SABR

Carlton Fisk

This article was written by Brian Stevens.

Born in Bellows Falls, Vermont, on December 26, 1947, Carlton Fisk embodies traditional New England values like pride, ruggedness, and individuality. That was what Boston Red Sox public relations director Dick Bresciani was trying to capture in 1997 when he wrote that Fisk was a "native of Vermont" on his original plaque for the Red Sox Hall of Fame. But the greatest baseball player ever born in Vermont -- and the man responsible for perhaps the most dramatic moment in New England sports history -- doesn't consider himself a Vermonter. Fisk grew up on the other side of the Connecticut River in Charlestown, New Hampshire, a town of less than 1,000 inhabitants - it just so happened that Bellows Falls had the nearest hospital. So in a display of traditional New England stubbornness, Fisk insisted that his plaque be re-cast (at a cost of $3,000 to the Red Sox) to delete the Vermont reference and reflect that he was raised in New Hampshire.

Fisk did play American Legion baseball in Vermont for Post Five in the town of his birth, and for years a simple white sign with an "X" marked the spot at the Bellows Falls field where one of his blasts landed. In fact, in his first at-bat for Bellows Falls back in 1965, Fisk crushed a home run at Cooperstown's famous Doubleday Field, on the site where baseball was supposedly invented. In storybook fashion, he returned to Cooperstown in 2000 for his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Carlton Ernest Fisk inherited his extraordinary work ethic and athletic talent from his parents. His father, Cecil, worked for 13years as an engineer in the tool-and-dye industry in Springfield, Vermont. A job like that would be enough for most people, but Cecil also worked the Fisk family farm. Often he dismounted from the tractor, raced to a local tennis match, soundly defeated his opponent, then returned to the farm to resume his chores. In addition to tennis, Cecil also was a superb basketball player. Carlton's mother, Leona, was famous in her own right as a champion candlepin bowler. Certainly the gene for coordination ran deep in the Fisk family.

The Fisks of Charlestown established an athletic dynasty. Carlton's older brother, Calvin, his younger brothers Conrad and Cedric, and his sisters, Janet and June, all exhibited unusual athletic prowess. In fact, the son who is destined for the Hall of Fame was not considered the most talented of the progeny. Carlton was chubby as a youngster, which is how and when he acquired his well-known nickname, Pudge. "If you saw him as an eighth grader, you would not believe he could accomplish the things he has," said Ralph Silva, his high school coach. But Carlton was strong, and Coach Silva honed that strength by implementing weight training long before it became commonplace.

Beginning in 1962, when Calvin and Carlton first played Charlestown High School sports together, and continuing through 1972, when June graduated from the newly-regionalized Fall Mountain School District, the Fisks could be counted on to appear in postseason playoffs. Along with Calvin, Conrad, and younger brother Cedric, Carlton formed the nucleus of a dominant Charlestown presence in basketball, baseball, and soccer. Early on, though, Pudge's greatest accomplishments came on the hardwood. "Fisk could have made it in basketball," said Coach Silva. "He was that tough."

After developing his hoop talent in his grandfather's barn, Carlton went on to some legendary high school performances. In a 1963 regional playoff game at the Boston Garden, for example, he made such an impression in a victory over Winooski, Vermont, that Walter Brown, owner of the Celtics, leaned over to a local reporter and said, "You have got to tell me-who is that kid?" In 1965, , playing against Hopkinton in the New Hampshire Class M semifinals, the 6'2" Fisk scored forty-two points and yanked down 39 rebounds-even though the opposition included players who were 6'10", 6'8", and 6'3". When he fouled out with a minute left, Fisk received a standing ovation from the Portsmouth crowd. Charlestown lost by two points, and an oft-told story is that after his son's memorable performance, Cecil Fisk's only comment was that Carlton had missed four free throws.

