Ray Fosse – 1978 Topps

January 9, 2011

So You Wanna Be A Catcher, Kid?

Fosse’s career makes you wonder why Piazza or Joe Mauer or Johnny Bench or any elite hitting catcher stays behind the dish so long.

At age 23 in 1970, Fosse broke into the bigs for keeps, platooning at first with Duke Sims and being selected an All-Star. He won the Gold Glove, and something happened during that All-Star game…hmmm…

Oh, yeah, the Pete Rose thing.

Many of the unwashed hacks who write easy baseball books as opiates for the sports masses say that the collision derailed Fosse’ career. Well, he did get hurt with a separated shoulder, and he may have lost some power but he still hit .297 after he came back from the break.

In 1971, he was named an All-Star again. But more injuries took their toll. The Billy Martin-managed Tigers got into a brawl with the Indians and Fosse was kicked in the right wrist, opening a nasty gash. Later he faced Denny McLain of the Senators and hurt a ligament in his left wrist early in the game during a 15-6 pounding by Washington. I don’t know which was more memorable – Fosse’s injury, Tim Cullen actually going 3-4, or Phil Hennigan, who led the Indians in saves that year, being subjected to giving up 10 runs in 3 2/3 after replacing Steve Hargan in the 3rd. Yes, it was a different game then.

Fosse’s offense declined a bit in 1972 but he still was a highly regarded catcher. You wonder if his 1970 season was more of a fluke than his actual baseline performance. He hit .301 in the PCL in 1968 but only had nine homers. At any rate, he may have been a bit disappointing to the Indians and he was shipped to Oakland for George Hendrick and Dave Duncan. Oh, darn, moving from a hapless bunch of players like Eddie Leon, Jack Brohamer and Steve “Stunning” Dunning to the World Champs.

He played 143 games that season and was a big part of their repeat championship, though his offense still suffered a bit. It hardly seemed that Pete Rose led to his ‘decline’ – you don’t catch as much as Fosse did in 1973 if you can’t play.

His injuries took place as part of the game before, but probably the one injury that caused his downfall happened in the locker room in 1974. HBO should have been around to do a 24/7 of the 1974 Oakland A’s – the footage in the room would have been classic. On June 5, Billy North and Reggie! Jackson got into a fight in the clubhouse (something that happened a lot with the Swingin’ A’s) and in trying to break it up Fosse crushed a disk in his neck. YEOWCH!

He wasn’t hitting much at the time of the injury, but he missed three months and anyone with neck or back problems knows how much those things hurt! That injury forced Gene Tenace back behind the plate and got Larry Haney a lot of PT as Tenace’s caddy. It forced the A’s to play Deron Johnson at first, and later they moved Joe Rudi, one of the best left fielders in the game, to first base. Still, the A’s won the series again.

Fosse was back in 1975, but his bat was seemingly in cryogenics. He was the backup behind Tenace and started out hitting .083 in April. That happens. But then he went 0-fer-May. And after June 9, his average was at .028. Yes, .028. How would you like to step to the plate and see THAT? At that time he was 1-36 on the season with one walk. He had scored three runs (thanks to reaching on error), but his OPS at that point was .082. Yes, his OPS was under .100.

The irony, his one hit of the year up to that point was against Frank Tanana, and it was the ONLY Oakland hit in the game.

Even though the Oakland clubhouse was a rough and tumble place, I’m sure the vets really were rooting for Ray when he got his next at bat. In the top of the 8th on June 17, against Tom Burgmeier, Fosse laced a single. Finally!

He ended the year at .140 with a .383 OPS. He wasn’t a .300 hitter and still had some effects from his injuries, but he wasn’t a .140 hitter either. As he proved next year…

Off he went to the Indians and their wonderful bloodclot uniforms. But again, injuries were his bane. Fosse was hurt in his first start when Jim Rice bowled him over at home plate in the second inning. Back to the DL, and when he returned he was off to another slow start – so Frank Robinson platooned him with Alan Ashby.

At the end of May he was hitting . 150. At the end of June he was up to .232 but had no extra base hits and he again missed time until mid-July due to injury.

He came back July 19. From that date until the end of the month Fosse hit. I mean HIT! He hit .408 with five extra base hits. That moved his average to over .300.

And he didn’t slump the rest of the year. He peaked at .321 on August 2, but never was below .298. It was at that mark after the first game of the season-ending doubleheader (that must have been a hit with the players). In game two, Ashby started but Robinson pinch hit Fosse for him in the top of the 9th. With Ron Pruitt on first Fosse stroked a single to center, and his average moved to .301!

The next season, he started out as the #1 catcher and caught Dennis Eckersley’s no hitter. But he again missed some time with injuries and then when Robinson was fired, new manager Jeff Torborg decided to split time between Fosse and Fred Kendall. FRED KENDALL?

Anyway, it may not have been easy for Fosse to take to be platooned with not a young catcher, like Ashby, but a 28-year old vet who had proven one thing with the Padres – that he couldn’t hit. That and his upcoming free agent contract gave the Indians a reason to trade him in September. But not to a contender – to the expansion Mariners for Bill Laxton.

Laxton pitched 1 2/3 innings for the Indians in 1977. Fosse hit .353 for Seattle in 11 games as they made a late charge and pulled ahead of Oakland and didn’t finish last! That was definitely worth giving up a journeyman reliever for an experienced catcher.

Fosse was still regarded as a good catcher and a decent hitter, and the Brewers were rebuilding by signing free agent veterans. So Fosse inked a contract with Milwaukee and Topps produced the card you see above, in all of its airbrushed glory.

To this point, Fosse had injuries in 1970, 1971, 1974 (lingering to 1975), 1976 and 1977 that limited his time and performance. But he no doubt was optimistic in 1978 with the mix of youngsters (Yount, Molitor) and veterans (Cooper, Hisle, Thomas, Lezcano, Money, Oglivie). His job would be to guide the young pitchers, like Bill Travers, Jerry Augustine, Lary Sorenson and Andy Replogle through the game.

Then he fell into a hole, and wrecked his knee.

Yes, he fell…into A HOLE!

Was it Instant Hole?

Whatever the aardvark did, it caused Fosse to have mega-major knee surgery, including a complete reconstruction of the LCL. He missed 1978 in its entirety.

He tried to come back in 1979. He started the year as the #2 catcher, but then had to DH in May, and was on and off the DL after that. In late September, with the Brewers in second but still way behind the Orioles, Fosse played in four games and ended his career on a good note, going 2-4 with a triple.

It wasn’t the shoulder. It was the shoulder and everything else that did Fosse in. And except for the clubhouse fight, they were all hazards of the game.

And you want to be a catcher??

 

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