Obituary: Ray Fosse (1947-2021)


RIP to Ray Fosse, an All-Star catcher and a much-loved broadcaster for the Oakland A’s. Carol Fosse, his wife of 51 years, announced that he died on October 13, after a 16-year battle with cancer. For most of that time, the Fosse family kept his illness private. It was only in August of 2021 that he announced he was stepping away from his broadcasting duties to focus on his treatment and be with his family. He was 74 years old. Fosse played for the Cleveland Indians (1967-72, 1976-77), Oakland Athletics (1973-75), Seattle Mariners (1977) and Milwaukee Brewers (1979).

The A’s released a statement which read in part: “Few people epitomize what it means to be an Athletic more than Ray. He was the type of franchise icon who always made sure every player, coach, colleague and fan knew that they were part of the Oakland A’s family. We send out deepest condolences to Carol, [daughters] Nikki and Lindsey, his family and friends during this difficult time. We’ll miss you, Ray.”

Raymond Earl Fosse was born on April 4, 1947, in Marion, Ill. Unlike other little league kids who play other positions and end up getting forced into the catcher’s role, Fosse took to the position early on and stuck with it. He was a three-sport athlete at Marion High School, and his athletic career progressed pretty well until he broke his left collarbone while playing American Legion ball in 1964. Fosse ran into a dugout post chasing down a foul ball and had to miss a good portion of the summer as a result. He was back playing football and basketball by the end of the year, though.

Ray Fosse, left, and his mother, Pauline, go over his Cleveland Indians contract with scout Walter Shannon. Source: Southern Illinoisan, June 13, 1965.

Fosse graduated from high school in 1965, the same year that Major League Baseball instituted its first amateur draft. I’ve written about a couple of the ballplayers from the first round, including Billy Conigliaro and Al Gallagher. The Cleveland Indians had the seventh overall pick and took Fosse as the first catcher picked in the draft and the fourth non-pitcher. Scout Walter Shannon, who had more than 30 years of experience between St. Louis and Cleveland at the time, called Fosse one of the best receivers he had ever seen.

“You seldom see a ball get past him or even a dropped pitch. His arm is very strong and I think he can hit,” Shannon said. “One of the things I liked best about Fosse was his scrappy spirit. I know the boy has had to work pretty hard and that he had a reputation as a fine competitor in other sports.”

Cleveland assigned Fosse to AA Reading to start his pro career, and he hit .219 in 55 games there in 1965. He was sent down to Class-A Reno in ’66 as a second-string catcher. However, promotions and military obligations took the other catchers off the Reno roster, and Fosse ended up as the starter. He hit over ;300 and kept the starting job for the rest of the season. He was promoted to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League and contributed to the 1967 pennant-winning team with a .261 batting average and good work behind the plate. He was promoted to the majors and made his debut with an 0-for-3 performance on September 8, 1967, against the Kansas City Athletics. He made it into 7 games and had 1 hit in 16 at-bats — an infield single on September 30 off Baltimore’s Gene Brabender. He did show opposing baserunners that his arm was major-league caliber, as he threw out 3 of the 5 runners who tried to steal a base off the rookie catcher.

Fosse returned to Portland in 1968 and topped .300 with 9 home rune — more than he had hit in the previous three seasons combined. He once again earned a late-season call to the majors, but he only got into one game as a defensive replacement. Fosse, now 22 years old, looked to stick in the majors in 1969 for one team or another. Over the offseason, he was reportedly part of packages that Cleveland used to try to acquire Dick Allen from Philadelphia and Frank Howard from Washington. When those deals fell through, the Indians kept him as a backup to starter Duke Sims. He didn’t see much playing time, as Cleveland also had veteran catcher Joe Azcue. Fosse played in a total of 37 games and hit just .172. He hit his first major-league home run off Kansas City’s Dave Wickersham on May 22, and he helped win a game against Detroit on September 18 by clobbering a 3-run shot off Mickey Lolich.

Not content with being a third-string catcher any longer, Fosse charged out ahead and took the starting role in 1970. Not only did he keep his average near or above .300 most of the season, he also began to hit with authority, showing power numbers that he had never displayed in the minor leagues. He also had a 23-game hitting streak that ended on July 3. He played so well that he was named to the American League All-Star team.

One of the most famous plays in All-Star Game history. Source: Philadelphia Daily News, July 6, 1983.

The All-Star Game was held on July 14 in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. Cleveland pitcher Sam McDowell was good friends with Cincinnati star Pete Rose, and when Rose invited the pitcher to a visit his house, McDowell asked if he could bring Fosse along.

“Sure Sam, bring him along,” Rose said. So Fosse spent the night before the All-Star Game in Pete Rose’s house, hanging out with him and McDowell until well past midnight. Rose and Fosse would be forever linked because of that All-Star Game, which ended up in a 5-4 win for the National League in 12 innings. Fosse didn’t start the game, but he entered in the bottom of the fifth inning as a replacement for starter Bill Freehan. He singled in his first All-Star at-bat off Gaylord Perry of the Giants and scored the first run of the game on a Carl Yastrzemski single. He later hit a sacrifice fly off Perry, scoring Brooks Robinson and making the score 2-0. The American League took a 4-1 lead before the National rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth and send the game into extra innings.

