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Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday…Carlton Fisk

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FiskFisk as a white sox

During a 24-year baseball career, he played for both the Boston Red Sox (1969, 1971–1980) and Chicago White Sox (1981–1993). The 6’2″, 220 lb Fisk was known in the majors as “Pudge”, his childhood nickname as he had been a chubby youngster,[2] or “The Commander”.[3] He was the first player to be unanimously voted American League Rookie of the Year (1972).

Fisk is best known for “waving fair” his game-winning home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. At the time of his retirement in 1993, he held the record for most home runs all-time by a catcher with 351 (since passed by Mike Piazza). Fisk held the record for most games played at the position of catcher (2,226) until June 17, 2009 when he was surpassed by another “Pudge”,Iván Rodríguez. Fisk still holds the American League record for most years served behind the plate (24). Fisk was voted to the All-Star team 11 times and won three Silver Slugger Awards which is awarded annually to the best offensive player at each position.

Fisk was known as a fierce competitor, a superb handler of pitchers, and a natural on-field leader.He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000.

In June 1974 Fisk suffered a devastating knee injury when Cleveland Indians Leron Lee collided with him at home plate, tearing several knee ligaments. After undergoing reconstructive knee surgery, Fisk was told he would never play again, yet the backstop returned just twelve months later to hit .331 in 1975.

A well-known moment of Fisk’s career came in the 12th inning of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series at Fenway Park. He hit Cincinnati Reds pitcher Pat Darcy‘s second pitch down the left field line that appeared to be heading into foul territory. The enduring image of Fisk jumping and waving the ball fair as he made his way to first base is considered by many to be one of baseball’s greatest moments. The ball struck the foul pole, giving the Red Sox a 7–6 win and forcing a seventh and deciding game of the Fall Classic.

The image of him waving the ball fair changed the way baseball was televised. During this time, cameramen covering baseball were instructed to follow the flight of the ball. In a 1999 interview, NBC cameraman Lou Gerard admitted that the classic shot was not due to his own skills as a cameraman, but because he had been distracted by a nearby rat. Unable to follow the ball, he kept the camera on Fisk instead. This play was perhaps the most important catalyst in getting camera operators to focus most of their attention on the players themselves.

Last years in Boston

Fisk was among the top offensive catchers in the American League in his eight full seasons with the Boston Red Sox. Over that time, he averaged 20 home runs and 70 RBIs per season. His best year in Boston was in 1977 when Fisk hit .315 with 26 HRs and 102 RBI.

Fisk was reportedly among a group of several Red Sox players who lobbied Boston management for players to be paid what they deserved, which made him none too popular withHaywood Sullivan, the Boston general manager. When Fisk’s contract expired at the end of the 1980 season, Sullivan in fact mailed him a new contract, but put it in the mail one day after the contractual deadline. As a result, Fisk was technically a free agent and he signed a $3.5 million deal with the Chicago White Sox, beginning with the 1981 season.

Chicago White Sox

SoxRetired72.PNG
Carlton Fisk’s number 72 wasretired by theChicago White Sox in 1997.

Fisk was signed by the White Sox on March 18, 1981. At that time, his old number 27 was held on the White Sox by pitcher Ken Kravec. Fisk flip-flopped his old number and thus wore the unusual baseball number of 72 on his jersey. Although Kravec was traded just ten days later, Fisk retained the number 72 throughout his career with the White Sox. As the season got under way, Fisk was interviewed by the media concerning his switching teams, and joked that that “after a decade with the Red Sox, it was time to change my sox!”

On opening day 1981, Fisk started the season with the White Sox against his former team in Fenway Park. In the eighth inning, Fisk knocked a three-run homer to put his new team on top, 5-3.[7]

After joining the White Sox, he played an instrumental role in helping the team win its first American League Western Division title in 1983. His .289 batting average, 26 home runs, and 86 RBI, as well as his leadership on the young team, helped him to finish third in the MVP voting (behind Baltimore Oriolesteammates Cal Ripken, Jr. and Eddie Murray). Fisk also caught LaMarr Hoyt that season, the 1983 Cy Young award winner.

