Carlton Fisk takes center stage every October. During baseball’s postseason, there are multiple replays of his iconic homer in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. It ranks near the top as one of the game’s most memorable blows and was Fisk’s defining moment. Yet there was much more to Fisk’s Hall of Fame career.
In “Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk,” author Doug Wilson details how the catcher seemed to defy age that saw him still squatting behind the plate at 46. He writes how it started with an old school New England work ethic that he brought to the Midwest when he came to Chicago in 1981, posting several exceptional seasons during his 13 years with the White Sox.
I was with Fisk during my three years as the White Sox beat writer for the Chicago Tribune. He always ranks among my favorite athletes to cover. He is an extremely thoughtful man. I still remember those long pauses after I asked him a question, knowing that Fisk was thinking about what he wanted to say.
He truly had a fascinating career. Here is my Q/A with Wilson.
What intrigued you about doing a book on Carlton Fisk?
Carlton Fisk is a man who is a sports icon in two major cities, Chicago and Boston, a Hall of Famer, and he hit one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history, yet little has ever been published about his life and career other than the standard one paragraph summary. He has a fascinating story and as the 40th anniversary of his signature moment approaches, I thought it was time.
Did you have any access to Fisk for the book? Who did you interview?
I did not have any access to Carlton Fisk. He has kept a very low public profile since retirement and he grants very few interviews. I contacted him by mail to let him know of my intentions and to extend the invitation to participate but did not have any other contact. I interviewed about 75 people including his childhood friends and teammates from high school, college and professional baseball. I spoke with his older brother numerous times for stories and fact-checking and also met his mother and sister. From these sources I was able to get a pretty complete picture, not only about his career, but about how he was viewed by those around him.
How did his New England roots shape him as a player?
More than most players, Carlton Fisk’s upbringing is absolutely crucial to the understanding of him and his career. His roots gave him the foundation for the work ethic, principles, attitude and stubbornness which later became his most famous features–he was New England to the core. He was Calvin Coolidge in John Wayne’s body. Being from New England also made him incredibly popular with Boston sports fans–he was one of them and they loved him. Had he been drafted by say, Los Angeles, it wouldn’t have been the same. His New England roots also made his exit from Boston much more difficult and tragic.
How did he view his epic homer in ’75?
He was very proud of his entire career, especially the records made possible by his longevity as they validated his determination and work ethic. He was heard on occasion to remark that it was annoying that some people thought that all he did in his career was hit the one home run. But at the same time I think he realized that it was a treasured, special moment–one of the greatest in the history of the game–and it gave him lasting recognition for generations. It’s what makes him unique. For a long time, some of the few pieces of memorabilia on display in his home were pictures of the famous camera shot and the bat that he hit it with (the bat has since been loaned to the Hall of Fame for an exhibit).
What did it say about Fisk that he was willing to leave Boston, where he was an icon?
He was a man of immense pride and he valued his accomplishments and place in the game. It’s necessary to understand that he was put in a very difficult position by Boston management; they made it clear that they were not willing to pay him anywhere near the market rate for even decent catchers at the time. And they purposely mailed his contract late–essentially voiding the contract. He felt insulted and, with him, once that line was crossed, there was no going back. I think he would have accepted a contract to stay in Boston for much less money if they had only shown a little respect and made him feel wanted. He never wanted to leave Boston–that had been his dream all his life. It was very hard, but once they publicly disrespected him the way they did, he would not have signed even if they had topped all other offers. And it worked out very well that he was able to have a great second half to his baseball career in Chicago–he settled in the Midwest and that became his home.
You write how Fisk seemed brittle early in his career with injuries. How did he manage to survive for 24 years?
He spent quite a bit of time on the disabled list during his first four years in the majors. He suffered two major injuries that cost him half a year each. Some of that was due to the usual fate of all catchers: foul tips and getting run over by runners, but also his style of play factored in. He was very athletic for a catcher and played with almost a recklessness in his early years. He led the league in triples as a rookie (a rare accomplishment for a catcher, especially one called Pudge), he routinely sprinted down to first to backup throws, he dove into stands chasing foul balls and he blocked the plate against all comers. He smartly toned some of that down as time went by and he picked his spots. He learned to use the sweep tag instead of tackling every runner. That helped him avoid more injuries. But I think the major factor that allowed him to catch for 24 years was the insane workout regimen that he adopted in the mid-1980s. He was one of the first baseball players to go all in with weight training and he stuck to the intense regimen throughout the season. He was often found sweating away in the stadium weight room at one in the morning–several hours after playing a complete game. It was no accident that he was able to continue squatting behind the plate a hundred times a game when he was 44 years old.
Was 1983 his best year?
Statistically, 1977 was probably his best year (.315, 26 home runs, 102 RBIs), but when all things are considered, I think a good argument can be made for 1983. He led the team to the divisional championship (the first title for any Chicago team in any sport since the 1963 Bears) while hitting .289 with 26 home runs and 86 RBIs. The thing you have to remember about his numbers is that he absolutely stunk for the first two months. His batting average was below .200 in mid-June. He was frustrated and butting heads with manager Tony LaRussa. One of the great stories of that year is how he and LaRussa settled their differences and Fisk went on a tear for the next 3 months and the team blew everyone away. That was a great team with several very good veteran leaders, but everyone understood Fisk’s place in the clubhouse and he had delivered on the enormous hype and expectations that the team had when they signed him. He later said that he had more fun on that team than any other he ever played on due to the unique set of personalities and, of course, winning big like that makes everyone happy.
Fisk also had battles with White Sox management. Why didn’t he get the respect he deserved from White Sox and Red Sox?
That’s a difficult question. I think it is due to both the personality of Carlton Fisk as well as the personalities of the specific men in both the Boston and Chicago front offices. Fisk was a man of tremendous pride who sometimes had a hard time letting go of an insult. The financial climate of those years definitely played a role. In Boston, it was the early years of free agency and Boston’s owners were almost reactionary in their views; they were clearly behind the times and it resulted in destroying what could have been a dynasty. Also, in both places, standard operating procedure at contract time seemed to be to insult the player and degrade his abilities and then try to get a low-ball contract rammed through–and that was absolutely the wrong way to approach Fisk. In Chicago, the owner was known as a very hard-line negotiator and, in the early 1990s, the Armageddon of owner-union battles was rapidly approaching and that definitely factored into the attitudes and rhetoric.
Where does Fisk rank among all-time best catchers?
Picking the All-Time greatest of anything is always a matter of opinion, but I think Johnny Bench is the best catcher by far. Yogi Berra won all those championships and people forget how great an all-around player he was. I think Fisk belongs in the group right after those two, along with old-timers like Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane and Roy Campanella. I will not pass judgement yet on the guys who put up big numbers from 1990-2006 because, as Ivan Rodriguez said, “Only God knows” if they used chemicals that helped their careers.