Wednesday, September 9, 2020

This Day in Baseball History (Hall of Famer Foxx Clubs Last HR)

Sept. 9, 1945— For one last, shining moment—after his skills had diminished through injuries and the self-medication he used to deal with the resulting pain—Jimmie Foxx reminded baseball fans of the awesome power that made him one of the game’s greatest players, hitting a home run and double while driving in five runs in a game for the city where he became a star.

But the circumstances had changed greatly since he had started his career as a prized prospect 20 years before, with a Philadelphia A’s team building towards two World Series trophies and three American League pennants. This time he was a part-time player with the crosstown Phillies, a 42-94 squad—and this seventh homer of the season would be the 534th and last of his career.

In the 1930s, no player could match Foxx for either power (415 HRs, 1,403 RBIs) or versatility on the diamond (though he primarily played first base, he also cheerfully filled in at third base and catcher if his team needed him there). His speed even astonished those who judged him solely on his bulk. Not surprisingly, he earned three Most Valuable Player Awards in the decade, and twice hit more than 50 home runs.

Long before the advent of the “tape-measure” home run, Foxx sparked gasps at how far he could hit the ball. In the late 1960s, the retired Yankee pitching great Lefty Gomez joked that astronauts had discovered on the Moon a ball that Foxx had hit off him three decades before.

By September 1940, when he reached the 500th home run of his career at only age 32 with the Boston Red Sox, many observers—including his worshipful younger teammate, Ted Williams—thought it entirely possible that he might surpass the once-unthinkable 714 HRs compiled by Babe Ruth.

But few baseball superstars have descended as rapidly as Foxx. In an article for the Society for American Baseball Research, Bill Jenkinson plausibly argues that the effects of a beaning in a 1934 barnstorming tour began to catch up with this superb athlete. His drinking, previously moderate, increased sharply in 1941 as the problems with vision and sinuses resulting from the beaning led him to drown out his pain.

On June 1, 1942, the Red Sox, believing he’d been fatally slowed by injury, placed him on waivers. His performance for the team that picked him up, the Chicago White Sox, was so poor (a .205 batting average) that the discouraged slugger sat out the entire 1943 season.

With WWII depleting major league rosters and with an acrimonious and costly divorce impacting his finances, Foxx was convinced to give the major leagues another try. He played a handful of games as a player-coach for the Chicago Cubs and also became interim manager of Portsmouth in the Class B Piedmont League.

In 1945, Phillies manager Ben Chapman had come to believe that Foxx’s vision was so poor that he could no longer be a viable everyday player, so his time at first base would be limited. But Foxx had performed so well in a brief stint as, of all things, a pitcher when he was coaching the minor-league Portsmouth squad that Chapman decided to press him into service in that role in the big leagues, too—even though the last time Foxx had done so with any regularity had been as a teenager.

Chapman first tried Foxx on the mound in two July games. “Double XX” performed creditably enough that Chapman took the next logical step, naming him as his starter against the seventh-place Cincinnati Reds on August 19. After having difficulty with his location, Foxx improbably won the game. After that, he pitched six more times for the Phils, all but once in relief.

Whether watching Foxx bamboozle batters on the mound or take an opposing pitcher deep, as he did in his final homerun at Forbes Field against the Pirates, fans had come to savor these infrequent flashes of glory from a player who had displayed much more in the prior two decades. He continued to attract hordes of autograph seekers and just plain well-wishers when he retired for good at the end of the season, and in 1951 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

The most notable aspect of Foxx’s post-major league career might have been his 1952 stint as manager of the Fort Wayne Daisies, a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. 

But unlike Jimmy Dugan, the washed-up alcoholic skipper played by Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, Foxx was a genial sort who would never dream of barking at a tearful young woman, “There’s no crying in baseball!”

(The image accompanying this post is how most people associated with baseball in his time preferred to see Foxx--in his youthful prime with the Philadelphia A's. This figure, not the broken-down one of 1945, ranks #29 on Bill James’ Top 100 baseball players, behind Mel Ott and ahead of George Brett.)

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