Baseball 98: Carlton Fisk

Cecil Fisk was one of those hardscrabble Depression Era men who inspire stories. He was an archetype that you’ll immediately recognize -- a New Hampshire machinist and farmer who believed in those familiar pillars of hard work, plain values and the possibilities of America. He was tough. Obviously. Cecil died when he was 98 years old. They say he was chopping firewood the day before.

There are two Cecil Fisk stories that come to mind now. They are father-and-son stories. The first revolves around the final high school basketball game that his son Carl played in. Cecil, you should know, was the only person who called his son "Carl." Everybody else called him "Pudge." Carl was a pudgy baby; most people think an aunt gave him the nickname.

Carl played basketball for Charlestown High, a little school in a little town. There was something very Hoosiers about Charlestown. Throughout the New Hampshire winters, the town crowded into the tiny gym where they played. In Carl's last game, they faced defending state champion Hopkinton in the state semifinals. Carl was pretty badly overmatched. He was a solid 6-foot-2, making him the tallest player on the Charlestown team. Meanwhile, Hopkinton had two considerably taller players down low, including 6-foot-9 Craig Corson, who would play as a backup for North Carolina in the 1972 Final Four.

But Cecil Fisk did not raise his son to make excuses. Carl attacked the glass with an intensity that bordered on frightening. Carl was a leaper in those days -- he had a 38-inch vertical jump -- and he thrived on contact and force. He came at the Hopkinton big men again and again. Hopkinton built a lead. Carl Fisk brought his team back. Hopkinton built a bigger lead, a seemingly insurmountable lead. Carl Fisk brought his team back again. He had his team on the brink of victory when the whistle blew; it was not the final whistle, but instead the one pasting Carl with his fifth and final foul. He came out of the game and watched in tears as his team lost by two.

For the game, Carl Fisk had 40 points and 36 rebounds.

And as Carl came off the court, he saw his father and hero, Cecil, the toughest and best man he knew. For the rest of his life, Carl Fisk would remember exactly what his father said to him in that moment.

"How," Cecil Fisk said, "could you miss four free throws?"

The second father-and-son story is shorter and to the point. One year, after Carlton Fisk became a big star for the Boston Red Sox, his father came to see him. Cecil was walking through the clubhouse when a coach stopped him. "So, Mr., Fisk," the coach said, "you're Carlton's dad, huh?"

Cecil looked the coach dead in the eye.

"No," he said. "Carlton is my son."

* * *

In Carlton Fisk's first minor league season, the legend goes, he had a crisis of confidence so crushing that he actually thought about quitting the game. This happened in Waterloo, Iowa, when he was 20 years old.

The crisis had nothing to do with his play -- from the very start, it was entirely clear that Fisk was destined to play in the major leagues, destined to be a big league star, destined even for Cooperstown. He hit .338 that first full professional season, slugged .600, smashed 12 homers in 62 games, and showed brilliant defensive potential as a catcher.

Red Sox scout Mace Brown told the Boston Globe after that season, "Carlton Fisk is one of the best young catchers I've ever seen."

No, the problem wasn't his play. The problem also had nothing to do with the stuff you typically think about. He wasn't homesick, wasn't bothered by the bus rides or chaotic minor league life, wasn't put off by the grind. Fisk loved the grind. Fisk lived for the grind. Carlton Fisk was his father's son.

So what was it?

Waterloo went 53-60 in the Midwest League. And Fisk did not know that he could handle that much losing.

You just can't overstate it: Carlton Fisk hated hated HATED losing. It didn't matter to him where the losing happened. It didn't matter to him that nobody cared about records in the bleepin' Midwest League, just as it didn't matter to him that nobody else cared when his University of New Hampshire freshman basketball team lost to Rhode Island, their only loss in Fisk's only college season.

"After the URI loss," New Hampshire coach Bill Haubrich said in Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk, "all the kids were showering, getting ready to watch the varsity game. Not Fisk. He stayed in the locker room, in uniform, his head in his hands. Finally, I said, 'OK, Pudge, time to get on with your life.'"

He could not. Fisk could not deal with life after losing. As his Boston teammate Dennis Eckersley said, "I thought it was life and death out there, I really did." Every loss was crushing for Fisk. Every loss was agony. Every loss was the end. Nothing was worse than losing.

Fisk played that way his entire career. He became famous for his stubborn and unrelenting determination. He suffered a devastating knee injury in 1974 on a home plate collision with Cleveland's Leron Lee, and there was at least one doctor who doubted that he would catch again. He came back stronger than ever. Fisk was, as Boston's great columnist Bob Ryan once wrote, the first catcher in baseball history who would catch nine grueling innings and head straight to the weight room.

All this dedication led to him playing more games, scoring more runs, and generating more total bases than any catcher before him. But the truth is that he was compelled to do it. He had to work harder than anybody else. He had to be stronger than anybody else. He had to make all his free throws.

Carlton Fisk, to the end, was his father's son.

