Name: Ray Fisher
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: October 4, 1887 (Middlebury, VT)
Died: November 3, 1982 (Ann Arbor, MI)
Yankee Years: 1910-17
Primary number: N/A
Yankee statistics: 76-78, 2.91 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 219 G, 166 GS, 1,380 1/3 IP, 583 K, 88 CG, 13 SHO, 97 ERA-, 93 FIP-, 18.6 rWAR, 18.6 fWAR
Like many teams, the Yankees witnessed some of their top pitching performances during the Deadball Era. It was a time of spitballers, little power, worn-out baseballs, and tremendously pitcher-friendly ballparks. The Top 100 Yankees countdown has already featured a number of fine pitchers from back then, such as Jack Warhop and Jack Quinn.
Ray Fisher was a member of those pitching staffs as well, and while he later went on to a more well-known career outside of New York in Michigan, he remains one of the most versatile yet forgotten pitchers in franchise history. Whatever was needed, be they starts or desperate relief appearances, Fisher was always there for the downtrodden team. Had he pitched a decade later when the Yankees were much better, perhaps he would be better remembered.
Collegiate star goes pro
Fisher was born into a Vermont farming family on October 4, 1887. Baseball was merely a dream for him during his younger years as he toiled away working to help his family make ends meet. All he could do was play infield in recreational baseball, football, and basketball leagues--provided he had already met his father's expectations of daily work on the farm.
It was in another sport where Fisher first started to make a name for himself. His Middlebury High School team won the 1904 Vermont football state title during his junior year, and that attracted some collegiate scouts' attention. Fisher preferred baseball though, and after he graduated in 1906, he played semi-pro ball in Quebec during the summer (making sure to provide for his absence on the farm with his stipend, of course). That fall, Fisher returned home and went to college at Middlebury. As in high school, he was a multi-sport star, but it was on the diamond where he gained the most attention.
Fisher's Middlebury coach turned out to be a real difference-maker in his life. His name was Arthur "Cy" Stackpole, and he had just spent the '06 season pitching in the minors for the Holyoke Paperweights in Massachusetts. (Aside: Hell of a team name.) Fisher had pitched before, but prior to his time at Middlebury, he was mostly known as a position player. However, Stackpole saw potential in Fisher's arm, so he had him practice on the mound. Fisher impressed Stackpole with his fastball/curve combination, so the next day, he pitched against one of Middlebury's rivals, the Colgate Raiders. How did he do? Let Fisher tell you himself:
"Colgate, of course, was a major baseball power and was expecting to mop us up. But I had quite a day, fanned 18 and shut them out." - Fisher, quoted in Chip Hart's SABR bio
It was a mild success, to say the least. Through connections Stackpole made in the summer of 1907 when he pitched for the Hartford Senators of the Connecticut State League, he successfully got Fisher a job there in 1908 between semesters. The league was no match for Fisher's repertoire, which like many pitchers of his time, featured a spitball as well. He went 12-1 during his first season, and upon returning the next summer, he was even better, striking out a remarkable 243 batters while notching a 24-5 record. Hartford won the pennant, and the 22-year-old Fisher won a $1,500 contract with the American League club in New York, the Highlanders. A career was born.
"The Vermont Schoolmaster"
Ever-dedicated to his education, Fisher returned to Middlebury to finish school, delaying his MLB debut. Once he earned his degree in May 1910, he joined the Highlanders and finally pitched on a major league mound on July 2, 1910 against the White Sox. Fisher wasted no time making an impression on his new team; in his debut, he outpitched Hall of Famer Ed Walsh and won the game, 2-1. For a rookie season, Fisher's was not bad at all, even though he had to deal with his first manager, George Stallings, getting replaced midseason by notorious gambler/player-manager Hal Chase. He pitched to a 2.92 ERA and 2.09 FIP in 92 1/3 innings. It would have been easy to be overshadowed by standout rookie teammate Russ Ford, who flat-out dominated with a 1.65 ERA in almost 300 innings, but his team took note of Fisher's performance as well.
Before long, Fisher picked up a nickname, "the Vermont Schoolmaster," for both his education (college graduate players like Fisher and Bucknell-bred Christy Mathewson were extremely rare in the Deadball Era), and his off- season job. When seasons ended, Fisher returned to Vermont and served as Middlebury's athletic director, a position that offered a preview of what would come for Fisher in his post-baseball life. He was well-read but extremely respected in the clubhouse nonetheless, for both his exploits on the mound and for his willingness to challenge authority. When Hall of Fame manager Frank Chance took over the team in 1913, he tried to publicly make an example of Fisher for what a perceived error in the field, but Fisher fought back, saying "I don't give a damn if I ever pitch another game." Chance left him alone, and the respect for Fisher grew.
