By Glen Sparks
About 50 ballplayers, along with a handful of coaches, writers and 5,000 or so fans, were there at the start. They gathered at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan on May 6, 1915, the day that a husky, hard-throwing pitcher named George “Babe” Ruth hit his first home run in the major leagues.
Surely no one then could have imagined then that this 20-year-old, former “incorrigible” kid from the tough waterfront streets of Baltimore, would wallop 713 more homers before retiring 20 years later as baseball’s fabled Sultan of Swat, the greatest home-run hitter of them all.
He didn’t even play every day. The minor-league Baltimore Orioles had signed Ruth as a pitcher in 1913. Young Ruth learned the game while living at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. George Sr. had told the local courts that his son was “incorrigible.” The boy was drinking too much beer at the family’s tavern, chewing too much tobacco and stealing money from the till.
Brother Matthias served as athletic director and head disciplinarian at St. Mary’s. He stood 6-feet-7-inches and was powerfully built, sort of the Frank Howard of his day. He hit flyballs that amazed Ruth and the other boys. Ruth duplicated Brother Matthias’ uppercut swing.
But, as mentioned, the Orioles liked Ruth as a pitcher. The left-hander even wowed some major-league squads during several exhibition games in South Carolina. Jack Dunn, the Orioles’ owner and manager, was short of cash. He sold Ruth to the Red Sox.
The skinny-legged, barrel-chested Ruth—one writer decided that the young player was “built like a bale of cotton”—made his major-league debut in late 1914. He went 2-for-10 with a single and a double at the plate. On the mound, he pitched 23 innings, compiled a 2-1 won-loss record and posted a 3.91 ERA. He walked seven and struck out three.
Ruth entered the action May 6 with a 1-0 record and a 5.02 ERA in two starts and three appearances. The Red Sox were playing the New York Yankees, Ruth’s future team and the franchise that he would establish as the game’s greatest. The New York Times already liked him. One reporter there had decided that “the big left-handed pitcher, Babe Ruth, was all that a pitcher is supposed to be, and some more.” At the plate, Ruth was 2-for-7, batting .286.
The Red Sox came into the game with a 7-6 record, good for fourth place in the American League, four games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers (15-6). The Yankees (10-5) were in second place, two games behind Detroit. The Red Sox had finished 91-62 in 1914, in second place. The Philadelphia A’s won the American League pennant with a record of 99-53. The Yanks muddled though a 70-84 season, good for seventh place.
New York still had not won a pennant. Boston was trying to win its fourth, and its first since 1912. Ruth batted ninth in the order, the customary spot for pitchers. On the mound this historic day, he was matched against right-hander Jack Warhop. An eight-year veteran, Warhop came into the game with an 0-2 mark and a 6.19 ERA.
After two scoreless innings, Ruth led off the third inning for Boston. The pitcher slammed a Warhop pitch far into the right-field stands. The hit surely drew some “oohs” and “ah’s” from anyone who saw it. Players did not hit many home runs in the Deadball Era, and they didn’t crush them like Ruth just did. (Frank “Home Run” Baker of the A’s led the A.L. in home runs in 1914 with nine. A.L. teams hit just 160 total homers, or an average of just 20 per team.)
This was a tape-measure job slammed before that term was ever coined. Fans, players, coaches, and reporters just did not see this type of round-tripper. According to one reporter, Ruth lifted Warhop’s offering “with no apparent effort.” Ruth, for the record, said he connected on a “rise ball.”
The Red Sox and Ruth ended up losing 4-3 in 13 innings. The Babe went the whole way for Boston and pitched a solid game before tiring at the end. Luther “Doc” Cook knocked in the winning run. The magnificently named Edwin “Cy” Pieh of Waunakee, Wisconsin, got credit for the win.
Ruth hit three more home runs in 1915 in 92 at-bats and led the team. Dick Hobitzell (399 at-bats), Harry Hooper (566 at-bats) and Duffy Lewis (557 at-bats) tied for second with two apiece. Boston ended up winning the pennant with a 101-50 record. The Yankees finished 69-83, 32 ½ games out of first. The Red Sox beat the N.L. champion Philadelphia Phillies in five games to win the World Series.
Ruth’s power display did not knock him off the pitching mound for another couple of seasons. He did not begin playing every day until 1918. He topped with 11 homers in just 317 at-bats that year and led the circuit again in 1919 with 29. Boston sold Ruth to the Yankees before the 1920 campaign. Ten more home-run titles followed, including four seasons of more than 50.
