The arrival of Carlton Fisk 40 years ago was a turning point in Chicago White Sox history: ‘We’re going to plaster his kisser all over town’

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“It’s a great day for Chicago and White Sox baseball.”

That was how David Condon opened his In the Wake of the News column 40 years ago Tuesday, quoting new White Sox president Eddie Einhorn.

March 9, 1981, was indeed a great day for the Sox, who held a press conference to announce an agreement to sign catcher Carlton Fisk, the first superstar acquisition of the new ownership group headed by Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf.

Fisk, a 33-year-old All-Star with the Boston Red Sox, was declared a free agent on Feb. 12 that year due to a technicality after Red Sox management failed to mail him his contract by the mandated Dec. 20 deadline. No one at the time believed the White Sox would actually be in the running to sign a player of Fisk’s caliber, not after the just-ended Bill Veeck ownership era that created the rent-a-player concept — acquiring players in their walk year with no intention of re-signing them.

But not only did the Sox pursue Fisk, they reeled him in with a five-year deal, $2.9 million deal, shocking Red Sox nation and the entire baseball world. Einhorn, a successful TV executive before buying the White Sox, later told Sports Illustrated that stealing Fisk from Boston was like “stealing Acapulco cliff diving from ABC.”

Fisk was a son of New England, born in Vermont and a resident of New Hampshire at the time. He already was acknowledged as a living legend in Boston for his game-winning home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, one of the greatest moments in Series history.

How could he possibly leave?

“It was my hope to finish my career with the Red Sox,” Fisk said at his introductory press conference in Chicago. “Under the circumstance, I hope to finish it with this team. My wife and I made a very difficult potential decision to play for the White Sox.”

The word “potential” stuck out like a sore thumb. Fisk had an oral agreement with the White Sox, and agreed to the press conference before the actual contract was completed. The deal wasn’t actually signed until March 18 after secret negotiations nearly scuttled things.

’'For the last week, the delay was basically over technicalities,” Fisk said March 18 after the actual signing. “But it went on day and night. Now I’m happy that the negotiations are over, and Chicago is, well, my town.’'

The Red Sox’s loss was the beginning of a brand, new era for the White Sox and their rookie owners, who let the baseball world know they were in it to win it.

By the end of March, the White Sox also landed slugging outfielder Greg “the Bull” Luzinski from the Philadelphia Phillies, another gamble that paid off handsomely in the coming years.

At the Fisk press conference, Reinsdorf and Einhorn were introduced by White Sox vice president Lauren Ong Fadil as “the Sunshine Boys,” a reference to a film featuring George Burns and Walter Matthau as a couple of cranky, old comedians who once made up a famous vaudeville act. Einhorn was the more talkative one, while Reinsdorf was seen as a financial wizard.

Reinsdorf, at the press conference, said manager Tony La Russa reacted to the signing by saying “You’ve just made me a great manager,” adding Fisk would be the new face of the franchise.

“Carlton is the symbol of the image this team wants to project,” Reinsdorf said. “Fisk is the new image of the White Sox. We’re going to plaster his kisser all over town. He’s a leader. He’s the image we’re looking for.”

While the length of the deal was seen as a risk, Fisk said he was far from finished. The White Sox weren’t worried he’d regress in his mid-30s, and even if he did, so what?

“Fisk will be well paid, but I don’t think it will be a foolish deal,” Reinsdorf said. “How many years he has left is a matter of conjecture. But if in three years he does what we anticipate he’ll do, then it will be worth paying him for five years.”

Fisk, of course, wound up playing until the age of 45, when he was released in Cleveland in 1993 shortly after breaking the record for most games caught. When the White Sox refused to let him enter the clubhouse to wish his former teammates good luck in the ‘93 playoffs, his relationship with the organization became strained. Despite the feud, Reinsdorf agreed to retire Fisk’s No. 72 in a ceremony in 1997.

A bitter ending couldn’t spoil the beautiful beginning.

News that Fisk had agreed to sign was greeted at White Sox camp in Sarasota, Fla., like the second coming.

“We got Carlton Fisk?” La Russa said. “Oh boy, it’s hard to think of a guy in either league who could help our club more.”

The only thing Fisk changed was his uniform and his number. White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec wore No. 27, so Fisk simply transposed it and went with 72 in Chicago.

“They offered me 9 or 39 or 63, or anything higher,” Fisk said. “‘I’m taking No. 72. It was my rookie year, 1972, and the year my son (Casey) was born. And it’s my old Boston number backwards.

“Am I the highest salaried No. 72 in baseball? I’m the only salaried No. 72 in baseball.”'

The ’81 Sox had a young manager in the then 36-year-old La Russa, a rotation filled with promising left-handers Steve Trout, Ross Baumgarten and Britt Burns, and a bullpen that included LaMarr Hoyt and closer Ed Farmer, who ran the kangaroo court and fined La Russa $20 for wearing a jacket promoting a popular rock station.

With popular broadcaster Harry Caray still in his prime and teamed up with Jimmy Piersall, along with organist Nancy Faust rocking the crowd at Comiskey Park with the traditional “Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Good Bye” anthem, Chicago definitely was SoxTown in ‘81, at least until a players’ strike in mid-June stopped the team’s momentum.

The White Sox were 31-22 before the strike, but went 23-30 in the second half to fall out of contention.

Still, Fisk instantly became a fan favorite on the South Side, and the bedsheet “Pitch To Fisk at Your Own Risk” was frequently draped over the left field wall at old Comiskey Park. The 1983 Sox, led by Fisk, Harold Baines and rookie Ron Kittle, went on to win the American League West — the Sox’s first title since 1959 — before falling to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series.

When sports networks were forced to rerun classic games during the early part of the pandemic, NBC Sports Chicago aired a replay of the Sox’s 1981 opener at Fenway Park when Fisk hit the game-winning home run in his return to Boston.

It was a storybook start to the 1981 season, and a turning point in White Sox history.

There’s no arguing the rebirth of the White Sox franchise began when Fisk arrived. It’s bittersweet to see him frequently honored at Fenway Park with video board tributes and Fisk waving to the cheering crowd from a suite, knowing he’s rarely seen — much less honored — at Sox Park in Chicago.

Maybe the 40-year anniversary and the return of fans to the South Side will fix that problem. We can only hope.