Francis Bernard Cox spent many years playing for town and company teams in New England during the 1870s and 1880s. In 1884 he reached the zenith of his baseball career when he played for two professional clubs, including, for a brief stint, the Detroit Wolverines of the National League.
Frank Cox was born on August 29, 1857, in Waltham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, and was baptized at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in the neighboring town of Watertown on September 15. He was the first son and second child of Irish immigrants Michael and Ellen (Downey) Cox. Frank was reared and educated in Waltham.
His father, Michael, was a farm laborer who enlisted in the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1861. Michael was wounded in two separate battles in Virginia: Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville. He went home to Waltham six weeks after suffering the second battle wound and is officially listed as a deserter. Michael and Ellen had five children, four of whom were born before the Civil War.
The earliest record of Frank Cox’ baseball career is from 1876, when he played second base for the Stars of Waltham team. The following year he continued to play with the Waltham club but also played with town teams from Newton and Natick. In 1878, he played with clubs from Natick and Hudson.
In the early 1880s, he was a member of a team fielded by the one of the largest employers in Waltham, the Waltham Watch Company. Watches and clocks manufactured by this company were famous throughout the world. As was typical for 19th century factories, the Watch Company provided housing and entertainment for their employees. The baseball team was just one aspect of that entertainment. Other future major leaguers on that club were Emmett Seery, Charlie Baker, Lou Sylvester, Frank Selee (manager) and Law Daniels.
In 1882 and 1883, Frank played for a team known as the Westfield Firemen in Holyoke, Massachusetts. As was the custom of the day, he was the “captain” of this nine since he was the shortstop. The manager sat in the stands and the captain ran the club during the game.
On October 23, 1882, Frank Cox married Elizabeth Ann Tone, who was four years his junior. They were wed in St. Mary’s Church, New Britain, Connecticut, and made New Britain their home for 46 years until Frank’s death. They had no children.
In December 1883, Cox agreed to play with Grand Rapids of the Northwestern League for the 1884 season; he signed up during a New England recruiting trip by manager Horace Phillips. Phillips, in a letter dated January 1, 1884, to The Sporting Life, wrote of Cox and Frank Madden, the third baseman from the Westfield club: “Both are highly recommended as good men in their positions, fine runners and good batters…Cox is spoken of as the best one hundred yard runner in Western Massachusetts.” He further describes the two as temperate family men.
Phillips mentioned that the contracts for the club started on April 10 but that the players would be reporting on April 1. The Grand Rapids club played an exhibition schedule in April with many games against American Association clubs and other teams in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, Evansville, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Cleveland.
The team opened its season May 1 in Terre Haute. Cox was the shortstop and leadoff hitter and collected four hits and scored two runs in the 11-4 victory. Grand Rapids swept the three-game series in Terre Haute and then won two more in Muskegon and two in Ft. Wayne. Cox had at least one hit in each of the seven games, going 14 for 33 to start the season.
After starting the season 7-0 on the road, Grand Rapids commenced a very long home stand on May 15 against St. Paul. Although they won their eighth consecutive game, Cox went hitless for the first time in the season. The team eventually began the season with 13 consecutive victories.
Cox followed his hitless effort on May 15 with a 12-game hitting streak. Thus he started the season with hits in 19 of 20 games, accumulating eight multi-hit games in that time.
True to its pre-season billing, the Grand Rapids club led the Northwestern League standings for most of the summer. On July 22, Bay City, one of the other strong clubs in the circuit, disbanded. Evansville was eventually admitted to the league to replace the departing club. Further trouble for the league erupted at the beginning of August, as the league did not have enough money to operate.
At a meeting on August 9, each club was forced to pay $500 to continue the season. Two teams, including Grand Rapids, failed to pay the tariff and were expelled from the circuit. There was some controversy about whether Grand Rapids should be dropped, and even if they were obligated to pay, but when several National League teams inquired about the availability of their players, the Grand Rapids directors decided not to object to the expulsion.
The Northwestern League reorganized twice within a week, ending the season with only four teams. At the time of the initial collapse, Grand Rapids had played 63 of the original 110-game schedule with a record of 48 wins and 15 losses to lead the league’s pennant chase. The season was supposed to continue through October 15.
Frank Cox was the shortstop for all 63 games, and hit in the leadoff position for all except two games at the end of May when he hit second. Cox batted .250 for the season with 15 doubles and 2 triples to his credit.