With two outs in the bottom of the 12th, Rose singled and advanced to second on a Billy Grabarkewitz single. Jim Hickman then hit a single to center field, and Rose tore around third base with the intent to score. Fosse got in front of the plate, waiting for the throw, with the intent of stopping him. The resulting collision is a part of All-Star Game infamy, as Rose leveled Fosse to knock the ball out of his glove and score the winning run. Rose walked off the field as his NL teammates embraced him. Fosse had to be taken to a hospital with an injured shoulder.

“I saw I couldn’t slide so I just ran into him,” Rose said. “I certainly didn’t want to hurt anybody. You know how I am though, I always play to win.”

Fosse suffered a fractured and separated shoulder because of the play. He managed to finish off a great season and had a slash line of .307/.361/.469, with 18 home runs and 61 RBIs, but the difference between his first and second halves is noticeable. He slugged .527 in the first half in 78 games. After the All-Star Game, he played in 42 games and had a total of 6 extra-base hits, just 2 of which left the park. The pain from the injury affected him the rest of his career. The real shame of the injury is that we’ll never really know what Fosse could have done if he was completely healthy. All we really have is one excellent half-season that was worthy of an All-Star selection.

Source: Oakland Athletics

Fosse, to his credit, never blamed Rose or called it a dirty play. And considering he was probably asked about it in every interview over the ensuing 50+ years, he had his chances to vent. He created a website, rayfosse.com, to give his version of the events. Realistically, if there’s anyone who deserves some blame over the event, it’s the Cleveland Indians and manager Al Dark, who put Fosse back in the starting lineup like nothing happened. If Fosse had really taken the time to heal, maybe he could have recovered better than he did. Instead, Cleveland kept him on the field and risked the health of one of the game’s most promising catchers for a fifth-place finish in the AL East.

In 1971, he had recovered enough from his shoulder injury to have a productive season for Cleveland. He hit .276 with a career-high 62 RBIs, and he had 21 doubles and 12 home runs. He also won a second straight Gold Glove award behind the plate. He was chosen to the All-Star Team for the final time in his career, but he didn’t have to worry about any altercations with Pete Rose or any other NL baserunner. Just a few weeks before the Game, Fosse injured his right hand in a beanball brawl with Detroit. Fosse was hit by Tigers pitcher Bill Denehy, and when Fosse charged the mound, Denehy attempted some sort of flying kick that spiked Fosse in the right hand. He needed five stitches to close the wound. While recovering from that, Fosse tore a ligament in his left hand that put him on the disabled list for a few weeks. He had to miss most of July, including the Midsummer Classic.

Fosse’s offensive numbers declined in 1972, though offense doesn’t tell the full story of his usefulness. While he hit just .241 and slugged .354, he was invaluable in handling Cleveland’s young pitching staff. Aside from ace Gaylord Perry and reliever Tom Hilgendorf, the Indians didn’t use a single pitcher who was older than 30 — starters Dick Tidrow, Milt Wilcox and Steve Dunning were all 25 or younger. Perry, a newcomer to the American League after a trade with San Francisco, said, “Ray is the most underrated player in the league. I have complete confidence in him.” Perry won 24 games with an ERA under 2.00 and credited two things for his success — the relative lack of AL stadiums with artificial turf, and Fosse. “I rate him with the best around as far as receiving the ball, setting the hitter up and calling the game,” he said.

Cleveland and the Oakland A’s traded catchers in March of 1973. Oakland got Fosse and infielder Jack Heidemann, and Cleveland got Dave Duncan and outfielder George Hendrick. Fosse played in a career-high 143 games in 1973 and slashed .256/.291/.354. He hit just 7 home runs, but his 23 doubles were a career best. He also led all catchers with a 56% caught stealing rate. Fosse didn’t hit well in the postseason, but Oakland got past Baltimore in the AL Championship Series and the New York Mets in the World Series to repeat as world champions.

In November of 1973, Fosse returned to Marion for Ray Fosse Day, as the community celebrated its native son. Marion’s largest public park was named after him. The mayor of Marion presented him with a key to the city — a baseball bat carved to resemble a key, and at Fosse’s insistence, some of the money that would have been spent on gifts to the ballplayer instead went to purchase his mother, Pauline, a new double-oven and range. His parents divorced when he was young, and Fosse said that his mother “showed me what it was like to be strong.”

Fosse hits a solo home run off the Dodgers’ Don Sutton in the 1974 World Series. Source: Minneapolis Tribune, October 18, 1974.

Fosse never played in more than 100 games in a season following the 1973 campaign. He was limited to 69 games in 1974 and hit .196 in those games. Early in the season, he attempted to come between A’s outfielders Bill North and Reggie Jackson while they were having a clubhouse dispute in Tiger Stadium. He was shoved into a locker and injured his back. X-rays revealed a damaged vertebra, a ruptured disc and nearly 50 bone fragments in his right shoulder. He came back to provide some postseason heroics for Oakland. He had three hits in Game Two of the ALCS against Baltimore, including a 3-run homer off reliever Grant Jackson. The blast made the score 5-0 and was the first of three straight Oakland wins to win the series.

