What A Legacy

The year 1948 had its fair share of signings.

President Harry Truman signed the Marshall Plan and later instituted the second peacetime military draft in United States history. Israel signed its declaration of independence. And perhaps slightly overlooked was the White Sox’s signing of 17-year-old righthander Bill Fischer one day after he impressed Hall of Famer Red Ruffing during a tryout camp in Wisconsin Rapids.

“My high school principal took me there,” Fischer said. “I threw about 10 minutes of batting practice to the hitters and then shagged balls in center field. At the end, the guy beside me said, ‘Hey, they called your number.’ They asked me if I wanted to sign, but I couldn’t because I was still in high school and my dad was at work. The next day, I signed for $150 a month. No bonus, nothing else, although they did give me a pair of shoes later.”

Six decades later, Fischer continues to toil in the only profession he has ever known. He recently concluded his second season as pitching coordinator and special assistant to player development with the Royals, marking his 61st campaign in pro ball. Don Zimmer is the only contemporary in terms of full-time employment to the man known as “Fish,” who is the 2008 recipient of the Roland Hemond Award for long-term contributions to scouting and player development.

“This is something,” said the 78-year-old Fischer, also dubbed “Walking Wisdom” in the Royals organization. “After all, I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t signed with Chicago all those years ago. When I signed, I didn’t even know you could be released.”

Over the course of his tenure, Fischer developed a belief system that he calls “the four absolutes” to pitching. They are:

1. Don’t bang your heel: Fischer calls them “heel bangers,” pitchers
who slam the heel of their front foot into the ground during their
follow-through. “The force rattles their bodies and leads to arm
injuries,” Fischer said.

2. Throw four-seam fastballs: Most talking heads preach keeping pitches
down. That advice, according to Fischer, is baloney. “The hardest pitch
to hit is the fastball up and in. But there’s guys throwing these
hanging sliders and curveballs or low two-seam fastballs, pitches bad
hitters can hit all day long.”

3. Don’t pitch across your body: The arm action not only leads to
injuries, it also limits a pitcher’s command and control. “If I’m going
to throw at you, I’ll step straight at you,” Fischer said. “Same
principle works when you’re trying to throw strikes.”

4. Pitch from your arm side of the rubber: Righthanders should work off
the righthand side of the rubber, while lefties should throw from the
left-hand side. “It’s all about angles,” Fischer said. “They’ve got the
mound so low today, the only way a pitcher can gain an advantage is by
working the angles.”

Fischer pitched nine years in the minors before twirling for five teams during nine big league campaigns, during which he went 45-58, 4.34. After serving as a player-coach in the minors in the late 1960s, he began a 10-year stint in the Royals farm system, which led to a combined 14 seasons as a major league pitching coach, divided among the Reds (1979-83), Red Sox (1985-91) and Rays (2000-01). The rest of his time included working with pitchers in the Braves and Royals farm systems, all the while receiving the type of praise reserved for those who walk on water.

“He’s the most dedicated, passionate field staff person I’ve ever been around,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “Fish has enormous energy and an unbelievable spirit for helping players. He’s their biggest cheerleader and advocate, and he has great value in every aspect of the game.”

Start Of Something Special

More curious than confident upon entering professional baseball, Fischer won his first 10 decisions, all of them complete games, in the Class D Wisconsin State League on his way to a 14-3, 2.63 showing. The righthander proceeded to win more than 80 games in the minors and hurled in Hot Springs, Memphis, Waterloo, Colorado Springs, Toronto and Vancouver. His progress interrupted by a two-year stint as a drill sergeant in the Marines in 1952-53, he reached Chicago in 1956 and stayed in the big leagues for most of the next eight years.

“I had an old arm by the time I got there,” Fischer said. “I was only 26, but I had pitched a lot of games. Now guys in the big leagues are still learning how to pitch, which means there’s more teaching going on there than ever before.”

His claim to fame on the mound came as a member of the Kansas City A’s in 1962. Fischer twirled 841â"3 consecutive innings without surrendering a walk, breaking the all-time mark of 68 established by Christy Mathewson. With his team hovering in the bottom of the standings, owner Charlie Finley promised Fischer $100 for every walk-free inning after reestablishing the record. By the end of the season, Finley backtracked on his offer until Fischer pushed the issue. Finley wound up paying, but the bonus served as Fischer’s raise for the 1963 campaign.

Fischer’s long association with John Schuerholz began in late 1968 when both men joined the expansion Royals. The two formed a close relationship during their days in Kansas City, when Fischer served as a scout and pitching instructor while Schuerholz climbed the organizational ladder in the front office, ascending from assistant farm director to general manager. After Schuerholz took over the Braves in late 1990, Fischer joined him in 1992 upon the coach’s departure from Boston.

“He has such a great passion and affection and love for the game of baseball,” Schuerholz said. “He uses those same traits in teaching pitching. He is a pitching coach from the bone marrow out, and he believes everything he preaches.”

In the big leagues, Fischer worked with many of the game’s biggest names, including Tom Seaver, Mario Soto and Oil Can Boyd. He also became a favorite of Roger Clemens, who arrived in Boston the season before Fischer.

“He was an eager beaver, a real workaholic,” Fischer said. “I tried to get Roger to slow down. I loved working with him. I can’t believe the way (his career) ended; that’s tough for me to believe.”

The Big Dog

Experience, knowledge and success beget respect, and few in the game garner more than Fish. Moore recalls being an area scout with Atlanta in the early 1990s and the grief Fischer would give him in the Triple-A Richmond clubhouse. To the unknowing, Fish would be a leading candidate for a role in Grumpy Old Men, but Moore was smart enough to see the real man.

“He gave me a hard time about my haircut,” Moore said. “He was definitely the alpha dog in the coaches’ office. The thing is, he has a great wit, a great sense of humor, and an impactful presence. When he came over here (in 2007), he gave our organization instant credibility.”

That’s not the first time the situation unfolded thusly in Fischer’s career, one he wouldn’t trade for anything.

“I never worked a day in my life,” Fischer said. “I’ve played every day. I’ve always understood that it wasn’t my choice; it’s up to the people who want you to stay. I’ve just been fortunate to find a few people who wanted me to stick around.”