Even in this modern era, with MLBTR tracking the prospects of any conceivable free agent and setting a clock to the service time of every top prospect this side of Sidd Finch, the story still astounds:
A future Hall-of-Famer freed by … postal laxity?
Thirty-six years ago, the biggest gaffe in baseball postmarking history—a case made for Contract Law 101—freed Carlton Fisk from the Red Sox. Boston GM/owner Haywood Sullivan mailed out contract renewals to two players in their option year, Fisk and Fred Lynn, past the mandated Dec. 20 deadline.
The flub freed up Fisk—ironically, an unyielding New Englander who never sought to leave the Red Sox—as an unrestricted free agent.
Let’s dig deeper into one of the odder offseason occurrences in baseball history.
Carlton Fisk: Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I never planned to leave Boston.
Honestly, it broke my heart to leave New England. I grew up there, in a little town in New Hampshire called Charlestown. It was one of those towns, look right, look left, and you’ve seen everything. No movie theater. No swimming pool. No traffic lights. It was a thousand people. My graduating class was the biggest ever: 32 kids! It was in me—still is. And as kids, we all dreamed of wearing a Red Sox uniform or a Celtics jersey.
So, why’d I leave? Well, I was 33 years old. I’d made money in the game, sure, but ownership wasn’t exactly giving it away. I had my family to think of, and my own pride. I wanted to be paid fairly—and the plain fact is that from the moment I was drafted  I’d been underpaid by the Red Sox. That’s how it was in those days.
Also, Boston was in a sort of transition. Honestly, it didn’t seem clear to me that the front office was dedicated to our core group of guys, or to winning.
Indeed, the two baseball Soxes seemed to be working in opposite directions in 1981.
Boston was just five seasons removed from the thrill of the 1975 World Series, which it lost in dramatic fashion in seven games to the Cincinnati Reds, and a few years past its historic, regular-season AL East division race collapse, culminating in Bucky F’ing Dent’s tiebreaker game-winning home run in 1978.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, excitement greeted the 1981 season after Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn purchased the club from Bill Veeck and signaled that the days of Veeck’s hamstrung purse strings were over. With a promising young pitching staff already in place and a solid base of position players, the team felt it was just one key offensive acquisition away from contention.
Jerry Reinsdorf: We didn’t come in with an agenda to make a “splash,” but looking around at the state of things, we wanted to make it clear to fans that things would change. We tripled the promotional budget. We made efforts to upgrade Comiskey Park. And we were willing to look into any way we could help the club, be it by trading for a player or signing one.
Eddie Einhorn*: We were excited to get our hands dirty and improve the ballclub. We kept Roland Hemond, the GM who built our first great White Sox team, and we had some money to spend if an opportunity came along. [Note: Einhorn died in 2016; the interview referenced in this article was conducted during Spring Training 2011.]
Roland Hemond: Bill Veeck had already spent some of Edward DeBartolo’s money after DeBartolo agreed to buy the White Sox. Not many people remember this, but Bill never was supposed to leave the White Sox. He sold the White Sox to DeBartolo for $20 million and the promise of staying on with the team as President. But American League owners had it out for him, and rejected the sale two different times.
But initially, Bill was excited to have some financial freedom, which he hadn’t enjoyed for the five years he’d owned the team in the 1970s. We picked up Ronnie LeFlore from Montreal. We signed a catcher, Jim Essian, to some big money.
Reinsdorf: Those deals were made under a prospective DeBartolo ownership, but once the owners rejected DeBartolo and voted for us, we were on the hook for the contracts.
More than the roster, we honestly thought we had a bigger issue with the off-field things like improving an aging ballpark, and increasing attendance. We knew the White Sox were an up-and-coming team, and figured its natural development in 1981 would be a step forward, without any other acquisitions.
Einhorn: But then we heard Carlton Fisk was a free agent.
When the Red Sox missed their deadline to renew the Fisk and Lynn contracts in December 1980, an unprecedented situation arose. Never before in the free agency era had a player been freed from his contract because of a clerical error. With no precedent from which to base a decision, an arbitration date was set in January 1981 to determine Fisk’s fate.
Fisk: The easiest solution would have been for the Red Sox to rip up my old contract and make me a fair market offer. I generally knew what I was worth. People talk. It wouldn’t have been complicated. Treat me fairly, and I’m right back in Florida with the Red Sox in spring training, with a few more dollars in my pocket. But the Red Sox never made a fair market offer. Their offer was so low it wasn’t even worth considering.
Lynn, who received his 1981 contract even later than Fisk, bailed out on the arbitration process early on by agreeing to a deal that would send him to his hometown California Angels along with pitcher Steve Renko for Joe Rudi and Frank Tanana. The center fielder also received a contract from Angels owner Gene Autry for $5 million over four years.
Fisk, on the other hand, didn’t have a trump card in negotiations like driving a trade to his hometown—the New Hampshire native was already there, with the Red Sox. But without an offer worth considering from Boston, the veteran was driven by principle to see the arbitration process through.
