Some of baseball’s most prolific hitters called Maryland’s Eastern Shore home
Apr 03, 2015 10:41AM
● By Cate Reynolds
The two All- Star teams played the 1937 game at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Left to right: Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. Library of Congress Harris & Ewing collection.
The National Pastime you say? Hardly. Picnics, gardening, a stroll in the park—those are pastimes. But where the scent of fresh cut grass mingled with the salty taste of my sweat; where a thousand summer suns knocked down shadows that chased me around the base paths to the backbeat of my pounding heart, those were not pastimes; those were the best days of my wild and heedless youth. They were the catalytic days that channeled the boundless energy of a boy with too much fuel to burn; the days of blessed innocence when the only white powder conceivable came from a ball-field’s baseline—or a kitchen bowl full of my mother’s baking flour. Across the decades and despite the depredations of time those images yet cling to that place of mind where memories gather. From the thrilling victories and crushing defeats of little league and pony league games to the free-wheeling enthusiasms of sand lot encounters; from the simple joy of sidewalk catch with a best friend to the awe inspiring sight of a major league diamond as seen for the first time from a stadium’s upper deck—something else is at work here— something more than merely the unspoiled recollections of a simpler time in another place. Am I alone here meandering down the corridors of time lost among the mystical chords of memory? Am I a statistical outlier among living men—one of the few who looks back fondly upon the wonder years of an American boyhood spent racking up strawberry hip scabs from hook slides into second base? No, no way. You’ll never convince me of that. From the skinny kid who only plays for Mike’s Pizza in the Arbutus Little League to the October hero who stars for the New York Yankees and the legions in between….there are many here among us—us boys of summer.
Which I suppose at least partially accounts for the existence of the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame Museum in Salisbury and its celebration of the surprisingly rich but under-appreciated history of the game on the Delmarva Peninsula. Opening in 1997 and housed on the first level of Arthur W. Purdue Stadium—home of the Delmarva Shorebirds, a Class A minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles—the museum is dedicated to the preservation and recognition of this rich history. How rich? Well for openers, while Baltimore of course had “The Babe,” the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay had “The Beast”; Jimmie Foxx—the strapping farm boy-turned-fearsome power hitter from Sudlersville, Maryland. who was the second man in Major League history to achieve 500-plus career home runs (the first was, yes, you guessed it, that other Maryland legend from the Chesapeake Bay region forever known to history as Babe Ruth).
Foxx, the most prolific right-handed home run hitter in baseball (until Willie Mays passed him in 1966), hit them hard, hit them far, and hit them with metronomic regularity. His record of 12 consecutive seasons with 30-plus home runs stood unchallenged until finally surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2004. (That’s right—not Babe Ruth, not Hank Aaron, not nobody, not no how, not no way ever pulled it off except for Foxx and Bonds.) A man of prodigious power (Major League Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez once said, “Even his hair has muscles”), Foxx was the only man in the history of Philadelphia’s old Shibe Park Stadium to hit a home run over the center field wall 480 feet from home plate. You want more? Okay—he was also the only man, Babe Ruth included, to hit not one but two homers completely over the roof of Chicago’s Comiskey Park—both of which traveled in excess of 500 feet!
James Emory Foxx, also known as “Double X,” was arguably baseball’s most dominant hitter throughout the 1930s when he hammered 415 homeruns and drove in 1,403 runs. And all arguing aside, he was without a doubt one of the three or four most feared sluggers of his era.
Foxx would be even more famous today had he not failed in his 1932 bid to eclipse the single season home run record of 60 set by Babe Ruth in 1927. Jimmie ended the season with 58 homers despite the fact he had two home runs removed from the record books when games were called for rain. Even more incredibly, six other tape measure blasts that would have been home runs in St. Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit, were reduced to doubles or triples by screen extensions erected the previous year to increase the height of the fences. That’s right, many since have argued that Double X could have, should have hit 66 home runs in 1932. Three time American League MVP, “The Beast,” would go on to one of the greatest careers in the history of the game with 534 Home Runs, a .325 lifetime batting average, 2,646 hits, and an RBI total of 1,922. Fittingly, Foxx was ranked 15 on the 100 greatest players list of all time by The Sporting News.
