Howie Fox (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Howie Fox

This article was written by Malcolm Allen

Howie Fox (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Howie Fox was a right-handed pitcher who spent most of his career with the Reds during the club’s franchise-worst stretch of 11 consecutive losing seasons. By the time Cincinnati finished over .500 again, Fox had been traded, released and tragically murdered.

Howard Francis Fox was born on March 1, 1921, in Coburg, Oregon — population 270 — less than 10 miles north of Eugene. He was the sixth of nine children born to Harvey H. Fox, a farmer born in Missouri, and the former Ollie Frances Hughes, a Kentuckian. The family was of English and Native American ancestry.

All seven Fox brothers played basketball at Thurston High School, where the hoopsters called themselves the “Pansies,” adopting the name jokingly pinned on them by coach Jim Watts during the first week of practice. “It was in direct contrast to the size and ruggedness of the team,” explained Watts, an army colonel and former University of Oregon player. “They weren’t afraid of hard work, being mostly farm boys with chores to do before and after school.”1

Howard made the all-tournament team during his sophomore season when his brother Everett led the Pansies to the Lane County title. The following year, both Howard and his brother Kenny made the all-star team for the first of two consecutive seasons. Howard, 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds at the time, “has a deadly one-hand shot from the side and is one of the most effective scorers in the district,” reported The Eugene Guard. “His defensive work is nearly equal to his offensive prowess.”2 Kenny, one inch shorter, was an adept passer and long-ranger shooter.

Thurston had a new coach for the 1937-38 season: Genevieve Beaman, who’d been a student of “Colonel Bill” Hayward, the longtime University of Oregon and U.S. Olympic team track and field coach. Beaman deplored the Pansies nickname, but grudgingly accepted it when she realized how much her players were attached to it.3 A mere 30 students enrolled at Thurston that year –17 of them boys4— and Beaman’s basketball team featured four Fox brothers. Leo joined Howard and Kenny in the starting lineup, while Delano, a freshman, was a reserve. Everett, who’d already graduated, served as the team manager.

Howard earned second team all-state honors with his performance as a senior. With a trip to the state tournament on the line against league rival Lowell, he forced the game into overtime with a long, last-second shot. Then, as the extra period expired, his brother Kenny extended the contest with a desperation buzzer-beater from nearly midcourt. Finally, in double OT, Howard sank a pair of free throws to send the Pansies to their first-ever state tournament, with Coach Beaman also making history as Oregon’s first female coach to lead a boys’ team there.

Howard earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Oregon for his play, but tragedy struck the brothers before the year was over. On a hunting trip shortly before Thanksgiving, Kenny was cleaning his shotgun when it accidentally discharged, killing Leo, who was only 15.5

Howard did not letter in any sports at Oregon, and only attended briefly. “We still believe he would have been a great collegiate player had he buckled down to his scholastic work as diligently as he did his court work,” one local reporter opined in 1942.6 Instead, Fox played forward and center for the McKee Bakers of the Amateur Athletic Union 1940-1942, leading them to a state title in his third season.

By 1940, Fox was living with his oldest brother, Frank, and working at Snellstrom’s Mill in Eugene, where he earned 90 cents an hour.7 On May 10, 1941, the 20-year-old Fox married the former Marilyn Elaine Hoselton in Lane, Oregon. They had two daughters together, Joanne and Donna Jean.

Fox kept his baseball skills sharp in the Cascade League, where he was an infielder-pitcher for the Vaughn Loggers. His brother, Kenny, was also on the team. Fox batted .434 and led the circuit in hits in 1941.8 In 1942, he led the league in strikeouts as a weekend pitcher and joined the Giustina Reds for the playoffs. His performance caught the eye of Cincinnati Reds scout George “Mickey” Shader, a former minor-league pitcher. Fox was “lumberjacking and twirling in the Cascade League when Shader spied him,”9 described one account.

After Fox impressed at a tryout in Eugene, Shader –without guaranteeing him anything– offered him an all-expense-paid trip to Indiana to play ball in the 1942-43 off-season.10

Shader tutored Fox all winter and signed him to pitch for the Birmingham Barons, Cincinnati’s Class A-1 Southern Association affiliate, in 1943. In 23 starts and 19 relief appearances, the 22-year-old led the club with 14 wins and 205 innings pitched. His 4.83 ERA wasn’t good, however, and his 17 losses tied for the most in the circuit.

