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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Pudge- The Biography of Carlton Fisk: A Review

The number of baseball players who are synonymous with a play so famous that there is immediate recognition upon hearing their name is restricted to an elite group. All fans know Willie Mays’ catch or Babe Ruth’s called home run. However, it’s hard to argue there are any more well known than Carlton Fisk’s extra innings home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series that is etched in history by his emphatic waving the ball fair as he made his way down the first base line. Obviously, the Hall-of-Fame catcher had a number of other distinguishing moments throughout his career and they are all detailed in Doug Wilson’s exciting new biography Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk (Thomas Dunne Books- an imprint of St. Martin’s Press).

During a 24-year major league career, Fisk forged a legacy that led to his 2000 enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Pudge aims to give the big picture of how that happened from both baseball and personal points of view. It’s an ambitious goal that is largely met despite the broadness of the scope.

Growing up in small-town New Hampshire, Fisk is portrayed as someone personifying Yankee (not the baseball team) ideals. His upbringing created a hard-working and pragmatic personality that not only bolstered his career but at times contributed to conflict. For better or for worse he became one of the more distinct and polarizing figures in the game.

Fisk spent the first half of his career with the Boston Red Sox, which was a storybook opportunity for a “local” like him. Excelling at other sports as a youth, especially basketball, he came to his eventual career in professional baseball because his collegiate play at the University of New Hampshire meant he played in front of team scouts.

Fisk’s career with the Red Sox was a blend of success, injuries and turmoil. Despite him missing a number of games over the years because of physical ailments, Boston vacillated between being contenders and also-rans during his tenure. During this time they also endured regular drama that emanated from the front office in the chaotic years in the twilight of former owner Tom Yawkey and the years immediately after his passing in 1976. Wilson’s synopses of each season are packed with many interesting anecdotes detailing the drama. One of the most intriguing was the game of chicken the team played with the catcher following the 1980 season that led to his shocking departure through free agency.

One of the most important aspects of Fisk’s career was his sometimes informal and sometimes formal challenging of New York Yankees’ catcher Thurman Munson for status as the best receiver in the game. Their mutual competitiveness, and at times begrudging admiration for each other, made for many great moments and sound bites.
As mentioned previously, Fisk was no stranger to conflict. He famously had contract disputes with the Red Sox, and later the Chicago White Sox. Additionally, he didn’t always get along with managers and was comfortable making his thoughts known. 

While Wilson comes out firmly on the side of the Fisk, it remains unclear if the drama was simply a byproduct of his strongly competitive personality that aided his success, or if his tremendous career persevered in spite of it all.

Wilson relies almost exclusively on secondary sources and articles to frame this biography. Although that can sometimes be problematic when trying to present the best and most accurate depiction, Pudge is well sourced and researched.

Fisk, who played in parts of four different decades, was never self-promoter. This often resulted in him being somewhat underappreciated. Nevertheless, he was one of the best players to ever man his position or play baseball, so having a better understanding of him as a person and athlete is very important. Wilson has done a commendable job in this regard, and Pudge is a fine read for anyone wanting to know more about the Hall-of-Famer.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced uncorrected copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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