Despite his nickname “The Beast” was far from it. Yes, he was a monster in the batter’s box, at least in the eyes of opposing pitchers. But in every other respect and by all accounts he was nothing if not a generous and kind soul. Teammates and adversaries alike described him as one of the nicest guys they had ever met—on or off the diamond. He was so thoroughly decent that according to multiple reliable witnesses he literally gave the shirt off his back to people in need on more than one occasion and in more than one town. And tales of Jimmie’s generous tipping habits to the busboys, waitresses, and shoe shiners of the day are part of baseball lore.
The character of Jimmy Dugan, played by Tom Hanks in the movie “A League of Their Own” was loosely based on Foxx, who years after his retirement in 1952 managed the Fort Wayne Daises of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. It was a brief but enjoyable stint for the former slugger who was accompanied throughout his tenure by his daughter Nanci as a bat girl. True to his nature, the women who played on the team remembered him with great fondness as a gentlemen in every way.
In an ironic twist of fate, Jimmy Foxx was twice in his career linked to another baseball great from the Eastern Shore—the man many consider to be the 20th century’s first great home run hitter. This Major League Hall of Famer was so prolific that sports writers christened him with a new middle name. In 1912, he belted 13 round trippers which was a staggering sum in the pre-Ruthian era. In fact, every year between 1911 and 1914, this man from Trappe, Maryland, led the American League in Home Runs. His name was Frank “Home Run” Baker, and in 1924 during the sunset years of his career as a player/coach for the Easton Farmers of the Eastern Shore Baseball League he invited a sixteen year old kid named Jimmie Foxx for a tryout.
Years later, after Foxx had graced the cover of Time Magazine and with Great Depression troubles covering the land, the baseball world was embroiled in controversy over whether or not the ball had been “juiced up.” Spaulding, the manufacturer, emphatically said such charges were both false and ridiculous. But, conspiracy theorists of the day pointed to this: Frank “Home Run” Baker had led the league in home runs in 1912 hitting 13 while twenty years later Jimmie Foxx led the league by clobbering 58! In between, of course, the Babe himself had blasted 60! What could account for this order of magnitude change? The merits of each side’s argument aside, it was not lost on the world that the three names most often mentioned in the swirling debate; Frank “Home Run” Baker, Jimmie Foxx, and Babe Ruth, were all Marylanders and that two of these hailed from the quaint and provincial environs of the Eastern Shore.
But the Shore’s rich baseball traditions are deeper and wider than the tales of a few Major League Hall of Famers born here. The early years of the 20th century also witnessed the rise of various Negro Baseball Leagues. Foremost among these was the Colored Baseball League of the Eastern Shore which sprang up to provide competition to the Baltimore Black Sox—an African American team created in 1913. The league which included the likes of the Snow Hill Nine, Denton Blue Sox, and Crisfield Giants displayed their talents and entertained fans of all races. It also helped lay the foundation for what would eventually become a major league for African-American ball players; the Negro National League of the early ’20s. In this way, with one thing leading to another, Jackie Robinson would famously break the color barrier and baseball would go on to mirror America, just as America mirrored baseball.
Closer in time, Harold Baines of Easton and St. Michaels played for five teams over a 21 year span in the Major Leagues. He was so productive during his seven seasons with Baltimore that he was elected to the Oriole Hall of Fame as its 46th inductee. Or who can forget the inimitable Don Zimmer, the rotund tobacco chewing coach who sat next to Joe Torre in the NY Yankee’s dugout between 1996 and 2003? Sometimes called Popeye because of his facial resemblance to the cartoon character, Zim began his career in 1947 with the Cambridge Dodgers of the then Class D Eastern Shore League.
Some were born here, others played or managed here, a few did it all here. They were the boys of summer by the shores of the bay. Yes, this tends to be a quiet peaceful place—this bucolic land of small towns, fields, and streams. But if you pause in your daily comings and goings, if you become still for just a moment and listen, you’ll hear what I do:
The Crack of a Bat
A Screaming Line Drive
The Roar of the Crowd
It’s the sound of baseball calling.