When Fox returned to Birmingham in 1944, he was much more effective, going 19-10 for a club that finished 11 games below .500. Fox’s 2.71 ERA was the league’s best among pitchers with at least 125 innings, and it took a three-run, eighth-inning homer by former Dodger Lindsay Deal on August 31 to prevent him from becoming the Southern Association’s only 20-game winner.11 When the circuit named its 1944 All-Star team after the season, Fox was on it along with future big leaguers Charlie Brewster, Pete Gray and Buddy Lewis.

With World War II raging, Fox overcame another obstacle to making the majors when two dislocated vertebrae caused the U.S. Army to give him a 4F classification and reject him for active service.12 Back troubles nagged Fox throughout his career, to the point where his 1954 Topps baseball card noted he had to sleep on board planks for relief.

On September 17, 1944, Fox made his major-league debut at Forbes Field, pitching a scoreless bottom of the eighth in Cincinnati’s 7-1 loss. The Reds’ catcher was Johnny Riddle, Birmingham’s manager for most of the last two seasons. Fox pitched only one more time for Bill McKechnie’s Reds, who finished a distant third behind the World Series champion Cardinals despite a solid 89-65 record. Cincinnati changed managers eight times before their next winning season in 1956, and the 11-year losing stretch remains the longest in franchise history as of 2020.

Fox spent all of 1945 with the Reds, when the club slipped to seventh place behind a pitching staff averaging 33 years of age. After the 24-year-old Fox outpitched Van Lingle Mungo at the Polo Grounds on July 6, his won-lost mark was 4-2 and his ERA a decent 3.95. No All-Star Game was played in 1945, but Fox did pitch scoreless ball in one of the War Fund Games, three days later in Cleveland. When the second half started, however, he lost his next nine decisions, including an August 5 game to the Cubs that started Cincinnati’s season-worst 13-game losing streak. Four days later in Brooklyn, he dueled Ralph Branca for 11 innings before the Dodgers beat him on Babe Herman’s pinch-hit single in the bottom of the 12th. Fox won four of six in September but finished his rookie campaign 8-13 with a 4.93 ERA in 45 outings, including 15 starts. Perhaps his most promising statistic was allowing only six home runs in just over 164 innings, the eighth-stingiest rate in the National League.

The Reds’ spring training roster listed Fox’s weight at 195, 20 pounds heavier than his Thurston Pansies’ days. During the summer of his rookie season, Fox had been briefly hospitalized in Chicago with possible appendicitis, but he rejoined the Reds’ bullpen a few days later.13 After pitching just one inning in the first 10 games of the 1946 season, however, he complained of pain in his groin during practice and underwent an emergency appendectomy. The Reds sent him home for his month-long recovery, and he worked out with the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento Solons as his return neared.14 Fox rejoined Cincinnati on June 2, but was clobbered in a trio of relief appearances, spread out over two months. Before the game on August 2, he handed out cigars in the Reds’ clubhouse to celebrate the birth of his daughter,15 but a few days later, he and his unsightly 23.40 ERA were sent down for his first taste of Triple-A baseball.

Fox went 4-1 with 3.71 ERA in seven starts for the Syracuse Chiefs, and pitched the opening game of the International League semi-finals on September 11 against the Baltimore Orioles. In front of 11,130 fans –the biggest crowd of the year at MacArthur Stadium—Fox worked into the seventh inning in a game the Chiefs won. The following day, however, x-rays revealed an incomplete fracture of his pitching arm just below the elbow. “Fortunately, Fox had taken out accident insurance two weeks earlier that will pay $150 per month until his salary wing is okay again,”16 noted The Sporting News.

When Fox reported to spring training in 1947, he insisted that his arm was “as good as it ever was,”17 but he did not pitch in any Cincinnati exhibition games. The Reds were hardly babying him though. In his season debut for Syracuse on May 3, he hurled 11 innings and walked 11 Montreal Royals before losing, 4-3.18 Fox soon proved he was healthy, posting a 19-9, 2.68 ledger and tossing 21 complete games. Four of his defeats were shutouts, including a 1-0 decision to Montreal’s Ed Heusser –Fox’s former Reds’ roommate– on August 4.19 Heusser, a 38-year-old former National League ERA leader, remarked, “Howard mastered enough control, especially when he had to get the ball over the plate this year, to lead me to believe he has an excellent chance to be a successful pitcher for the Reds next year.”20

Fox finished up 1947 by defeating Montreal twice in the semi-finals. Though he lost a pair to the Buffalo Bisons in the International League championship series, the Chiefs prevailed anyway.21 When Syracuse beat the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers in seven games to win the Junior World Series, Fox won games 2 and 6.22

Prior to the 1948 season, the Fox brothers reunited on the basketball court for a polio fundraiser. On February 5 in Eugene, team Fox defeated a group of major leaguers who took the court wearing borrowed semi-pro baseball uniforms, 45-30.23 In April, Mickey Shader signed the youngest Fox brother, Delano, to play for the Giants’ Reno Silver Sox affiliate in the Sunset League. Delano, a big-handed, hard thrower, was signed as a pitcher, but only saw action as a catcher in 15 games before being released in June.