Cecil wasn't being harsh or overbearing - he simply understood that to excel as an athlete, mental toughness was essential. Cecil's philosophy on child-rearing was simple: "I expected them to do as well as they could, whatever they did." Cecil and Leona Fisk sat behind the bench during basketball games but never said a word to Coach Silva, never criticized his strategy and never let on if they disagreed with how their sons were handled. "No Hall of Famer ever had a better start than Fisk," said Bellows Falls American Legion coach Tim Ryan, "and it was because of his parents."

Because of the northern New England weather, Carlton Fisk's high school baseball career consisted of no more than 17 games a season. Before early-season practice he and his teammates often had to shovel off the Charlestown High School baseball field, which was shaded from direct sunlight. Sometimes the team simply practiced in the nearby Fisk cornfield. "I'd let them practice for as long as they wanted, long after we would have otherwise gone home," said Coach Silva. "Of course, they don't do that anymore."

Carlton demanded that practice be taken seriously; on one occasion he punched out a teammate for "goofing off". The competitive nature of those practices resulted in Carlton's first experience as a catcher. During batting practice, with Carlton manning third base and Calvin behind the plate, a foul pop drew both of their attention. With the entire team yelling "Fisk!" both attempted to make the catch, and the resulting collision made Calvin look like a hockey player (only one of the two teeth retrieved could be saved). Because the catcher's mask no longer fit over his swollen jaw, catching responsibilities fell to Carlton. (In typical Fisk fashion, Calvin played the next day, only in left field.)

Calvin, Carlton, and Conrad all pitched for the Charlestown team, which went 49-17 including playoff games during Carlton's high school career. One of those losses came in the Class M state championship against a strong team from Woodsville. Despite striking out14, Carlton was a victim of his own aggressiveness. With one out and the winning run on third, the Woodsville batter laid down a perfect squeeze bunt that hugged the third-base line. Not hearing his teammates' cries of "Let it go foul!" Carlton leaped off the mound, picked up the ball and threw across his body, making an amazing play to nail the batter at first as the winning run scored.

Because of the short high school season, American Legion baseball takes on special importance in New England. Carlton played for Claremont in his first year of eligibility, but in 1965 he switched to Bellows Falls Post Five, which had won the Vermont State Championship the previous year. In one game with Bellows Falls, so the story goes, Carlton was at the plate and behind in the count, fooled by two consecutive curveballs. When the catcher called for a fastball and was emphatically shaken off by the pitcher, the manager called time and approached the mound. "There's no way I'm throwing him a fastball," the hurler said. But the manager insisted that he throw what the catcher called for, and Fisk hit the next pitch (a fastball) on a line over the center-field fence.

Though he played in less than 100 games as an amateur, Fisk gained the attention of professional scouts. One thought he had potential but told Coach Ryan that his bat wasn't quick enough-his power was mostly to right field. Ryan's response was typically self-effacing: "He'll get better coaches in the minors who can teach him to hit to left." But despite his success in baseball (or, more accurately, his all-around athletic success, as he was named Charlestown High's most valuable player in soccer and basketball as well), Carlton accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of New Hampshire.

The decision to attend UNH was made easier by the presence in Durham of his older brother, Calvin, who was captain of the soccer team and an All-Yankee Conference sweeper. But soon Calvin was drafted by both the Baltimore Orioles and the military. He was 25by the time he returned from Vietnam, too old (according to the Baltimore front office) to embark on a career in professional baseball. Carlton's younger brother Conrad, considered the best pitcher of the Fisk clan, later signed with the Montreal Expos. He was undefeated and threw a no-hitter in the playoffs during his senior year of high school, but an arm injury ended his career prematurely. Cedric, whose scholastic batting average was higher than that of any of his older brothers, didn't pursue athletics beyond high school.

During the winter of 1965-66, Carlton led the UNH freshman basketball team to an undefeated season. While at UNH he also met his future wife, Linda Foust, a native of Manchester, New Hampshire. Then, in January 1967, the Boston Red Sox drafted him in the first round. Fisk was at first suspicious, suspecting that he was the token New Englander the Red Sox had taken to pacify local fans. He ended up signing mainly because he realized "I could never be a six-foot-two power forward and play for the Celtics."

