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Red Sox history: Carlton Fisk and MLB’s January Draft

MLB used to have a January draft, and it's where the Red Sox found one of their franchise’s best.

2014 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Getty

In today’s game, we’re used to one big MLB Draft, which generally happens in early June each year. Then there is the Rule 5 Draft in December, a selection process in which teams can choose minor league players from other teams provided they keep them on their 25-man roster in the majors for the entire following year — in fact, the Rule 5 Draft is so named because the main MLB Draft is actually referred to as the Rule 4 Draft due to the rules that established both.

Prior to 1965, when the MLB Draft was instituted, players simply signed with whichever teams offered them contracts, which led to imbalanced rosters — better players were signed by better teams with bigger budgets. The Draft sought to institute fair play and allow all teams a chance to sign future superstars.

The Draft was different in its early years. From 1966 until 1986, a January — yes, January — amateur draft existed for high school and college students who were winter graduates, and an August draft for players who competed in summer leagues lasted for two years (1965-1966). These ran concurrently with the main draft in June. It was the January draft that proved to be the most significant of these two bygone institutions for the Red Sox, particularly the one in 1967.

Out of the top four picks in the draft, only two of them truly panned out in terms of baseball. The first pick in the January 1967 draft went to the Cubs, who selected right-handed pitcher Alec Distaso. His career was derailed by repeated elbow injuries, and he only pitched two games in the majors, later becoming an LAPD detective. The second pick belonged to the Yankees, who selected a pitcher from Yakima Valley Community College named Michael Flanagan (not to be confused with famed Orioles and Blue Jays hurler Mike Flanagan). He eventually was redrafted by the Cubs in the secondary phase of the June draft, but never made it to the Majors. The Mets picked third, wisely selecting Ken Singleton, who obviously turned out to be a pretty darn good baseball player.

The Red Sox went fourth and chose Carlton Ernest Fisk.

Carlton Fisk doing perhaps what he did best: fight people.
Boston Globe

At the time, Fisk was a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, where he played both basketball and baseball (and incidentally excelled at the former — he was at UNH on a basketball scholarship). Upon being selected by the Red Sox, he turned his entire athletic focus to baseball (he's since pointed out that he "could never be a six-foot-two power forward and play for the Celtics") and the rest is history. Fisk played two games in the Majors in 1969, then 14 in 1971, and finally stayed for good starting in 1972.

The Hall of Fame catcher is one of 29 players to play in the Majors in four separate decades and was one of the two final players from the 1960s still playing in the 1990s along with Nolan Ryan. He’s had his number retired by both the Red Sox and White Sox, won three Silver Slugger Awards, a Gold Glove Award, and the 1972 Rookie of the Year Award, and is an 11-time All-Star. At one point, he held the record for home runs by a catcher, a milestone eclipsed by Mike Piazza, as well as the most games caught, which another Pudge (Ivan Rodriguez) would go on to surpass.

Besides his amazing accolades, he’s remembered for hitting one of the most iconic postseason home runs in history and getting into a lot of fights, most notably with rival catcher Thurman Munson.

The Red Sox took two more players in the January 1967 draft — Don Newhauser, who played a few games in 1972, 1973, and 1974 for the team but never managed to stick in the Mmajors, and Craig Skok, who spent time in the majors in 1973 with the Sox, then didn't resurface until 1976 with the Rangers and again in 1978 and 1979 with the Braves.

Neither of them had even half the career Fisk had — the Draft has its way of producing both huge successes and huge busts. Sometimes players taken very high in the Draft have mediocre careers or trail off, whilst players taken very low in the draft (like the aforementioned Mike Piazza) turn out to be incredibly skilled and successful. The beauty of the Draft is that it’s all about potential — you never really know what you’re going to get from the players you take, and the risk is part of the thrill of it all.

It's a gamble based entirely around what a player might be able to do down the road, and sometimes it pans out and sometimes it doesn’t. The Red Sox’s first pick this year, Jason Groome, a left-handed pitcher out of Barnegat, New Jersey (my home state), was a bit of a risky choice due to being a high school pitcher and due to potential signability concerns, but in his case the potential reward has apparently outweighed the risk. That's the magic of the Draft.

If Groome turns out to have even a tenth of the success of Carlton Fisk, then I’d say he’s a pretty darn good choice.

[A footnote to this article: the author is a very big Carlton Fisk fan and her bias may have snuck through in here a few times. She has a signed ball, both a Red Sox and White Sox player shirt, and a framed Fisk photo on her wall that she repeatedly looked up at as she wrote this piece, and she tries to wave bowling balls fair. She also modeled her game after Fisk when she played 1860s baseball in college, which meant she took a lot of badly-pitched underhand 1860s baseballs to the face and resisted the strong temptation to fight people. She feels he’s worth it all.]