UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – In praise of Ray Fosse; in defense of Pete Rose

Ray Fosse, the catcher involved in one of the most debated plays in the history of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, died last week at the age of 74. He’d battled cancer for 16 years, though he didn’t make that public until this year when he stepped down as an Oakland A’s color commentator in August.

More than two dozen newspapers and websites published stories about his passing, emphasizing what a beloved figure he’d become in 36 years as a broadcaster for the Oakland A’s.  

“He was so fun to be around,” tweeted Sean Doolittle, once Oakland’s closer. “He had a way of making you feel connected to the history of baseball and the Oakland A’s.”  Wrote another former closer, Liam Hendricks: “His kindness will never be forgotten. The game of ball lost a true legend.” And former Oakland outfield Josh Reddick added: “Ray Fosse was such a special person . . .”

But in many instances, the news stories also referenced the home plate collision with Pete Rose that decided the 1970 All-Star Game in the 12th inning.

Rose was described as “barreling into,” “bowling over” and “exploding” the American League’s catcher. One story called it a “vicious” collision, clearly implying that Rose was a villain for trying to score the way he did—and in an “exhibition,” at that.  He never apologized, noted one.

I covered that game in Cincinnati’s brand-new Riverfront Stadium and wrote a book about bizarre events surrounding that play 45 years later, when the Midsummer Classic, as it’s called, was again held in Cincy, this time at Great American Ballpark. My book is titled HEARD but not SEEN – Richard Nixon, Frank Robinson and The All-Star Game’s most debated play.

My take is that Rose is wrongly—unfairly—portrayed.

Here’s an excerpt, from a chapter titled “Delayed Replay,” that explains my view:

SINCE I HADN’T seen the play, I couldn’t agree or disagree with Frank Robinson. And decades passed, believe it or not, before I watched the videotape—yes, back then it was still videotape. But after viewing the play years later, I would point out that Fosse was at least three feet, maybe four, up the third base line, in the path to home plate, awaiting the throw from Amos Otis. 

Had Rose attempted a slide, he almost certainly would never have reached the plate. He would have been tagged out. And as Pete had told me the day before, “I play it to win.”

On the video Rose appears, almost imperceptibly, to commence his trademark lunge, but pulls up when he realizes he’ll never reach the plate if he goes into a head-first slide. It all happens in a split second:  Rose puts a shoulder into Fosse as the ball arrives; Fosse is separated from his glove as he literally does a full somersault; Rose is safe at home..The NL wins 5-4.

Those nine seconds of action have been digitized and rerun thousands of times on television and online. The play has been criticized, defended and otherwise debated for decades, and Rose and Fosse have commented over and over on that moment and its aftermath. They will be asked about it for as long as they live. 

I then referred to an interview Fosse had with CBSSports.com in 2013:

Fosse spoke positively about his more than four decades in baseball—12 seasons as a major league player and almost 30 as an Oakland A’s broadcaster. He also confirmed a couple of key points about the play—his positioning and Rose’s intent.

“As a catcher, I positioned myself where the ball was being thrown by Amos Otis,” he said. “I was up the line, not trying to block anybody. I was taught as a catcher, catch the ball and try to plant the tag. You watch the replay, which I’ve seen a million times. He starts to go into a head-first slide, and he sees me.”

I then looked at Fosse’s subsequent years in baseball:

So common in sports today, the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging test) had not been invented yet in 1970. X-rays the night of the All-Star Game were negative. Fosse simply rested then resumed playing when the pain in his left shoulder subsided to a simple throb. He finished 1970 with a .307 batting average, 18 home runs and 61 runs batted in. A year later the shoulder still ached, and another set of X-rays revealed a fracture and a shoulder separation that, by then had healed, though improperly, in place.

Fosse won the Gold Glove as best defensive catcher in 1970, and was a Gold Glover and an All-Star again the next season. But his batting average in 1971 was .276—31 points below his 1970 average, and his home run total dropped to 12. He went from the most promising young catcher in the American League to a journeyman during his remaining eight seasons. 

It should be noted, though, that he did play on back-to-back World Series champions in Oakland after he was traded to the A’s following the 1972 season. (That’s an experience that eluded many great players; for example, the great Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, never made it to the post-season.)

By all accounts, Ray Fosse was a class act. It’s sad that such a good guy developed cancer at such a young age (58) and died sooner than many.

But it’s important to note that, speaking about his career in baseball, Fosse said, in that 2013 interview:

“It’s been good. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at info@comservbooks.com.