Former All-Star catcher Ray Fosse talks with SABR member Rodney Johnson about life in the Cactus League.
Ray Fosse was the Cleveland Indians’ first draft pick in baseball’s inaugural free agent draft in 1965. Selected seventh overall, Fosse was drafted ahead of another pretty good catcher — Johnny Bench.
Beginning in 1966, Fosse has called Arizona his springtime home for 45 years. In 2011, Ray enters his 26th season on the air as a broadcaster with the Oakland A’s.
In 2009, I spoke with Fosse as he made a stop at the Mesa Historical Museum in support of Play Ball Arizona: The Cactus League Experience. The former All-Star catcher signed autographs and talked to fans for more than an hour before he had to head to Maryvale to do his pre-game show before an Athletics-Brewers game. While he was signing, he talked about his trek through the Cactus League.
“I’ve been really fortunate,” he said. “I spent my first spring camp in Tucson in 1966 and have been in Arizona for spring training every year since.”
If a young player is lucky, he will have a veteran player take him under his wing to guide him through his first spring training. For Fosse, Rocky Colavito was that player.
“When I had first signed in 1965, they flew me to Cleveland for three days,” Fosse recalled. “They took me to the clubhouse and there I was, a scared 18-year-old kid. The first player I saw was Rocky Colavito. He shook my hand and took me around and introduced me to every player in the clubhouse. Then, at my first spring training in 1966, we were staying at the Ramada Inn hotel in Tucson. Rocky came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to dinner. He was really amazing.”
The wide-eyed youngster got even more than he bargained for in his early Cactus League days.
“One day, I’m walking down the hall of the hotel and I see Paul Newman and Cameron Mitchell,” Fosse said. “They were in town at Old Tucson to film a movie and there they were. I remember thinking, ‘Man, you gotta be kidding me. Here I am in Tucson playing baseball and seeing movie stars — this is the life.'”
Although he had September call-ups in both 1967 and ’68, Ray did not play in a big-league spring training game until 1969. The Tribe’s March 7 opener was at Tempe Diablo Stadium against the expansion Seattle Pilots — the first game in that franchise’s history. It was also the inaugural game for the new ballpark. Arizona governor Jack Williams was on hand along with Tempe mayor Elmer Bradley. The flag was presented by an ROTC color guard from Arizona State University and the Tempe High School band played the national anthem. A cold wind that howled through the stadium kept the crowd down to 1,032.
In his first at-bat in the second inning, Fosse christened the stadium with its first homer — a solo blast off future Cy Young Award winner Mike Marshall that sailed over the left-field fence at the 360-foot mark. In spite of the homer, the Indians took their worst-ever Cactus League loss that day, a 19-3 pounding.
“The one thing I remember more than anything was that when we were the only team training in Tucson, we would sometimes play three consecutive days in the Valley and we would make three straight trips,” Fosse said. “We would never stay over. We got so we would hope to play well enough that we could stay behind in Tucson to get our work in and not have to make those trips all of the time.
“The only time we ever stayed over is when we went to Palm Springs or Yuma. We made three day trips and played two games in Palm Springs against the Angels and one game in Yuma against the Padres or vice-versa. We kind of hoped that we would spend the night in Palm Springs because there was a whole lot more going on there than in Yuma. One year, we had a game ‘winded out’ in Yuma. It was blowing so hard we just couldn’t play.”
The catcher-turned-broadcaster has seen spring training change dramatically during his 43 years of Cactus League experience.
“We were there to get into shape,” Fosse said. “My first year in the big leagues, I made $7,500. The major league minimum is $400,000 now. We had to have offseason jobs. We didn’t have personal trainers. The first 10 days of camp were devoted to getting back into playing shape before we even picked up a baseball. Today, players show up in shape and play a game three days later.
“You know, people talk to me about being born too soon … with all of the money and everything now. I would venture to say that the guys who played in my era, the 1960s and early ‘70s and before, wouldn’t trade one day of the era we played in. Granted, the money is better but — and I know guys don’t like to hear this — we played the game the right way. We played because we loved the game and not for the money. Obviously we didn’t make any money.”
In his first full big-league season in 1970, Fosse was an All-Star and Gold Glove award winner. The following season, he was voted by the fans as the American League’s starting catcher, but was unable to play in the game due to injury. He also won his second consecutive Gold Glove for fielding excellence. Fosse battled injuries throughout his 12-year career.
“I just kept playing because that is what we did then,” Fosse said.
“See this,” he said, pointing at a bulge on his forearm. “This is where Gaylord Perry hit me during spring training in 1970 or ‘71 when he was with the Giants. It’s never gone away.”
Then Fosse holds out his massive hand to display the deformed index finger that has been broken so many times — physical evidence that catching is a tough racket.
