When a Rose ran over a Mule

August 02, 1970

The Yankee Clipper, the Manassa Mauler, the Wheaton Iceman, Broadway Joe....

Perhaps someday Ray Fosse, the 23-year-old catcher for the Cleveland Indians, will be the Marion Mule—a reference combining the name of the Illinois city where he was born and a boyhood nickname. Of course, the more sophisticated may be satisfied to leave well enough alone, since his real last name seems descriptively appropriate enough. A fosse, according to a definition in Webster's, is a ditch serving as a barrier against the enemy.

That, after all, was how America first discovered Ray Fosse in the All-Star Game three weeks ago. It was the 12th inning, Fosse's ninth behind the plate. His blacksmith arms had long become familiar to millions of viewers. He had scored one run and driven in another for the American League. But he was still just another player among all the stars until he took a stance to block Pete Rose from home plate. Rose thundered head-on into Fosse and sent him crashing backward as he crossed the plate with the winning run.

But Fosse had done all that he could, and he suddenly was saluted as a gallant fallen warrior. He was left with a bruised shoulder—and instant fame. The Ray Fosse Booster Club of Marion had sent him a telegram with 1,713 signatures when he was selected to the All-Star team. Now his constituency was nationwide.

"He's the best catcher I've ever pitched to," Sudden Sam McDowell says. "Ray thinks like a pitcher. I shake off his signs very seldom, maybe two or three times a game. Lou Klimchock, who was a teammate of Rays in Portland, Ore., told me that someday Fosse would be the best catcher in the major leagues. Now I believe it. He has sure surprised me coming along this fast."

Last season, his first full year in the majors, Fosse compiled a set of unenviable statistics. He appeared in 37 games, struck out 29 times, batted .172 and, defensively, accumulated six errors and seven passed balls for a dismal .977 average. Milwaukee's Tommy Harper, the American League's leading base stealer, recalls a series in Cleveland last year when the fans almost ran Fosse all the way back to Marion. "I guess I was the reason," Harper says. "I stole three bases in one game and five in the series and they really got on him."

Alvin Dark, the Indian manager, wasn't so hasty to condemn the rookie substitute catcher. "You never know how these kids are going to come through, but we had high hopes for Fosse," said Dark. "That's why we traded Joe Azcue. We figured Fosse would be a good catcher."

Ray took the starting job from Duke Sims early in the season and shortly thereafter ripped off a 23-game hitting streak, the longest in the American League since 1961. After 88 games, he leads the Indians in three batting departments: hits (102), home runs (16) and average (.309). Says Yankee Coach Elston Howard: "It just goes to show that you never really know what a guy can do until you give him a chance to play. He's one of the best young catchers I've seen in the league in a long time."

One man who is not surprised at Fosse's success is Walter Shannon, a smiling Irishman and former Cleveland scout who used to take the 120-mile drive down to Marion from St. Louis "to see this kid catch." Shannon, now director of scouting for the Orioles, remembers, "The more I saw him the better I liked him. I recommended that the Indians make him their first draft pick. I told them that he was the best young catcher I had ever seen—and the Indians knew that I had scouted and signed Tim McCarver."

Fosse was always big for his age. By his senior year at Marion High School he stood 6'2" and weighed 205 pounds. His nickname, Mule, was derived from his physical strength and his stubborn refusal to accept defeat. But it also refers to his shock of black hair and prominent teeth. He was a standout football and basketball player and became a catcher on the baseball team his sophomore year when he batted .475 and won the first of three most valuable player awards.

Not surprisingly, the Cleveland organization was impressed by Shannon's opinion. He was watching the College World Series in Omaha the day Fosse was drafted and, after checking with the general manager on the amount of money to offer. Shannon departed for Marion. The following evening he was at the Fosse house discussing finance with Ray, his mother and a lawyer. The meeting proved unsatisfactory; Ray wanted $10,000 more than Shannon had been instructed to offer.

Shannon left and had driven 15 miles back up the road when he suddenly stopped his car in Carbondale. "I said to myself, 'I'm not going to let that kid get away,' " Shannon remembers. "When I got back to his house it was midnight. I woke up his mother and she told me that Ray was at a dance with his girl. We called him at the dance and then called the lawyer." Best estimates are that Fosse signed for $28,000, including his bonus, which exceeded what the front office had originally intended to give him by about $8,000. "I have often wondered." Shannon muses, "what would have happened if I hadn't turned around in Carbondale that night."

The Marion Mule smiles now at the memory of the episode that determined his adult life. "I probably would have accepted a football-baseball scholarship with the University of Alabama and been off to college."

Like Broadway Joe....

PHOTOINDIAN RAY FOSSE IS SUDDENLY FAMOUS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)