When Rick Monday Saved The American Flag From Being Burned At Dodger Stadium
Forty years ago, a man and a child tried to burn a flag on the field at Dodger Stadium, and were thwarted by an ex-Marine outfielder. It's not as simple as it looks.
Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
On April 25, 1976, on a hazy Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs were playing the final game of a meaningless early-season series at Dodger Stadium when, quite suddenly, one person and then another ran onto the field. It was the bottom of the fourth inning, and Ted Sizemore was at bat.
Cubs centerfielder Rick Monday had experience dealing with streakers, drunks, and other intruders in the outfield, but he sensed something was different and otherwise awry. The pair just gave off "a vibe," he said.
One was carrying an American flag, a not-unfamiliar sight during the bicentennial year, which he unfurled in shallow left-center like a picnic blanket. Lighter fluid fumes wafted into the air. A match was struck. "It looks like he's going to burn a flag!" Vin Scully cried out from the broadcast booth.
Monday, who'd served in the Marine Corps Reserve for six years, didn't hesitate. He charged the pair, grabbed the cloth with his right hand, and kept running. The sodden flag, unlit, was preserved. One of the would-be flag immolators hurled a can of lighter fluid at Monday, but he was beyond its range. As Monday handed the flag off to Dodgers pitcher Doug Rau, Tommy Lasorda raced over from the third-base coach's box and screamed curses at the would-be flag-burners.
The crowd of 25,167, many of them reacting to Scully's words, gave Monday a standing ovation. The scoreboard read: "Rick Monday—You Made a Great Play."
Forty years later, Monday is still furious. "What they were doing was wrong, and I wanted them off the field," he told VICE Sports before a Dodgers spring training game in Glendale, Arizona. "I did not want them to be able to desecrate an American flag that some of my buddies lost their lives for, representing the rights and freedoms that you and I enjoy."
For years, a grainy photograph taken by James Roark and published in newspapers around the country was the only visual evidence of what had happened. The black-and-white picture captured the dramatic denouement: Monday's balletic snatch of the flag, the stars and stripes clearly visible, juxtaposed against the pair of field-crashers, on their knees as if in supplication. The outfield wall and disbelieving fans frame it as a backdrop.
The moment and the photograph would be compared to the epochal flag-raising at Iwo Jima, except that this time the nation was at war with itself, and the battleground extended even to the green grass of the national pastime.
The initial details about the incident were conflicting, but they pointed to a political motive. The older man was identified as both William Errol Thomas and William Errol Morris. One newspaper wrote that the protest was "against the treatment of American Indians."
"All Americans are squatters," the man muttered, according to the Herald-Examiner.
"I thought he might have a knife or a gun," Cubs leftfielder Jose Cardenas said. "You never know with those crazy people. And they were high on dope, really doped out."
A few facts emerged. William Errol Thomas was 37 years old, unemployed, and from Eldon, Missouri. Several sources mentioned that he was a Native American. The other person on the field was his son, who was all of 11. Thomas was attempting to attract "attention to what he claims is his wife's imprisonment against her will in a Missouri mental institution," according to LAPD investigator George Renty.
The elder Thomas pleaded guilty to trespassing and was sentenced to three days in jail and one-year probation. His son, whose name was not divulged because of his age, was held in juvenile hall. They were called every name imaginable: dissidents, clowns, jerks, idiots, animals, nuts, and worse. Two others were reportedly apprehended for trying to attack them.
In its bicentennial year, America was a country afflicted and profoundly at odds. Reeling from the damage of Watergate and the humiliations and losses of the Vietnam War, seized by an economic crisis resulting from an oil embargo, Americans were confronting what the author Louis Masur described as "fundamental questions about patriotism and the vitality of the nation." Moments like the one in which the Thomases took the field, attempting to send whatever message they were trying to send, were startling, but also startlingly commonplace. The difference, this time, was that the chaos had made it into baseball.
Afterwards, no journalist bothered to interview Thomas. No journalist bothered to investigate his wife's plight. The family did not issue a public statement. By July 4th, as America celebrated its 200th birthday and readied for the upcoming presidential election, William Errol Thomas and his son had effectively vanished.
Those who knew Jim Roark best weren't surprised that he got the photograph of the flag rescue. He was a determined lens-man who essentially willed himself into being, both as a photographer and as a person.
Born James Barnas, he grew up in Chicago. His father was a drinker and a gambler, and early on Jim knew that he wanted to leave family strife behind. He entered the Air Force and worked on helicopters and fighter jets. He served six months in Vietnam on temporary duty assignment, and purchased his first camera while stationed there.
