Carlton Fisk was known as a great catcher and has been elected to the Hall of Fame. But not many realize the obstacles he had to overcome to earn that success.
A true New Englander, Fisk was born in Vermont, attended the University of New Hampshire, and in January 1967 was the first-round draft choice of the Boston Red Sox, the fourth player chosen in the nation. When he arrived in the big leagues in 1972, he already had a nickname (Pudge, from his childhood), and a trademark wad of tobacco that bulged inside one cheek. At the age of 21, he beat out Duane Josephson and Bob Montomery for the full-time job and never looked back.
Fisk was an immediate star. He hit .293 with 22 homers and a league-leading nine triples in '72, won a Gold Glove, and became the first player ever to win the Rookie of the Year award unanimously. But he proved to be a magnet for injuries over the next few seasons. His average slipped to .246 in 1973 and he missed the first three weeks of the 1974 season after a foul tip off the bat of Joe Torre struck his groin in spring training. His season ended early when his knee was seriously injured in a home-plate collision with Cleveland's Leron Lee on June 28.
As it turned out, Fisk missed nearly a full year. An errant pitch from Detroit's Fred Holdsworth in spring training 1975 sidelined him until June. But less than a week after he returned, Boston moved into first and Fisk hit .331 in 79 games to help the Red Sox reach the World Series.
Fisk found himself in the spotlight twice in the World Series. In the 10th inning of Game Three, he collided with Reds pinch-hitter Ed Armbrister while chasing a bunt in front of home plate, but no interference was called, and the Reds rallied for the winning run. In Game Six, Fisk got his revenge, drilling a Pat Darcy sinker off the left-field foul pole for a 12th-inning, game-winning home run in what many consider the most dramatic game in World Series history. Fisk's leaping gyrations down the first base line as he urged the ball to stay fair were recorded by NBC's television cameras, and placed the "reaction shot" into the vocabulary of baseball TV producers.
Distracted by a contract dispute, Fisk's 1976 season was a forgettable one, but he rebounded in 1977 to hit .315 with 26 homers and 102 RBI. Allowing just four passed balls over the entire season, he battled the Yankees' Thurman Munson for the distinction of being the AL's best catcher. Fisk started the All-Star Game in both 1977 and 1978, but the Yankees edged the Red Sox for the pennant and went on to win the World Series each year. A late-season rib injury suffered by Fisk in August 1978 contributed to Boston's collapse. The same injury limited him to just 91 appearances in 1979, mostly as a DH.
After a decent 1980 (.289, 18 homers) Fisk stunned Boston fans by signing with the Chicago White Sox. The Red Sox' front office had blundered by failing to postmark his new contract in time, allowing Fisk to become a free agent. With his change of Sox, Fisk flip-flopped his uniform number from 27 to 72. Chicago opened he 1981 season at Fenway Park and in fairy-tale fashion, Fisk hit a three-run, eighth-inning homer to win the game for his new team, 5-3.
In Chicago, Fisk defied the aging process, accepting occasional assignments in the outfield, at first base, or as a DH, but playing most of his games behind the plate. In 1983, his steady play helped the White Sox to their first AL West title, but he hit only .176 in the ALCS as Chicago lost to Baltimore in four games. In 1984 he hit 21 homers but drove in only 43 runs, the fewest RBI ever for a player with 20 home runs. Fisk hit only .238 in 1985, but recorded career bests in both home runs (37) and RBI (107).
Fisk's relationship with White Sox was marred by regular skirmishes with team management. The Yankees reportedly tried to sign Fisk to a contract in 1985, but the offer was pulled after White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf pressured Yankee boss George Steinbrenner -- an accusation that later was used as a cornerstone of the players' successful battle against collusion.
Even though thirty-three of his 37 homers came as a catcher, eclipsing Lance Parrish's year-old AL record for the position, the White Sox tried to move Pudge to left field in 1986 to make room for young backstop Joel Skinner. Fisk never felt comfortable in his new position and the ill-fated experiment lasted little more than a month.
Fisk was notorious for taking excruciatingly slow walks to the mound. After one particularly tedious "Pudge Trudge," opposing manager Bobby Valentine wondered aloud if the White Sox were being paid by the hour. It was once asserted that games Fisk caught ran twenty minutes longer than the average AL game.
As a 40-year-old in 1988, Fisk hit .277 with 19 homers in only 76 games. After missing much of the first half of 1989 with a broken hand he rebounded with a .293 average, 13 home runs and 68 RBI in 103 games. Fisk continued to put up solid power numbers in 1990, but in '91 his average dropped to .241 and his on-base average dropped below .300 for only the third time in 21 years. 1992 proved to be another difficult year as Fisk missed the first 55 games of the year with foot problems. When he returned, he was unproductive, hitting just three home runs. The unusually low total broke his streak of ten straight seasons with a dozen or more homers.
Fisk was involved in a memorable confrontation in May 1990, when he berated the Yankees' Deion Sanders for not running out a popup. Sanders was too stunned to respond, but the incident nearly instigated a brawl between the two teams. "Yankee pinstripes, Yankee pride," Fisk scoffed. "I'm playing for the other team, and it offended me." Sanders apologized the next day.
In the early '90s, Fisk began to yield playing time to Ron Karkovice, a solid defensive catcher who, at age 29, seemed young compared to his 44 year-old mentor. In 1993, Fisk only played 25 games as age finally took hold of him. Less than a week after surpassing Bob Boone for most games caught, Fisk was released by the White Sox.
Incredibly, Fisk was barred from joining his teammates in the White Sox clubhouse when the team reached the playoffs. Enraged, Fisk refused to participate in any promotion of his farewell ceremony -- even though he eventually appeared at the event. He had often joked he would design a special "dual-Sox" cap for his Hall of Fame plaque, but when he was elected to the Hall in 2000, it didn't take long for Fisk to announce his likeness would feature a Red Sox hat.