As protestors were trying to set fire to an American flag in the centerfield of Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, Monday darted by, grabbed Old Glory, and saved her from a disturbing fate in front of a huge Chavez Ravine crowd.
According to Inside Baseball: “This moment and the symbol it represented – freedom, history and those who have lost their lives in battle to save Old Glory – had countless Americans talking; from politicians in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country to military veterans to everyday people. It was ranked as one of the top 100 classic moments in baseball history by the National Baseball Hall of Fame committee and third on Sporting News’ list as the most ‘unusual’ moment to occur on a major league baseball field.”
The following marvelous video (hat tip to reader Airforce_5_0) is a four-minute tribute to the event, including video footage, and interviews with Monday as well as then Dodger third-base coach Tommy Lasorda. Enjoy.
Update: A full transcript of this video along with another picture of the event follow courtesy of MLB.
LOS ANGELES -- It was 1976, a fun year for America. It was the country's bicentennial, the war in Vietnam had ended a year earlier and everyone really wanted to put all the problems from the 1960s, Watergate and Vietnam behind them and just enjoy the country's yearlong 200th birthday party.
On April 25, the Chicago Cubs were visiting Dodger Stadium for a three-game series. Playing center field for the Cubs was Rick Monday, the first player taken in the amateur draft that was created 11 years earlier. Monday was born and raised in Santa Monica, Calif., so playing in front of his friends and family was always special to him. On this day, fate would hand Monday a moment that people still talk about with reverence 30 years later. Monday recounts the moment in his own words.
"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?
"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.
"Tommy Lasorda was in his last year as third-base coach before he took over for Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston. Tommy ran past me and called these guys every name in the longshoreman's encyclopedia."
"A lot of people don't know this, but he beat me to the flag," recalls Lasorda. "I saw Rick start running over from center field to left. I didn't know what it was, but as soon as I saw him start, I took off and I ran out there, and of course, by that time, Rick had picked up the flag and continued running. When I got there, I see these two guys and I told them, 'Why don't one of you guys take a swing at me?' because there were 50-something thousand people in the ballpark and I only wanted them to swing at me, so I could defend myself and do a job on them."
Monday continued, "Doug Rau, a left-handed pitcher for the Dodgers at the time, came out of the dugout and I handed the flag to him. The two guys were led off the field through the Dodger bullpen.
"After the guys left, there was a buzz in the stands, people being aghast with what had taken place. Without being prompted, and I don't know where it started, but people began to sing 'God Bless America.' When I reflect back upon it now, I still get goose bumps."
Thirty years ago, cable television was in its infancy and the Dodgers rarely, if ever, televised a home game. A Super 8 film of the incident would not surface until 1984, so the moment might have been captured only by Vin Scully's vivid description of it on radio. Luckily, in the photographers' well that day was the late James Roark, who was shooting stills for the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Roark had the perfect angle and snapped the now-classic photo of Monday whisking the stars and stripes away just as one of the protesters was going to light it on fire.
"James Roark took the picture, and it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize," said Monday. "This past winter, my wife and I had been looking at a lot of photos that had been in the archives, and one of the photos we came across was a picture of James Roark and I standing together, holding up the photo that he took. The 30th anniversary means a lot because it was a moment captured in time by James, who is no longer with us, and he has been greatly missed over the years."
Monday, who played for the Dodgers from 1977-83 and has been one of the team's broadcasters since 1993, then recalled the impact the moment had on a country that was wanting so badly to show its patriotism again.
"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."
Later that year, Monday was given the flag by the Dodgers' general manager at the time, Al Campanis. It hangs proudly in his home in Vero Beach, Fla.
Monday and his wife, Barbaralee, would like anyone who was at that game or a veteran to share their thoughts -- in 500 words or less -- and photos for a book they are putting together about the event that was recently voted as one of the 100 Classic Moments in the History of the Game by National Baseball Hall of Fame. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.