To fully appreciate Ray Fisher’s special relationship with the past, it should be noted that in 1899, the year Ray was a 12-year-old farm boy growing up in Middlebury, Vermont, Victoria was queen of England, headlines were trumpeting the latest news of the Spanish-American War, and there was no such thing as a World Series.
Some 80 years later, which is when I first got to know him, man had set foot on the moon, the British Empire had shrunk to the size of an amoeba, the World Series was firmly established as the premier event in baseball – and a 92-year-old Ray Fisher was up on the roof of his Ann Arbor residence, trying to repair wind-blown shingles.
Aside from Santa Claus, no one that old should be allowed on a rooftop under any circumstances, but Ray never saw anything unusual about his “getting around.”
“See these?” he liked to offer in explanation, pointing to the large knobby joints that protruded from the outside of each wrist, hinges that connected powerful hands to long, sinewy arms. “Those came from hard work.” Ray seemed proud of those bumps.
I met Ray while working for the school newspaper at Eastern Michigan University, following up our initial interview session with an occasional visit between classes. He said he enjoyed the company, and I certainly liked the history lessons.
Ray, like anyone his age, enjoyed reminiscing. He would tell me how, as a kid, he used to attend school all day, then spend long hours practicing whatever sport was in season. “My parents only let me play sports if I kept up my share of the farm work,” he recalled. So, after practice, Ray would run the two or three miles home, do his chores, do his homework, go to bed – and then wake up the following morning, ready to do it all over again.
Small wonder that, before he passed away in the fall of 1982 at age 95, he was the oldest living alumnus of two big-league teams: the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees.
Of course, the Yankees weren’t even called the Yankees back in 1910, the year Ray joined the club as a rawboned rookie, fresh out of tiny Middlebury College.
“We were called the Highlanders then,” Ray said. “And, oh! we played in a terrible ballpark. Up on a hilltop – they called it Hilltop Park – and it wasn’t even a good college field. The foul lines were cockeyed and the outfield was downhill, so when the batter hit one out there it actually rolled down towards the fences.”
Big league baseball was a cozier and more informal affair back then, the players and parks highly individualistic. When the Highlanders became the Yankees in Ray’s fourth season in New York, their new ballpark, which they shared with the National League Giants, took a bit of getting used to.
“The Polo Grounds had this very short right field fence, maybe 220 feet,” Ray recalled. “A high school kid could hit one over that.” A pop-up that was an out anywhere else was a “Chinese home run” at the Polo Grounds, according to Ray.
Ray would shake his head when remembering some of his turn-of-the-century contemporaries. There was teammate Hal Chase, who used to steal things from the five-and-ten store and give them to children. And Rube Waddell of Philadelphia, who was pretty good pitcher when he wasn’t out chasing fire engines or swapping baseballs for drinks at the local saloon.
I asked Ray about Ty Cobb, the Tigers’ immortal batsman, and he allowed as to how Cobb, who reputedly had a violent streak in him as wide as a four-lane highway, could be downright considerate at times.
“I remember one time Cobb hit an infield grounder,” he said, “and I had to cover first base. I had trouble getting my foot on the bag, and I had my leg out. Cobb could’ve stepped on me or spiked me; he had a perfect right to. Instead, he just jumped over the bag.”
Some of Ray’s most memorable moments came against Detroit. “I hit my first home run off of George Mullin of the Tigers in 1911,” he said. “I was a pretty good hitter, for a pitcher, and I socked that baby over the left-field fence. But I was mad because Bull Durham used to have signs up on all the ballpark fences: ‘Hit the sign and win $50.’ A foot lower and I would’ve had just a double, but I’d be $50 richer.”
Ray said he only threw at a batter once. “That was against Detroit. I threw at their left fielder, Bobby Veach. I was having a bad day, and on one occasion he ran up on me as if to bunt. I told him to stand back where he belonged, and he said, ‘You haven’t got enough to make me.’”
Ray relished relating what happened next.
“That was an invitation. I let one go at him just as hard as I could throw it. I may not have had much any other time, but I had pretty good stuff on that one! He went down so fast his cap stayed in the air.” Ray laughed. “Then he got up and threw his bat at me, and our shortstop picked it up and threw it down the left-field foul line.” After order was restored, Tigers manager Hughie Jennings asked Ray not to throw at his players.