Afterwards, he moved out to California. Another brother, Robert, was an illustrator in the art department at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and he helped Jim land an entry-level post as a copy boy.
The Herald-Examiner was a feisty tabloid. A decade-long strike had culled the staff, but its sports section was beloved, and anchored by writers Bud Furillo, Mel Durslag, and Allan Malamud and cartoonist Karl Hubenthal.
Roark set out to join the sports department as a photojournalist. He took a correspondence course from the Famous Photographer's School in Connecticut, whose faculty included Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Bert Stern, and dutifully studied their instruction manuals. His first major credit was taking photos of musicians for a book titled Rock Beyond Woodstock.
Co-workers couldn't help but notice that the Barnas brothers had abandoned their family name. Robert called himself John Galt, after the protagonist from Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, while Jim swapped his last name for that of Howard Roark, the central figure in Rand's The Fountainhead.
Rand's philosophy of self-empowerment—that individuals control their destiny, and are beholden, in the end, only to themselves—seemed to inspire Jim Roark as he elbowed his way toward his goal. He made himself ubiquitous: under the basket at the Fabulous Forum, by the 18th green at Riviera, at the Rose Bowl for the Super Bowl, and ringside for title fights at the Olympic Auditorium.
"He thought he knew more than anybody, and everybody who disagreed with him was absolutely wrong," former Herald-Examiner photographer Sergio Ortiz said. "He was not a pleasant guy, with an ego as big as the Ritz."
Roark's adopted persona as an Olympian figure could not mask his serious drinking habit. "He knew every place in town where you could get a free drink," Roark's Herald-Examiner colleague Leo Jarzomb recalled. "Jim showed me how you could take your press pass to a window at Dodger Stadium and the bartender would give you two drinks."
Herald-Examiner staffers typically shot from the Dodger Stadium press box, where they kept a large lens preset to cover the entire diamond. But on the fateful day of the flag rescue, "Jim decided to go down and make something different," recalled photojournalist Rich Mackson.
Roark stationed himself in the photo well located by the first-base dugout. He used Tri-X, the black-and-white film of choice, with a Nikon f2 camera and a 300mm f/4.5 lens. When he noticed the commotion in the outfield, he reacted on instinct: he swung the camera up, focused, and fired, snap-snap-snap-snap, with the motor drive. He stuck around for a few more innings before driving to the newspaper's stately offices in downtown L.A. Even in that pre-digital age, when film was developed in the darkroom, Roark was confident he'd nailed it.
"He came in crowing, 'Hey, I got this great photo,'" Michael Haering said. When the shadowy figures emerged from the developer, they saw that he was right.
WGN, the Chicago-based network that broadcast the game, had followed station protocol and did not show the interruption. Director Arne Harris later said he was worried the pair rushing the field were carrying a bomb. "I just didn't feel like having a closeup of a ballplayer maybe getting his head blown off, not with all those kids watching," he said.
With no TV coverage, Roark boasted that he was the only one to capture the incident. He was wrong about this. Mackson himself shot a three-photo sequence from the press box that was published in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook newspaper, and a UPI staffer also snapped several images, one of which appeared in The Sporting News. But Roark's was the best. A six-foot wide enlargement was hung at the top of the stairs of the second-floor newsroom for the staff to admire. The next year, on Flag Day, fans attending the game at Dodger Stadium were given a commemorative poster bearing the photo. Roark and Monday posed together wearing enormous grins.
Titled "This Is Our Flag," it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. "I remember thinking, 'That's a cinch to win,'" colleague Jim Ruebsamen said. "It wrapped up the feeling of the period, that everybody was apathetic and nobody gave a crap, and suddenly this hero arises out of nowhere in Rick Monday."
Instead, the Pulitzer was awarded to another flag-themed photograph, published just 20 days before Roark's: Stanley Forman's The Soiling of Old Glory, a now-iconic picture that showed a white teenager using an American flag as a lance to attack an African-American attorney during an anti-busing rally in Boston. Still, the picture and the publicity boosted Roark's career. Under Herald-Examiner editor Jim Bellows, he was promoted to photo editor.
Divorced from his first wife, Roark met and wooed Catharina Bernström, a Swedish representative in the Scandinavian tourist office. They married in 1979 and moved into a home with a swimming pool in the San Fernando Valley, where Jim showed off his cooking skills. Two sons followed, along with a pair of Rottweilers named Cain and Abel.
"Jim did a lot of freelance work and we met a lot of different people," Catharina said. "I went with him to the opening of clubs and People magazine parties. It was exciting."
