During a relatively brief 1880s professional career, pitcher John Fox manned the box for four different major league clubs. Except for catcher, the versatile right-hander also handled every other position on the diamond — a significant capability during an era of limited player rosters. Notwithstanding that, Fox seldom lasted long with the teams that engaged him. Today, the relatively little contemporaneous press attention afforded him and the passage of time make it difficult to determine whether Fox’s short stays reflected marginal playing talent, his fondness for alcohol, a high-strung temperament, another shortcoming, or some combination thereof. But whatever the cause, Fox was out of Organized Baseball by the end of the 1886 season. Less than seven years later, he was dead, a victim of pneumonia at age 34. The story of his abbreviated life follows.
John Joseph Fox was born on February 7, 1859 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, then a municipality separate and distinct from adjoining Boston.1 He was the third of four children2 born to common laborer John Fox (1820-c.1882) and his wife Bridget (née Watson, 1834-1906), both Irish Catholic immigrants. Little is known of our subject’s early years; he appears to have received the elementary school education commonly provided working class children, and he thereafter joined his father as a common laborer in the Boston work force.3
The origins of our subject’s baseball career are undiscovered, but presumably he worked his way up from Boston sandlots into the city’s thriving amateur club scene.4 In 1881, the 22-year-old Fox was invited to the spring camp of the National League’s Boston Reds but did not survive the cut.5 When veteran Tommy Bond’s pitching arm failed and staff mainstay Jim Whitney began to break down from overuse, Fox was regathered by Boston manager Harry Wright.6 Modern reference authority lists most everything (height/weight/bats/throws) about Fox as unknown, but the sole surviving photo of him depicts a mustached young man of unremarkable size gripping a baseball in his right hand.7
On June 2, 1881, John Fox made his major league debut, facing the Cleveland Blues in a home game at the South End Grounds. The hard-throwing newcomer pitched creditably in a 6-1 complete-game setback but was undone by his teammates. Catcher Pop Snyder “had considerable difficulty in handling the hot ones sent in by Fox”8 — a recurring problem throughout the pitcher’s career — and atrocious Boston fielding (11 errors) resulted in all but one of the runs scored by Cleveland being unearned. The following week, first-inning defensive difficulties spelled the difference in a well-pitched 2-0 loss to Detroit. In a rematch days later, he broke into the win column with a three-hit, 7-1 victory over the Wolverines, with the “Detroits … almost utterly unable to hit Fox.”9
Fox followed up his maiden win with another on June 17, a 6-3 triumph over the Chicago White Stockings. Sent out to face Chicago again the following day, “Fox stepped to the bat in the first inning [and] was made the happy recipient of a gold watch and elegant floral basket, presented by his [Roxbury] friends in appreciation for his admirable work between the pitcher’s points which compliment he reciprocated by immediately making a safe hit and a run.”10 Unhappily, the run proved the only one tallied against Chicago ace Larry Corcoran in a 5-1 Boston defeat.
Fox posted wins in his next two starts, both against Cleveland, but his conduct drew scathing criticism in the opposition press, which accused him of incessant carping about umpire decisions and vicious bench jockeying. Fox “barks and yelps like a dog (and we beg the ordinary dog’s pardon) at every opposing player and play made,” the Cleveland Leader complained. The account continued that Fox had “a lung power which would make a hundred power engine feel ashamed of itself … [he] gets on his tip toes and yells as if he was shot.”11 The obstreperous rookie was less effective in his next three outings, and in mid-July Boston manager Wright returned to almost nonstop use of staff ace Whitney. On July 18, “Grasshopper Jim” began a skein of 14 consecutive starting assignments and took the ball in 36 of Boston’s final 41 games. During that span, Fox saw most of his game action in right field (12 games) and first base (six games). He received only four second-half starts, dropping three decisions including a 1-0 pitching duel with future Hall of Famer Hoss Radbourn of the Providence Grays.
Pitching for a sixth-place (38-45, .458) club, Fox slightly underperformed team norms, finishing the season with a 6-8 (.429) record and a below-par 3.33 ERA in 124 1/3 innings pitched.12 He also did Boston little good with the bat, posting an anemic .178/.178/.178 slash line (with no extra base-hits and only four RBIs) in 118 at-bats.13 As a result and notwithstanding Fox’s positional versatility, manager Wright released him and opted for late-season acquisition Bobby Mathews as his second-line starting pitcher for the coming campaign.
There is no evidence that Fox spent the 1882 season in Organized Baseball. In all probability, he resumed playing for hometown area independent or semipro nines.14 His only documented action that year came at the altar. In May, Fox took 22-year-old Roxbury native Julia Crahan as his bride.15 Daughter Lillie, the couple’s only child, was born the following year.
In 1883, the arrival of the newly organized American Association afforded major league playing berths to a host of job seekers, including John Fox. Signed by the Baltimore Orioles, he was designated his new club’s number one starter by player-manager Billy Barnie at the close of spring camp. Fox began the regular season in fine fashion, besting the New York Mets in the 11-inning opener, 4-3. Two days later, he beat the Mets again, 5-1, notching a second victory over Cooperstown-bound Tim Keefe in the process. The Baltimore Sun was impressed, reporting that “the playing of Fox, the pitcher, and Barnie the catcher of the Baltimore was truly brilliant.”16
Fox split his next four decisions, but from there things spiraled downward for both the staff ace and his ball club. The Orioles lost 11 straight from May 15 through May 30, with Fox absorbing seven of those setbacks. The lowlight of a subsequent defeat, an 11-3 pasting by Cincinnati on June 15, was “a brawl with umpire Kelly” after which Fox “threw down the ball in a fit and left the ground.”17 Following a 15-2 pounding by Louisville a few days later, Fox was consigned to the Baltimore outfield, supplanted as staff leader by Hardie Henderson.
