Stone Cold Foxx
I never saw my father cry, but he came close once.
There was a video library where I worked, and when I planned to visit him and my mom, he had asked me to bring Back to School starring Rodney Dangerfield. But someone checked it out before I could. After I arrived at my parents, we went shopping and at the store I saw Back to School still wrapped in its plastic cover and on sale for only $5. Then I spied a row of Wheaties boxes featuring members of the 500 home run club on the front.
There was one with a photo of Jimmie Foxx, who was my father’s favorite ballplayer. When I next saw him at that store, I handed him the movie and cereal box. He looked like he was on the verge of tears. I could see he was emotional. (I think he was more touched by the Wheaties with the Foxx picture.)
My father grew up in an era when baseball truly was the national pastime, and ballplayers were gods. Foxx was a three-time MVP who hit 534 home runs, won two batting titles, drove in 100 runs or more for 13 consecutive seasons, played every position on the field except second base and even pitched in a few games, winning one start. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1951, and then faded into obscurity. After his death in 1967, he became one of those players mentioned only when historical context is needed, appearing on TV screens in grainy black and white images.
Foxx, raised on a farm in Sudlerville, MD., might have been one of the best athletes to play professional baseball. In high school, he won state championships in the 100-yard run and the high jump. His high school did not have a football team, so he excelled at soccer. He led his school’s volleyball and basketball teams to county championships.
He possessed great strength, which he attributed to his farm work, and had bulging biceps: he supposedly wore short sleeves so pitchers would see – and be intimidated by – his muscular arms. One of his nicknames was “The Beast.” A player said of Foxx: “He wasn’t scouted, he was trapped.”
In his biography, Jimmie Foxx: The Pride of Sudlersville, author Mark R. Millikin wrote how the teenaged Foxx was “discovered” by retired Philadelphia Athletics great Frank “Home Run” Baker. Foxx left high school to play for Baker’s Easton, MD franchise in the Eastern Shore League. Baker told his former A’s manager, Connie Mack, about Foxx, and Mack purchased the teenager for $2,000.
Mack called up the 17-year old Foxx in 1924 to play in an inter-league exhibition between the Athletics and Cincinnati Reds, and Foxx singled as a pinch hitter. The following year, Foxx played in 10 games for the A’s and went six for nine. In 1926, he had 32- at-bats and hit .313. On May 31, 1927, Foxx hit his first home run off New York Yankees starter Urban Shocker in the second game of a doubleheader at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. Trailing 15-3, manager Connie Mack had Foxx replace Mickey Cochrane at catcher to start the seventh inning. In the next frame, Foxx hit a solo home run.
Time magazine put Foxx on the cover of its July 29, 1929 issue. He was playing nearly every day and was among the league leaders in batting average. The story was about the state of baseball halfway through the season. It noted the increase in batting averages and home runs, which the article said might have been attributed to the sport using a livelier ball.
The magazine believed the Athletics were so far ahead of the New York Yankees “that they appear almost certain winners. Last year Connie Mack, 66-year old manager of the Athletics, just missed winning the pennant, probably lost it by starting the season with Oldsters Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins in the lineup. About the middle of the season, Manager Mack put in youngsters, made up much lost ground. This year he had his youngsters – notably Jimmie Foxx, Gordon (“Mickey”) Cochrane, Al Simmons – in action all year…”
The article noted Foxx and New York Giant Mel Ott were examples of younger players hitting their stride:
“Even more sensational than Player Ott has been Player James Emory Foxx, present first baseman of the “Athletics.” A versatile youth, he can play any position except the pitcher’s, was used at third base (his favorite spot) in the outfield and at catching before settling down in his present position. Last year (the first in which he played more than 100 games), he batted .328.
