On Tuesday at 11 a.m., the identities of baseball's newest immortals will be announced at Cooperstown, N.Y. And unless justice has bid the world adieu, the name of Nellie Fox, second baseman, will be posted among the everlasting. Thereby would be expunged one of the repeated sins of the Hall of Fame voting process.
For too many years, Jacob Nelson Fox has been passed over, his ample credentials demeaned by deficient judgments of those baseball journalists who hold the sacred right of ballot. If they had made full scrutiny of this uncommon sprite of an infielder who stood up for all the little people of the world and cut the big leagues down to his size, 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds, Nellie would have ridden into Cooperstown on the first go-around after he became eligible 14 years ago.
For 19 years he was there in the majors, defying the naysayers skeptical of his measurements. He was there flourishing a dangerous 32-ounce bat and perhaps the best fielding glove of anybody in his position. The grist of the American League and major league records Nellie set would be an adornment to anybody's plaque at Cooperstown.
There are other candidates for enshrinement this year, among them Hoyt Wilhelm, for 21 years a pitcher, a master of his trade, who missed by only 13 votes last year. Nellie pulled more than any of the rest. There will be voting too for Billy Williams, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Oliva, Roger Maris, Maury Wills, Jim Bunning and Lew Burdette and some others. But the names of Wilhelm and Fox leap out from the page.
The Nellie Fox story has always been a fascinating one. He was 16 when he walked, uninvited, into the Philadelphia Athletics' 1944 training camp at Frederick, Md. The boy from St. Thomas, Pa., told Connie Mack he was a ballplayer and asked for a tryout.
The kindly Mr. Mack saw no harm in that but asked why the first baseman's mitt? Surely he wasn't a first baseman. Nellie said yes he was, but then he could also play second base or shortstop. Mr. Mack must have liked something he saw in the lad because he sent Fox to play first base for the Athletics' Lancaster, Pa., farm team.
When they did bring him up to the A's in the late '40s, as a second baseman, Nellie's nice .325 batting average in the minors wilted against American League pitching. And in 1949 they traded him to the White Sox for journeyman catcher Joe Tipton. It was one of the most notable goofs in trading history. Thirteen times, Nellie was to be voted the AL's all-star second baseman.
The Fox-to-Chicago deal almost led to a break between the longtime friends, Connie Mack and Clark Griffith. Owner Griffith, then needing a second baseman for his Washington Senators, was offended that he wasn't offered Fox before the deal with Tipton was made. He related later that Mack assured him, "Fox is too little to play in the majors. I wouldn't trade him to a friend."
In the majors, Nellie never accepted the role of the typical little holler guy, the cutie-type making up in aggressiveness his lack of heft and out-of-the-park power. He asked no favors, took his cuts, batted .300 or better in six different years, wound up with a career .288 average, led the league in triples once. He was master of the bunt and a bat manager, but wasn't content merely to leg out hits. They played him too shallow, they'd be chasing down his extra-base swats.
In 1957, Nellie was telling the league he didn't intend to get by on his good glove, hitting a robust .317. That year, only Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Gene Woodling and one other topped him in the averages. The company was fancy. Fox, consciously or otherwise, had the appearance of a miniature Ted Williams in his actions around the plate. Like Williams, he emerged from the on-deck batter's circle swinging left-handed at imaginary pitches, and like Williams he was deft at knocking imaginary mud from his spikes with the same nonchalance that bordered on the contempt that Williams affected for that pitcher out there.
If not exactly a Williams twin, Nellie was a hard out. In 13 different years, he led the AL in fewest strikeouts. At one stretch, he went 98 games without a whiff. With his bunts he was an infield's problem child, and with his placed hits he was no favorite of the outfielders, either. Eight times he led the AL in singles.
For the White Sox, he teamed with shortstop Luis Aparicio to lead the league in double plays five times. Six times, he was the AL's No. 1 fielding second baseman. His 1,568 double plays constitute a career record for AL second basemen. Early Wynn once said of Nellie, "He's out there at second base outguessing the hitter as much as I am." Ted Williams: "He personally robbed me of 100 hits."
One of Nellie's other little statistics is still up there to be considered by those Hall of Fame bully-boys with the ballot, who voted Aparicio in a year ago. The numbers are .984. When he retired, it was the highest fielding average in the history of major league second basemen. It is still in the top 10. When the White Sox won the 1959 pennant, Fox hit .306 and was voted the AL's most valuable player. Never did a team owe so much to so few pounds.
Nellie died in 1975, of cancer. But he is very easy to recall as the one-time rookie with a cocky tilt to his cap and a strut in his walk, who in the beginning stuck the AL's biggest chaw of tobacco in his cheek to prove how manly he was. For the next 19 years he also proved everything else necessary to get him the votes that, in all decency, should lead to Cooperstown on Tuesday.