Fisk: I didn’t have any doubt we’d win in arbitration. It was very simple: Haywood Sullivan did not tender me a contract. The Red Sox sort of admitted, ‘Well, we forgot.’ One of their defenses was that they didn’t understand the agreements with the Players’ Association. I thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute, we’re talking about the uniform player’s contract that they’ve been using for 100 years!’ That’s when I knew for sure we’d win, and we did.
It was reported that Boston had offered Fisk a three-year, $1.5 million deal, but some felt it was merely a face-saving pitch, made after the fact.
Fisk: I can say that offer is definitely not true, because if I was offered that, I may have taken it—at least we would have been close, and negotiated from there. The Red Sox weren’t even in the ballpark with the money or the years they offered, believe me.
Even still, they had a chance to sign me. Make a fair offer—I’m an unrestricted free agent now, so you’re going to compete against other teams, and the offer needs to be competitive—and I’ll stay.
But while I was still waiting to hear something concrete from Boston, Chicago called and made an offer I couldn’t turn down.
Because of the unique and late nature of the contract infraction, and the somewhat protracted arbitration process, Fisk was declared a free agent late in the offseason, after teams had already reported to spring training. The entire process generated a sort of Fisk Watch: Would he leave the Red Sox? Where would he go?
Reinsdorf: We had Essian, and we’d signed another catcher, Marc Hill, but when Fisk became available, you had to consider him. Remember, this was late in the offseason, way late. Signing Carlton had the potential to be disruptive. But we had to pick up the phone and call.
Einhorn: We were still so new to everything. I was doing all sorts of things to put our stamp on the team, like staffing up the front office, even choosing a new mascot. Jerry was trying to improve ticket sales and fix up the ballpark. The initial reaction to us in Chicago had been a little lackluster; the White Sox hadn’t won in a while, and fans were tired of five-year plans. So getting a chance to reach out to Carlton was a timely opportunity.
After some protracted negotiation and last-minute twists, Fisk signed with the White Sox for five years and $3 million, almost tripling his 1980 salary. Getting Fisk to change his Sox wasn’t as universally lauded as hindsight might lead us to think today—at the time, the veteran backstop was 33 years old, and many thought his best days were behind him.
Fisk: Yeah, I’d hear that from some people. It’s a little trick management plays on you. When you’re younger and outproducing your salary, the team talks about how young you are, you’re still unproven, there’s a pecking order with salaries, don’t breed dissent with the veterans. When you get older, teams say that you’re over the hill, even if you’re still producing. You think, wait, do I even get one season to be paid fairly?
But the White Sox were upfront with me. They played up the opportunity there, with a young pitching staff and a mix of younger players and veterans, a changing of the guard in ownership. They looked to me for leadership and encouraged that, without it sounding like a burden. They pointed out there were opportunities with advertisers that I might not get in Boston. Jerry and Eddie were enthusiastic guys. They seemed fair. It was a really difficult decision, but in the end, my gut said it would be a good move for me and my family.
Later on, Haywood Sullivan was talking about how the White Sox pressured me and gave me a take-it-or-leave-it deal. Do I look like a guy who’s going to let himself get strongarmed?
For catcher Jim Essian—who had signed a club record four-year, $1 million contract just a couple of months earlier—the Fisk signing was a mixed bag.
Essian: Of course, I wanted to get my 400 at-bats that year. That’s why I came back to Chicago. The White Sox had made me a priority. It’s easy to forget today, but a million-dollar contract, even over several years, was a big deal in 1981. I was really proud. It was a validation of a lot of hard work I’d put in to be a major leaguer.
Well, in comes Fisk, and there goes my chance to start. For a while [manager] Tony [La Russa] was talking like me and Carlton would split the catching duties. But even if that was the plan, I knew that if Fisk started hitting, he’d be playing every day. He was an All-Star. He wasn’t the kind of guy who begged out of games, even if he was in a rough stretch. But Fisk was a class guy, and a leader, and we needed that.
While Essian played little in 1981 and was dealt to the Seattle Mariners after the season, the Fisk signing also had an unintended, negative impact on Chicago’s key superstar. Center fielder Chet Lemon, a two-time All-Star and by far the most valuable position player on the club in 1980 (notching 4.2 WAR in his age 25 season), took notice of the deal—and wasn’t digging it.
Lemon: I was very comfortable in Chicago. I loved the team, and playing for the White Sox fans. The new ownership and Roland Hemond sat down with me in spring training in 1981 and laid out a five-year contract extension [1983-87] that would have made me the highest-paid on the team. Everything went smoothly, but I never got around to signing the deal.
While the contract was just sitting on the table, a couple of weeks later they signed Carlton Fisk. For the team, that was great. For me, suddenly I wouldn’t be the highest-paid player on the club. I thought I’d done a lot for the White Sox in my five seasons, and it hurt a little bit that a new guy, even Carlton Fisk, would sweep right in like that.
I can look back now and see that it’s a little childish to be caught up in who makes the most money, but I was still a young kid and it mattered to me. I decided I wouldn’t sign the contract, and that we’d talk again after the season.