Carlton Fisk's baseball career almost came to an end at Waterloo, Iowa, Boston's entry-level team in the Class A Midwest League. Despite batting .338 with 12 home runs in 62 games, he was despondent. Pudge's letters home show that the source of most of his frustration was the team's losing record. The Waterloo Hawks finished 56-68, 26.5 games behind the league-leading Cedar Rapids Cardinals. Losing was new and intolerable to Fisk.

But he persisted and in September 1969 the Red Sox called him up from Double-A Pittsfield. The 21-year-old Fisk made his major league debut in the first game of a doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles on September 18. His cup of coffee turned bitter -- in two games he went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts -- and Bill Liston wrote in the Herald-Traveler, "The word on Fisk is that he needs a year of Triple A ball, especially to enable him to handle breaking pitches with the bat."

That year of Triple-A ball became one year with Double-A Pawtucket in 1970 and another with Triple-A Louisville in 1971, but Fisk remained upbeat and continued to improve. At Louisville his manager was Darrell Johnson, whom he credited for making him a major leaguer. "Johnson taught me to think about all the important facets of the catcher's role, the things that help pitchers in various ways and those that let your teammates know you want to win," he told an interviewer in 1973. Johnson also helped Fisk improve his hitting. "When I put the equipment on, my job is defense: to get the other team out, help the pitchers get the batters, help the fielders-to run the game," Fisk said. "Once I take the equipment off, however, I stop thinking defense and start thinking offense."

That new concentration resulted in a .263 average at Louisville, 34 points higher than his average the previous season at Pawtucket.

Despite his excellent play (.313 with two home runs) in 14 games with Boston at the end of the 1971 season, Carlton Fisk was only the third-string catcher for the Red Sox entering 1972. The starter was Duane Josephson, who'd batted .245 with 10 home runs in '71 after coming to Boston in a trade with the White Sox. Bob Montgomery was the back-up. But when Josephson was injured in the third game of the season and rival base runners were running at will on Montgomery, Fisk became a regular in Boston.

From the start, Carlton was a slugger. By June 13 the 24-year-old rookie had collected 32 hits, 20 for extra bases. His average was .278 and his slugging percentage was .574. His confidence rose with his slugging average, which stood at .628 by July 12. He was beginning to attract attention. "Fisk is rapidly gaining the reputation of being the Johnny Bench of the American League," wrote Larry Claflin. In July, Earl Weaver selected him to represent the A.L. in the All-Star Game in Atlanta. Fisk replaced Bill Freehan in the sixth inning and suddenly found himself playing against Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, whose bubble-gum cards he'd collected back in Charlestown. For the 1972 season, Fisk caught 131 games and batted .293 with 22 home runs. His accomplishments earned him selection as the American League's Rookie of the Year, the first player ever to receive the honor by a unanimous vote. He also won the Gold Glove for catchers and finished fourth in balloting for the league's Most Valuable Player. In a testament to the times, Pudge's salary reportedly rose from $18,000 to $30,000, which, according to Claflin, was "as big a pay raise as any player in the game."

The Red Sox had been searching for a quality receiver ever since the Birdie Tebbetts/Sammy White era of 1947-59. In Fisk they finally had a tough, productive, intelligent, and dependable backstop. "If you play against him you hate him," said manager Eddie Kasko, "but if you play with him and want to win, you love him. He plays as if he were on the Crusades."

The dreaded sophomore jinx caught up to Carlton Fisk in the second half of the 1973 season. Batting .303 on June 23, he hit only .228 in July, .198 in August, and .186 in September. The extended slump was nothing compared to challenges soon to come. At Municipal Stadium on June 28, 1974, the Red Sox and Indians were deadlocked at 1-1 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning when Cleveland's Leron Lee rounded third and crashed into the fully-extended Fisk, who was reaching for a high relay throw from Mario Guerrero. Pudge tore ligaments in his left knee. "My career was supposed to be over," he recalled. "I was supposed to walk with a limp and have chronic back problems the rest of my life."