The Detroit Wolverines of the National League purchased the contracts of five Grand Rapids players, including Cox, who signed with the Wolverines on August 11. Other Grand Rapids players went to Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Detroit agreed to assume all debts of the Grand Rapids club to sign their players. The injury-ravaged Wolverines used nine different men at shortstop in 1884, including three who played one game each. Of the nine, one was a pitcher, one a catcher, and five of the men played their entire major league career in 1884. Cox was among the latter group.
Cox played 27 games in the Senior Circuit and is credited with 13 hits in 102 at bats. However, the contemporary box scores for those games show 14 hits in 101 at bats. Cox played the second most games at shortstop for the weak Wolverine squad of 1884, which ended the season with a 28-84 record. In each game played by Detroit from his debut to his last game, Cox started at shortstop for the club.
He played his first game in the National League on August 13, two days after signing. In a game at Recreation Park, both the visiting Cleveland Spiders and the Wolverines featured new players signed from Grand Rapids. John Henry pitched, and George Fisher played second base for Cleveland while Pretzels Getzien pitched, Ed Gastfield caught, and Cox played shortstop for Detroit. All but Fisher were making their major league debuts.
Henry held the Detroit nine to a pair of hits and three walks, beating them 1-0. In the game summary in The Sporting Life, Cox was praised: “Detroit’s new shortstop did well and acted as field captain.” He went hitless against his former teammate while batting in the fifth spot in the order.
The Wolverines then left on a long four-city trip to the east coast, which included two stops in Providence. On August 20 at the Messer Street Grounds in the Rhode Island capital, Cox collected his first major league hit off Ed Conley but was stranded on the bases.
The next day the Wolverines played in Boston and lost, 12-4. In the fifth inning, Detroit second baseman Tom Kearns, another former Grand Rapids player, suffered a strained knee while running out a hit. Cox was sent in to run for him even though he was already in the game. Under the rules of the day, a “courtesy runner”-a player already in the game-was allowed for an injured player if the opposing manager consented. Usually, the injured player took the field in the next half inning to resume play, but in this case Frank Meinke replaced Kearns in the field, as the latter was too injured to continue.
In the sixth inning, Detroit scored all its runs. Cox singled, Henry Jones walked and Meinke, Kearns’ replacement, homered over the left field fence for the first three runs. This was the first run Cox scored in the NL and it happened just nine miles from where he grew up in the Boston suburbs. Unfortunately, Cox also made an error in the seventh that contributed to three Boston runs in that frame and another error in the eighth that helped score another tally.
On Saturday, August 23, Cox was at the center of a controversy that ended the game. In the top of the sixth inning, Detroit had the bases loaded with one man out. On the third strike to Ned Hanlon, Mike Hines, the Boston catcher, dropped the ball. He picked it up and stepped on the plate to force the runner from third. Hines then chased Hanlon down the first base line before throwing him out to complete the double play and the inning. This situation could not occur today, as such a batter is now automatically out with first base occupied and less than two outs.
Cox objected to the call by Umpire John Gaffney, saying that Hines had caught the ball and then dropped it to make the double play. The rest of the Detroit squad took the field, but Cox refused to continue. Gaffney gave Cox five minutes to change his mind, and when, at the end of that time, Cox still refused to play, Gaffney forfeited the game to Boston. This was the first-ever forfeit of a National League game in Boston.
The following day, the Boston Globe‘s game account reported the following: “Cox, Detroit’s new captain and shortstop, has yet to prove to the base ball public of Boston that he is a good player but he firmly established his reputation as a ‘kicker’ of the first order yesterday afternoon…This fresh young man made himself an object of ridicule to 1827 people and literally cheated them out of what they had paid for by refusing to play out the game.”
In the notes column accompanying the story were further references to Cox and his actions:
“It was a disgusted crowd that left the grounds yesterday and justly so.”
“Cox may be a good ball player but he is too headstrong to captain a nine.”
The headline’s alliteration is also noteworthy: “Captain Cox Kicks And Loses a Game by Forfeit to the Bostons.”
Four days later, on August 27, Cox was presented with a “handsome open-faced Waltham Watch from his Waltham friends,” according to the Boston Globe. His obituary in the New Britain Herald stated that he kept the watch until his death.