After the 1981 season, pressure was mounting on the White Sox to get a return for Lemon in case he bolted as a free agent after the 1982 season. At the end of November, and without significant extension discussions, Chicago dealt Lemon to the Detroit Tigers for Steve Kemp—ironically, a player also in the last year of his contract who was a risk to bolt the White Sox after the season. (Kemp indeed signed elsewhere, with the New York Yankees, in 1983.) Meanwhile, Lemon signed a 10-year deal—the longest in the majors at the time—with Detroit and produced 23.0 WAR over the five seasons that his unsigned extension with the White Sox would have covered.
Lemon: Things worked out great for me in Detroit [the Tigers won the World Series in 1984]. But I’ve always loved the White Sox fans. Things could have been different.
At the time of the Fisk signing, everyone in baseball felt the clock was ticking on the catcher’s career—even the White Sox, who despite shelling out millions weren’t certain the catcher would finish out his contract (two mutual option years at the end of the deal were understood to be fulfilling a future front office position, not a roster spot).
Yet somewhat amazingly, Fisk ended up playing far beyond his five-year contract, and 343 more games for the White Sox than he played in Boston. He remained a catcher his entire career (97% of Fisk’s games were at catcher), retiring after being released in mid-season in 1993, at age 45. With Fisk’s final game, he broke Bob Boone’s record for games caught, with 2,226—a record he held for 16 years, until it was broken by Ivan Rodriguez.
Ozzie Guillen [who spent the most games as Fisk’s White Sox teammate]: We loved to give Fisk s— about his age, and he gave it right back. We had a great, young pitching staff in the early 1990s and they didn’t want to put up with his old man bulls— [imitates all of Fisk’s mannerisms]: adjusting his chest protector, his cup, his mask, walking out to the mound every other pitch and barking instructions to the infield. Remember when Joe Mauer was catching for Minnesota, walking out to the mound every other pitch? That was Fisk. We had an aggressive staff: Black Jack [McDowell], [Alex] Fernandez, [Jason] Bere, [Wilson] Alvarez. They wanted to attack guys but Fisk was like a human stop sign.
Don’t get me wrong. Carlton Fisk was a great player and a great teammate. Best catcher I ever played with on the Sox. But it was time. No player wants to admit it—I f—— didn’t, for sure. But it was his time.
Of everyone involved in Fisk changing Sox, no one suffered more than Sullivan. The GM/owner was already under heavy criticism after the 1978 collapse, as he dealt away or released many of the team’s assets (including Luis Tiant, Bill Lee, Bernie Carbo, Reggie Cleveland, Ferguson Jenkins, and Jim Willoughby) and drafting poorly (most notably picking his own son, non-prospect Marc, in the second round in 1979). In 1983, Sullivan’s last year as GM, he watched Fisk’s move to No. 2 in the batting order spur the White Sox to an AL West title and 99 wins, while overseeing a 78-84 season in Boston.
Sullivan always had maintained the reason that the Fisk and Lynn contracts weren’t mailed promptly was the fact that, due to mutually agreed-upon clauses, the two players were already under contract for 1981.
Fisk: Haywood claimed he offered me more money, more years, more everything. Again, there’s an easy answer to that: If he had, I would have taken it and stayed in Boston my entire career.
It’s funny, at the time people were talking about me betraying the Boston Red Sox. Everyone made a big deal about December 20, like it was some fluke, and the Red Sox got cheated because of [the deadline]. What no one talks about is the Red Sox had seven months to offer me a contract—they never did. Even during the hearing, the Red Sox could have made it all go away with a fair offer. They didn’t. I wasn’t interested in beating the Red Sox—but I did want what’s fair.
Once his White Sox career began, Fisk would take particular relish in sticking it to the Red Sox—especially at Fenway. A career .300 hitter in Boston, Fisk upped that average to .314 as a member of the White Sox. Fisk hit homers in 3.8% of his career plate appearances and 4.4% of his Fenway appearances, but as a member of the White Sox visiting Fenway upped his longball rate to 6.9%. In the end, over 107 career games vs. the Red Sox Fisk hit .310, with 27 homers and 68 RBI.
And there was never a more dramatic a moment for Fisk as a visitor to Fenway Park than in his first game there, on Opening Day 1981, when he hit the an eventual game-winning, three-run homer in the top of the eighth to spur a 5-3 White Sox win.
With the White Sox, Fisk would produce another 28.8 WAR, ending his career with 68.3. At age 37 in 1985, he put up career numbers of 37 home runs and 107 RBI.
Yet in spite of an acrimonious divorce and more time logged in White Sox than Red, Fisk was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000 as a member of the Red Sox.
Fisk: There was nothing hard about the decision to go into the Hall of Fame as a member of the Red Sox. Boston is my hometown and my home team. There’s no way I can ever divorce myself from that home run—not a day goes by when I don’t hear about it from someone. With all respect to the White Sox and my long career there, that particular decision wasn’t difficult at all.
Brett Ballantini has been a sportswriter for two decades, drawing on hundreds of interviews over the years to compile oral histories of great moments in major league baseball, basketball, and hockey. Follow him on Twitter @PoetryinPros.