On May 16, 1984 Fisk accomplished the rare feat of hitting for the cycle in Comiskey Park against the Kansas City Royals. Fisk’s triple in the bottom of the 7th inning off Dan Quisenberry was the only triple he hit in the season, joining Bill Salkeld (1945) as the only catcher in the 20th century to hit the season’s only triple in a cycle.[8]

Injuries once again befell Fisk in the 1984 season, limiting him to just 102 games and a .231 average. The experience led him to begin a new training regimen which he would use for the rest of his career. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Fisk credited White Sox strength and conditioning coach Phil Claussen for his turnaround. Claussen introduced Fisk to a more scientific approach to physical conditioning which included long sessions of weight training. Fisk often credited the training program to extending his career.[9]

In 1985, following the advent of his new training program, Fisk had the most productive offensive year of his career. He hit 37 home runs and drove in 107 runs, both career-high numbers; the home run numbers tied Dick Allen‘s 13-year White Sox single-season record. At the age of 37, Fisk tied his career high for stolen bases with 17 thefts on the year. For his performance, Fisk was voted to the All-Star team, won the Silver Slugger award and finished 13th in the A.L. MVP voting.

On August 4, 1985 Fisk caught all nine innings of Tom Seaver‘s complete game 300th career victory, which was played in Yankee Stadium. Fisk caught Bobby Thigpen as he set the then-record for most saves in a season (57) in 1990. In 2005, Jack McDowell credited Fisk as being instrumental in his development into a pitcher who won the Cy Young Award in 1993.

On August 17, 1990 in the second game of a twi-night doubleheader in Arlington, Texas Fisk broke Johnny Bench‘s career home run record for catchers by hitting his 328th longball as a catcher off Charlie Hough in the top of the second inning. He went on to end his career as the all-time leader in home runs by a catcher with 351. On May 5, 2004 Mike Piazza surpassed Fisk’s record by belting his 352nd as a backstop. Fisk still holds the American League record for homers by a catcher.

A single in the 1991 All-Star Game made him the oldest player in MLB history to collect a hit in an All-Star game.

On June 22, 1993 Fisk broke Bob Boone‘s record for career games caught with his 2,226th game behind the plate. Fisk was passed on this list by Ivan Rodriguez on June 17, 2009.[14]

Six days after breaking Bob Boone’s all-time games caught record, Fisk was unceremoniously and abruptly released by the Chicago White Sox. Fisk was notified of his dismissal in his hotel room in Cleveland while on a road trip with the team. It is reported that he was ordered to turn in his equipment and fly back to Chicago immediately, and alone.[15] Fisk was one of two final active position player in the 1990s who had played in the 1960s. The other was Nolan Ryan. He is one of only 29 players in baseball history to date to have appeared in Major League games in four decades.

It is rumored that this end to Fisk’s tenure in Chicago was the culmination of years of conflict with White Sox management, particularly team majority owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Fisk made mention of the fireworks between himself and Reinsdorf in his Hall of Fame induction speech.[16] To add insult to injury, it is reported that Fisk was thrown out of the White Sox clubhouse later that season when he stopped by to wish his teammates good luck in the playoffs.[15]

Fences began to be mended with the White Sox with the retirement of Fisk’s number 72 on September 14, 1997 and the dedication of his statue in U.S. Cellular Field in 2005. In 2008, Fisk officially rejoined the White Sox team, becoming a team ambassador and part of the White Sox speaker’s bureau.[17]

Almost a Yankee

After the 1985 season, the White Sox came close to trading Fisk to the New York Yankees for designated hitter Don Baylor. Baylor was unhappy with the Yankees since he did not play every day as he wanted (despite being the team’s regular DH) and asked to be traded. The potential deal was complicated in that the White Sox would have to re-sign Fisk, a free agent, and that both players would have to agree to the trade. Negotiations between the two teams ended when they were unable to reach an agreement.[18] The White Sox re-signed Fisk, who remained with the club until the end of his career. During spring training in 1986, the Yankees finally traded Baylor to the Boston Red Sox for designated hitter Mike Easler.

Notable feuds

Fisk was known for his longstanding feud with New York Yankees counterpart Thurman Munson. One particular incident that typified their feud, and the Yankees – Red Sox rivalry in general, occurred on August 1, 1973 at Fenway Park. With the score 2-2 in the top of the 9th, Munson, attempting to score on Gene Michael‘s missed bunt attempt, barreled into Fisk, triggering a 10-minute bench-clearing brawl in which both catchers were ejected. As John Curtis let his first pitch go, Munson broke for the plate. Michael tried to bunt, and missed. With Munson coming, the scrawny Yankees shortstop tried to step in Fisk’s way, but Carlton elbowed him out of the way and braced for Munson, who crashed into him as hard as he could. Fisk held onto the ball, but Munson tried to lie on top of him to allow Felipe Alou to keep rounding the bases.

