Redemption: The Ray Fosse Story
On the hot, muggy night of July 14, 1970 at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse was involved in one of most famous plays in baseball history. Pete Rose bowled Fosse over at home plate. The fact that it was Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game exacerbated the shock. In exhibition games, most guys obeyed the unwritten rules of baseball, and avoided unnecessary chances for injury. Not so for Rose, who was playing in front of his hometown fans. After the impact, Fosse lay on the artificial turf near home plate. Rose initially leaned over to check on him, but then was swamped by other National Leaguers.
Despite the good diagnosis at the time, the news later for Fosse would be grim. The events of this night defined his career. Persevering through pain would become his hallmark.
A product of Marion, Illinois, Fosse was a star athlete growing up and the Cleveland Indians drafted him right out of high school in 1965. Within two years, he made his Major League debut, but spent most of the next two seasons in the minors. The 1970 season would be pivotal for Fosse if he was to get in the lineup permanently. Despite platooning, he hit .313 with 16 homers in the first half of the season, and was awarded a reserve spot on the American League All Star team. Cleveland fans started to feel as though might have found a perennial all-star; maybe the best catcher in Indians’ history.
The All-Star Game was a coming out party for Fosse. He pinch hit for starting catcher Bill Freehan in the top of the sixth, lining a single to right field and later scored. He then spent the next five innings catching Sam McDowell, Jim Perry, Catfish Hunter and Clyde Wright. In the ninth, the National League was down 4-1, but came back to tie the game and send it into extra innings. Temperatures remained near 80 degrees with high humidity as Fosse came out to catch the 12th.
After retiring the first two batters, hometown favorite Pete Rose slapped a single to centerfield. Billy Grabarkewitz followed with another single, putting runners at first and second. Then the Cubs’ Jim Hickman stepped to the plate and punched another single to centerfield. Rose took off immediately and rounded third, as third base coach Leo Durocher frantically waved him home. Rose bent over and started to slide, but Fosse had stepped to the third base side to make the catch. Caught in a half slide, Rose decided to hit Fosse straight on. The rest is history.
1970 All Star Game
To the shock of everyone who watched it including Fosse himself, subsequent X-rays did not reveal any fractures. Amazingly, his stellar season continued. He went on to hit .297 the rest of the season and win the American League Gold Glove for 1970. But in the off-season, his pain increased. After further examination, came the crushing injury news. He actually had broken his left clavicle as well as separating his shoulder; on top of that, it had not healed properly. Many doubted Fosse could continue much longer. With sports medicine being in its infancy, prospects were grim. But he persisted and started off the season strong.
Further injuries caused him to miss the ’71 All Star Game, but he still won another Gold Glove. Many of his teammates said he was an inspiration. By the end of 1972, his production dropped and skills appeared to have slowed. Believing his career was on the downside, the Indians traded Fosse, and a teammate to the World Champion Oakland A’s. Players want to be known for their accomplishments on the field, not overcoming injuries. Second chances are not guaranteed; but when they do come, the best seize the moment. That’s exactly what he did.
1973 meant a new start and incredibly different environment.
A Fresh Start
The Oakland A’s were more than just 2,000 miles from Cleveland, they were the epitome of the 1970s: free-spirited and loud; more Hollywood than East Bay. Fresh off their title of the year before, the Oakland A’s were a brash group of guys who could back up their tough talk. They reflected their colorful owner, Charlie Finley. Finley was unconventional by MLB standards: pushing the envelope in trades, marketing and rules changes. He courted celebrities and so did his players. Whatever it took to win, he did it. His rosters reflected something else: a belief in second chances.
While Fosse had an unremarkable year at the plate, batting .256 in 532 plate appearances, he exceled behind it. The A’s continued to be one of the best teams in baseball and much of that was due to their pitching staff led by Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter and Ken Holzman. Fosse caught 141 games with a fielding percentage of .987. Blue, Hunter and Holzman all won 20 games that year. The team went 94-68, winning the AL West by six games. The A’s struggled in the League Championship Series, but managed to beat the Orioles in five games. Fosse only had one hit in 11 at bats.
The 1973 World Series against the Mets would be full of great plays, embarrassing bloopers and controversy. The Mets had nothing to lose; they were big underdogs despite beating the heavily favored Cincinnati Reds in the National League Championship. It would be a team of three 20-game winners versus an opponent who barely cleared .500. Not many writers gave the Mets a chance. But the Mets paid no attention. Their manager, Yogi Berra, summed it up perfectly, “In baseball, you don’t know nuttin’.”
