By Paul Post
One of the most famous brawls in baseball history gave Bud Harrelson one of his all-time favorite collectibles.
In Game 3 of the 1973 National League Championship Series, Pete Rose barreled into the 147-pound Mets shortstop at second base, clearing both benches before a sold out crowd at Shea Stadium.
From then on, New York fans booed “Charlie Hustle” whenever he came to New York, while the two combatants went on to become Phillies teammates with a great deal of respect for each other.
“People chuckle about it,” Harrelson said. “It certainly wasn’t planned. But that’s what people remember.”
Harrelson has a photo of the fight, autographed by both players. Its caption states, “The fight. Pete Rose vs. Bud Harrelson. 1973 National League playoffs.”
The picture shows Rose just about ready to lift Harrelson off the ground.
Harrelson also has a Reds jersey autographed by Rose that says, “I’ll get you next time.”
Some writers have described Harrelson, pound for pound, as the toughest athlete in New York sports history. The image of him scrapping with Rose at Shea Stadium seemed to characterize the ’73 “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets who downed Cincinnati’s heavily-favored, more powerful Big Red Machine in five games.
Harrelson helped spark the fight with an inadvertent comment after Game 2, when Mets southpaw Jon Matlack handcuffed the Reds.
“I happened to be in the locker next to him and the writers were waiting for him to come off national TV,” Harrelson said. “A writer asked me, ‘What did you think about the Reds today?’ And I was dumb enough to say, ‘They look like me hitting.’ ”
Harrelson, of course, was a light-hitting shortstop with a .236 career average.
“That was it,” he said. “That one statement was all I made. I thought it was humorous. The next thing I know they’re mad at me.”
Rose used the comment to spark his team and the next game he slid hard into Harrelson on a double play ball.
“When he slid into me and hit me after I’d already thrown the ball, I got mad and cursed at him,” Harrelson said. “It really wasn’t a fight, it really was just a pileup. There weren’t any haymakers thrown or anything like that, and we were both still in the game.
“In the fourth game, he hit a home run off Harry Parker to win the ballgame and I said, ‘That’s Pete. He plays hard, you wind him up and he runs forever.’ ”
By the next year, the incident was over between them with no bad blood.
“We were pros,” Harrelson said. “We always got along. We just disagreed in that one situation. I had a lot of respect for him and Tommy Helms. They both took me under their wing when I first came up. I was kind of a snotty-nosed, nervous jittery kid that could catch it. They just talked to me a little bit. They felt that I could be a good player.
“Pete took me under his wing in the sense that he didn’t need to talk to me, he didn’t need to tell me anything,” he continued. “He didn’t need to encourage me, but he did.”
As a footnote to the ’73 NLCS, Harrelson got back at Rose the next year in Cincinnati by hitting one of his seven career home runs against the Reds.
“Pete was playing left field and I hit a home run over his head,” he said. “After I hit that home run, he kind of waited for me, he didn’t run off the field right away. He said, ‘What the heck was that all about?’ I shrugged my shoulders.”
Today, Harrelson is co-owner and senior vice president of the independent Atlantic League’s Long Island Ducks, where his office is filled with memorabilia from a 16-year career with the Mets, Phillies and Rangers. Autographed bats and balls bring back fond memories, along with numerous photos. One of his favorites depicts Mets manager Gil Hodges, whom he revered as a mentor and father figure. It was Hodges who guided the “Miracle Mets” to their first-ever World Championship in 1969.
It was 21 years ago this October, however, that Harrelson experienced one of the most thrilling moments of his entire baseball life. In Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, he was coaching third base when Mookie Wilson hit the infamous ground ball through Bill Buckner’s legs that allowed Ray Knight to score from second base with the game-winning run.
“I thought at one point that I was ahead of him,” Harrelson joked. “I had to slow down to make sure he’s the one that scored. They wouldn’t have counted my run.”
