By Glen Sparks
This is the first of my two-part interview with ophthalmologist and baseball writer Doug Wilson. Doug’s latest book is Pudge, a biography of Hall of Famer catcher Carlton Fisk, published by Thomas Dunne. Fisk enjoyed a 24-year career (1969, 1971-93) with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox. He remains an icon in his native New England.
Wilson wrote Pudge while still maintaining his medical practice. He also has written books about third baseman Brooks Robinson, pitching phenom Mark “The Bird” Fidrych and former manager Fred Hutchinson. Doug’s last two books have been named finalists for the Seymour Medal and the Casey Award as the best baseball books of the year. He has spoken at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., as part of their authors series and is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Doug and his wife, Kathy, have raised three children and live in Columbus, Ind. Visit his web site www.dougwilsonbaseball.blogspot.com.
What prompts a successful ophthalmologist to start writing baseball biographies as a hobby?
I enjoy writing, and I have always loved baseball. When my sons went off to college, I found that I had quite a bit of free time—time that used to be spent driving them around and attending their games. I decided to combine the two passions. The first book (on former manager Fred Hutchinson) was difficult because there is that doubt about whether or not you can really do it. Once I got that one under my belt, I found that I enjoyed it. I like the detective work of searching for old facts and especially enjoy finding ex-major league players for interviews
Why did you decide to write about Fisk?
The golden age of baseball for me will always be the 1960s and ‘70s because that’s when I was a kid following the game; nothing is ever better than when you are ten years old. In writing, I try to pick guys who were icons of the era, who haven’t had their stories told in multiple books. Carlton Fisk hit one of the most iconic home runs in World Series history (in 1975) and also had a 24-year career playing career.
He also has a very interesting story from the point that economics played on his career. His 24 years really run the entire gamut, from starting off making $12,000 a year to the dawn of free agency to collusion to the brink of the disastrous strike of 1994. A look at his career helps explain all the forces that went into those changes. And his story had never been told in a complete biography.
What sort of cooperation did you get from Fisk? Did he want you to write the book?
I did not get any cooperation from Carlton Fisk on the book. He has always been a guy who likes his privacy. He has done very few interviews in the past 20 years. I wrote him a letter explaining my project and made the offer to interview him, but I did not hear back. In talking to family, teammates and other writers, I did not really expect him to cooperate. That’s part of his persona.
Which baseball source other than Fisk proved to be your most helpful source?
I was lucky enough to talk to quite a few guys from different parts of his career, and they were all helpful in piecing together the whole puzzle. It was particularly interesting to hear what veteran Red Sox pitchers felt about him as a rookie—guys like Gary Peters, Ray Culp and Ken Tatum. Rico Petrocelli was great. Fred Lynn was probably the best interview from the Red Sox years because he was so open, and he had been one of Carlton’s closest friends on the team. In the White Sox years, Chet Lemon, Marc Hill and Donn Pall were particularly helpful.
What surprised you the most about Carlton Fisk?
I think I was probably most surprised by how athletic Carlton Fisk was. For a catcher named Pudge, you think of a slow, plodding dinosaur—especially when he wore an offensive lineman’s number (72) with the White Sox. But he was extremely athletic in his younger years. He led the league with nine triples as a rookie, the last time a catcher has led the league in that category. He had an incredible vertical jump as a basketball player in high school and college. He could easily dunk and once grabbed 38 rebounds in a high school state-tournament game.
Fisk hails from a region (New Hampshire) not known for warm weather or for producing major league baseball players. What did he do to make himself into one of baseball’s all-time greatest catchers?
I think his work ethic, determination and competitiveness definitely played a role in his becoming a great baseball player. But also, as mentioned above, he was a world-class athlete. His natural ability and size always separated him from others. When you combine the two, you get the ingredients for a Hall of Fame career.
How well did the New Englander and New England’s team fit together?
It was a classic fit. Everyone in the region grew up wanting to play for Boston, and Fisk was one of the few who made it. New England fans loved him because he was one of them; he embodied the ideals and attributes of the whole region. If he had been drafted by, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers, it just wouldn’t have been the same.
Fisk played 343 more games with the White Sox than he did with the Red Sox. Most people, I think, still picture him wearing a Red Sox uniform. Why is that?
Fisk played in a glorious era of Red Sox baseball. It was truly a special team with great players and great characters, and they contended almost every year. With a few breaks in about five games, they could have won four pennants from 1972-78 and been considered a dynasty. Of course, his greatest moment—one of the games’ greatest moments—came in a Red Sox uniform. Every year at World Series time, we see the grainy images of Carlton Fisk in his Red Sox uniform willing the ball fair to end Game Six.
The 1975 World Series has so many great images of Fisk. There was the interference play with Ed Armbrister, the Game 6 home run, of course. That Series seems to define Fisk in many ways.
If definitely left indelible images of Carlton Fisk. He seemed to be in the center of every rally, every controversy. He never quit, never backed down. And it is considered to be one of the greatest World Series in history.
What were the origins of the famous rivalry between Fisk and the Yankees’ Thurman Munson?
You had two great players, who were the leaders of their respective teams, who played the same positions, playing for teams that were traditional rivals. They battled one another each year for the pennant—all the ingredients were there. And when you add the personalities of each and the fact that they were not politically correct and had no problem discussing their animosity to reporters, it made for the perfect rivalry.
Did the two men truly dislike one another?
They were both very similar—very prideful, competitive, natural alpha male-type leaders. Neither ever backed down from a challenge, and they both almost seemed to look for little things to get angry about to use for motivation. Neither ever doubted that he was the absolute best. Munson arrived on the scene first, as the first American League catcher to be selected Rookie of the Year in 1970. Before he could bask in his accomplishments, here came Fisk in 1972 and he one-upped him by being the first AL player selected Rookie of the Year unanimously. Munson was always commenting to writers that he resented when Fisk got more All-Star votes than he did, and Fisk resented that Munson resented that. And, again, with the two teams so close to each other, geographically and in the standings, regular confrontations were inevitable. It was great for fans.
(I’ll post Part II of my interview with author Doug Wilson tomorrow.)