Perry would become Fosse’s teammate in 1972 and have the best season in his Hall of Fame career, winning 24 games for a dreadful Indians team. When he accepted his Cy Young Award, Perry gave credit to his catcher without whom, he said, he couldn’t have been able to have such a great season.
In 1973, with ten days left in spring training, Fosse got the news that he had been traded.
“I went home and found a note on my apartment door from my roommate, John Lowenstein, that said I needed to see our general manager, Phil Seghi, right away,” Fosse said. “Seghi told me that I had been traded to Oakland. Even though I was going from a last-place team to a club that had won the World Series the year before, I was heartbroken because I had grown up in the Cleveland organization. I grew up thinking that when you signed with a team, you would be there your whole life.”
Gaylord Perry criticized the trade, telling reporters, “The Indians have just traded away our quarterback.”
Less than a week later, Perry and the Indians were facing the A’s in Mesa at Rendezvous Park. The game featured an experiment of sorts: The clubs played with an orange baseball. A’s owner Charlie Finley had seen optic orange and green balls used in tennis and thought that orange baseballs would be easier for players and fans to see. He received permission from the commissioner’s office to use the balls for the March 29 contest against Cleveland. With Bowie Kuhn on hand to witness the experiment using the orange baseballs, the two teams combined for six home runs and 26 hits in Cleveland’s 11-5 win. George Hendrick, one of the players traded to the Indians for Fosse, slugged three homers in a 4-for-4 day. Fosse knocked a two-run homer off of Perry in the bottom of the sixth inning.
With Fosse, the A’s went on to win two more World Series, but injuries continued to plague the catcher. After setting an A’s record with 141 games behind the plate in 1973, injuries limited Fosse to just 69 games in 1974 and 82 games in 1975. In December, Fosse went home as the A’s sold his contract to Cleveland. He responded by batting .301 in 1976. The following year, the Indians traded Fosse for a second time, this time to Seattle. Following the season, he was granted free agency and signed with Milwaukee.
Fosse would rather forget his short stint in Milwaukee. On March 20, 1978, Ray was injured running to first base against Seattle in Tempe and missed the entire season. Original reports said that he suffered a hamstring pull, a sprained ankle and a knee injury but would only miss about three weeks. The injuries proved to be much more serious.
“I wasn’t even supposed to play that day,” Fosse said. “I was set for a day off when Hondo (Brewers coach Frank Howard) came in and told me to get my stuff and get on the bus, that I was going to DH. I hit a ground ball and as I was running to first, I stepped in a hole and just flipped. Guys told me they’ll never forget the full-body flip that I did. My knee was destroyed and I missed the entire season.”
After being limited to just 19 games in 1979, Fosse was released on April 3, 1980. He spent a few years in the A’s front office before embarking on his broadcasting career in 1986.
“I remember really learning how to talk to people when I was with the Indians and was part of the club’s speaker bureau,” Fosse said. “Herb Score was the one who really taught me those skills and I was able to use them to get into broadcasting.”
Talking to people was certainly not a problem for the affable Fosse as he signed autographs for fans at the museum. He graciously spent time to chat and pose for pictures with every fan who presented an item to be signed. One fan, a former high school catcher at Phoenix St. Mary’s, brought an old Harry Chiti model catcher’s mitt to be inscribed.
Ray examined the mitt and talked abut how even the nearly flat mitt had a little break to it.
“You know,” Fosse told the fan, “Johnny Bench usually gets credit for bringing one-handed catching to the game (Fosse demonstrated how to hold one hand behind your back while catching with the other), but it was really Randy Hundley of the Cubs who started doing that.”
Another fan brought a sheet from a scrapbook that had six photos of a youth baseball clinic that he had attended in 1983. Fosse and former player Nate Oliver were conducting the clinic on behalf of the A’s. Ray signed under one of the photos as he remarked how slim he looked in it. “I look like I could still play there, don’t I?”
Fosse continued to chat with fans as he signed photos of Pete Rose crashing into him in the 1970 All-Star Game. “I’m just doing this for the museum, you know,” Fosse said with a laugh. He signed everything from photos, baseballs, bats, books, caps, and even a lamp that that was fashioned from the barrel of a bat.
Finally, when it was time to leave, Ray went into the museum to sign the section of outfield fence that all baseball guests sign when they visit. The large signature in the middle was that of Gaylord Perry and drew a smile from Fosse. But as he searched for a good spot to sign, one signature captured his attention.
“How about if I sign right here under my best man,” Fosse said. Below the inscription “#29 Lou Klimchock,” Fosse added his own mark, “#10 Ray Fosse.” Klimchock had been Fosse’s one-time teammate, roommate and the best man at his wedding. It was a fitting end to a sometimes wistful day of celebrating and remembering a life in baseball and the Cactus League.
Originally published: March 20, 2011. Last Updated: March 20, 2011.