By Glen Sparks
(This is the second of my two-part interview with baseball writer Doug Wilson. You can read the first part here.)
You write about Carlton Fisk and his personal code. Could you explain that a bit?
Carlton Fisk had a code that he lived by. I am reminded of John Wayne’s code in the opening of The Shootist: “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” Add to that the constant admonition of Carlton’s dad to “do something right or don’t do it at all,” and his own, “respect the game,” and you have the essence of Carlton Fisk’s code. You can see its manifestations throughout his career. It was somewhat rigid–a lot of his triumphs and a lot of his frustrations and conflicts, with teammates and opponents, are due to the code.
Fisk the player always seemed like a manager-in-waiting. Why didn’t it happen?
Carlton Fisk was very knowledgeable about the game and seemed like a good fit to manage. Although there were numerous offers to coach or manage, it never happened for several reasons. He had a lot of bitterness left from the way he exited the game; he really wanted nothing to do with baseball for a number of years. Also, as one of his former teammates told me, he would have been extremely frustrated by modern players who didn’t have the same desire and dedication he had. (Who did?) He would have clashed with overpaid, underperforming players. I think he realized that. Also, he always told reporters that he did not want to do all the traveling that coaching or managing would have required.
Where do you rank Fisk on the all-time list of top catchers?
When it comes to picking all-time rank, I think it is a matter of opinion and who can say who is right? In my opinion, Johnny Bench is in a class by himself, offensively and defensively, as a catcher. No one is even close. I think Fisk belongs firmly in the second tier of catchers, with guys like Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella and Bill Dickey. After that, I would place Gary Carter. I should note that I don’t consider any player for any of my all-time lists who needed steroids to pad his stats.
One surprise about Fisk is that he only won one Gold Glove (1972).
Fisk was a solid defensive player and certainly excelled at calling a good game. There was a lot of stiff competition for Gold Gloves in his years: Thurman Munson, then Jim Sundberg, then Lance Parrish, then Bob Boone. Fisk won it as a rookie but never won it again. Munson generally threw out about 50 percent of would-be basestealers. Fisk, although he had a great arm, was usually around 40 percent. They said Munson had a quicker release and was a little more accurate. Fisk probably could have won a few more Gold Gloves, but sometimes it seems like a guy will win it and then hang on to it for several more years.
Should Fisk have been a Red Sox player for life?
In a perfect storybook world, Fisk would have remained in Boston forever. He certainly never wanted to leave Boston. It was a perfect fit, for him, his family and the team. The one reason he was forced to leave, pure and simple, was the effect of the new economic forces in the game. He had a very aggressive agent, the new Red Sox owners were determined to keep salaries down and something had to give. Add to the mix the fact that the owners publicly insulted Fisk numerous times, and there was no way he would have re-signed by the time they were ready to make an offer. Unfortunately, the owners destroyed a great team in the process.
What led to the animosity later on between Fisk and the White Sox?
In Chicago, Fisk was the rare big-ticket free agent who came through as billed and stayed in town. He certainly gave the White Sox their money’s worth with each contract. He continued to play better than his higher-paid peers into his forties. He helped turn the franchise around and was loved by Chicago fans. Again, money played the major role in his discontent. The White Sox owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, was one of the toughest hard-liners among owners. He played a major role in the collusion fiasco, of which Fisk was one of the major players, in 1985. By the late 1980s, each contract Fisk signed was the result of a bitter fight in which insulting things were said publicly by both parties.
Jerry Reinsdorf may have considered the tactics normal negotiation strategy and merely business, but to a man of Fisk’s pride it was absolutely the wrong way to go about things. And Fisk’s contract demands were never out of proportion compared to his peers. He is a guy who very much wants respect and when he felt publicly insulted, it paved the way for long-term discord and bad blood. When he was finally cut from the team, being unceremoniously dumped in a hotel in Cleveland, it was just something that left a lingering bitterness.
What is Fisk most proud of in his baseball career?
I believe he is most proud of his longevity in the game. Overcoming the near-catastrophic injuries early in his career and then being able to play more games and hit more career home runs than any catcher before him was a testament to his work ethic, determination and code. It validated his efforts.
What is Carlton Fisk up to these days?
These days he mostly plays golf, cares for his orchids and spends time with his children and grandchildren. He and his wife have a house near Chicago and another in Florida and they divide their time between those.
Do pro athletes tend to meet or exceed the personal expectations you have for them?
When writing about someone, I think it is important to try not to have any personal expectations. I try to let the interviews and the person’s public actions build a picture of what the guy is like. Of course, that’s very difficult at times. It is important to realize that pro athletes are just like everyone else, only blessed with size, speed and coordination that make them able to perform great athletic feats. Obviously, they are not perfect and usually are not the sort of people you would want your kids to emulate any more than anyone else who is less talented. Any expectation fans put on them is artificial, and people often set themselves up for disappointment if they want their sports idols to be great guys off the field.
How do you find time to research and do your writing and also find time to perform eye surgeries?
Occasionally, I will get up an hour or two early to have some quiet time to research or write. There is usually a little free time on the weekends. And, like I said, after my sons went to college, all the time I used to spend playing with them and going to their games became free.
Have you picked a subject for your next book?
Not yet. It is difficult to find a subject who is interesting who has not been written about numerous times. Of course, a publisher wants it to be about someone who still has a following, who is going to get people to buy a few books.
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.)