But Fisk returned in 1975, and the long, lonely hours spent in rehabilitation made a lasting impression on him. Though for years the knee injury hampered his ability to throw out base runners, he feels that it may have been a blessing. "In some ways, hurting my knee was one of the best things ever to happen to my off-season psyche," Fisk said while still an active player. "Now, everything I do is programmed toward getting ready to play baseball. Before, winter was just a time to have fun hacking around the basketball court." His obsession with conditioning was the secret to his 22-year career in the majors. Though injuries continued to plague him-in all - he spent over five and one-half seasons on the disabled list - he always managed to return, allowing him to catch in 2,226 games, the most in major league history. "More than the home runs, it's the longevity that stands out as his greatest achievement," says high school coach Silva.

After coming back from the 1974 knee surgery, Fisk was hit by a pitched ball in spring training and broke his forearm. Returning to a standing ovation on June 23, 1975, Pudge hit .331 over the remainder of the season to lead the Red Sox to the A.L. East title. Fisk batted .417 against the Oakland A's in the League Championship Series, but his greatest heroics were yet to come.

Game Six of the 1975 World Series -- a must-win game for the Boston Red Sox, down three games to two to the Cincinnati Reds -- was a wild, seesaw affair. The Red Sox jumped out to a 3-0 lead on Fred Lynn's three-run homer in the first inning, but the Reds came back and took a 6-3 lead into the eighth, when Bernie Carbo's pinch-hit, three-run homer tied the game. In the ninth inning, the Red Sox failed to score despite loading the bases with no outs, and the game headed into extra innings with the score knotted at six.

It was 12:33 a.m. by the time Carlton Fisk stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom half of the 12th against Pat Darcy, the eighth Reds pitcher of the night. On Darcy's second pitch, Fisk lofted a high shot down the left field line. Millions of television viewers watched Fisk wave wildly as he made his way down the first-base line, willing the ball to stay fair. When it glanced off the foul pole -- a fair ball -- John Kiley, the Fenway Park organist, launched into Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" as the native Vermonter circled the bases in triumph. The home run touched off a celebration throughout the region -- in Fisk's native Charlestown, church bells rang out in the early-morning stillness.

Many consider Fisk's game-winning blast the exclamation point on the greatest baseball game ever played. In Game Seven, however, Bill Lee couldn't hold on to another 3-0 lead, and the Reds took the series with a 4-3 victory. The Red Sox were once again denied their first World Series championship since the 1918 fall classic.

Fisk was named to the A.L. All-Star Team seven times during his tenure in Boston. During one pennant race when his team was battling the Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver said, "The guy they'd hate to lose most, even more than Rice, is Fisk." In determining Fisk's importance, consider that in 1980 the Sox were 68-44 when he was behind the plate, 15-33 when he was not. Yet by 1981 Fisk was questioning whether the Red Sox front office really wanted him. Contract negotiations proceeded slowly, and then general manager Haywood Sullivan blundered by failing to mail his contract on time, rendering Fisk a free agent.

The Red Sox offered Fisk a guaranteed $2 million plus incentives. The perennially non-contending Chicago White Sox, for whom Fisk's acquisition would create instant credibility, offered $3.5 million. Nevertheless, the decision to leave Boston was difficult. After the Red Sox traded Rick Burleson, Butch Hobson, and Fred Lynn to the California Angels that winter, however, Fisk questioned Boston's commitment to winning. Conversely, the White Sox, with new owners Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf, were improving. Fisk decided to sign with Chicago.