“Tell them to stay in the batter’s box where they belong,” Ray responded. They did, and Ray never threw at another batter.
Ray pitched for New York from 1910 until his induction into the army in 1918. Mixing a good fastball with an occasional spitter (the pitch was legal then), Ray generally had good individual statistics despite playing for a perennial loser. One year he won 18 games for a club that finished fifth, and in a memorable duel with Babe Ruth (who was a superlative pitcher for the Red Sox before turning into a slugging outfielder with the Yankees), Ray was bested by the Babe, 1-0, in 18 innings.
“I never understood that guy,” Ray said of Ruth. “I never really knew him, just pitched against him, but he didn’t take care of himself. Drank a lot. Lots of rough stuff. I’ve often wondered about him.”
Another player Ray often wondered about was Shoeless Joe Jackson, considered by many to be the greatest natural hitter ever, even better than Cobb. Shoeless Joe and seven other “Black Sox” were tossed out of baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series to Cincinnati.
“I’ve always thought that Joe was framed, that he had nothing to do with it,” Ray said. “He was just a big, easygoing country boy. Practically illiterate, couldn’t read or write. Joe and I were friends, used to visit before games, and Joe was just too dumb to get involved in anything as complicated as throwing a World Series.” Ray pointed to Jackson’s .375 average in the Series. “That doesn’t sound like a guy trying too hard to lose.”
Ironically, Ray pitched – and lost – in that infamous World Series. Traded to Cincinnati that season, his 14 victories had helped the Reds capture the National League pennant. However, the White Sox beat Ray, 3-0, in the third game, prompting a lot of ribbing over the years over Ray’s inability to beat a team that was doing its damnedest to lose.
Ray pitched one more season for the Reds before a salary dispute with management led to his acceptance of an offer to coach baseball at the University of Michigan. He eventually spent 38 years there, finishing with 637 coaching victories, 14 Big Ten titles, a College World Series title in 1953, and a carload of richly deserved awards and accolades. He was literally a living legend his last several years at the school.
Still, even legends can be underpaid. For 35 years, Ray worked for $5,000 a year. “Finally,” Ray said, “Fritz Crisler called me in one day along towards my last year or so.”
“How long’s it been since you had a raise?” Michigan’s athletic director asked.
When Ray responded, “1922,” Crisler gave the uncomplaining Fisher a substantial amount of money.
Longevity can be a curse as well as a blessing, and Ray admitted as much. His wife, Alice, had died on their 63rd wedding anniversary, and he had also outlived their daughter. A parrot named Kelly (a neutral name, since Ray couldn’t figure out whether the bird was a male or female) kept Ray company, and a succession of caretaker couples saw to his everyday needs.
Ray was laid up the last couple of years by circulatory problems in one leg. He spent most of his time in a chair in the sun room of his house, his bad leg propped up on a stool, a large window to his left permitting a view of the changing seasons. Ray would usually be taking a nap the afternoons I dropped by. I’d tap on the window, and if Ray didn’t wake, a neighbor would let me in.
“Are you going to live to 100, Mr. Fisher?” I impulsively asked during what turned out to be my last visit.
“Oh no,” said Ray. “No, I feel myself running down. Little things here and there, you know.” I nodded, and three months later I found out Ray had flown to New York to participate in the Yankees’ Old Timers ceremonies. A few months after that, though, Ray passed away in St. Joseph Mercy Hospital.
Hearing the news, I couldn’t help but reflect on my first visit with Ray, on an early December afternoon a couple of years earlier, when the air was heavy with the smell of the approaching winter. Ray’s charm and congeniality had filled the room like a warm fire, and a perfect stranger’s request to “talk a few minutes of baseball with Mr. Fisher” had stretched into hours of stories about Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and others I knew only as names from the Baseball Encyclopedia.
Rising to leave that day, I noticed a book on the table behind Ray – a gift from a well-meaning friend. It was a biography of Shoeless Joe Jackson, and he confessed that he hadn’t read it.
“Why should I?” said Ray, perhaps traveling back to some sun-kissed afternoon 65 or 70 years earlier. “I knew the man. I knew him.”