Jack Fisher will always hold a special place in Mets history.
As the starting pitcher in the team’s first game ever at Shea Stadium – April 17, 1964, against the Pirates – it was an inauspicious debut for what was then a revolutionary design in ballparks, and a harbinger of things to come for the two-year-old franchise. They lost 4-3, but Fisher held that lineup decorated with future Hall of Famers such as Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente to just three runs in 6.2 innings. Although he gave up 11 hits and one base on balls, he wriggled out of trouble several times and today, that would be considered a “quality start.”
On Yada-Yada-Yada Night at Citi Field on Friday – aka Jerry Seinfeld Night, where thousands of fans went home with a Seinfeld bobblehead and he was there to throw out the first pitch and greet fans on the 30th Anniversary of the debut of his series – Fisher also was on hand – along with ‘73 NL Champ ex-Met Felix Millan – and was available for a few minutes to recall fun moments from his career and his views on the game today.
Fisher, who turned 80 this spring and still looks remarkably well, famously gave up two historic home runs.
On Sept. 28, 1960, he was on the mound for what became the last at-bat of the great Ted Williams. The Hall of Famer was just 1 for 7 against Fisher, but that last 8th inning appearance became the last and 521st home run of Williams’ career, where he notably ran the bases head down, then into the dugout and into retirement without any sort of acknowledgment to the fans.
And it was Fisher who gave up the home run that allowed Roger Maris to tie Babe Ruth with home run No. 60 on Sept. 26, 1961, in Baltimore. Ironically, Fisher had held Maris in check quite frequently prior to that. Maris batted .184 against Fisher for his career, and was just 6 for 37 before that home run.
The Oriole who made his major league debut in 1959 was later traded to San Francisco for the 1963 season, and that winter, the Mets plucked him off the Giants roster in a special draft.
Fisher was later an indirect contributor to the World Champion 1969 Mets, as he was included in the trade to the White Sox in December of ‘67, along with Tommy Davis, Buddy Booker, and Billy Wynne, in a deal that brought back Tommie Agee and Al Weis. So that worked out well.
“Fat Jack,” as he was known – and which became the name to a bar he owned in Easton, Pennsylvania, for some years – eventually lasted 11 years in the bigs with five clubs, finishing his career with Cincinnati in 1969 (although he was acquired by the Angels in 1970, and released toward the end of spring training). For his career, Fisher wrapped up an 86-139 record, 4.06 ERA (38-73 as a Met in four seasons), but as he will tell you, the effort was always there, just not the results on a regular basis…
NY SportsDay: What was it like pitching in Shea Stadium? How was it as a ballpark?
Jack Fisher: I loved it. I thought it was a fair ballpark. No cheap home runs.
NYS: Compared to today’s ballparks?
JF: I hate the bandboxes.
NYS: And you pitched in the Polo Grounds? How did that differ?
JF: I pitched one game in the Polo Grounds when I was with the Giants against the Mets. I went nine innings and won, 3-2, but Duke Snider hit two home runs off me, right down the line, 251 (feet).
NYS: Did you have to pitch differently in the Polo Grounds due to those unusual dimensions?
JF: Oh, yeah, you had to pitch down the middle, send them to center field, absolutely. (Polo Grounds had a deep centerfield, 458 feet, with short numbers down the lines in the odd, horseshoe shaped ballpark, for those too young to remember)
NYS: Playing for (manager) Casey Stengel in the early days, you must have a favorite Casey story.
JF: Oh, yeah. One game, I believe we were playing Houston, and we had scored something like five runs, and in the fifth inning, they got a double, a single, a scratch hit, a walk, this and that, and before I knew it it was 5-3, they had a couple of men on base and I had two outs.
I knew I had to get five innings to get a chance at the win, so when Casey started out of the dugout to get me, I came over and met him at the base line before he got to the mound. I kept saying to him, ‘Everything’s under control, Casey. I got it.’ And said, I
‘I’m not a bit tired.’
He looked at me and said, ‘Let me tell you, governor, my outfielders are getting tired. I’m getting me another pitcher.’
NYS: It must have been frustrating pitching for such a hard luck, losing team.
JF: I never stepped on the mound where I thought I was going to lose a ballgame. Every time I went out there, I felt we were going to win. Most times we didn’t, but I felt like we would.
NYS: Do you still have the bar, Fat Jack’s?
JF: No, after eight years, I sold it. That was the toughest job in the world. Give me 3-2 and the bases loaded anyday. It’s still there, though. In Easton, still home of (Heavyweight boxing Champ) Larry Holmes.
NYS: Do you have an all-time favorite game?
JF: Probably, well, you always remember your first game in the big leagues. I was with Baltimore, and I got to start near the end of the season against the White Sox, who won the pennant that year. I won the game, 3-0, and I only faced 28 guys, gave up three singles and a walk. We got three double plays to get out of that. So that I remember a lot.
And of course, the first game at Shea.
NYS: What was it like pitching against the Yankees in that famous year of 1961 when they set the home run record as a team?
JF: We always played them well when I was with Baltimore. I was with (the Orioles) the better part of four years, and we played them 22 games every year and we were something like 11-11 every year against them. Always played them tough.
NYS: How did you pitch to Roger Maris with Mickey Mantle on deck in ‘61, when they were hitting all those home runs?
JF: When you were young and dumb as I was, you just bring them up there, and I felt I’ll get em out.
NYS: Did you have a rubber arm, getting a lot of starts and over 200 innings just about every year?
JF: I guess you could say I had a rubber arm. I was always around 230, 250 innings a year. The year I lost 24 (1965) I think I went 254 innings.