In the game that followed the presentation, Cox “thanked” his hometown friends by collecting the first of his four multiple-hit games in the major leagues, and his first extra base hit. He singled just inside the third base bag in the second inning but was out at the plate on a fielder’s choice. Then in the ninth inning with two out, Cox hit a triple on a ball that the Boston Globe described as a “short liner to center which [Jim] Whitney tried to take on the fly, but did not get it and the ball went bounding towards the fence, giving Cox a three-bagger.” Cox then scored on a wild pitch by Charlie Buffinton.
On September 9, the Wolverines were in New York to play the Giants. The highlight of the game was the debut of former player Bob “Death To Flying Things” Ferguson as an umpire. Ferguson had completed his 14-year career earlier that season. The New York Times reported that he “gave general satisfaction and showed rare skill in calling balls and strikes.”
The next day, the Times reported that “Jones and Cox played miserably in their positions” in the 13-3 loss to the Giants. The Wolverines made 10 errors and collected only 4 hits that day.
Frank Cox played his last game in the National League on September 29. Detroit hosted the Boston club and was shutout, 5-0. On October 1, The Boston Globe reported: “Cox, the fat shortstop, is knocked out by lameness. His position is taken by Meinke.”
Seven days later the Globe noted: “Cox the only Detroit player not reserved for 1885. He has been no addition to the nine.” Thus ended the major league career of Frank Cox.
In 1885, Cox stayed home and played as the captain and shortstop of the New Britain team in the Southern New England League. That league disbanded during the season. The following year, he was the manager and shortstop of the Lawrence (Massachusetts) team of the New England League. In 1887, he played shortstop for Bridgeport (Connecticut) of the Eastern League until that club disbanded on July 9. At the time, Bridgeport was in first place. Cox next signed with the Utica Pent-Ups of the International League; that team became the Wilkes-Barre Coal Barons on July 16.
During his time as a player, Cox worked in the mills in the New Britain area during the winter to supplement his income. He would travel to wherever his baseball fortunes led him for the summer and then return to New Britain and the mills.
Frank Cox retired as a baseball player after the 1887 season and opened a saloon on Main Street in New Britain, which he ran for 15 years. Cox worked for the Metropolitan Insurance Company for 10 years and opened a realty and insurance firm in 1908 at 298 Main Street as partner with William G. Dunn. The firm was still in business as late as 1949.
During this time Cox also umpired games in the New England League and became friends with Thomas J. Lynch, who umpired in the National League from 1888 through 1899 and was President of the National League from 1910 through 1913. Cox was the chair of Lynch’s memorial committee, according to Cox’ obituary in the New Britain Herald.
In June 1898, the Brockton Enterprise reported that Cox was the manager of the New Britain Rangers of the Naugatuck Valley League. That league disbanded during the season.
Later in life, Cox served on the New Britain city planning commission, having been appointed to that post by two different mayors. He was also active in many fraternal organizations in New Britain. He lived at 27 Trinity Street for many years.
In June 1928, Cox entered St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, having been ill for some time. He underwent two surgical procedures, the second a prostatectomy, and died on June 24 at the hospital at the age of 70. He suffered from hypertrophy of the prostate and, on the 24th, a cardiac embolism. He was buried at St. Bernard’s Cemetery in Rockville, Connecticut, with his in-laws. Elizabeth died in 1956 and is buried with her parents and husband.
Cox was well known in New Britain at the time of his death. In Cox’s obituary in the New Britain Herald, Mayor Paonessa said: “He lived the life of a good citizen, a good businessman and a good public official. In every line of endeavor into which he entered, he carried the spirit of fair play and sportsmanship so thoroughly taught him during his experience as a baseball player…It is an inspiration to business in general to witness the success of a man who exemplified the highest ideals of fair trading and fair play…His death is a distinct loss to this city.”
The professional baseball career of Frank Cox was short. However, his effect on the game was greater than his playing time suggests. As noted in his obituary, Cox “was always an encouraging influence on the younger ball players.”
Boston Globe . Multiple issues, 1884.
Cox, John W. Waltham’s Industrial Heritage. Waltham: Waltham School System,1981.
Hartford Times. June 25, 1928.
Massachusetts Adjutant General’s Office. Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the Civil War. Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1937.
New Britain Herald. June 25, 1928.
New York Times. Multiple issues, 1884.
St. Paul & Minneapolis Pioneer Press. July 20, 1884.
The Sporting Life. Philadelphia: Multiple issues, 1884.
Thompson, Dick. Letter to author. July 5, 1991.