“Player Foxx, a 180-pounder just under six feet, has a chest expansion of 6 and 1/2 inches. Like a majority of the Big League players, (Foxx) is a small town (Sudlersville, Md.) boy. “I worked on a farm,” he says, “and am glad of it. Farmer boys are stronger than city boys. When I was 12 I could cut corn all day, help in the wheat fields, swing 200-pound bags of phosphate off a platform into a wagon. We had games on the farm to test strength and grip. A fellow had to plant both feet in half a barrel of wheat and then pick up two bushels of wheat or corn and balance on his shoulders. Another trick was to lift a 200-pound keg of nails without letting the keg touch your body. I could do that easily but I never realized then it was helping me train for the Big Leagues.”
Foxx finished the 1929 campaign batting .354 with 33 home runs, helping the A’s to win the AL pennant and World Series. His stats improved the next two years, as the A’s repeated as AL champs and won the World Series in 1930 but lost it in 1931.
In 1932, Foxx had an awesome season, leading the league with 58 home runs and 169 RBIs. He hit .364 but finished second in the batting race. The next year, he won the Triple Crown. He was named the MVP of the league in 1932 and 1933.
Unfortunately, Mack was having financial troubles as the Great Depression gripped the country, and he sold off the core of his championship team. He said he’d never sell Foxx, but did after the 1934 season to the Boston Red Sox.
(Original Caption) Two Monarchs of Swat. Phila. Pa.: Jimmie Foxx of the Phillies, who last year hit more home runs than Babe Ruth did, gets the congratulations of the Yankee's Sultan of Swat before their game. Just to show he hasn't retrogressed the Babe hit another homer during the game.
In his first year with his new club, Foxx led the league in home runs. In 1937, he “slumped” to batting only .285. Some wondered if he was getting old. In 1938, he won the batting title, led the league in RBIs and slugged 50 home runs – but finished second to Hank Greenberg’s 58. He was again named MVP.
From 1930 through 1939, Foxx slugged 415 home runs and drove in 1,403 runs.
He was one of the premiere power hitters in the game. Compare the number of home runs he hit to Mel Ott and Lou Gehrig from 1931 to 1938: Foxx hit 343, Gehrig hit 286 and Ott hit 283.
Foxx was also known for his towering home runs. He was one of the first players to hit a ball completely out of Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
New York Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez told a story about how far Foxx could hit a ball: “When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, he and all the space scientists were puzzled by an unidentifiable white object. I knew immediately what it was. That was a home run ball hit off me in 1937 by Jimmie Foxx.”
But Foxx played in Gehrig’s shadow – the Iron Man won seven World Series championships from 1927 to 1939 and, of course, there was his consecutive games played streak.
In 1940 and 1941, Foxx drove in more than 100 runs both years and hit a total of 55 home runs.
His teammate, Ted Williams, said, “Foxx was definitely the most productive right-handed hitter I ever saw.”
Until 2007, he was the youngest player to hit 500 home runs at 32 years and 11 months (Alex Rodriguez was 32 years and eight days when he reached that plateau).
But Foxx wound up hitting only 34 more round-trippers.
On October 8, 1934, while playing in an exhibition in Winnipeg, Canada, Foxx was struck on the forehead by a pitch and was knocked unconscious. He was hospitalized for four days.
Joe Posnanski, who in his book of the 100 greatest players of all time, The Baseball 100 (he ranked Foxx at number 33), wrote, “The doctor insisted that although he had a mild concussion, the effects were minimal – he should be back to his normal self in a few days. In reality, he was never the same.
“Foxx suffered from vicious sinus headaches and blurry vision for the rest of his life. He played through it all, never complaining,” wrote Posnanski. “But friends said that his drinking increased dramatically after that. Ted Williams said he once saw Foxx down a dozen little bottles of scotch on a team flight. He drank, Williams said, to numb the pain.”
(Original Caption) A quarter of sluggers than which there is no whicher is shown comparing cudgels at the All-Star game. Left to right: Mel Ott, of the New York Giants; Ernie Lombardi, Cincinnati Reds; Joe DiMaggio, New York Yankees, and Jimmie Foxx, Boston Red Sox.