Dizzy Dean, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Hall of Fame raconteur, said this about Ruth: “No one hit home runs the way Babe (Ruth) did. They were something special. They were like homing pigeons. The ball would leave the bat, pause briefly, suddenly gain its bearings, then take off for the stands.”
The Babe Ruth story did not begin on May 6, 1915, of course. There were far too many interesting twists and turns in his oversized life before that one day at the Polo Grounds. What the game’s future Big Bam did in the top of the third inning, though, was to offer the audience an introduction to the long-ball heroics to come.
By Glen Sparks
Tough guy Adrian Beltre most likely is headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame someday.
He certainly possesses the requisite numbers for enshrinement: 413 home runs and 1,467 RBI going into the 2016 season. The 36-year-old has a .285 career batting average, a .477 slugging percentage and a .814 OPS. His nifty defense at third base has translated into four Gold Gloves (That number should probably be higher.) and numerous ESPN highlights. Beltre’s lifetime WAR (Baseball-reference.com) stands at 83.8.
Yes, the chances seem good that Beltre will join George Brett, Wade Boggs, Mike Schmidt and other great third baseman as Cooperstown immortals.
The more interesting question might be this: Who is going to write the Adrian Beltre story? Y’know, the one that packs in all the drama, all the twists and turns, and all the humor of Beltre’s incredible career? This is a best-seller in the making.
Beltre broke in with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a precocious teenager in 1998, a 19-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, filled with raw talent and heart. Scouts loved him.
He actually signed with the Dodgers in 1994 for a $23,000 bonus. Beltre weighed 130 pounds, but he swung big and threw bullets from third base. The trouble was, he was only 15 year old and underage for signing. Baseball found this out later and suspended the Dodgers’ Dominican operations.
He just about died when he was 21. Doctors botched his surgery for a ruptured appendix. That put him on a diet of watery soup and orange juice for two months. He still reported to spring training in Vero Beach, Fla. Sick and weak, he took ground balls and batting practice with a colostomy bag underneath his uniform.
Beltre mashed a major-league leading 48 home runs for the Dodgers in 2004. The 25-year-old drove in 121 runs and hit .334 with 200 hits and 104 runs scored. The writers voted him runner-up for National League MVP. Then, he left L.A. as a free agent, and the Dodgers didn’t even know it.
The Seattle Mariners signed him to a five-year, $64 million contract. They didn’t give the Dodgers a chance to one-up that deal even though Beltre had married an L.A. girl and had just bought a new house in the area.
He did OK, not great, in Seattle. He won a couple of Gold Gloves but topped out at 26 homers. He did, though, suffer another one of his famous injuries. See, Beltre doesn’t wear a cup for protection of his, uh, sensitive parts.
In 2009, he took a line drive that ruptured a testicle. That did require a trip to the disabled list. When Beltre returned to action in Seattle, he walked up to bat with “The Nutcracker Suite” playing in the ballpark. And, no, he still doesn’t wear a cup, he says.
Beltre left Seattle and signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox in 2010. Boston paid him $9 million to play great defense, pop 28 homers, drive in 102 runs and hit .321 over 154 games.
Then, he left for the Texas Rangers. Beltre signed a five-year deal, $80 million (with a vesting option for 2016). He hit 32 homers in his first year with Texas, 36 the next and 30 in 2013.
The last two years, he has slugged just 19 (2014) and 18 (2015) homers. Thanks in part to his continued great defense, he has posted WARs of 7.0 and 5.8, respectively.
An article about Beltre in the March 28, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated goes over some of the player’s other Hall of Fame qualifications. It especially covers his defensive prowess. (He ranks fifth in baseball history, for instance, in fielding runs saved.) His trademark play is his barehanded pick-up of grounders down the line, flinging the ball to first base from impossible angles.
Stephanie Apstein’s article also goes in-depth on Beltre the leader. Some teammates affectionately call him “Grandpa.” He is famous, of course, for going ballistic—in a fun way—if anyone dares to touch his head. So, of course, teammates—the daring ones, at least—like nothing more than to flip off Beltre’s cap or helmet and pat his noggin. All for some laughs.
More importantly, Apstein reports, Beltre acts as the leader in the Rangers’ clubhouse. He buys birthday cakes for everyone, offers a kick in the butt if needed and just the right encouraging word. He is a future Hall of Famer and a great story.