Catching all seven games, Fosse would throw out five Mets attempting to steal second and be involved in one of the most controversial plays in World Series history, one that brought Willie Mays to his knees.
Seven Game Struggle
After beating the Mets in Game 1, the A’s were confident going into Game 2. The sun shone brightly on another beautiful fall afternoon. Bob Hope threw out the first pitch. Vida Blue started for the A’s, Jerry Koosman for the Mets. It was a seesaw game, with the A’s taking an early lead and the Mets managing to answer with six runs. But in the ninth, down 6-4, the A’s tied the game, sending it into extra innings.
In the top of the 10th, the Mets had runners at first and third. Felix Milan hit a fly ball to Joe Rudi in left. Bud Harrelson tagged up and ran for home. The ball reached Fosse on one bounce but it almost got past him, so Harrelson leaned left to avoid the tag. Fosse desperately stuck both hands out trying to reach the sinewy shortstop. It was a phantom tag. Fosse missed him, but was convincing enough for umpire Augie Donatelli to punch him out. Half the Mets dugout ran out exasperated. Manager Yogi Berra was apoplectic. Willie Mays, who had been on deck, begged and pleaded with Donatelli. The A’s dodged a bullet but still lost the game in 12 innings, 10-7.
Game 2 Tag
Despite getting blown out in Game 4 and shut out in Game 5, the A's managed to win the series in seven games. They hit .212 as a team. But toughness and experience paid off in Games 6 and 7. Fosse got his first ring and redemption. The Indians had given up on him and now he had contributed to a World Series Championship. He had also got his first ring before Pete Rose.
1974 would be another controversial year, not just for the A’s, but Fosse as well. A career jarring injury would occur again, but this time not on the playing field.
Back to Back to Back
Despite winning back to back World Series, questions remained for the A’s going into the ’74 season. Tensions continued to simmer in the locker room. With so many strong personalities, trouble is always just around the corner. Their lineup still lacked punch, even with Reggie Jackson. They had a new manager, Alvin Dark. Dick Williams, the manager for the previous two seasons quit because of Finley’s interference. Fosse remained the starting catcher with Gene Tenace as his primary back up.
Fosse started the season still struggling at the plate, but continued to excel on the field. By June, it appeared that the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals were going to give the A’s a run for the division title. Reporters’ questions become sharper. Every loss became magnified. Errors on the field led to recriminations off of it. The usual tension reached a boiling point. Such was the case on June 2, when Reggie Jackson and centerfielder Bill North got into it in the locker room. Both men had huge egos, but North was an expert needler who got under Reggie’s skin one too many times. Punches flew; so did furniture. Both men were smashed into their lockers, then onto the floor. Vida Blue and Fosse ran over to try and break it up. As Ray was pulling them apart, both men fell on top of him, pounding him into the cement floor. He herniated a disk in his neck. Traction and months of rehab followed.
He would miss the next three months, playing only in 68 games the entire season. Larry Haney and Gene Tenace platooned at catcher in his absence. Tenace had a little more pop in his bat, which helped. However, by the end of the season, Fosse was back in the starting lineup. Alvin Dark had been Cleveland's manager for three years from 1968 to '71 and admired Ray. He was also loyal. Most importantly, the A's pitchers valued him behind the plate.
Regardless of the chaos within the organization, the A’s got back to the World Series against a resurgent Dodgers team that had won a 102 games. Fosse started all five games and managed three hits in the Series as the A’s won again. They were the first team to win three in a row since the Yankees in the 1950s.
1975 would be Fosse’s last with the A’s. He was traded back to Cleveland in 1976, staying for two seasons and catching Dennis Eckersley’s no-hitter in ’77. In September of that year, he was traded to the expansion Seattle Mariners and then finally finished up his career with the Milwaukee Brewers after the 1979 season. While only hitting .256 in his twelve-year career, his impact came behind the plate with a .986 fielding percentage. He had two gold gloves and led the American League in baserunners caught stealing twice, 1970 and ’73.
In 1986, Fosse became the Oakland A’s color commentator on both their TV and radio broadcasts. He’s become a popular figure in Oakland, a daily link to the glory days of the 1970s. The physical scars and pain remain a problem. He's had five knee surgeries. The shoulder still hurts and now arthritis adds to the discomfort; a constant reminder of that night so long ago. His encounters with Pete Rose since then have been few. The last time was in the mid-1980s. It was cordial, but Rose still accused him of blocking the plate.
Coming to peace with the now famous collision was hard, but he flatly denies being bitter about what happened. He regards his entire career as a success, “It’s been good…I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
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