Fox, small man with big desire, may finally get ultimate reward

March 02, 1997|By JOHN STEADMAN

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- It took a mother's intervention, not to mention intuition, to get major-league baseball to "discover" Nelson Fox. There has never been a synopsis quite like it, sounding more the part of a tale of make-believe rather than documented fact. A mother writes a letter to the most famous manager in the game, Connie Mack, to tell him about her son, and it somehow leads to an All-Star career and now, if the votes finally fall right, the Hall of Fame.

An afternoon visit to Fox's house to spend fond moments of reflection with his widow, Joanne Statler Fox, provided a personalized experience to understanding the proud feelings of a wife and, yes, an entire community over his achievements and heroic standing. Fox died in 1975 at age 47 in a Baltimore hospital from cancer and would later come as close as any player has ever gotten to the Hall of Fame without actually being approved.

That scenario happened, regrettably, in 1985 when he received 74.68 percent of the total votes of the baseball writers, which in most other types of tabulations, would find the figure rounded off to 75 percent -- enough to qualify. But the official scorer ruled the fractions would stand as counted and Fox lost the closest bid any player has ever made, short of gaining admittance to the Hall of Fame.

"And, you know," said Joanne Fox, "every year, after the elections are held and I'm disappointed, a call always comes from Billy Pierce, his best friend in baseball and his roommate for 11 years with the Chicago White Sox. He bolsters my morale and tells me, 'Joannie, go on like you always do.' You don't know how much that means to me."

Now, hopefully, there will be a celebration forthcoming and Pierce, known for his gentlemanly qualities, will be offering congratulations on Wednesday afternoon when the Veterans' Committee discloses its selections. There on the wall in the Fox den, rather the recreation room, is a picture of an almost tender child, just two months past his 16th birthday, in a baseball uniform with a scripted A's on the front of the shirt. It represents the first photo he had taken as a professional.

The year was 1944, and even though baseball was permitted to continue during World War II, it was decreed that teams couldn't train south of the Potomac River in the interest of freeing space on trains for military personnel. The Philadelphia A's were in preseason drills at McCurdy Field in Frederick, and that's where Mr. and Mrs. Fox took their son to see Mack.

"Nelson's mother always liked to recall how he said, 'Mom, I'm never going to wash my right hand because it shook the hand of Connie Mack,' " says Joanne. The A's let him work out with the team, put him in the Francis Scott Key Hotel in Frederick with the other players and then sent him to Lancaster in the Interstate League and then Jamestown in the Pony League. He wrote to Joanne, "his girl back home," all the time and bought her an engagement ring, Christmas 1946, and the following June they were married.

Joanne, as she talked, pressed a button in the room, which is virtually a museum to Nelson, and a light went on in a showcase that's built into a wall. There was his White Sox uniform, Most Valuable Player award from 1959, and an uncashed $10 check from Ted Williams to settle a playful bet they once made, a telegram from Richard M. Nixon when he was vice president, a bronzed glove and even an unopened pouch of "Favorite Chewing Tobacco," which Nelson used and endorsed, from the Taylor Bros. Co., in Winston-Salem, N.C.

An autographed picture reads: "One of my favorite coaches [1969] and I always thought a great little player [a hitter on the banjo side]. Your friend, Ted Williams."

After Fox's funeral -- attended by former teammates Bob Keegan, Willie Miranda, Dick Donovan, club owner Chuck Comiskey and, of course, Pierce -- they were back at the house when a call came for Joanne.

"Now, why did that little guy go ahead and do something like that?" Mrs. Fox remembers Williams asking as he conveyed his deepest sympathy. "Doesn't that sound just like Ted? What a grand individual. Nellie thought the world of him."

Fox, although owned by the A's, and with splendid batting averages in the minor leagues, wasn't regarded as a prospect. That's why in 1949 the A's traded him to the White Sox for catcher Joe Tipton. The chance came in 1951 for him to play under manager Paul Richards, who admitted he wasn't enamored of the youngster because of his size, 5 feet 7, 150 pounds.

Richards was to later call him the "biggest little guy in baseball" as he made a place for him at second base. The manager, discussing Fox years later, said, "I remember pitcher Dizzy Trout, who was with Detroit at the time, telling me, 'If you stick with that kid, he can be a whale of a player.' I had one of our coaches, Doc Cramer, go in the batting cage and hold down his back foot to keep him from moving it. And he worked on bunting, the 'dead-fish' kind. That year Nellie bunted for 21 base hits."

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