By Glen Sparks
Boston Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth walked Washington Senators lead-off batter Ray Morgan on four pitches in the first game of a doubleheader on June 23, 1917, at Fenway Park. That’s how the brouhaha, and a spectacular pitching effort, began.
The fiery Ruth started barking at home plate umpire “Brick” Owens, a short-tempered guy just like the Babe. Ruth charged off the mound, still yelling, getting more and more steamed. Then what happened probably surprised everyone. The pitcher belted Owens in the neck.
Ruth, the future home-run king, didn’t get arrested for his assault and battery. He did get tossed out of the game (and later fined $100 and suspended nine games). Boston player-manager Jack Barry brought in Ernie Shore, who was granted five warm-up pitches.
Shore, a 26-year-old right-hander, went on to enjoy the game of his life. He tossed a perfect game. Or, did he? The game remains muddled with some baseball-style controversy.
First off, Morgan tried to steal on Shore’s opening pitch. Red Sox catcher Sam Agnew, though, fired the pitch to second and nailed him for out No. 1. The next two Washington batters also made outs.
Shore, born March 24, 1891, in East Bend, N.C., retired the final 24 Senators in order. The Red Sox won the game 4-0.
Boston hailed Shore’s effort. The 6-foot-4 inch hurler (Some people called him “Long” Shore.) had enjoyed some success in the big league but nothing like this. He broke in with the New York Giants in 1912, got into one game, had a miserable time of it (one inning, eight hits, 10 runs, three earned, 27.00 ERA) and never made it into another one for impatient manager John McGraw.
The skipper sent the kid down to the minors. Shore told McGraw that it was a bad move, his own crummy performance notwithstanding. McGraw suspended Shore and let him go.
Shore pitched in 1913 for Greensboro of the North Carolina State League. He hoped for a second change at the majors. The Baltimore Orioles, a minor-league team then, acquired him for the 1914 season. The O’s quickly sold him, along with Ruth (yes, that Ruth) and Ben Egan to the Red Sox.
Boston sent Ruth to the minors and kept Shore. The big guy (220 pounds on that 6-4 frame) enjoyed a solid first season with the Red Sox. He went 10-5 with a 2.00 ERA (135 ERA+) in 139.2 innings. Naps Manager Joe Birmingham came away impressed. He said, “Shore’s fastball is just as fast as was (Walter) Johnson’s.” Whew. That was quite a compliment. As fast as the Big Train?
Well, it never worked out that way. But, Shore did put together a few solid seasons. He finished 19-8 and posted a 1.64 ERA (170 ERA+) in 1915. Shore went a combined 29-10 in 1916 and 1917 with ERAs of 2.63 (105 ERA+) and 2.22 (116 ERA+), respectively.
The Great War, a.k.a., World War I, ended Shore’s 1918 campaign. As a member of the Naval Reserves, he pitched for a team based at the Charleston, S.C., Naval Yard. The Yankees traded for him for 1919. A bad case of the mumps ruined his first season in pinstripes. He posted a 5-8 mark and didn’t get any better in 1920. He went 2-2 and quit with a lifetime mark of 65-43 and 2.47 ERA (114 ERA+ in the Deadball era).
Shore retired to his North Carolina home. He worked in various businesses and later served as sheriff of Forsyth County. He was a popular guy.
But the arguments kept going. Did Shore, in fact, pitch the third perfect game of the 20th century? Opinions were split. (Red Sox legend Cy Young tossed the first perfect game of the 1900s, on May 5, 1904, against the Philadelphia A’s at the Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston. Cleveland’s Addie Joss hurled the second. He beat the Chicago White Sox 1-0 on Oct. 2, 1908, at the Naps’ League Park.)
In a sense, American League Secretary (basically, the league president) William Harridge had put a quick end to any debate about perfecto/not a perfecto. Soon after the final out, Harridge declared the game to be simply a no-hitter. But, not every baseball person, or even every baseball record book, agreed with this pronouncement.
Was it a perfect game or not? Not surprisingly, Shore voted on the side of perfection. “No other pitcher retired a single batter,” he reasoned, according to an article on the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) web site.
An eight-member committee of baseball experts (Commissioner Fay Vincent and others) voted down Shore in 1991, 11 years after the pitcher’s death on Sept. 24, 1980. The group said Shore had, in fact, tossed a combined no-hitter with Ruth.
Not perfect? Well, maybe not. Just about perfect? Certainly.