Fisher had a few up-and-down seasons during his first four years, but he broke out in 1914. Chance trusted him completely and allowed him to throw more complete games than he ever had before. Fisher's 10-12 record belied his true abilities; his 2.28 ERA was the ninth-lowest mark in the AL, his 1.139 WHIP was tenth-best, and his 4.7 rWAR ranked seventh. Now managed by "Wild Bill" Donovan in 1915, the Yankees finished with almost exactly the same underwhelming winning percentage, .455. This time however, Fisher pitched well enough to defy his shoddy offense, finishing the year with an 18-11 record. Fisher reached career-highs in innings (247 2/3), complete games (20), ERA (2.11), and rWAR (5.3), with the latter three marks all ranking in the AL's top 10 that year.
Although the Yankees weren't a good team, Fisher was considered one of the most popular players in New York. He pitched a fair share of innings every year, and no matter who was managing the club at the time, he was always available in relief. After all, the Deadball Era was not known for its relief performances--starters simply had to be available should one of their teammates get hurt or pitch like crap. With Fisher one of the few reliable arms on the team, he made 53 career relief appearances in New York. Exact statistics aren't available for how he did in these situations, but his 2.22 career ERA in 38 outings and 109 1/3 innings from 1914 onward indicate that such appearances did not seem to faze him.
Fisher pitched with the Yankees up through the 1917 season, which was a fine campaign for him by the numbers, as his 2.19 ERA in 144 innings can attest. Unfortunately, health-wise, it did not go as well. Fisher contracted a form of tuberculosis known as pleurisy prior to the season and had to deal with the pain it caused at various points that year. There were still highlights though, such as shutting out the Senators and Hall of Fame mound opponent Walter Johnson in his first start of the season following the worst of his battle with the disease.
1917 would prove to be Fisher's finale with the Yankees. It came at the worst time, too; the next year, owner Jacob Ruppert hired Miller Huggins, the manager who helped orchestrate the Yankees' turnaround from cellar-dwellers in the 1910s to powerhouse in the '20s. After finishing under .500 in five of Fisher's last six seasons as a Yankee, the team would fall just three games short of .500 in 1918, then break the skid with a .576 winning percentage in 1919. The hard-working Fisher never got to see the Yankees reach glory though. Since World War I was afoot, he was drafted into the army in 1918 and spent the year in charge of the Fort Slocum athletics program. By the time his service was over, the Yankees had traded him to the Reds.
World champion and Michigan glory
A new era for Fisher began on March 15, 1919, when he joined a very good Reds squad that had far more potential than any of the Highlander/Yankee clubs Fisher played for during the previous decade. In Fisher's first truly healthy season in three years, he was excellent for the Reds, pitching to a 2.17 ERA in 174 1/3 innings, most of which were spent in their rotation. Cincinnati won its first National League pennant of the 20th century and advanced to play the overwhelming favorites in the World Series, the Chicago White Sox. These were the notorious "Black Sox" though, and Cincinnati won the series five games to three amid rumors of the White Sox throwing the games. Fisher lost his start against one of the Chicago players who wasn't in on the fix, but Cincinnati ended the year as champions regardless.
Fisher would play one more year in the majors, a fine 2.73 ERA, 200-inning season in 1920 for Cincinnati. After the season ended, Fisher decided that he was ready for a change. He wasn't making much money as a major leaguer, and he desired a more stable position since he now had a young family. So on the recommendation of Michigan Law School alumnus Branch Rickey, Fisher interviewed for the head coaching job at the University of Michigan.
Fisher got the job and amazingly spent the next 38 years in charge of the Wolverines' baseball program. Under his leadership, they were integrated, won 15 Big Ten titles, and also the 1953 College World Series. By that time, Fisher was 66 years old and near the end of his run, but he was overjoyed by his team's success. Five years later, he retired as Michigan's coach and lived out the rest of his life coaching pitchers in the art of the cut fastball. Controversy over his departure from the Reds and the beginning of his tenure at Michigan actually had him on the ineligibility list, but it was never formally imposed. (Fisher often coached in teams' spring trainings and farm systems.) Regardless, commissioner Bowie Kuhn lifted the ceremonial ban in 1980.
Fisher had one last awesome moment in 1982, when at age 95, he was invited to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers' Day. He was the oldest-living Yankee and he received a huge ovation. It was the first time he had ever visited Yankee Stadium. A few months later, he passed away, leaving behind a wonderful legacy on countless collegiate players. Michigan's baseball park is deservedly named in his honor.
Andrew's rank: 87
Tanya's rank: 66
Community rank: 81.8
WAR rank: 68.5
|NYY (8 yrs)||76||78||2.91||2.79||219||166||88||13||1380.1||1337||586||447||24||393||583||34||28||97||93||18.6||18.6|
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Hart, Chip. SABR bio
Reisler, Jim. Before They Were the Bombers: The New York Yankees' Early Years, 1903-1915. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005. (online)