Rick Monday prided himself on being a throwback. He learned to play the game correctly under the tutelage of Ruben Navarro, his coach at Santa Monica High School, and came of age around the time the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, in 1958. He watched them in the Coliseum and then inside Walter O'Malley's new blue bauble in Chavez Ravine. Tommy Lasorda, then a scout, tempted Monday's mother with offers to sign with the hometown team, but she turned him down in favor of her son getting a college education.
He went to Arizona State to play under Bobby Winkles and, along with fellow future big leaguer Sal Bando, led the Suns Devils to their first College World Series title. Monday's mother had played her cards well: by 1965, her son was perfectly positioned to be the number-one selection in baseball's inaugural amateur draft, and signed with Charlie Finley's Kansas City Athletics for a $104,000 bonus.
Monday returned to California when the A's moved to Oakland, but missed their World Series run after being traded to Chicago in 1971 for pitcher Ken Holtzman. One bonus about being in the National League was that he got to play in front of family and friends whenever the Cubs came to Dodger Stadium.
During the first six years of his Major League career, Monday reported monthly for training with the Marine Corps Reserve. In the apathetic and uneasy America of 1976, this gave him a different perspective; the incident with the flag afforded him an especially dramatic way of showing it. "Those of us in Major League Baseball and those of us American citizens are not going to let people use our flag or the game of baseball to make any type of demonstration as was tried," he said at the time. "If they don't want to do anything constructive to help this country become even a better country to live in and participate in, then also one of the rights that is available to them is that our borders are not guarded and they are free to leave. God bless America."
Monday requested the flag afterwards, but left empty-handed because of the ensuing police investigation. By the time the Cubs returned to Wrigley Field, he was a national hero, thanks in part to "the most famous picture of its kind since the flag-raising at Iwo Jima," according to Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray.
It was "Francis Scott Key, Betsy Ross, Verdun and Iwo Jima—all wrapped up on one fleeting instant of patriotism," raved the Sporting News, noting that Monday resembled "Paul Revere at full gallop." President Ford awarded him with a Bicentennial Commendation, while Mayor Richard Daley named him the grand marshal of Chicago's "Salute to the American Flag" parade.
In May, when the Dodgers visited Chicago, general manager Al Campanis presented him with the now-famous flag. Miss Teenage Illinois planted a demure kiss on his cheek.
Jim Roark relished his job as photo editor of the Herald-Examiner, but continued to struggle with his drinking. When the Hearst Corporation shuttered the paper in 1989, his life got darker still. He lost his job, and the image he'd constructed for himself as a self-made success. Even his most famous photograph lost its luster with the surprise discovery of color video footage of the flag rescue, shot by a spectator from the stands.
"He was sad and upset and very worried about his future," his wife said. "He applied for photography jobs that he thought, because of his reputation, he was sure he would get. But he didn't, I presume because of his alcoholism. Because everybody knew him."
Roark applied to the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, with the idea of opening a restaurant. When he was accepted, he sold the home in Southern California, cashed in his retirement account, and left journalism behind.
His satisfaction was short-lived. He had difficulty finding steady work. The family's money woes worsened, and Roark's drinking followed suit. He and Catharina fought, then separated. She filed for divorce and ultimately went back to Sweden with the children.
Late on the evening of October 15, 1995, Roark left his gig as a night cook at Poor Richard's restaurant in Portland. While waiting for the train, he was beaten by four people in a robbery. He died of head injuries in the hospital the next day at the age of 49. "It was very difficult," Catharina says. "And it was very difficult for the kids."
Roark kept copies of his published and freelance work that filled dozens of scrapbooks. Catharina was able to rescue several binders after his death. They represent a visual heirloom that she can share with their sons.
"It's a sorrow," former colleague Michael Haering said. "Jim's been dead 21 years. His boys and Cat are now deep into their new lives, and he's laying there in the cemetery. It's a tragedy that he had to drink. It lost him his family and his career. He had such potential."
The bicentennial season was Monday's finest in MLB. He posted career bests in home runs (32), runs (107), and RBIs (77). Dodgers general manager Al Campanis paid a steep price to acquire the centerfielder, trading Bill Buckner and Ivan de Jesus to the Cubs, then signing him to a five-year deal worth a reported $1 million. Monday joined the club just as Lasorda, who'd scouted him in high school, succeeded Walter Alston as manager. "If he keeps hitting 30 home runs," the Times columnist Jim Murrary wrote, "they won't care if he turns Communist."
"Mr. Red, White and Blue," as Campanis called him, never reached that plateau again, but he fit comfortably within a traditionalist organization that dealt away outliers like Dick Allen and Glenn Burke. While never quite a star, Monday was a vital cog on the Dodgers' pennant-winning teams in 1977 and '78 and secured his place in franchise history in 1981 when, as a veteran reserve, he hit a ninth-inning home run that downed the Montreal Expos in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series, and Monday's homer won a spot in team lore, somewhere just south of Kirk Gibson's limping dinger off Oakland's Dennis Eckersley in 1988.