Fox was 6-9 (4.53) in 1948 as the Reds finished seventh. For the only time in his major-league career, he struck out more batters than he walked. He seemed to benefit when Bucky Walters replaced manager Johnny Neun in August, recording a 2.93 ERA after the three-time 20-game winner took over.

In 1949, Fox led the majors with 19 losses for another seventh-place Cincinnati team. In 30 starts, he worked to a 3.98 ERA in 215 innings, but won only six games. Nevertheless, Fox was a sought-after commodity in trade talks. Despite his 3-17 career record against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey repeatedly tried to acquire him. In explaining his refusal to part with Fox or Herm Wehmeier, Reds’ President Warren Giles said, “If they are now on the threshold of stardom, as many competent judges believe them to be, we want them to do their starring for us, not for the Dodgers or any other club.”24

Pitching for another Cincinnati manager — Luke Sewell — in 1950, Fox had a 1-6 record and an ERA over 5.00 in late June when coach Gus Mancuso had a word with him about something he’d learned from fellow coach Phil Page. Page, a former Tigers and Dodgers southpaw, had been charting every pitch thrown by Reds’ hurlers for years, and he noticed that the bulk of the hits Fox allowed came when he threw sidearm. Walters had encouraged him to drop down sometimes against right-handed hitters, but Fox knew it worsened his control. “Why don’t you cut it out and pitch overhand altogether?” Mancuso suggested.25 Fox practiced for two weeks on the side and felt the strength in his back and shoulder muscles increasing. He threw his first big-league shutout on July 18 and won 10 of 12 decisions the rest of the way, including a 6-0 mark after July 30. “It will be mostly overhand for me from now on,” he said. “So many pitchers have been pitching sidearm in recent years the hitters are getting hep to that kind of delivery.”26 Following his 11-8, (4.33) season for the Reds, Fox joined The All-Star Game on the Road, a 33-game tour of 30 cities that fall.

Fox shaved a half-run off his ERA in 1951 –lowering it to 3.83—and worked a career high 228 innings despite missing time in early June when the faulty vertebrae at the base of his spine acted up again. In July, he shut out the Pirates and Braves in consecutive starts and enjoyed a run of 27 1/3 scoreless innings. After improving his record to 6-4 with a July 17 win over Robin Roberts at Shibe Park, however, Fox lost nine of his next 10 decisions and finished 9-14 overall.

When Harry Walker’s NL All-Stars swept 10 games on a barnstorming tour in the fall of 1951, Fox threw a two-hitter in Dyersburg, Tennessee, followed by a five-hitter in Alamo, in the western part of the Volunteer State.27 Giles had warned that nobody on Cincinnati’s roster was off limits following a sixth-place finish, however, and Fox was traded to the Phillies in a seven-player deal that also sent catcher Smoky Burgess to Philadelphia on December 10. When the Dodgers learned that ace Don Newcombe had to enter the Army, Branch Rickey tried again to acquire Fox,28 but Philadelphia manager Eddie Sawyer articulated his team’s hopes for the Oregonian by saying, “We haven’t had that number two pitcher for some time. We think Fox may be it.”29

Fox purchased a house trailer for $4,600 to drive his family (and golf clubs) to spring training, only to learn that the Phillies didn’t allow spouses during the Grapefruit League season.30 They’d join him in Philadelphia where the trailer became their summer home. When Fox arrived in Clearwater, Florida, Sawyer planned to increase the 31-year-old’s stamina with a running-heavy regimen. “[Fox] is big and strong and should not fade, but he does. And there is only one reason for that. He isn’t in shape,” Sawyer explained. “The only way to get a pitcher in shape to go the full nine innings at top speed is to make him run. I don’t think I ever saw him run, even in spring training. When [Phillies’ coach] Bennie Bengough gets through with him, I think he’ll be in shape to go 99 innings.”31

With innovations like his stride stretcher and sprint table, Phillies’ trainer Frank Wiechec –a former Temple University hurdler—drilled players through what The Sporting News called a “torturous daily run”. Both Fox and Nippy Jones, a first baseman acquired from the Cardinals, “collapsed and needed restoratives” on the first day.32 By Opening Day Fox — now listed at 220 pounds — insisted his back felt fine and he started Philadelphia’s second game, getting no decision when he lost a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds. Injuries and illnesses plagued Fox throughout the season, however. By the time he surrendered a homer to the Athletics’ Gus Zernial and lost an exhibition game on June 26, Fox’s record was a miserable 1-6 and Sawyer lost his job the next day. The Phillies turned their season around with a 59-32 run under new skipper Steve O’Neill, but Fox won only one of those games and made a single appearance after July 18.

