That’s no joke, pilgrim. Fisk was stoic, hard-working, a no-nonsense guy with true grit. And author Doug Wilson’s analogy — combining Silent Cal and the Duke — captures the essence of Hall of Fame catcher perfectly. “Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk” (Thomas Dunne Books; hardback; $26.99; 352 pages) is a clear, refreshing look at a durable, tough and blunt player who was loved by his fans but detested by the opposition.
Certainly, that’s a mark of respect. “Carlton Fisk never won any nice guy awards,” Wilson writes. “As far as anyone knows, he never tried out for one.
“He was who he was — a complicated man.”
Fisk rocketed Pat Darcy’s second pitch off the left-field foul pole to force Game 7. Fisk’s hops and gyrations — he waved his arms to the right as he urged the ball to stay fair — was caught by pure chance by NBC cameraman Lou Gerard, who couldn’t change his angle inside the left-field scoreboard because he was distracted by a rat lurking nearby.
Here's a video that captures the moment. "If it stays fair ... home run."
It was a defining moment in baseball and television sports history; in 1998, TV Guide named it the greatest moment in the history of sports television.
But Fisk was defined by much more than one dramatic homer.
He played 24 major-league seasons, spending his first 11 seasons in Boston and the remainder of his career with the Chicago White Sox. An 11-time All-Star, Fisk never led the American League in fielding and batted over .300 just twice after becoming a regular in 1972. But he smashed 376 homers and had 1,330 RBIs.
Fisk’s value to his teams was much more intangible. He was able to call smart games behind the plate and knew how to handle pitchers. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind when he believed a teammate was giving less than a total effort, and was equally fearless in upbraiding opponents he believed did not respect the game.
A tough negotiator at contract time, Fisk had some contentious battles but stuck to his beliefs.
Wilson is an ophthalmologist who lives in Columbus, Indiana. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and has written three previous baseball books. His last two were about affable, beloved baseball stars — Mark Fidrych (“The Bird,” in 2013) and Brooks Robinson (“Brooks,” in 2014). His first work, about the late Reds manager Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds, was about a cantankerous manager.
“Pudge” presented Wilson with a different set of obstacles, particularly since Fisk declined to be interviewed when contacted by the author.
“I didn’t really expect to be able to interview him,” Wilson told The New England Baseball Journal in an interview last month.
But sometimes that is a blessing, and it certainly is with “Pudge.” Wilson did not have to adhere to Fisk’s recollection of events. He was able to interview family members, childhood friends and teammates to present a more intimate picture of Fisk. Combining that with his usual stout research and attention to detail, Wilson is able to present a well-rounded portrait.
Carlton’s father, Cecil, was an early role model. “In these parts, survival meant hard work,” the elder Fisk said.
Born in Vermont, Fisk grew up in Charlestown, New Hampshire, where he excelled in basketball and helped lead his team to an unbeaten season and a state championship as a junior. In baseball, he was a hard-throwing pitcher and led Charlestown to the state finals, also in his junior year.
“He was the leader,” Wilson writes. “It was never spoken, just understood.”
Selected in the first round of the 1967 baseball draft, Fisk appeared in two games for Boston in 1969 and 14 in 1971. In 1972, he made the team for good and went on to win American League rookie of the year honors.
While Fisk was noted for his work ethic, Wilson recounts a story that certainly was a turning point for the young catcher.
At spring training early in his career, Fisk griped about having to run after catching pitchers (several wild ones) for 2 ½ hours. That is, until former major-leaguer Mace Brown told him that “if you hadn’t wanted to work, you oughtn’t have hired out.”
That made an impression for sure.
Wilson traces the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry that was rekindled when both teams became relevant during the 1970s, and invariably, the duel between Fisk and his New York counterpart, Thurman Munson. In August 1973, the two catchers were involved in a fight after a collision at home plate. Munson tried to bowl over Fisk but was tagged out, but landed on the Boston catcher and did not get up. Fisk shoved him off, and the fun began.
“This was an all-out rumble that would have made the Jets and Sharks proud,” Wilson writes, echoing a “West Side Story” reference for older readers.
He takes care of the younger generation in the next paragraph as he describes the fight’s escalation: “The area around home plate quickly resembled a Black Friday crowd at Walmart going for the last Xbox,” Wilson observes.
The two men would be mentioned in the same breath during the 1970s. Who was better? It depended on one’s loyalty. As Wilson writes, it was “the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”
After an acrimonious break with the Red Sox, Fisk went to Chicago and played 13 seasons for the White Sox. He steadied the pitching staff and helped the White Sox reach the American League Championship Series in 1983. But by 1991, contract negotiations became “personal and vicious.” The battles continued and finally ended when the White Sox released Fisk in June 1993. When Chicago made the playoffs and Fisk tried to visit the clubhouse to wish his former teammates luck, he was refused entrance — and escorted out of the stadium because he had no tickets or credentials.
It was, as Wilson notes, a product of Fisk spending the last half of his career “during the zenith of hatred between players and owners.” But eventually Fisk and the White Sox made peace, with the team erecting a statue of the catcher outside the stadium and hiring him as a “baseball ambassador.”
While Wilson’s accuracy with the facts is nearly impeccable, there was at least one glitch. He writes that Greg Luzinski won a world championship with the Phillies in 1979. In fact, the Pittsburgh Pirates took the World Series in ’79; the Phillies would take their first crown the following year.
It’s a minor issue and does not detract from Wilson’s overall effort. In “Pudge,” Wilson has presented a sympathetic, yet balanced look at a player who had a burning desire to win and was all business while doing it.
Fisk commanded respect, and in many ways, his persona was more than a combination of Calvin Coolidge and John Wayne. He was certainly his own man.
But it’s a heck of an analogy.