By Glen Sparks
Walt Dropo stood 6-feet-5 and weighed 220 pounds, a giant of a man in 1950s baseball. Dropo pounded baseballs in the first year of that decade, his rookie season. He looked as solid and as powerful as a brand-new Chevrolet.
“The Moose” from Moosup, Conn., tied Boston Red Sox teammate Vern Stephens for the American League lead in RBI with 144. He slammed 34 home runs (second to Al Rosen’s 37), hit .322 (eighth in the league) and slugged .583 (runner-up to Joe DiMaggio’s .585).
Not surprisingly, the writers voted Dropo the A.L. Rookie of the Year. The right-handed hitter finished sixth in the league in the MVP race.
Did the Red Sox have yet another slugger on their hands? Someone to go with Stephens, Bobby Doerr and the great Ted Williams? Not really, as it turns out.
The first baseman never again posted the big-time numbers that he did in 1950. He played 13 years and cranked 152 home runs. He hit .270 lifetime with a .326 on-base percentage and .432 slugging percentage. The one-time All-Star (1950, of course) accumulated 3.5 career oWAR points (baseball-reference.com), 3.1 of them in his first full season.
The Moose, born Jan. 30, 1923, hailed from a family of immigrants. His parents were born in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina in southeastern Europe. Savo and Mary Dropo settled with their family of five children on a one-acre farm in rural Connecticut. Young Walt milked cows, bailed hay and chopped wood.
The young man grew up big and strong. He earned a football scholarship to the University of Connecticut and also served in World War II. Cpl. Dropo mostly helped rebuild bridges in Europe for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Following the war, Dropo returned to UConn and athletic glory. Finally, he had a choice to make: Play pro baseball or play in the NFL for George Halas and the Chicago Bears. (Halas knew a big, athletic guy when he saw one.) The Red Sox and owner Tom Yawkey offered Dropo a tryout and, after Dropo peppered line drives all over Fenway Park, offered him a fat check. Yawkey’s money beat out Halas’s.
Dropo debuted with the Red Sox in late 1949 and hit just .146 in 41 at-bats. That modest cup of coffee led into his big rookie campaign. Among others, Dropo beat out the New York Yankees’ Whitey Ford for ROY honors. (Ford, a future Hall of Famer, went 9-1 in 1950 with a 2.81 ERA.)
The promising ballplayer broke a wrist in 1951 and was never the same. He hit just .239 that season with 11 homers in 99 games. Dropo played only 37 games for the Red Sox in 1952 before being traded to the Detroit Tigers in a nine-player deal on June 3.
In his 115 games with the Tigers, Dropo slammed 23 homers after hitting six in Boston. That combined total of 29 would be the second-best mark of his career. Dropo drove in 96 runs for the ’53 Tigers and smacked 19 homers for the 1955 Chicago White Sox.
Dropo struggled over the last several years of his career. He hit 13 home run for the White Sox in 1957, the last time he would reach double figures. The Baltimore Orioles released Dropo on May 20, 1961.
In his post-baseball career, Dropo did quite well for himself. He worked in real estate and several other business ventures, including a successful family fireworks company. Moose also made community relations appearances on behalf of the Red Sox.
This is also of note: In part due to his ethnic roots in Serbia, Dropo held a sympathetic spot for minorities in baseball. He was friends with White Sox teammate Minnie Minoso, for instance, and went to a Nat King Cole concert with Larry Doby.
Once, Dropo got into a fight with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter after Slaughter began race-baiting Doby at Comiskey Park. Big Wally Dropo wrestled Slaughter to the ground and put a quick end to the nastiness.
Dropo died Dec. 17, 2010, at the age of 87.
By Glen Sparks
Harry Frazee needed some cash; Babe Ruth was worth a lot of it.
Frazee, a theater owner and theatrical producer, owned the Boston Red Sox. He led a three-man group that bought the team from Joe Lannin on Nov. 1, 1916, for approximately $675,000. Frazee was 36 years old at the time.
The Peoria, Ill., native liked to wheel and deal. Early on in his tenure as the Red Sox’ boss, he tried unsuccessfully to buy the great Walter Johnson from the Washington Senators for $60,000. He also tried, again unsuccessfully, to woo former Red Sox skipper Bill Carrigan out of retirement.
But, Frazee was not entirely without money problems. Lannin still held the new owner’s notes for much of the team’s purchase price. He wanted payment in 1919; Frazee, though, lacked the requested $125,000.
What was Babe Ruth worth?