Fox spent spring training with the Phillies again in 1953, but he wasn’t in the team’s plans. He asked for his release or an assignment to a team on the West Coast, but Philadelphia sold him to the Triple-A Baltimore Orioles of the International League instead.33 Fox went 15-10, 3.84 and led the team in innings, complete games and victories, but it wasn’t enough to get a call back from the third-place Phillies.

That winter, he hurled 140 innings for the Venezuelan League champion Pastora club in Maracaibo. Fox’s 11-8, 3.33 mark included a one-hitter and a string 18 consecutive scoreless innings.34 He pitched twice in the Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico.

Howie Fox (TRADING CARD DB)In 1954 the Baltimore Orioles were no longer a minor-league team, but rather the American League’s relocated St. Louis Browns. While most of the city’s Triple-A players were sold to new homes, the big-league Birds elected to keep Fox. Baltimore GM Arthur Ehlers had seen him pitch once in 1953 and wondered, “Why isn’t that fellow pitching in the majors?”35

Fox spent the entire 1954 season in the bullpen and led Baltimore relievers with 38 appearances. going 1-2, 3.67 with a couple of saves. In Venezuela that winter, he tossed 20 innings for the Leones del Caracas.

The Orioles kept Fox on their roster long enough for him to qualify as a 10-year major leaguer in 1955, but he worked out with the Pacific Coast League’s San Diego Padres until Baltimore released him on May 3.36 His big-league pitching career ended with a 43-72 won-lost mark and a 4.33 ERA in 1,108 1/3 innings.

On May 6, Fox joined the San Antonio Missions of the Texas League as a player-coach for Baltimore’s Double-A affiliate.37 He spent the season living near Mission Stadium in his trailer with his family, started 10 of his 29 appearances and went 3-8, 3.89 in what proved to be his final action as a pro.

In early September, Fox opened a tavern on the outskirts of San Antonio with Hubert “Tex” Callahan, his 47-year-old business partner.38 On the Saturday night of October 8, San Antonio Junior College students John J. Strickland and Jack G. Allan returned from a week in Mexico and showed up at Fox’s tavern with Martin Bello who, at 27, was the oldest.39 When the three caused a disturbance, they were asked to leave, and did, but Callahan later testified that the trio began pelting the tavern with stones in protest.40 When Fox — armed with what Strickland later described as a miniature baseball bat41 — and Callahan stepped outside to confront the men, a tense situation turned tragic. Bello allegedly slashed Callahan while Strickland –who’d retrieved a knife from his car42 — stabbed Fox three times. In the early hours of October 9, 1955, Fox died crawling towards the tavern door.43 He was 34.

The three students fled. They insisted that they didn’t know Fox’s wounds were fatal when they ran. Strickland sought treatment at City-County Hospital for a severe cut above his right eye – inflicted by Fox’s mini-bat—and spent the night in a downtown hotel, where police later found his bloodstained clothes.44 Bello was indicted for aggravated assault on Callahan, while Strickland was charged with murder with malice.45 During spring training before the 1956 season, Strickland was convicted and sentenced to 10 years.46

Fox was survived by his widow Marilyn, daughters Joanne and Donna Jean, his father and all his siblings except Leo. He was buried in the Laurel Grove Cemetery in Springfield, Oregon, about 15 minutes south of Coburg. In 1981, he was posthumously inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Andrew Sharp and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted www.ancestry.com, www.baseball-reference.com, http://www.pelotabinaria.com.ve/beisbol/mostrar.php?ID=foxhow001, www.retrosheet.org and the United States Census from 1930 and 1940.

 

Notes

1 “Coach Beaman and the Pansies. Part 2: Coach Beaman and the Birth of the Pansies,” www.oregonhoopshistory.blogspot.com, August 20, 2013.

2 “Ace Players Picked for All Stars,” Eugene (Oregon) Guard, March 6, 1938:14.

3 “Coach Beaman and the Pansies. Part 2: Coach Beaman and the Birth of the Pansies.”.

4 “Genevieve Beaman’s Thurston Pansies in State Tourney,” Eugene Guard, March 15, 1938: 6.

