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Jimmie Foxx: Double-X

“X is the first

Of two x’s in Foxx

Who was right behind Ruth

With his powerful soxx.”

~Ogden Nash

By Lawrence Richards, December 17, 2014

Jimmie Foxx was right behind Ruth in homers, but in 1932 he probably broke his landmark single-season record of 60; more about that later.

No doubt Double-X is a catchy moniker, but aside from baseball historians and a segment of well-informed fans, how many are knowledgeable about his illustrious career? His legacy is relatively obscure when one reviews his greatness. In some fundamental ways his is a classic American story, the rise from humble beginnings to remarkable achievements to self-inflicted downfall.

Unlike many star athletes who manipulate their persona with the guile of a card shark, Foxx was a prototype “does his job with a profound work ethic” and gives credit to others. He was a man of humility and generosity. Double-X was a Hall of Fame inductee and a Hall of Fame person. And, he was some kind of ferocious slugger.

It seems when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969 all the NASA scientists couldn’t identify a round, white sphere. HOF pitcher Lefty Gomez cleared up the mystery. He said the object was a home run Foxx hit off him in 1937. Another El Señor quote: “I was pitching one day when my glasses clouded up on me. I took them off to polish. I looked at the plate, I saw Jimmie Foxx. The sight of him terrified me so much that I haven’t been able to wear glasses since.” One more Gomez, “He has muscles in his hair.”

Foxx was born in 1907, in tiny Sudlersville, Maryland, the son of Irish grain farmers. In the early twentieth century, Major League Baseball was seldom seen outside cities except for infrequent exhibition games when teams traversed the country. “Town baseball” was the order of the day, intense rivalries between local teams. Jimmie’s father, Dell, was the right fielder for Sudlersville. Jimmie was playing hardball at age three. At 11, he won the baseball-throwing contest at the county athletic meet with a toss of 183 feet 5 inches. In later years Foxx looking back said: “I was rather proud of my strength and took a boyish delight in turning down the hand of the older boys with a quick snap using my brawny paws and big forearms hard from years of milking cows.” One shudders to think of what the cows thought.

Batting .354 with 33 home runs, Jimmie Foxx led the Philadelphia Athletics to the World Series championship in 1929.

In 1924 he was 15 and playing every position in high school except shortstop. Frank “Home Run” Baker, signed him to Easton, in the low minors. His vast potential drew interest from several Major League scouts. In midsummer his contract was purchased by the Philadelphia Athletics, whom he joined in September. He was a benchwarmer and apprentice to a pretty fair catcher, Mickey Cochrane. The teenage Foxx returned to high school, a homegrown hero providing pride and joy to the townspeople and probable angst and chagrin to the family bovines.

Early in 1925 he appeared in 10 games for the A’s, batting a mere .667. With Cochrane a fixture, Manager Connie Mack sent him to Providence in the Eastern League for experience. In ’26 and ’27 he returned to the parent club for short periods, learning and observing. In 1928, Mack made him a first baseman. This time, he stayed.

Mack was completing one of the greatest rosters ever assembled; a club that would eclipse the powerhouse Yankees in 1929. They were a classic assemblage of young stars: Foxx, Al Simmons, Cochrane, Lefty Grove, and legends such as Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. This juggernaut won three consecutive pennants, and the ’29 and ’30 Series. The fabled Cardinals Gashouse Gang upset them in 1931.

After finishing behind the New York Yankees in 1927 and 1928, the Philadelphia Athletics—with Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, Mule Haas and Jimmie Foxx—claimed the  1929 American League pennant with an impressive record of 104 and 46.

By this time Foxx had acquired another nickname, the “Beast.” At 6 feet, 195 pounds, his wrists were like steel coils, consistently driving booming shots to upper decks, bleachers, and sometimes out of the park. Hall of Fame pitcher, Ted Lyons remembers, “He had great powerful arms, and the sleeves were cut off, when he dug in and raised that bat, his muscles would bulge and ripple.” Hall of Famer catcher Bill Dickey: “If I were catching blindfolded I would always know it was Foxx who connected. He hit the ball harder than anyone else.” Ted Williams: “With all those muscles he hit drives that sounded like gun fire.” Foxx once hit a ball off Lefty Gomez in Yankee Stadium. The blast shattered the back of a seat, literally, in the next to last row of the left-field upper deck. When he came up again, Dickey went out to the mound. He recalls asking Gomez how he wanted to pitch to him. Gomez said, “I don’t. I want to go home.” The Beast!

