Fox, Jacob Nelson ("Nellie")
FOX, Jacob Nelson ("Nellie")
(b. 25 December 1927 in St. Thomas, Pennsylvania; d. 1 December 1975 in Baltimore, Maryland), twelve-time all-star second baseman for the Chicago White Sox in the 1950s and Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1959 who was renowned for his all-out style of hustle and his small size.
Fox was one of three sons born to Jacob Fox, a carpenter, and Mae (Foreman) Fox, a homemaker, in the small town that he called home his entire life. As a youngster he played both soccer and baseball, but he quit school at the age of sixteen to play professional baseball in the Philadelphia A's organization.
The A's manager Connie Mack signed Fox in 1944 not only because he was a promising player but also because he was too young to be drafted into the military. Fox played professionally in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and in Jamestown, New York, in 1944 and 1945. However, in 1946 he was drafted, and he spent the 1946 season in the U.S. army stationed with the occupational forces in Korea. He married Joanne Statler, also from St. Thomas, on 30 June 1947. They had two daughters. In 1947 and 1948 Fox split time between minor league assignments and the Philadelphia A's. He reached the major leagues permanently in 1949, but in 1950 he was sent to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for the catcher Joe Tipton, a trade recognized as one of the best in White Sox history.
With good fielding instruction from the White Sox coach Jimmy Adair and hitting instruction from the White Sox coach Roger "Doc" Cramer, Fox became a stellar second baseman and an excellent hitter. "Nellie" became most well known for his vigorous style of play. Marty Marion, one of his managers, remarked that the five-foot, nine-inch, 160-pound Fox had "the highest energy" of any player he had seen. Al Lopez, another White Sox manager, commented that Fox was the "hustlingest" player he ever managed, and Paul Richards noted that Fox had "the best attitude" of any ballplayer he knew.
In addition to his dynamic style of play, Fox developed significant talent. He was a twelve-time all-star, he won three Gold Glove awards for fielding excellence at second base, he led the major leagues in most fielding chances at second base for eight consecutive years, and he led second basemen in double plays for five seasons. He also set a major league record of 798 consecutive games played at second base. That record would have been 1,076 games had not Marion, manager of the White Sox in the mid-1950s, forced Fox to sit out one game so he could rest.
As a hitter Fox lacked power, hitting only thirty-five home runs in his career. His specialty was hitting the single and putting the ball in play. While most players had begun to use a narrow-handled bat to generate power by the 1950s, Cramer convinced Fox to use a "bottle shaped" bat with a thick handle that enabled him to make frequent contact. An excellent bunter, he picked up about twenty hits a year by bunting. In thirteen seasons he led either the American League or the National League with the fewest strikeouts, once going ninety-eight games without striking out. For seven consecutive years he led the American League in singles. His lifetime batting average was .288, hitting over .300 in six of his years with the White Sox.
The high point of Fox's career came in 1959, when he and the shortstop Luis Aparicio led the "Go-Go" White Sox to the American League pennant, interrupting a streak of Yankee pennants both before and after that year. Unlike the Yankees, who were a power-filled team, the White Sox team played low-scoring games marked with excitement, taking an extra base on a ball hit to the outfield, stealing bases more frequently, and hustling for every run. Fox was the leader of that team and became the most popular player in Chicago, boasting an enormous fan club. Fox, Aparicio, and the pitcher Early Wynn finished 1–2–3 in the voting for the American League Most Valuable Player that year. Although the White Sox lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Fox hit .375 in the six-game series.
Fox played four more successful seasons for the White Sox before being traded to the Houston Colt 45s before the 1964 season. He played two years for the Colt 45s, then he coached in Houston through the 1966 and 1967 seasons. During that time he helped prepare a young second baseman named Joe Morgan to break many of his own records for longevity, fielding prowess, and hitting. Morgan eventually landed in the Hall of Fame. From 1968 through 1971 Fox coached for the Washington Senators, and he moved with the Senators to Dallas, where he coached the Texas Rangers from 1971 to 1973.
Retiring from baseball after the 1973 season, Fox returned to St. Thomas, Pennsylvania. He managed the bowling alley, restaurant, and sporting goods businesses in nearby Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, that he had opened in 1956. Fox, whose trademark was a huge "chaw" of tobacco in his cheek whenever he played the game, was stricken with skin cancer on several parts of his body after his retirement. He died at the age of forty-seven from cancer in University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He is buried at St. Thomas Cemetery in his hometown.
Fox was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously in 1997. Chicago fans, baseball purists, and many former players had campaigned for years for his election to the Hall of Fame. However, not until 1997 did the Veterans Committee have sufficient votes for Fox's inclusion in the illustrious company of honorees at Cooperstown. Hall of Fame credentials for players often focus on power hitting and large numbers of runs batted in. Fielding prowess has less appeal to voters. Although the reason is unknown, baseball researchers and insiders believe that Lopez, Fox's manager of many years and a member of the Veterans Committee, was responsible for blocking Fox's earlier selection into the Hall of Fame.
The best sources on Fox include Richard C. Lindberg, The White Sox Encyclopedia (1997); Dave Condon, The Go-Go White Sox (1960); Roger Kahn, "Little Nellie's a Man Now," Sport (Apr. 1958); the files of the Sporting News; and Joseph L. Reichler, ed., The Baseball Encyclopedia (1990). An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Dec. 1975).
Harry Jebsen, Jr.