The connective tissue between the Red Sox and White Sox stretches more than 40 years. That connective tissue resides in the DNA of one Carlton Earnest Fisk, the kid who was called Pudge ever since he weighed 105 pounds as an eight-year-old.
He grew up in the hamlet of Charlestown, New Hampshire. His high school baseball team played only eight games a season. At home, he played catch between the cows.
His sport of choice was basketball, earning him a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire. In one state high school tournament game, he scored 40 points with 36 rebounds as visions of playing power forward for the Celtics danced in his head. His baseball hero was Bill Russell (not the Dodgers’ shortstop).
Cecil and Leona Fisk instilled in Carlton a non-negotiable work ethic. “We didn’t get allowances,” Fisk once told Sports Illustrated. “My parents believed that you shouldn’t get paid for doing things around the house that had to be done. I still can’t comprehend it today when kids get red Camaros for their 16th birthdays. For what? For nothing? If we wanted money, we worked.”
That blue collar attitude ricocheted around Red Sox Nation. So did his performance as the 1972 American League Rookie of the Year, the league’s first unanimous selection, after a season in which this catcher led the A.L. in triples.
His walk-off home run in the 1975 World Series still resonates as loudly as the church bells that rang across New England that night he willed the ball fair. A moment forever frozen in time, it is the signature moment of one of the greatest Fall Classics ever and will forever define him.
The narrative of his Hall of Fame career must start with that legendary blast, what may have been the greatest moment in one of the greatest games in Red Sox history. At his every stop now and forever, the subject always comes back to The Home Run.
Five years later, what the Red Sox DIDN’T do with Carlton Fisk’s contract in December, 1980, became a case study in contract law in every business school in this country.
But long before the rupture, Fisk’s relationship with the Boston front office gradually deteriorated.
In 1978, he cracked his ribs diving into the stands for a pop fly, then hurt his elbow and played the last six weeks in pain. The next spring, he could barely throw. Concurrently, the Red Sox refused to renegotiate his contract, (after having done so for Jim Rice). Owner and General Manager Haywood Sullivan said at that time, “I think Fisk’s contract is hurting him more than his elbow.” The next day, Fisk kicked open the door to Sullivan’s office and demanded a public apology.
That was the beginning of the end.
December 20, 1980 was the deadline for clubs to mail out contracts for the following season. Astoundingly, the Red. Sox did not go to the mailbox for another 48 hours.
Sullivan had been advised by lawyers in the commissioner’s office that he didn’t have to send the contract on time because the Sox had the right of first refusal on Fisk’s expiring five-year contract with an option for a sixth year.
Problem was they didn’t.
The clause had been quietly removed from Fisk’s contract by Marvin Miller, the founding Executive Director of the Players Association, who then filed for free agency on his behalf.
Arbitrator Raymond Goetz ruled in February of 1981 that Carlton Fisk, one of the best catchers in baseball, was a free agent. A son of New England who so perfectly symbolized the region, an All-Star catcher and hero to a generation of fans, was suddenly on the open market.
“That stuff doesn’t just slip by,” Fisk told Inside Sports, suggesting it was more than an oversight. “Teams have legal people, financial people who know those things.”
On March 10, 1981, Fisk signed a five-year $2.9 million dollar deal with the Chicago White Sox. He had worn #27 in Boston but sported #72 in Chicago because “it represents a turn-around in my career.”
But Carlton Fisk had said unequivocally, “I don’t want to leave the Red Sox.”
“A New Englander playing for a New England team, that’s everybody’s dream. That dream was smoked in 1980. And that hurt, and that could have been the beginning of the end if I didn’t consciously and with effort try to block it off.”
And yet, there was doubt in Chicago’s front office in signing the 33-year-old. General Manager Roland Hemond said, “Fisk has only three years left, but we’ll have to pay him for five.”
They paid him for 13… through age 45.
As fate would have it, the visitors on Opening Day ’81 at Fenway Park were the White Sox. With the Red Sox leading 2-0 in the eighth inning, who should step up to the plate and belt a three-run homer off Bob Stanley? The prodigal son returning, of course. Four days later, in the home opener against Milwaukee, he hit a grand slam his second time up.
Throughout his White Sox career, Fisk tortured the Red Sox, batting .309 with 27 home runs and 67 RBIs in 105 games, providing Boston fans with a constant reminder of management’s betrayal of an iconic player. “I played with a little more emotion, if not motivation, against those guys after that,” he admitted. “Only because they did me badly.”
Fisk’s career numbers are staggering. He caught a major league record 2,226 games (since eclipsed by the other Pudge, Rodriguez) and became baseball’s most prolific home run-hitting catcher at the time with 351. He hit 25 additional homers playing other positions (that 376 homer tally has since been eclipsed by Mike Piazza).
He also stole 128 bases and is the only catcher in the modern era with at least 100 home runs and 100 stolen bases.
He was only the third catcher to hit at least 300 homers, score 1,000 runs and drive in 1,000 runs, joining Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench. Mike Piazza has since joined that list as well.
He divided his career almost evenly between Red Sox for 11 years and 1,078 games and the White Sox for 14 and 1,421 games.
In 2000, upon a vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America, he was permitted henceforth to sign his checks ‘Carlton Fisk HOF.’ Even though he played longer for the White Sox, he chose to have a Red Sox cap on his plaque. He told USA Today, “New England is still where my roots are. And I’m a New England person.”
No matter which socks he wore, few catchers could combine his durability, defense and power, as well as a guardian for the institution. “I always carried a torch for the game.”
The rays of light from that torch shone brightly in Boston, Chicago…and in Cooperstown forever.