Ruth broke in with the Red Sox in 1914 as a left-handed pitcher. He fashioned a 23-12 won-loss record in 1916 and led the American League with a 1.75 ERA. He followed that up with a 24-13 record in 1917 and a 2.01 ERA.
Even so, the Babe was restless. He didn’t like sitting on the bench between starts, watching the action. He wanted to play every day. He wanted to hit. (Through 1917, Ruth had smacked nine homers in 361 career at-bats.)
In 1918, the future Sultan of Swat put on quite a show. He pitched in 20 games (19 as a starter) and went 13-7 with 18 complete games and a 2.22 ERA. He also began seeing regular action in the outfield. (The Babe’s first appeared in a game at a position other than pitcher on May 6, 1918, according to Robert Creamer’s book Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.) Ruth went to bat just 317 times that season. He still led the league with 11 home runs.
Ruth put that mark to shame in 1919. He blasted 29 round-trippers, more than anyone in baseball history. Edward Nagle “Ned” Williamson, playing for the Chicago Colts in 1884, held the previous record with 27. (Williamson took advantage of a right-field fence at the Congress Street Grounds that stood a scant 215 feet from home plate.)
Baseball fans loved Ruth. They stared in awe as he belted 500-foot, 550-foot … 600-foot (?!) clouts. Ruth swung big. He also lived life big. Too big, maybe. Ruth already had gained a reputation for his late-night carousing.
He and Manager Ed Barrow clashed more than once, sometimes in the early-morning hours as the Babe tried sneaking back into his hotel room after curfew. Barrow even assigned a coach, Dan Howley, to keep a watch on Ruth. No one, though–not Howley, not anyone–could keep up with Babe Ruth.
To Frazee’s dismay, Ruth also understood his own value to the team, as well as to the box office. He wanted a raise following that big 1919 campaign. A salary of $10,000 a season just wasn’t good enough, the Babe said. He wanted $20,000 in 1920, or he might just sit out. Frazee gulped. The Babe wanted a lot of money. Lannin wanted even more money.
Frazee did what he thought he had to do. He called the perennial also-ran New York Yankees. Owners Jacob Ruppert and the fancily named Tillinghast L’Homedieu Huston were in the market for players. What did they want for Ruth?
The Yankees and Red Sox agreed to a deal that would alter the course of baseball history. Lannin would get $100,000, according to the Creamer book, more than double the amount ever paid for a baseball player. Plus, Rupert agreed to loan Frazee $350,000. The deal was signed Dec. 26, 1919.
Rupert dispatched his manager, Miller Huggins, to inform the Babe. Huggins headed out to southern California and met Ruth on a golf course at Griffith Park in Los Angeles on Jan. 4, 1920. Ruth quickly spotted the fiery 5-foot-2 Huggins.
“Have I been traded?” Ruth asked, according to the Leigh Montville book The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth.
Huggins told Ruth about the sale. Well, I don’t know, the Babe said. “I’m happy with the Red Sox,” Ruth decided, according to the Creamer book.
Ruth signed the deal the next day. He’d get $20,000 a year for the next years, plus a $20,000 bonus. The New York papers loved their new player. Boston newspapers were divided. Yes, Ruth was a great player, but, according to a Boston Post columnist, Ruth’s “faults overshadow his good qualities.”
Ruth, from California, called Frazee a “cheapskate.” Frazee, in turn, called Ruth “the greatest hitter the game has ever seen.” He also called him “selfish and inconsiderate.”
The Bambino proceeded to slam 54 home runs in 1920, 35 more than runner-up George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns. He hit 659 homers in 15 glorious, often controversial, years with the Yankees. He led the team to seven pennants and four World Series titles. And, Red Sox fans never let Harry Frazee forget about it. (Frazee would sell the Red Sox in 1923 for $1.15 million.)
The guy sold the greatest player ever to finance his production of No, No, Nanette, the Boston critics howled. Or, did he? No, No Nanette, the musical version of My Lady Friends, did not premiere until Sept, 16, 1925, nearly five years after the Ruth sale. What did the play have to with anything? But, as Montville points out, Frazee used the money from the Ruth sale to finance his theatrical productions. That included No, No, Nanette.
The Red Sox finished in fifth place in 1920 (72-81), actually somewhat better than in 1919 (66-71, sixth place), Ruth last season with the club. They also finished fifth in 1921 (75-79). Then, the bottom dropped out. From 1922-33, the Sox ended up in last place nine times. Twice, they finished next to last. Once, (in 1931) they ended the year in sixth place. Had the curse of the Bambino been cast?
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.)