Sudlersville reawakening to hero who grew up there

This Just In . . .

October 17, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

A long time ago, Gil Dunn discovered a truth about his hero's hometown -- the people in Sudlersville who remembered Jimmie Foxx didn't want to talk about him. He might have been one of the greatest right-handed sluggers ever, but his life after baseball seemed like one long stumble down a dark staircase. Years after his best clippings had turned yellow, his name would appear in sad newspaper updates that described him as broke or suggested a drinking problem. During one of the last trips Jimmie Foxx made to Sudlersville, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, he couldn't get a personal check cashed.

Gil Dunn, a Baltimore native who used to run a pharmacy on Kent Island, heard all this after he moved to the Eastern Shore in the 1960s. It hurt him. Foxx had been one of his true heroes, the modest and muscular farm boy who could hit a baseball a country mile and who went off to the big city -- first Philadelphia, then Boston -- to become a baseball legend in the shadow of the greatest legend of all. In the 1920s and 1930s, Foxx stacked up home runs (some of them gigantic clouts sportswriters rushed to describe) the way he used to stack bales of hay in his daddy's barn.

Had Babe Ruth never been born, Jimmie Foxx would have been the Babe Ruth of his time.

He left the majors in 1945 after maintaining a .325 batting average over 20 seasons. He went into the Hall of Fame in 1951. During his career, Foxx hit 534 home runs, 58 of them in 1932 for the Philadelphia Athletics, the most by any right-handed batter in the American League. (Hank Greenberg later equaled the mark in the National League.) Last month in Chicago, right-handed slugger Mark McGwire equaled the Foxx-Greenberg mark in the St. Louis Cardinals' season-ending game against the Cubs. Afterward, McGwire said he didn't know who Foxx or Greenberg were, adding, "I think it will do me good to read up on them."

I agree. It's a great American story. But part of the book on Foxx would quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy."

After he left the majors, Foxx stumbled along. He coached college boys in Florida for a while. He landed a job as manager of the Fort Wayne Daisies in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. (In "A League of Their Own," Tom Hanks' character was based on Foxx.) In the 1950s, he had a fill-in job as coach of the Miami Marlins, then of the International League. He couldn't seem to hold jobs after that. One newspaper report had him in Cleveland, trying to support his kids with a job at a sporting goods store. Another had him in Miami, looking for handouts. "When you've been up and come down a lot, people don't even know you exist," he told a reporter in 1958.

For years, there was hardly any public acknowledgment of Jimmie Foxx in his hometown. "First time I went there, I couldn't wait to get to Sudlersville to see the Jimmie Foxx memorabilia," Gil Dunn says. "But there wasn't any there, and people were reluctant to talk about him."

After he discovered that, Dunn established a Jimmie Foxx display at his Kent Island drugstore. "I was not going to let the memory of Jimmie Foxx die," he says. "I did not want to let him be forgotten."

Dunn had precious Foxx memorabilia, given to him by the slugger himself, who showed up at the pharmacy one day in 1966, popped a car trunk and said, "Here, you might as well have this stuff, no one else seems interested." A year later, July 21, 1967, Jimmie Foxx choked to death in Miami. He was 59 years old.

A few years ago, the people of Sudlersville started warming up to the Jimmie Foxx legend again. A portrait of him appeared in the town library. A monument appeared down at the main intersection, put there by the Community Betterment Club. A committee was formed to find a way to honor him further. A week from tomorrow, a life-size bronze statue of Jimmie Foxx will be unveiled and dedicated right next to the monument. "I'm so tickled about it," Gil Dunn says.

Phil Wood, the sports commentator and memorabilia expert, will give the luncheon speech. Sun columnist John Steadman, who can tell remarkable stories of Foxx's bewildering physical strength, will speak at the dedication, as will former Gov. Harry Hughes. Eighty-four-year-old Charlie Wagner, a Red Sox teammate of Foxx's, will attend, as will relatives of Double X. The Sudlersville post office will issue a Jimmie Foxx cancellation for Oct. 25. (For information about the events, call 410-928-3406).

I have been drawn to Sudlersville numerous times since first hearing about it as Foxx's birthplace. I always marvel at the way the farm fields stretch out, wide and flat, all around the little town, and I imagine some muscular farm boy trying to hit a baseball a country mile. Lois Nicholson, biographer of Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken, never knew Foxx, but as a girl in Sudlersville she knew the legend. "As a child I was in awe of Foxx," she once wrote. "Each time I stepped on the village's baseball field, I wondered if Foxx's feet had touched that spot."

Go there, on an October day with the World Series on the radio, and you'll see what she means.

This Just In appears each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dan Rodricks can be reached at 410-332-6166, by post at The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278, or at TJIDAol.com.

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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