Baseball was a game in transition in 1976. It was the first year of the modern era, where players were beginning to see their futures not as perpetual servants of the same team, year after year, but as free agents, able to sell their services to the highest bidder.
The Reserve Clause had been in place since the 1880s, and it kept salaries arbitrarily low. It stated that players, even the great ones, couldn’t just up and leave their teams. And Andy Messersmith, who played without a contract in 1975 and signed the first million-dollar contract in professional sports the following year, provided the template that all major leaguers were planning to follow. But first, they had to finish the season out.
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On April 25, 1976 — 32 years ago today — Cubs outfielder Rick Monday became a national hero. In a game in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, he saved an American flag from being burned by two men who had run onto the field as an act of protest. As they fumbled with their matches and lighter fluid, Monday ran over and snatched the flag away from them.
It wasn’t until after this happened that people realized what was going on. The scoreboard operators at Dodger Stadium flashed a message that read “Rick Monday, You Made a Great Play.” And they were absolutely right. America’s bicentennial celebration was a few weeks away, and stories of a flag set on fire at a baseball game were not what anyone wanted to read about.
As much as I pound on the Cubs sometimes, I was definitely proud of my team at that moment. And Monday’s feat was recognized by the club, which apparently included a Rick Monday baseball card on today’s ticket for season ticket holders. I haven’t seen it, but hopefully an image will turn up online soon. All of the players appearing on season tickets this year can be found in the comments section of this link.
Rick Monday has held onto that flag in the years since that day, and although he has received offers for it, he refuses to sell it. He has certainly earned the right to do with it as he wants to. The move made Monday into a national hero, but for some reason, not an All-Star.
Sparky Anderson somehow chose Cubs catcher Steve Swisher for the NL All-Star team over Rick Monday, which never made any sense to me. Monday had a better year than Swisher did in 1976, in terms of batting average (Monday hit .272, while Swisher hit .236), home runs (Monday hit 32, while Swisher hit five) and RBIs (Monday had 77, while Swisher had 42). And Monday also led Swisher in dramatic flag saves, by a count of 1 to 0. In fact, Monday is the all-time career leader in this category, and hopefully no one will ever challenge his legacy.