In 1983 the White Sox made their first appearance in the postseason since 1959, and many credited Fisk's work with pitchers Britt Burns, LaMarr Hoyt and Richard Dotson as the key. Pudge averaged 125 games for Chicago through 1985, when he hit 37 home runs with 107 RBIs. But that year his honeymoon with the White Sox front office ended with a bitter salary dispute, and subsequent re-signings in 1986, 1988, 1991, and 1993 were about as smooth as Vermont dirt roads during mud season.

At an age when most players are capable of nothing more than an occasional appearance at a fantasy camp or old-timers' game, Fisk continued his quest for personal goals. In August 1990, he hit his 349th home run as a catcher, setting a major league record. His son Casey was there. "I had goose bumps when he hugged his boy at home plate," said White Sox manager Jeff Torborg. "That's a big emotional thing right there. It meant so much to those two and that family."

In 1993 Fisk caught his 2,226th game, surpassing Bob Boone as the all-time leader. Then, on June 28, the White Sox released him. The next day, Carlton and Linda Fisk sent a simple but heartfelt message to the Boston faithful. They hired a plane to tow a banner reading, "IT ALL STARTED HERE. THANKS BOSTON FANS. PUDGE FISK." They sent a similar message across the sky over Comiskey Park.

Among the thirteen Hall-of-Fame catchers for whom numbers are available (complete statistics don't exist for Negro Leaguer Josh Gibson), Carlton Fisk ranks first in total games caught, at-bats, hits, runs scored and doubles; second in total home runs and putouts;; third in RBI; and tied for fourth in fielding percentage. Fisk's 128 stolen bases for modern Hall-of-Fame catchers are second only to Ray Schalk's 176. He was an 11-time All-Star. The White Sox retired his number 72 in 1997, the same year he was elected to the Red Sox Hall of Fame. Fisk's election to the National Hall of Fame was almost a bygone conclusion, but it was made official in January 2000.

After some delay, Fisk provided the answer to a difficult question by announcing that he would wear a Red Sox cap into the Hall, even though he spent 13 years with the White Sox and only nine full seasons with the Red Sox. "I would like to say that this has always been my favorite hat, and I will be wearing this hat probably for the rest of my career," said the man who worked at the time as a special assistant to Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette. At that same press conference, Duquette told a surprised Fisk that the team had decided to retire his number 27. "I didn't think I met the criteria," said Fisk. "It gives me goose bumps to think about it. I didn't think it was at all possible." In the past, the Red Sox have stated that they will retire a number only for a player who is in the Hall, spent at least 10 years with the team, and finished his career in Boston. Duquette, by hiring Fisk, ensured that he was finishing his career with the Red Sox. In formal ceremonies during 2005, the left-field foul pole was officially named the Fisk Pole.

Fisk will always be remembered for his dramatic home run in the '75 Series, but the incident that best represents how he played the game came on an otherwise unmemorable night in 1989 when Deion Sanders, then a rookie with the New York Yankees, failed to run out an infield grounder. The next time "Neon Deion" came to the plate, the 42-year-old Fisk growled, "Listen to me, you #%*^. Next time run it out."

Even though Sanders played for the opposition, and the hated Yankees, at that, he'd violated the Fisk Code of Baseball Ethics. Thou shalt hustle. Thou shalt run it out. To Fisk, the proper way to play the game was always important -- with passion, preparation, hard work, integrity, and respect. He acquired those values on the farm in Charlestown, and they propelled him all the way to Cooperstown.


Note

A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000). Later, it was also published in '75: The Red Sox Team That Saved Baseball, edited by Bill Nowlin and Cecilia Tan, and published by Rounder Books in 2005.


Sources

Carlton Fisk's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Various newspapers, including the Boston Globe, Boston Record American, Boston Herald, Manchester Union Leader, The Sporting News, and Chicago Tribune.

Interviews with Cecil and Leona Fisk in May, 1999.

Interviews with Ralph Silva, May, 1999.

E-mail communications with Wayne McElreavy, September, 2005.

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