That home run seems to have been predestined, according to columnist Wells Twombley of The San Francisco Examiner. Fosse had a vision of himself hitting a 3-run homer before the ALCS and was quite surprised that he was hitless in the opening game. Then on the way to the park for Game Two, teammate Gene Tenace said he could picture Fosse hitting a 3-run blast against Baltimore. Even Don Baylor of the Orioles saw it coming. “When Fosse came up, I happened to look at his batting average on the scoreboard. He was under .200 but he hadn’t played much before he was hurt. I had this strange feeling, like he was going to hit a home run. So I backed up as close to the fence as I dared.” The ball just barely missed Baylor’s glove as it cleared the fence.

Fosse only had two hits in the World Series against Los Angeles, but one was just as dramatic as the Baltimore shot. The Series went a full seven games, and the final game saw Don Sutton of the Dodgers duel Vida Blue of Oakland. Fosse hit a solo homer off Sutton in the bottom of the second inning to make it 2-0 Dodgers. The Dodgers eventually tied the score but lost the game 3-2 and the World Series on a Joe Rudi home run off Mike Marshall.

Oakland moved several players around prior to the 1975 season. Tenace moved from first base to starting catcher, and Fosse was put in the role of backup. He didn’t do well in the role and batted .140 in limited appearances. He was sold back to the Cleveland Indians that December. Fosse was glad to be with his original team, but he was injured in the second game of the 1976 season and lost playing time to Alan Ashby. When Ashby went down with an injury himself, Fosse hit .301 in 90 games. After serving capably as a part-time role throughout much of 1977 — he hit .265 with 6 home runs in 78 games — Cleveland placed the 30-year-old Fosse on waivers, where he was claimed by the Seattle Mariners. He hit .353 over the final month of the season for the expansion ballclub.

Fosse entered free agency after the season. It was conducted as a draft, with teams claiming the right to negotiate with players. It was a complicated process that saw Fosse sign a multi-year with the Milwaukee Brewers. The injury bug that had haunted his career wasn’t done yet, though. In a spring training game in 1978, Fosse hit the ball and tripped in a hole about 15 feet from first base. The initial injury was ruled a pulled hamstring, but when Fosse’s knee kept giving out on him, it was re-diagnosed as a torn ligament. The resulting surgery caused him to miss the entire season.

“It’s just something you have to live with,” he said about the injuries. “You can’t be depressed.”

Fosse didn’t make his Brewers debut until April of 1979. In one of his first games with the team, he faced catching a relay throw while a charging runner — in this case, Boston’s Jim Rice — sped to home plate. Fosse did what he always did — he caught the ball, he was knocked to the ground in the ensuing collision, and he stopped Rice from scoring. Even after multiple broken fingers, a damaged vertebra, a couple of torn ligaments, a famously broken shoulder, the man would not change his catching style and play it safe.

Unfortunately, the Brewers had Charlie Moore as a .300-hitting starting catcher and Buck Martinez as a very capable backup. Stuck as a third-string catcher, occasional designated hitter and pinch-hitter, Fosse played in 19 games for Milwaukee, batting .231. He was hampered by another injury — a pinched nerve in his neck. — that limited his playing time in 1980’s spring training camp. Fosse was released by Milwaukee on April 4, 1980 — his 33rd birthday and his wedding anniversary. He did not play again, and in spite of the awful timing, he bore Milwaukee no ill will.

“It’s a first-class city, and things just didn’t work out for me,” he told the Milwaukee Journal.

Over 12 seasons, Fosse slashed .256/.306/.367, with 758 hits and 324 RBIs. He had 117 doubles, 13 triples and 61 home runs, while scoring 299 times. He had a lifetime .985 fielding percentage as a catcher and threw out 40 percent of baserunners. His ability to threw out runners was never the same after his back and shoulder injury in 1974. According to Baseball Reference, he was work 12.8 Wins Above Replacement in his career.

Fosse had a real estate license in California where he lived with his family, and he intended to pursue that full time after his playing career. If he had done that, he might have remained an All-Star footnote, a victim of the villainous Pete Rose. (That’s unfair to Rose, incidentally. Fosse was every bit as hard-nosed and competitive as Rose was.) And maybe in some circles, that’s how he was seen. But to millions of baseball fans, he became one of the voices of the Oakland A’s. Fosse rejoined the team a few years after his retirement in a public relations capacity, representing the team in speaking engagements. He eventually joined the team’s broadcasts as color commentator, first on radio and then on television.

Source: Oakland Athletics

Fosse remained on the mic from 1986 until the middle of the 2021 season and won an Emmy in 2003 for his work. That 36-year span includes Rickey Henderson’s stolen base record, the Bash Brothers, the Moneyball Era, one World Series championship and 14 other postseason appearances. For millions of fans, Fosse’s voice is the narrator for a lifetime of unforgettable baseball memories.

For more information: MLB.com

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