June 4, 2020

Armbrister-Fisk and a Tale of Two Collisions

August 22, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

On October 14, 1975 two collisions occurred that held interest for the people of New England. One would be of such gravity and magnitude that it would continue to be discussed with great emotion 40 years later and the three participants would forever be linked.

The other one involved the leader of the free world.

That afternoon, on a street in Hartford, Connecticut, a 19-year-old driving his mother’s Buick with five of his buddies along for the ride, couldn’t stop in time when a motorcade blew through a red light. He broadsided the limo in the middle of the motorcade. His alarm and fear at crunching the front of his mother’s buick was surpassed only slightly when he realized that, sitting in the back of the limo, was President Gerald Ford.

When asked for comment, the driver told reporters, “I didn’t know who I had hit until I looked up and saw Ford looking at me. When I saw him, I sort of sunk down in seat and started to worry.”

Talk about a dude having a bad day.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in either vehicle. The Buick sustained significant damage, but Ford’s armour-plated limo only received a dent.

That evening, in Cincinnati, came the more serious of the two collisions. The Red Sox were playing the Cincinnati Reds in Game 3 of the World Series. The Series was tied a game a piece. In the bottom of the tenth inning, with the score five-all, the Reds’ Cesar Geronimo led off with a single off Jim Willoughby who was working his fourth inning of relief.

Ed Armbrister walked to the plate to pinch hit for the pitcher. Armbrister was a 27 year old, 160-pound seldom-used outfielder who hit .185 in 65 at bats in 1975. A native of the Bahamas, he had been an unknown throw-in in the famous 1972 Billingham-Geronimo-Morgan-for-May-and-Helms trade with the Astros. Armbrister was the kind of guy Sparky Anderson liked to have on his bench: easy-to-get-along-with, happy-to-be-here, and eager to do whatever the team’s superstars needed him to do. Now, in the tenth inning of a tied World Series game, they needed him to drop a bunt to move Geronimo to second so that Pete Rose or Joe Morgan could knock him in.

And everybody in the ballpark knew it.

The right-handed Armbrister, who had a grand total of one sacrifice in the 1975 season, dutifully squared, slid his right hand up the barrel of the bat, and offered at the pitch. The ball hit the bottom of the bat, ricocheted straight down into the dirt and bounced ten feet high in front of the plate.

The speedy Geronimo headed for second as soon as he saw the ball hit the dirt.

Fisk, known as one of the quickest catchers in baseball, flung the mask and was in front of the plate in an instant–so fast in fact that Armbrister had not taken a complete step. They were both looking up at the ball and Armbrister, semicrouched, had barely taken a step with his left foot when they collided.

Fisk reached up and barehanded the ball, then shoved Armbrister away with his left forearm, took a short step to his right and fired to second. The throw had a tail on it, sailed high, glanced off the leaping shortstop Rick Burleson’s glove and continued into centerfield. Geronimo popped up out of his slide and scampered to third ahead of Fred Lynn’s throw.

Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson immediately charged out of the dugout and he and Fisk confronted home plate umpire Larry Barnett, demanding an interference call. The 30-year-old Barnett, a veteran of six major league seasons, refused to budge. Johnson and Fisk walked up the line and pleaded their case with the first base umpire who, not surprisingly, backed up Barnett.
In the television booth, the announcers clearly sided with the Red Sox. After viewing the slow motion replay, Tony Kubek said, “Armbrister is right in his way. I’ve got to say, right there, he interfered with him.”

“Boy is Fisk hot,” Curt Gowdy said as they watched the argument.

Kubek: “I don’t blame him.” Another slow motion replay once again showed the collision.

Kubek: “Armbrister is definitely in his way.”
Not surprisingly, the umpires were not swayed by the Red Sox’ pleas for justice. The call stood.  Fisk was given an error on the throw and the Reds were given an excellent chance to put the game away. With men on second and third and no outs, Boston’s options were limited. Pete Rose was intentionally walked. Johnson brought in lefty Roger Moret, which prompted Sparky Anderson to pinchhit righty Merv Rettenmund for Ken Griffey. Rettenmund struck out. Joe Morgan then hit the ball past the drawn-in outfield and the game was over.

Writers scurried to the Red Sox clubhouse for quotes. They got good quotes all right, but the censors had to bleep out the best parts before they could be printed in family newspapers. Boston writer Ray Fitzgerald called it “the angriest losing locker room I have ever seen.”

Some of the printed comments included:

“We should have had a double play on that ball but the umpires are too gutless under pressure.”

“We asked [first base umpire] Dick Stelllo at first to rule on it, too, and he backed up his fellow thief.”

“Barnett is the most gutless slob who ever umpired a baseball game.”

“This is a game that would have given us the edge and now we’re just bleeped.”

“Bleep the umpires.”

“That bleeping slob of a plate umpire, Larry Barnett, has been bleeping the Red Sox all season long.”