I lost the last game of the season, lost to the Phillies, 3-2, or something like that, and I pitched all 13 innings.
NYS: That certainly wouldn’t happen today.
JF: No, it wouldn’t.
NYS: Did anyone care about pitch counts?
JF: No, nobody cared or counted. The other team would let you know when it was time to come out of the game.
If you were getting them out, you stayed out there. I was in that game we won, 19-1 (against the Cubs, in Chicago) and went the full 9 innings.
Tracy Stallard came up to me after we were up something like 13-1, in the third inning. Tracy said, ‘You want me to finish this game for you?’ And I said, ‘No, I want the win.’
You know, we didn’t hit a home run the whole game.
NYS: You know about the famous phone call some guy made to a newspaper office in New York about that game?
JF: Oh, yeah, the guy called up the paper and asked what was the score of the Mets game. And they said the Mets scored 19 runs. So he still asked, ‘Did they win?’
NYS: Did you ever have arm problems?
JF: Sure I had arm problems, but it came around. I only spent 30 days on the disabled list my whole career.
NYS: Were you involved in that famous Memorial Day doubleheader in ‘64 that went all day and into the night (23-inning second game)?
JF: I watched every inning and was dead hungry at the end of it. We couldn’t get food in the clubhouse or anything.
NYS: What do you think of today’s parade of relief pitchers in every game?
JF: I think it was (John) Smoltz I heard not too long ago (on a broadcast) who said we were our own relievers back in the day.
You had to find different ways to get the same hitters out. First five/six innings you’d pitch one way, then when the game was on the line you’d pitch another way.
Our way was more changing speeds and placement of pitches and now you have kids who can throw 95/100 miles an hour. That’s what they want them to do, go for the speed. So it’s a different game.
We didn’t have the speed guns. They probably timed me with an hourglass.
NYS: Do you recall some of those Old Timers Games at Shea when they were bringing back some of the greats from the ‘30s and ‘40s and the old Dodgers and Giants?
JF: Sure. I grew up in Georgia, and we only had the Game of the Week. That was about it, so we knew Dizzy Dean, and I followed Cleveland at the time, so of course Bob Feller was big back in the early ‘50s.
NYS: The fans were a big factor back in the days of the early Mets. Sometimes it seemed like you guys were lovable as losers.
JF: We knew we probably weren’t as talented as some of the other teams, but the fact is, we tried hard. And I think the fans saw that, and appreciated it, and when we won a game it was a big thing. The fans were absolutely great. I can’t imagine fans being any better. I can’t remember every hearing a boo when we were there.
NYS: And the writers?
JF: Casey took a lot of the heat off us back then. He took a lot of the brunt of it.
I had a couple of guys who gave me zings in the paper, and I didn’t appreciate it, but I understood it.
NYS: How was (Hall of Fame sportswriter) Dick Young?
JF: Dick was great to me. In fact, Dick got me a raise one year. I was holding out, and had pitched 230 innings or so, and I was holding out for just a thousand dollars. (Team President) George Weiss was the guy, and finally one day down in spring training, he called me down in his office after Dick Young had written an article about what is the big deal about giving me a raise. I stood my ground and George said okay, I’ll give it to you.
I think I might have been the last guy he ever negotiated a contract
with cause then he always had (GM) Johnny Murphy do it.
NYS: Which hitters stand out from the guys you’ve faced?
JF: Well, the guy I’m famous for is (Ted) Williams, giving up the last home run. Somebody looked it up for me, and he was just 2 for 13 off me (actually, 2 for 8, Jack) and one of those two was that home run. He hit a double the first time I faced him. I remember that, and I must have got him out 11 consecutive times, and then he hit the home run.
I have talked to him since. In fact, we went to a Boston Old Timers Day some years ago, and he appreciated me that I challenged him. I was up two runs in the game, nobody on base, and Jackie Jensen hitting behind him, wind blowing in from right field. I challenged him, he hit one pretty good.
I had actually come in in relief. Steve Barber started the game, a lefthander. I came in in the first inning of the game. I don’t know if he’d gotten anybody out at the time. Can you imagine? That’s how the game has changed. I come in in relief in the first inning and finished the game.
We were up, 4-2, but he hit the home run (eighth inning) and ninth inning, we were up by one run (4-3). They got the bases loaded, one out, I’m still pitching. I forget who the hitter was, but he hit a ground ball to Brooks (Robinson) at third, over to second for one. Complete the double play and everybody’s happy, but the second basemen threw the ball up in the stands, two runs scored and I lose the game, 5-4. If we’d have gotten that double play we’d have won the game.
NYS: Were you able to appreciate the significance of Ted’s home run at the time?
JF: Well. he had announced his retirement before the game. After he hit the home run, he went right in the dugout. I walked around on the mound, kept walking around, I looked in our dugout, and they motioned to keep going.
NYS: You’ve had some career.
JF: Yes, I had a good one.
NYS: Were you able to save much memorabilia from your career?
JF: From the number of Hall of Famers that I played with I have very little. I have a few balls signed by Casey, and I’ve got one picture of Ted with (Joe) DiMaggio and (Mickey) Mantle signed by all three and authenticated.
NYS: How were you against Mantle?
JF: Believe it or not, he got his base hits off me, but he never got an extra base hit off me (6 for 17, plus six walks).
NYS: And Maris?
JF: I honestly believe the home run he hit may have been the only home run he got off of me (yes, it was, Jack), just flat hung a curve ball to him.
NYS: Thanks, Jack.
JF: Thank you, always great to be back in New York.