenal though the fans were merely typical pranksters who had interrupted the game in an effort to fulfill a cheap thrill—or perhaps to gain some "television time." A few moments later, Cardenal realized that a "situation" was developing. He saw the two intruders spreading an American flag onto the outfield grass.
In the meantime, Cubs center fielder Rick Monday noticed something else about the two interlopers. He realized that the man and boy possessed a can of lighter fluid and some matches, and were preparing to set the flag on fire. Monday then bolted into a full sprint. Putting his glove into his left hand, Monday approached the two intruders, who were kneeling on the ground and had managed to stir up a momentary flame, only to see it flicker and die almost immediately. Just as the two readied the flag for full ignition, Monday bent over and scooped up the flag with his right hand and began running toward the infield. The man hurled the can of lighter fluid at Monday, but the Cubs’ center fielder continued to run toward the home team dugout, where he handed the flag to Dodgers pitcher Doug Rau.
As Dodger Stadium security led the two protesters off the field, the crowd of 25,167 fans collectively booed the protesters. Shortly thereafter, the boos changed almost instantly to cheers, as the fans thanked Monday with a rousing ovation. In one fell swoop, Monday’s dash had succeeded in mobilizing feelings of patriotism in the arena of the country’s National Pastime.
Shortly after Monday snatched the flag, the Dodger Stadium message board flashed the following thankful words: "Rick Monday…You Made A Great Play." The appreciation continued the following inning, when Monday came to bat. Taking his place in the batter’s box in the top of the fifth, Monday received another standing ovation from the Dodger Stadium faithful. No one realized it at the time, but Monday would soon become a fixture at Dodger Stadium; after the ’76 season, the Dodgers would trade for Monday, who would play eight seasons in Los Angeles before calling it quits in 1984. (Today, at the age of 60, Monday does color commentary for the Dodgers, for whom he has been employed since retirement, save for a four-year stint as an announcer with the San Diego Padres.)
After the game, Monday replayed his thought process for the media, recounting his reactions to seeing the protesters on the playing field. "I saw the clowns come on the field," said Monday, not mincing his words, "and I thought they were out there just to prance around. But they began spreading out this flag like it was a picnic blanket." At first, Monday considered running over the intruders with the sheer force of his body, but when he saw them holding lighter fluid, he decided to make a grab for the flag instead. "I don’t know what I was thinking running at them," Monday told The Sporting News years later. "All I know, then and now, is what I was witnessing them attempting to do was wrong, as far as my upbringing."
The day after the incident, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley asked Monday to serve as Grand Marshall for the city’s "Annual Salute to the American Flag" parade, which was scheduled for June 12. On the same day, the Illinois House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution declaring May 4 to be "Rick Monday Day" throughout the state.
Baseball also made plans to honor Monday. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn awarded Monday with an official commendation, and the Cubs held their own "Rick Monday Day" at Wrigley Field. During the ceremony, Monday received the actual flag he had rescued from the protesters, thanks in part to the efforts of Dodgers vice president and general manager Al Campanis, who extracted the flag (legally, I might add) from the LAPD evidence room. Monday still has the flag today, displaying it in the den of his home in Vero Beach, Florida.
Honors for Monday continued to pour in throughout the remainder of the 1976 season. Commendations came from the Washington, D.C., where President Gerald Ford wired Monday a congratulatory note and former President Richard Nixon expressed his thanks in a formal letter. Ford wrote the following in his note: "Your actions in Los Angeles made Sunday, April 25, an even more special day for every patriotic American. We are inspired by the respect you have shown and proud of the good you have done."
Monday patiently handled the barrage of media attention that accompanied the many methods of congratulation. He also offered some insight into his thoughts on flag-burning, which had not yet become a hot-button issue on the nation’s political agenda. "If you’re going to burn the flag, don’t do it in front of me," said Monday, a veteran of six years in the Marine Reserves. "I’ve been to too many veterans’ hospitals and seen too many broken bodies of guys who tried to protect it." During his early major league days with the Kansas City and Oakland A’s, with the country in the midst of the Vietnam War, Monday had visited a veterans’ hospital for the first time.
By June of 1976, Monday had received thousands of letters from fans and dignitaries expressing their appreciation for his actions. "It’s refreshing to find out how many people love their flag," said Monday, who expressed no sympathy for the adult protester who had led the charge onto the playing field in Los Angeles. "I don’t know what those clowns were trying to demonstrate and frankly I don’t care. All I know is if they don’t like it here, there’s nobody standing there at the border telling them they can’t leave. Take a hike."
Aside from public ridicule, the older of the two protesters incurred some legal punishment. Thirty seven-year-old William Errol Thomas, an unemployed man from Eldon, Missouri, was fined $60 for trespassing and placed on probation for a year. No formal charges were placed against the boy, who was treated as a juvenile offender.
While most diehard baseball fans remember Monday for his pennant-winning home run in the 1981 playoffs or for his standing as the first player taken in major league baseball’s first amateur draft in 1965, casual observers are more likely to recall Monday as "the guy who saved the flag." That may not be a fully fitting legacy for a quality major league outfielder who played 19 seasons and hit 241 career home runs, but it ensures that Monday will be long remembered in Bicentennial lore.