* * *

Ask Carlton Fisk to name his baseball hero, and he surprises you: It's Bill Russell. No, it's not the old Dodgers shortstop Bill Russell -- that would be even more surprising --- but THE Bill Russell, the greatest team player in any sport, the force behind the Celtics dynasty, the Lord of the Rings.

Fisk says that Russell provided more than inspiration; he taught Fisk actual lessons about baseball.

"When he went to block a shot," Fisk says, "it wasn't just to slap it out of bounds. It was to block it and put it back in play. ... He played angles and he played trajectories. I wanted to translate that into my job as a catcher."

[caption id="attachment_22997" align="aligncenter" width="373"] Fisk's defensive prowess was forged by his upbringing.[/caption]

Fisk loves talking about being a catcher. We interviewed him for our film Generations of the Game, which plays daily at the Hall of Fame, and he was wonderful on any number subjects, including his famous homer in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series ("Everybody should have that moment in the universe -- in whatever aspect of life they're in -- that is their moment," he said).

But he particularly loves talking about that feeling of being behind the plate and considering the calculus of the moment. What does my pitcher have? How tired is he? How good is his curveball? What are this hitter's strengths? What is the hitter expecting? Who's up next? As Fisk worked through the countless variables -- "I called all the pitches, there was no looking in the dugout," he says with some measure of disgust -- he tried to think about it the way Bill Russell thought about being on the court.

"He knew angles," Fisk says, "and I knew weaknesses. He knew situations and I knew situations. ... As Bill Russell would say, 'The reason he missed that shot is because he knew Bill was there.' That's the impact I wanted to have, the control I wanted to have. The reason this guy wasn't ready for this pitch is because he knew I was there."

Fisk was an excellent defensive catcher. He did not always get credit for that (he won a Gold Glove in his rookie year and did not win another). The reason -- and this is something we see in many different ways throughout baseball history -- is that Fisk played in a time when there were many brilliant defensive catchers. He played in the time of Johnny Bench, widely viewed in his day as the greatest defensive catcher ever. He played in the time of Gary Carter, who was an astonishing catcher. In his own league, he played in the time of Jim Sundberg, Bob Boone, Rick Dempsey, extraordinary fielders.

But Fisk's defensive talents were very real. He had a good arm, particularly when he was young, and he was a terrific athlete. He was relentless at blocking pitches in the dirt. But more than anything, Fisk controlled games with his mind, his force of will, his relationship with pitchers. In all, he caught two Cy Young seasons, a couple of Hall of Famers, the guy who set the saves record, and he loved the role he played in their success. That was what Bill Russell did. He made everyone around him better.

* * *

Carlton Fisk was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000, and his 37-minute speech is mentioned in Cooperstown every year because, whew, 37 minutes is a long time -- it's 35 minutes longer than the Gettysburg Address. Fisk admitted afterward that he wasn't quite prepared for the emotion of the moment, and he had to stop and start a few times. But he also did not apologize for the length of his speech. He had a lot of people to thank. He was going to thank them no matter how long it took.

The moment from the speech that endures came at the end, when Fisk began to talk about his father. He had made it through the part with his mother, Leona; he called her the "warmth," and said that she made the best cinnamon rolls in Sullivan County, New Hampshire. But that was the easy part. Cecil was harder.

"And the guy who contributed most to me being stubborn and me being determined," Fisk began. "My Dad, Cecil."

He looked at his father in the front row.

"He always said," Fisk continued, "'Keep your eye on the ball,' and, 'Cripes, if you can't run around there for an hour or two, you shouldn't even be out there.' Well, Dad, I was out there for 30 years."

[caption id="attachment_22998" align="aligncenter" width="397"] Few athletes have been blessed with a signature moment like Fisk's Game 6 home run.[/caption]

And then Carlton Fisk began to shake a little bit. Five seconds passed, 10 seconds, 12 ...

"You know," he said, "sometimes good didn't seem to be good enough."

Fisk began to shake again. He nervously folded and unfolded the handkerchief that was in front of him. This time, 20 seconds of silence passed. The crowd cheered to bolster Carlton Fisk, but the tears came just the same. Fathers and sons ... it's a complicated business, a swirl of love and longing and friction and admiration and regret.

"I always wanted you to be proud of me, Dad," Carlton said, as he looked directly at Cecil. "And sometimes just because you could have done better doesn't mean you've done badly."

The camera turned to Cecil. He laughed loudly. He understood where this was going. Cecil had always been so hard on his son. There were no apologies; he had raised a Hall of Famer. But maybe he could have been ... well ... what's there to say? You can't go back.

"You know," Carlton said now, his voice gaining strength, "through the years you always made sure people knew I was your son. And I'm proud of that."

Now his voice was a train pushing forward.

"But this weekend," he said, "guess what?"

And Carlton Fisk paused for just a moment, just long enough to set himself for the most important line of all.

"You're Carlton's dad this weekend," he said, and cheers erupted, and Cecil Fisk smiled deeply and nodded. He was his son's father to the end.