5 “Three Persons Die in Gun Accidents,” News-Review (Roseburg, Oregon), November 21, 1938: 1.

6 Dick Strite, “Highclimber,” Eugene Guard, February 4, 1942:2.

7 Eugene Guard, March 7, 1943: 15.

8 “Howard Fox Has Most Hits,” Eugene Guard, August 17, 1941: 6.

9 Russ Newland, “Howard Fox Great as Birmingham Hurler,” Eugene Guard, July 17,1943 :6.

10 Eugene Guard, March 7, 1943: 15.

11 “Southern Association,” The Sporting News, September 7, 1944: 22.

12 Fox’s “Heilbroner Baseball Bureau” index card

13 Tom Swope, “All Turns Black for Reds Whenever They Meet Cubs,” The Sporting News, August 2, 1945: 9.

14 “Reveals Cubs Losing Money,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1946: 16.

15 “Reds Break Shibe Park Jinx,” The Sporting News, August 14, 1946: 18.

16 “Chiefs Lose Howard Fox,” The Sporting News, September 25, 1946: 26.

17 “Tough for Buc-Red Relief Men”, The Sporting News, April 30, 1947: 24.

18 “International League,” The Sporting News, May 14, 1947: 24.

19 “International Lg,” The Sporting News, August 13, 1947: 26.

20 Tom Swope, “Boys from Syracuse Give Reds Hope for Mound Aid,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1947: 17.

21 “Big Chief,” The Sporting News, September 24, 1947: 25.

22 “Junior World’s Series Averages,” The Sporting News, October 15, 1947: 23.

23 “Diamond Stars Tripped in Hoop Sport,” The Sporting News, February 18, 1948: 22

24 Tom Swope, “Reds’ Hopes for Better Hurling Hoisted by Rickey’s High Offers,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1949: 14.

25 Stan Baumgartner, “Man with Paper and Pencil Figures in Fox’ Change into a Winning Flinger,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1951: 11.

26 “Overhander a Novelty,” The Sporting News, April 11, 1951: 23.

27 “The Hat’s All Stars Sweep Ten Games”, The Sporting News, October 31, 1951: 21.

28 “Newk’s Army Call Revives Rumors of Fox for Furillo,” The Sporting News, February 13, 1952: 12.

29 “’Phil Atmosphere Better’ — Sawyer,” The Sporting News, March 19, 1952: 9.

30 Oscar Ruhl, “From the Ruhl Book,” The Sporting News, March 12, 1952: 20.

31 “Ryan, 32, Key Man in Phil Rejuvenation,”, The Sporting News, January 30, 1952: 12.

32 Stan Baumgartner, “Phils Stage ‘Stretch Drive’ Early in Torturous Daily ‘Run’ for Title,” The Sporting News, March 5, 1952: 8.

33 Stan Baumgartner, “Early Robin Makes Phils Chirp Over His Brilliance in Flag Race Test Flights,” The Sporting News, April 29, 1953: 9.

34 “Hurling of Kipper, Byrne Sparks Pastora’s Flag Bid,” The Sporting News, January 27, 1954: 21.

35 Hugh Trader, Jr., “Orioles Retain Pair of Vets, Sell 14 from Team’s Int Roster,” The Sporting News, January 27, 1954: 16.

36 “Howie Fox Fatally Stabbed in Fight Outside His Tavern,” The Sporting News, October 19, 1955:26.

37 “Oriole Parade Since October 1953,” The Sporting News, July 27, 1955:4

38 “Howie Fox Fatally Stabbed in Fight Outside His Tavern.”

39 “Howie Fox Dies of Stab Wound,” San Bernardino (California) County Sun, October 10, 1955: 6.

40 “Bond on Fox Murder Suspect,” The Sporting News, December 7, 1955: 27.

41 “Howie Fox Stabbed to Death,” Telegraph-Herald (Lead, South Dakota), October 9, 1955: 30.

42 “Howie Fox Fatally Stabbed in Fight Outside His Tavern.”

43 “Howie Fox Stabbed to Death.”

44 “Former Major League Hurler Howie Fox Stabbed to Death,” Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pennsylvania), October 10, 1955: 1.

45 “2 Indictments Issued in Howie Fox Stabbing,” Victoria (Texas) Advocate, January 27, 1956: 4.

46 “Man Who Killed Fox Gets 10 Years,” Knoxville (Tennessee) News-Sentinel, March 10, 1956: 7.

Full Name

Howard Francis Fox

Born

March 1, 1921 at Coburg, OR (USA)

Died

October 9, 1955 at San Antonio, TX (USA)

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