Fisk kicked Munson off him and into the air, and swiped at him with his fist. Michael grabbed Fisk, and as Curtis grabbed Munson—his former Cape Cod League roommate—Fisk threw Michael down with his left arm and fell to the ground. “Fisk had his left arm right across Stick’s throat and wouldn’t let up,” said Ralph Houk, the Yankees’ manager at the time. “Michael couldn’t breathe. I had to crawl underneath the pile to try to pry Fisk’s arm off his throat to keep him from killing Stick. All the while he had Michael pinned down, he was punching Munson underneath the pile. I had no idea Fisk was that strong, but he was scary.”[19]

In another incident typifying the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, Fisk was involved in an altercation with Lou Piniella during a May 20, 1976 game at Yankee Stadium. In the sixth inning of this game, Piniella barreled into Fisk trying to score on an Otto Velez single. Fisk and Piniella shoved each other at home plate, triggering another bench-clearing brawl. After the fight apparently died down and order appeared to be restored, Fisk’s pitcher, Bill Lee, and Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles began exchanging words and punches, igniting the brawl anew.Lee suffered a separated left shoulder in the altercation and missed much of the season.

In another incident, NFL and MLB player Deion Sanders, then with the Yankees, hit a pop fly, and declined to run to first base, suspecting that the ball would be easily caught. Fisk yelled at Sanders to run the ball out and told Sanders during his next at-bat, “There is a right way and a wrong way to play this game. You’re playing it the wrong way. And the rest of us don’t like it. Someday, you’re going to get this game shoved right down your throat.”

Legacy

Pudge works harder than anyone I know, because he sets goals for himself and then follows through. I think he’s the ultimate professional.[22]

—Former White Sox manager, Jim Fregosi

Notable statistics

  • 1972 American League Rookie of the Year. The first player to have received the award with a unanimous vote.
  • 1972 Gold Glove winner.
  • 3x Silver Slugger award winner: 1981, 1985, 1988.
  • Led all American League catchers in fielding percentage in 1989.
  • Oldest catcher in Major League history to hit 20 home runs in 1987.
  • Oldest player to record a hit in an All-Star game in 1991.
  • Holds the record for most home runs hit after the age of 40 (72).
  • Holds the record for most years played as a catcher with 24 (1969, 1971–1993).
  • At the time of his retirement in 1993, he held the records for most home runs all-time by a catcher with 351 (since passed by Mike Piazza) and most games played at the position of catcher with 2,226 (surpassed by Iván Rodríguez on June 17, 2009).
  • Fisk is one of only sixteen catchers elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Among those, Fisk has the most hits (2,356) and runs scored (1,276).
  • Fisk holds the record for the longest game by a catcher. On May 9, 1984 he caught all 25 innings of the White Sox’s 7-6 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. Fisk threw out four runners attempting to steal during the game. The former record of 24 innings was shared by 5 players: Mike Powers (9-1-1906), Buddy Rosar and Bob Swift (both on 7-21-1945), Hal King and Jerry Grote (both on 4-15-1968).
  • Fisk finished in the top ten in American League Most Valuable Player voting four times (1972, 1977–78, and 1983).
  • Fisk’s .481 slugging percentage while with the Red Sox is the tenth best in that club’s long history.

Honors

Fisk was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, choosing the Boston Red Sox cap for his plaque, although he played for more seasons with the Chicago White Sox.

Fisk is also one of a small numbers of baseball players embraced by the fans of two teams. The Chicago White Sox retired his uniform number 72 on September 14, 1997. The Boston Red Sox retired his uniform number 27 on September 4, 2000. He is one of eight people to have their uniform number retired by at least two teams,and one of only three to have different numbers retired by two teams. Fisk joined Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson on that list when the Red Sox retired his #27; Fisk, Ryan, Jackson, Hank Aaron,Rollie Fingers, Rod Carew, Frank Robinson, and Greg Maddux are the only players to have had their numbers retired by two teams.

In 1999, he was selected as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, and finished third in the balloting.

In 2000, Fisk was elected to the Chicago White Sox All-Century Team.

In 2004 he was named the greatest New Hampshire athlete of all time.

In May 2008, Fisk returned to the White Sox as a team ambassador, and a member of the team’s speakers bureau.[28]

In the 2004 film, Mickey, the catcher is modeled after Carlton Fisk with the name Pudge and making a very similar home run hit.

Smallthoughts:Old School Tuesday salutes…Carlton Fisk

MLB debut
September 18, 1969 for the Boston Red Sox
Last MLB appearance
June 22, 1993 for the Chicago White Sox
Career statistics
Batting average .269
Home runs 376
Hits 2,356
Runs batted in 1,330
Teams
Career highlights and awards
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