When all the niceties were out of the way, noted philosopher and cosmic lefthander Bill Lee added his perspective, stating that if you watched the NFL all season you wouldn’t see a better body block by an offensive lineman. He called it the worst bleeping miscarriage of justice since he was in Little League. He said that he would have bitten the umpires’ ear off it he had been close. “I would have Van Gohed him,” he said, adding a new verb to the lexicon. “The Series is now even: one for us, one for the Reds, and one for the umps.”

Over in the Reds’ clubhouse, Armbrister said, “The ball bounced high and I stood there for a moment watching it. As I broke for first base, Fisk reached over my head for the ball before I could continue on. I stood there because he hit me in the back and I couldn’t move.”

All parties agreed that a collision had taken place. And it had taken place in fair territory. In the opinion of Dick Stello, who was umpiring at first, “The batter has as much right to go to first base as the fielder has to go for the ball.”

When questioned later by reporters, umpire Barnett defended his decision, “I ruled that it was simply a collision. It is interference only when the batter intentionally gets in the way of the fielder.” When looked up, the rules that covered this, numbers 6.06 and 7.08, say nothing of intent, however.

Darrell Johnson said that, in his argument with Barnett, the umpire never mentioned intent, but said only that it was a judgement call. A judgement call can not be protested, but an interpretation of the rule can be. The protest would have needed to be made before the next pitch, however, and so, at that point, the poor bleeping Red Sox were indeed bleeped.

When one Zapruders video of the play [what the heck–if Bill Lee can invent verbs so can I] it appears that Armbrister started to run but was stopped by the collision when he was rear-ended by Fisk. The collision did not interfere with the throw, as Fisk was set before throwing. A good throw by Fisk would have eliminated the controversy. With Geronimo’s speed, it would have been a close play at second for the force. The relay to first would have easily gotten Armbrister, due to his late start. There was not time to tag Armbrister and then throw to second for a tag play on Geronimo. Fisk took a gamble by going for the double play instead of the easy out and it cost him.

The most damaging factor to Fisk and the Red Sox was the unusual quickness of Carlton Fisk in getting out of his crouch to make a play. Most catchers would have gotten there slower than Fisk, would not have collided with Armbrister, and would have been forced to take the easy out at first.

Lost in the confusion, but clearly shown on the video, was the end of the play which backed Red Sox third baseman Rico Petrocelli’s later claim that Geronimo’s legs overslid third base and he ended sitting on his butt, a few inches off the base. Petrocelli applied the tag before Geronimo could reach back with his hand, but the umpire apparently didn’t see it, possibly because of all the commotion brewing back at home plate.

Back in Hartford, the 19 year old was obviously upset, both with the state of his mother’s Buick and the fact that he had potentially injured the president. After a good grilling by some serious-looking secret service agents, who had to ascertain whether or not this was an assassination attempt, he was left to return home, presumably after exchanging insurance info with POTUS. The investigation determined that the fault lay with a motorcycle cop who failed to adequately secure the intersection. The incident was soon forgotten, except by the young driver, his buddies and his mother.

The second collision had more legs.

The Red Sox went on to stand toe-to-toe with the Big Red Machine over the next eight days and the 1975 World Series would come to be known as one of the best in baseball history. The Red Sox lost Game 7 in the last inning by one run and lost the Series by one game. A different outcome in Game Three looms large. It would be 29 more years before the Red Sox would win a world championship.

The call would be debated throughout the winter. In February, 1976, NBC ran highlights of the World Series and had Kubek, Garagiola and some of the participants in the studio to rehash the Series for more than two hours. While reviewing new camera angles and footage, Kubek continued to argue for the interference call. He and Barnett took turns reading the rule book, each offering support for his interpretation. A view from the first base side was shown in which Barnett was removing his mask just as the collision appeared to be finishing—raising the possibility that he was unable to see the crucial step.

Barnett would later have his life threatened in a letter which demanded he return $10,000 the writer claimed to have lost on a wager due to the call. But all things have a silver lining. Barnett noted in the spring that he had made between ten and fifteen thousand dollars over the winter in speaking fees based on the call. “Tell me, when’s the last time you can remember anybody, I mean anybody, paying money to see or listen to an umpire?” He also was signed to do some commercials. He received hundreds of letters over the winter to his Prospect, Ohio home, which ran about 2 to 1 against him. One memorable letter was addressed to “Larry Barnett, Home Plate Umpire, Third Game, 1975 World Series, Prospect, Ohio.” It read, succinctly and eloquently, “You stink!”

Like any good umpire, Barnett would never have any public doubts. Even today, almost 40 years later, he is satisfied with his decision. He also points out that Major League Baseball has always maintained that the call was correct and, in fact, video of the play was used for years to teach umpires the interference rules.

Was the call correct? Everyone has an opinion and at this point it really doesn’t matter. Perhaps that’s one of the great things about the human element of baseball–it gives us stuff to talk about long after an event, and keeps us from ever running out of interesting topics.

This is little consolation to Red Sox fans, all of whom still remember Barnett’s name, albeit often with the same middle name that Bucky Dent would later come to enjoy.

Doug Wilson is the author of biographies on Mark Fidrych, Brooks Robinson and Carlton Fisk (to be released October 20, 2015). Visit him at Doug Wilson’s Baseball Bookshelf.

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