by Nathan Grutchfield
The story of baseball player Ray Fisher, although largely forgotten in Vermont, is one that involves the state at many points. It’s also a story with glimpses into a man’s character and, at times, his fascinating surrounding conditions. Fisher was born in 1887 to a poor family on a farm just south of Middlebury. He grew up hurling rocks at chickens in the barnyard, which must have helped his accuracy considerably.
Opportunities to play sports arose between hours of manual labor. Fisher’s father would wake him up early every morning to tend to the cows and the rest of the farm work. If Fisher complained, he was met with a response along the lines of “How else do you expect to make anything of yourself?”
Attending Middlebury High School required Fisher and his older brother to walk four miles each day. His two oldest brothers never made it past elementary school, instead working as farmers for their entire lives. Ray Fisher, however, was meant for a different calling in life. He excelled at high school sports, especially baseball and football. In fact, Fisher even turned down scholarships to play at the University of Vermont and Wesleyan University in Connecticut, so he could join his brother at Middlebury College. After Ray’s freshman year at Middlebury, during which he switched from a catcher to a pitcher, he received an offer to play semi-pro in Valleyfield, Quebec. Fisher’s father only allowed him to go on the condition that he send home a dollar a day to pay for a farmhand. Ray granted his father’s request. Fisher ended his father’s doubts about the financial benefits of baseball, when he returned home from Valleyfield with $100 in savings.
Although his father would have preferred that Ray stay on the farm, a few years later, Fisher was given a contract by the New York Yankees (then called the Highlanders). Life in the major leagues was a dramatic change for Fisher as a young man coming from the farms near Middlebury. His teammates found it humorous that he carried a homemade bat with him to spring training, a 21 year old fresh out of college. Fisher’s teammates were a rugged bunch, often coming close to blows over something as simple as a card game.
Fisher went on to great success in the major leagues. After his time with the Highlanders, Fisher spent several years in Cincinnati, winning the 1919 World Series (the year of the infamous “Black Sox Scandal”). It was many years until he came to Montpelier, making a significant impression on locals.
He had been kicked out of baseball for largely incomprehensible reasons, having something to do with the fact that he had accepted a coaching offer from the University of Michigan while with the Cincinnati Reds. Many attribute this bizarre decision to the extremely strict personality of the Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. “Landis … could be one of the toughest judges in all of the United States,” writes J.G. Taylor Spink, longtime publisher of the Sporting News. The Black Sox scandal that had happened a year before Fisher’s expulsion perhaps either came from or caused this, and quite possibly both.
His legacy as a coach in Ann Arbor was substantial. In Vermont, as manager of the Twin City Trojans (Montpelier and Barre), he was nicknamed “Rowdy Ray,” and “Violent Fisher” by the press. Indeed, Fisher was often thrown out of games for tirades, during which he would toss equipment. Following one particularly heated incident, police officers had to protect him from rambunctious crowd members. However, it has been said that during these arguments, Fisher often had a “twinkle in his eye.” An excerpt from the Burlington Free Press tells of a time when Fisher had “harangued the umpire” with an “outthrust jaw”, every so often “[waving] an arm.” During an interview with an umpire after the game, a reporter learned that Ray had actually said, “I want you fellows to come down to my camp and we’ll have a cookout. We’ll get some fishing in there.”
As a coach, Fisher attracted talent like Robin Roberts, a future MLB Hall of Famer, to play for the Trojans. Fisher signed Roberts to play in 1946 and 1947, resulting in a successful short-term win-loss record, and the installment of a sizable icon for local baseball. Roberts later said that Fisher “taught me everything.”
Ray resigned as Trojans coach in 1949, but continued to coach in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan until 1958. Yet despite his sizeable legacy, the name of baseball’s Ray Fisher has not had much recognition in the Green Mountain State for some time, even though Vermont was integral to his journey.
Ray Fisher passed away in 1982. A few months before his death, Fisher was introduced at an Old-Timer’s Game in Yankee Stadium as the “Oldest Living Yankee.” He received a massive standing ovation, second only to Joe DiMaggio. The moment brought tears to the old-timer’s eyes. At a dinner after the game, DiMaggio left early; before he left, he made sure to pay his respects to Fisher. Fisher later told his grandson, John Leidy, “At least we made it to Yankee Stadium.”