Merry Christmas to all and to Nellie Fox and Rickey Henderson, happy birthday

Two baseball Hall of Fame inductees, Nellie Fox and Rickey Henderson had the misfortune to have been born on Christmas Day. Unfortunately for them and others who suffered the same fate, that inevitably results in fewer presents no matter how well intended friends and family may be.

While I admire Henderson’s huge talents, I could never quite warm up to his personality. I’m put off by Henderson’s illeist attitude and his insistence on playing on long after he passed his peak.

Henderson on Henderson:

“If you talk about baseball, you can’t eliminate me because I’m all over baseball… It’s the truth. Telling the truth isn’t being cocky. What do you want me to say, that I didn’t put up the numbers? That my teams didn’t win a lot of games? People don’t want me to say anything about what I’ve done. Then why don’t you say it? Because if I don’t say it and you don’t say it, nobody says it.”

But make no mistake, Henderson was a superb player who, as Bill James once said, if you could split him in two, you would have two Hall of Famers.

Fox, one of the most recognizable players of the 1950s-1960s with his huge tobacco wad and bottle bat, is more to my liking. Undersized and with less natural talent than Henderson, Fox made the most out of what he had.

Originally drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics, Fox must have been disappointed when in 1949 he was traded to the Chicago White Sox. The Sox, after all, had All Star second baseman Cass Michaels at the keystone corner.

But Fox didn’t have to wait long for his break. In 1950, the Sox traded Michaels to the Washington Senators and gave Fox his first real opportunity. Fox’s determination was the overriding factor in his long term success.

Said Billy Pierce, Fox’s longtime teammate as well as his roomy for 11 years:

“Nellie was the greatest competitor I ever played with. Baseball, gin rummy, bowling … whatever he played, he just loved to compete.”

What I recall most vividly about Fox was his uncanny ability to make contact. Fox struck out only once in every 48 plate appearances during his career and never more than 18 times in a season despite averaging about 700 PAs during the peak of his career. In 1959, the Go Go Sox American League championship season, Fox struck out only 13 times in 716 PAs.

If you believe as I do that what others say about you is more important than what you say about yourself, consider Whitey Ford’s remark about Fox:

“Nellie was the toughest out for me. In 12 years I struck him out once, and I think the umpire blew the call.”

Fox died in 1975. Only 47, he succumbed to a rare form of skin cancer.

This summer, Henderson was at the Oakland Coliseum teaching the young Athletics how to steal bases. Who better for that job than the man who stole a major league record number of them: 1,406.

4 Replies to “Merry Christmas to all and to Nellie Fox and Rickey Henderson, happy birthday”

  1. Giuseppe,

    I need not repeat what I’ve written: most professional sports today are filled with hucksters, charlatans, miscreants and felons that would never have been allowed to play the game when that superb batting craftsman, Nellie Fox (#2?) did.
    I saw him play several times at Yankee Stadium: with that signature wad of tobacco firmly set in his jaw, he crowded the plate, almost leaning over it, choked up on the bat, and rarely swung at a pitch outside the strike zone. He didn’t seek to “crush” the ball – he didn’t have that power – but what he went after rarely went by him.
    I suspect that the “skin cancer” was malignant melanoma, the most fatal of skin cancers.

    To you and yours, Giuseppe:
    Buon Natale e Capod’anno.

  2. Merry Christmas, Joe,

    I spent many an innocent afternoon (before we knew about steroids) watching the Oakland Athletics marvelous team with Canseco and McGuire bashing their tainted spheroids around and out of that wonderful stadium with no bad seats.

    Richey had the most phenomenal, most powerful legs ever perhaps except for Roberto who awed me the most of any player I have ever seen.

    Was Rickey ever on steroids?

  3. Henderson said this to The New Yorker in 2005: “They kept that s— a secret from me … I wish they had told me. My God, could you imagine Rickey on ‘roids? Oh, baby, look out!”

  4. A lifelong Red Sox fan and personal friend told me that in his collection of Ted Wiliiams audio tapes, Williams refers to Nellie Fox as “a pint of piss” and someone who could play on his team anytime and any day.

    Is there a greater compliment to a baseball player than to be praised by Williams?

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