Monday retired in 1984. He is now 70, and he and his carefully calibrated baritone have been part of the Dodgers' broadcast team for more than two decades. Three years ago, Los Angeles held a flag-rescue bobblehead night to commemorate the occasion; the design was based on Jim Roark's photograph, complete with Monday holding an American flag. For years, Monday hung the rescued flag at his home. He now keeps it in a secure place because, he told me, an extremist group has tried to destroy it.
The flag has become Monday's identity and cause. With his second wife, Barbaralee, he has used it to raise enormous amounts of money for charity, including veterans groups. He is a board member of Citizens Flag Alliance, which has lobbied for a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting the physical desecration of the flag. (In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that flag-burning is considered "symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment.")
When I asked Monday whether the flag rescue and its aftermath have ever been burdensome, he demurred. "If I am remembered only as a guy that stood in the way of two guys trying to desecrate an American flag at a Major League Baseball game, and protect the rights and freedoms that flag represents for all of us, that's not a bad thing to be remembered for," he said.
In recent years, usually around the anniversary of the incident, journalists have tried to contact William Errol Thomas and his son without success. They have never been quoted or interviewed, and have remained hidden from public view even in the age of social media. What befell them has become, according to Dodgers' historian Mark Langill, "one of the two big mysteries we have: what happened to the Kirk Gibson home-run ball and what happened to the two people who tried to burn the American flag?"
Not long ago I spoke briefly with Bill Thomas's son. He is now in his early 50s, married, and has a child of his own. (His name was never published; I am respecting his request for privacy.) He was polite, but he refused to be interviewed.
"I'm not interested in reliving that time period," he told me. "I don't see any good from rehashing that situation. I don't feel it necessary to go over this." When I requested to interview his father, whom I'd also located, the younger Thomas declined. Neither returned subsequent phone messages and letters.
However, I did learn that Bill Thomas' wife died from natural causes in 2012. Two of her surviving siblings told me that, growing up, their family moved around often, on account of their father being a Southern Baptist preacher, which made it difficult to make lasting friends. She was tall and dark-haired, intelligent and opinionated, and "never without a book in her hands," according to one sister. She was one of several family members to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and was 21 when she married Bill Thomas. The two left the Midwest for California and rarely returned home. "I didn't see them but maybe one time in all those years," one brother said.
For long stretches, she experienced mental illness. "She was in and out of mental institutions all her life," one sister told me. "Mom and Dad had to go get her several times and put her somewhere. But she never discussed that with me."
There's no way of knowing what hardships she suffered. An acclaimed film in theaters at that time, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—the film is set in the early 1960s but was released in late 1975—offered moviegoers a glimpse of the harsh and primitive treatment environment in what were then still called insane asylums. Her siblings don't recall what occasioned Bill Thomas to react as he did in 1976, or whether it was related to his wife's institutionalization. One brother told me that he "didn't think she was connected with what Bill Thomas did. I don't know that she knew anything about what he was doing."
The couple eventually divorced. She moved back to Missouri about ten years ago. She died in a nursing home.
It's understandable that the Thomas family prefers silence. They have been vilified from the moment they ran onto the field. Even today, they continue to be publicly chastised and shamed. They remain a frustratingly nebulous void—they can be whatever sort of villain an observer wants them to be. The comment section below a recent re-telling of the story on the website ConservativeVideos.com described them as "two scumbags," "possibly illegal aliens," "Muslims," and "war protesters." One asked: "Were the names of the two perps Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorn?"
With their disappearance, with their refusal to address the past, they leave behind questions that seem likely to remain unanswered: What pain and rage led them out on to the field that day, and what did it have to do with that mental institution in Missouri? Why burn an American flag as a method of protest, and why at Dodger Stadium? And, why did a father use his 11-year-old son as an accomplice? In the long silence that followed the moment, there are surely other questions—questions of regret, questions about what it has been like to live with this for 40 years.
We have Roark's iconic image, and Monday's proud patriotism, but not the final element that completes the story and brings resolution. In choosing silence, the Thomas' have forfeited any opportunity for sympathy or forgiveness or understanding. The photo, and its strange and disquieting power, endures. The Thomas' legacy is a match blown out by the wind.
Editor's Note: After the Herald-Examiner closed, the Hearst Corp. donated the paper's photo archives to the Los Angeles Public Library. You can view other examples of Jim Roark's work via the Library's Photo Collection website.