It might easily be described as the most exciting comeback in sports history, and the next night the Mets erased a Game 7 deficit to grab their second World Championship.
“It was a phenomenal situation,” Harrelson said. “There was the miracle of 1969, but in ’86 we were expected to win. The miracle there was coming back after losing the first two home games and we still had to win the seventh game when we tied it up.”
Harrelson remembers every detail of the Game 6, ninth-inning rally. “It looked pretty bleak for us, two runs down and no one on and two strikes on Gary Carter,” he recalled. “I took a quick peak into the Red Sox dugout and a lot of players weren’t on the top steps, but on the bottom of the steps. They were getting ready to celebrate with one strike to go. Tom Seaver was there, my old roommate. He wasn’t eligible, he’d hurt himself before the playoffs and was not eligible for the World Series. So he kind of gestured, ‘I’ll call you,’ which means it’s going to be over, we’re going to celebrate, we finally won a World Series after all these years.”
The Mets weren’t ready to give up, though.
“Then we got one hit, it was kind of harmless, then another and then another,” Harrelson said. “With Ray Knight at second base and the game tied, we got the ground ball and Ray’s just coming to third base thinking that the last out’s going to be made. The ball goes by Buckner and I started running with him. I was right behind him. He scored and I jumped on the pile.”
Always alert, Harrelson gave Knight the green light to keep running.
“Runners pick you up coming into third base, but it’s more of a vocal thing because they have to be looking at the bag,” Harrelson said. “He kind of rounded and started to slow down, because he didn’t have the speed to score unless the ball is booted. He needed the ball to get by.”
And it did, producing one of the most unforgettable moments in baseball history. For Harrelson the player, however, nothing compares with the ‘Amazin’ ’69 Mets. At shortstop, he was closest to left fielder Cleon Jones, who caught the final out of that Series, igniting a mob scene as fans swarmed onto the field in wild celebration.
“We beat St. Louis to win the NL East and they tore up the field,” Harrelson said. “Then we beat Atlanta to win the National League pennant and they tore up the field again. You just couldn’t control the crowd. They were emotionally motivated.
“When that ball came down, my first thought was that my mom and dad were there,” he continued. “If we didn’t win that fifth game they were going to fly back home to California. They were as
supportive of my career as a professional as much as an amateur.
“I thought about them, I thought about the ring and I thought lastly that there was going to be a World Series check, which was $13,538.18,” he continued. “I remember it like it was yesterday, because it really wasn’t a whole lot of money, but in the scheme of things, a lot of us in ’69 were probably making $35,000.
“The first thing I went back, and everybody was celebrating. All I could do was try to find my dad. He was in the family room and I brought him in. I wanted to celebrate, but it was a very emotional moment for me the other way in that my parents were there and got to share in that. My dad was a good friend as well as my father.”
The Mets haven’t made anywhere near the number of World Series appearances as their crosstown rivals, the Yankees, but each one has lived up to its billing as a true Fall Classic. No one could have imagined what happened in 1969. In ’73, the Mets and A’s played seven games, with Willie Mays making the last appearances of his Hall of Fame career.
Then there was ’86, which needs no further description. The 2000 Series between the Mets and Yankees was somewhat anticlimactic as the Bombers dominated throughout. It was historic nonetheless, however, by renewing the New York Subway Series tradition that fans hadn’t experienced since 1956 when the Yanks beat the Dodgers.
“In life, I say I’ve had all the emotions,” Harrelson said. “I’ve been in a World Series and won one. I’ve been in a World Series and lost one. I’ve made All-Star teams and looked around and the left fielder’s a Hall of Famer, the center fielder’s a Hall of Famer. I don’t think you really know what’s going on until you get a little older and start to realize the people that you’ve met and played against and the celebrities, the elected officials you’ve met and how important you were to New York and the history of the game.”
This story originally ran in the May 18 issue of our sister publication Sports Collectors Digest