In 1932 Foxx had a career year. He hit .364, with 169 RBIs and 58 home runs. That 58 total is worth revisiting. Some points to ponder: since Babe hit 60 in 1927, screens were erected in St. Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit; the numbers of homers hit in those ballparks diminished substantially. Two Foxx home runs didn’t count due to rainouts. Ruth had a right-field line of 295 feet; the left-field line in Shibe Park was 334 feet. This is not to suggest that either were consistent dead pull hitters, or needed small porches. No disrespect is intended whatsoever to the Sultan of Swat. Nonetheless, over the course of a season, 40 feet can differentiate between a fly ball and the seats. Old Yankee Stadium is referred to as “The House that Ruth built.” Consider it was also the house that was built for Ruth.

In ’33 he won the Triple Crown and was voted MVP, an honor repeated in ’34. With rare back-to-back MVPs, he was rewarded with a pay cut, small yet incredible by any standard or era. The Athletics were undergoing great financial difficulties at the height of the Depression. Jimmie didn’t whine, complain, or threaten to holdout. He simply stated, “I understand.”

The 1934 All-Star Game is notable because Carl Hubbell fanned Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin in succession with his dancing screwball. When Cronin came back to the dugout shaking his head, Foxx looked up and down the bench. “I hope you learned from me how to hit Hubbell.” “You’re crazy Jimmie, one said, you struck out also!” “Yeah,” he replied, “but I fouled one off.”

The cash-strapped Athletics were forced to sell their best players. Foxx was sold to the Red Sox in 1936. He played six years for Boston and performed brilliantly. He won his third MVP in 1938, close to another Triple Crown with 50 home runs, 175 RBIs, and .349 average. In 1939 Foxx won his fourth home run title. In spring training of that year, a brash rookie named Ted Williams boasted, “Wait ’til Foxx sees me hit.” Years later, Williams would say, “Aside from DiMaggio, he was the best hitter I ever saw.”

During the Great Depression, the Philadelphia Athletics were struggling financially and owner Connie Mack was forced to sell his star players in order to stay in business. After the team finished the 1935 season in last place, Mack traded Foxx to the Boston Red Sox.

In ’40 and ’41, Jimmie still showed plenty of pop, driving in over a 100 RBIs both years and totaled 55 homers. His relationship with Manager Joe Cronin became acrimonious, and in June 1942 he was waived to the Cubs. He retired after the season but came back briefly in ’44, primarily a pinch hitter. In ’45 he hooked up with the Phillies, playing some first and third. Foxx amazingly pitched in nine games, two of them as a starter, with a 1–0 record and an ERA of 1.59 over 22 innings.

Jimmie Foxx hit 30 or more home runs 12 times, had 13 100-plus RBI seasons, won two batting titles, and had a lifetime average of .325 with 2,646 hits. He was an All-Star nine times. When he retired in 1945, his home run total of 534 was second only to Ruth. Who was the greatest first baseman of all-time? Like most, the feeling here is Lou Gehrig. But Foxx must be in that conversation, not as an afterthought, or a “by the way,” but a serious contender for that accolade. 

Three of the greatest hitters of all time—Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth—at Shibe Park, c. 1930.

Like many ballplayers of his era, excessive drinking was fairly common, and Jimmie was no exception. He bought too many rounds, picked up too many tabs, said, “I’ll get it!” too many times. He wore custom-made clothing, expensive shoes, and had frequent manicures. When he retired, he knocked around; a job with a trucking company, a sporting goods store, a beer distributor, used cars sales. An expensive divorce also hurt. His diminishing pride got a major boost in 1951 when he was enshrined in Cooperstown. However, his escalating alcoholism and worsening physical condition provided little respite from his lack of self-worth, a sense of being forgotten.

Jimmie Foxx died of asphyxia in 1967, aged beyond his 59 years. If he were alive today and asked to look back, what might he say? The bet here is probably something nice. We can no longer cheer for him but we can still honor his memory. He shouldn’t be forgotten. 

 

 

 

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