An article about Foxx by Bill Jenkinson, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), reported that Foxx, “stayed in the local hospital for four days, but two days after leaving was too lethargic to play in an exhibition game in Spokane. Although this should have raised a red flag, Foxx resumed a pre-arranged tour to the Far East with other American League stars and sailed across the Pacific Ocean. There he played in every one of his team’s international games, including 18 in Japan. Upon returning to Philadelphia on January 6, 1935, Jimmie confirmed that he would resume the grueling duties of catcher, a position that he had not manned in seven years.
“But on January 24, before leaving for spring training in Florida, Foxx underwent a double surgical procedure in Philadelphia,” wrote Jenkinson. “Dr. Herb Goddard removed Jimmie’s tonsils, along with a nasal obstruction. Hardly anyone took notice of that event, but it was a harbinger of the eventual downfall of Jimmie Foxx. The effects of his ‘beaning’ a few months before in Canada were beginning to manifest.”
Foxx was batting only .205 when the Red Sox sold him to the Chicago Cubs in June of 1942.
“No one felt so lost as I did when The Beast was sold to the Cubs,” said Ted Williams.
Foxx retired after the 1942 season, but because of the shortage of players during WWII, the Philadelphia Phillies asked him to come back. He played in 1944 and 1945, and even won a game as a starting pitcher.
After retiring for good, Foxx’s life bordered on the tragic. He lost most of his money from bad investments. Because of his drinking, it was hard for him to hold a job. He coached the baseball team at the University of Miami and was a hitting coach for the Red Sox’ AAA team in Minneapolis. But he lasted only two seasons in Miami and a year in Minneapolis.
Then two events in popular culture brought Foxx back to the public’s consciousness, but not in a good way.
In the film A League of Their Own, the women’s professional team is coached by Joe Dugan, played by Tom Hanks, a one-time superstar who drank. Foxx, like Dugan, managed in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League as the skipper for the franchise in Fort Wayne.
Dugan mentions he hit 58 home runs in one season, as did Foxx. Dugan, however, is nasty and surly. Foxx drank but was never roaring drunk like Dugan; his players said he was always a gentleman with them, and encouraging.
In 1996, there was a “scoop” by a Philadelphia alternative newspaper, that reported a trove of lost love letters between Foxx and actress Judy Holiday was discovered. Philadelphia Weekly published an article about the letters with excerpts by a freelance writer named Tom McGrath.
When I heard about this, I thought, there are probably people at SABR who know what Jimmie Foxx had for breakfast on opening day in 1938 and will prove if this relationship is true or not. Before SABR could analyze the piece, McGrath admitted the story was made up. The publication’s editor, Tim Whitaker, made no apologies for publishing the “fiction.”
(Original Caption) Jimmie Foxx, newest member of Baseball's Hall of Fame, is caught between Tris Speaker (L) and Ty Cobb (R) and gets a congratulation that makes him cry ``uncle.`` They met today at the fete marking the 75th anniversary of the National League in the Broadway Central Hotel. Everybody who is anybody in the national pastime was on hand.
John Bennett, a SABR member who wrote a profile of Foxx for the organization, said, “I know members of Foxx’s family, particularly his stepdaughter Nanci. I recall she told me about the article and its revelation as a hoax when I was doing interviews with her around that time – this resulted in a story I did with her that was in The National Pastime in 1998 (a SABR publication). When I was talking with her, she mentioned that Jimmie was a big movie fan and collected signed photos of various movie stars he met.
“His particular favorite was Katherine Hepburn. She told me that she never heard anything about Judy Holliday, although she said it was possible that he did have a photo of her in his collection. Unfortunately there was no way to tell by that time as Hurricane Andrew had wiped out a great deal of Foxx’s mementos, including his photo collection, cancelled checks, and other priceless stuff. She did not remember ever talking to the author of that story so who knows where the idea for it came from.”
The idea to use Foxx in the story, said McGrath, was Whitaker’s, the editor of Philadelphia Weekly. (I emailed Whitaker asking him why he chose to have McGrath write about Foxx but he never returned my missive.)
Recently McGrath said he didn’t know anything about Foxx after Whitaker suggested using the one-time Philadelphia star. “And so I had to do a fair amount of research in order to write that. And I was astonished. I mean, I don’t remember his numbers now, but I remember at the time looking at them going like, ‘wow, this guy was pretty incredible,” he said.
A few weeks after the Philadelphia Weekly story appeared, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky wrote about Whitaker and the false article.
“When I asked Whitaker how he could justify what he had done,” Bykofsky wrote, “he said that it was his intention to draw attention to the now forgotten star athlete during the period of the All-Star Game.
“We wanted to do something completely different than what everyone else was doing,” Bykofsky quoted Whitaker as saying.
“Whitaker succeeded,” Bykofsky stated, adding, “everyone else was interviewing athletes and digging for facts. Whitaker’s gang was sitting around making stuff up.”
Bykofsky wrote, “The saddest part of this mess is that Philadelphia Weekly insulted the achievements and memory of Jimmie Foxx, the very man it was attempting to honor.”
Foxx and Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt are arguably the two best to ever play for a Philadelphia baseball team. John Rossi, a baseball scholar and author of four books on the sport, is a Philadelphia native and lifelong follower of baseball in the city. I asked him who was the better player:
“Foxx is clearly the better player, but you have to consider the eras. (The 1930s) was one of the great offensive eras, especially for the American League. Schmidt played a more important position, (but) I would pick Foxx,” said Rossi.
When I asked Bennet of SABR about Foxx’s place among the all-time greats, he wrote, “I don’t do ranks well, so I’m not sure how to place him that way. I will say this – when he retired, he was second only to Ruth in lifetime home runs and was second – and a close second – to Gehrig as the best first baseman of all time. It’s hard to rank players based on those who came after them, when conditions change. He hit over 400 home runs in a decade! And yes, he played multiple positions- and even pitched the last year of his career, very effectively, too. Foxx never got the same level of media attention as Gehrig and even Hank Greenberg. His teammate Bill Werber told me that Jimmie was probably the fastest player on their Red Sox team – and Werber was a very good runner and base stealer himself. He did think that Jimmie was a bit ‘lazy’ as an athlete. Foxx was not as big as people imagine him to be, just naturally gifted. I think baseball came easy to him.”
After retiring, Foxx held jobs but only for a year or two. According to Milliken’s biography, fans and friends sent money to Foxx, but Foxx “handed (the money) to Ted Williams (at a sportsman’s show), in Boston and said, ‘Ted, a lot of kids are worse off than I’ll ever be. Take this money over to the Jimmy Fund (which helped children with cancer) and put it to work.’”
He filed for bankruptcy in November 1961.
After Foxx and his second wife Dorothy moved to Miami, she died suddenly of asphyxiation on May 7, 1966, when a piece of pork lodged in her throat, a daughter told Milliken. On July 21, 1967, “Jimmie died suddenly while eating dinner at his brother’s house in Miami,” wrote Milliken. “An autopsy performed by the Dade County medical examiner’s office revealed on July 22, 1967 that Foxx died on the previous day from asphyxiation due to … meat lodging in his throat.”
Bennett, in his SABR profile of Foxx, wrote: “The sad end to Foxx’s life does not diminish what is in many ways a classic American story. He rose from a Maryland farm boy who came from little to reach the heights of fame, and fell back to Earth again. However, throughout it all he was able to retain the personality and appeal that still drew praise from his former teammates long after they played with him.”
Milliken’s biography of Foxx concludes with the town of Sudlersville erecting a statue of Foxx. Except for a statue of Mack that is now in front of the Phillies home at Citizens Bank Park, there are no statues in the city of any Athletics; at the stadium are four statues of the Phillies in the Hall of Fame: Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn. Personally, I’d like to see one of Foxx somewhere in Philadelphia.
My father frequently said about Christmas: don’t buy me anything. But I think he didn’t mean it. One year I bought him a biography of Foxx. Another time I bought him a replica Philadelphia Athletics cap. When he died in 2009, we buried him wearing it. I think he and Foxx would have approved.
NOTE: Thanks to Beth Jacksier at the information desk at the Abington (PA) Public Library for helping me find the Time magazine issue with Foxx on its cover without having to use microfilm.