During a June 21 exhibition game in Indianapolis, lead-off batter Fox “knocked the second ball pitched … away over the left-field fence … and leisurely trotted around the bases, making a home run and the longest hit ever seen on the ground.”18 The following day, he was released by Baltimore,19 his pitching log having sunk to 6-13 (.316). Nor had Fox exhibited the long-distance power of his exhibition game round-tripper during official season play. His .152 batting average included only three doubles in 92 at-bats.
After a three-week stay at home in Boston, Fox got back in harness, signing with the Wilmington (Delaware) Quicksteps of the independent minor league Inter-State Association.20 He started off poorly, however, losing a one-sided 12-3 decision to the circuit-leading Merritts of Camden, New Jersey, during which a familiar problem arose. The Quicksteps catcher “was unable to hold Fox, the new pitcher.”21 While a more capable backstop was being sought, Fox moved to third base. The Wilmington Daily Gazette approved the new acquisition’s work there, declaring that “Fox covers third base in good style [and] is excellent in working up the players. These, in addition to his qualities as a pitcher, make him a valuable addition to the nine”22 He also filled in at shortstop and second base on occasion. Yet success as a pitcher continued to elude Fox.
After six trying weeks, Fox’s won-lost mark resided in the neighborhood of 1-10,23 leaving a Wilmington newspaper to lament that his “pitching is effectual but he never wins.”24 Fox’s struggles, however, did not kill major league interest in him, though a tentative deal to send him to the National League Cleveland Blues fell apart in early August.25 Several mound setbacks later, the Quicksteps gave up on Fox and released him. He then signed with an Inter-State Association rival, the Trenton Trentonians.26 As before, Fox alternated between pitching and playing third for his new club, but with happier results this time. Not counting a late-season no-decision against the NL’s Philadelphia Quakers, he went 5-4 (.555) for Trenton,27 and once again attracted the interest of major league clubs. At the campaign’s end, Fox signed with the American Association’s Pittsburgh Alleghenys.28
Fox’s return to the game’s top echelon was short-lived, torpedoed by bad behavior and dismal results. He dropped the season opener to Philadelphia, 9-2, on May 1, and served as a late-inning defensive replacement at shortstop the next day. Two losses to old adversary Tim Keefe of the New York Mets followed. Fox registered his first, and only, victory for Pittsburgh on May 12, pitching “carefully”29 and yielding but five base hits in a route-going 9-6 win over Brooklyn. After two lopsided defeats, Fox was temporarily shelved by recently installed player-manager Bob Ferguson. A two-week layoff, however, did not cure the problem. Upon his return, Fox was “belted hard” by St. Louis,30 taking a 9-3 beating that dropped his record to 1-6. Shortly thereafter, the Alleghenys let him go.
Fox’s release was accompanied by a blast from Pittsburgh club officials who accused the hurler of chronic drunkenness.31 “The directors claim that they have lost every game that [Fox] pitched on account of drink,” the press reported.32 The banished pitcher thereupon went home to Boston. A month later, the Trenton Trentonians, now a member of the newly organized minor Eastern League and “desperate for pitching,” took Fox back.33 The Trenton Times cautiously endorsed the signing, stating that “the coming of Fox … reawakens hope in the local lovers of the game. … Of course, the management will not forget to acquaint Fox with the fact that an indulgence in anything stronger than tea will render him unfit company for the rest of the season.”34
Fox began his second tour of duty with the Trentonians in memorable fashion. He threw a 10-strikeout no-hitter at the York (Pennsylvania) White Roses, winning 2-1.35 More Fox victories followed, including a two-hit, 4-0 whitewash of the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Ironsides in mid-August. And when he was not in the box, Fox stayed in the lineup at third base or center field and was a productive cleanup hitter. But the positive direction taken by both his performance and conduct did not last. Playing first base in late August, Fox complained long and petulantly about umpiring decisions and ended up getting fined during a 4-3 loss to Lancaster.36 The following afternoon, Fox “pitched a slow and easy ball [and] appeared to display a lack of interest” in a start against York37 and then “pouted like a child” when lifted mid-game by Trenton manager Pat Powers.38 Declaring the next day “too cold for him to play ball,” Fox watched the finale against York from the grandstand.39
Such antics soon led to a report that Fox was to be dismissed from the club.40 But the August 12 disbanding of the far-in-front Wilmington Quicksteps (50-12) had ceded the Eastern League lead to Trenton, and manager Powers was not disposed to break up the Trentonian lineup. Yet Fox continued to try his patience. In the first inning of a September 11 game against Newark, “Fox gave an exhibition of ‘monkey business’ and showed how clearly childish he can be.”41 That exhibition included throwing a bat at teammate John Shetzline; sitting on the center field fence and refusing to play; and cursing manager Powers when he ordered Fox off the field.42
Predictions that Fox would be expelled from the team and blacklisted were disappointed. He got off with a $10 fine and was back in the box on September 16 for a Trenton exhibition game against the Elizabeth (New Jersey) Athletic Club.43 Fox remained in the Trentonian lineup, either pitching or playing center field, through season’s end, but his performance trailed off. He finished the campaign with a 7-4 pitching mark in 12 appearances while posting a .222 batting average (22-for-99), overall.44 Having worn out his welcome, Fox was thereafter released by the pennant-winning (46-39, .541) Trenton club.
Once again back home in Boston, Fox began the 1885 season playing for the Boston Unions, an independent pro nine.45 That May, an exhibition game performance against the Biddeford (Maine) entry in the five-club minor Eastern New England League led to a job offer and Fox’s return to Organized Baseball.46 As he had the previous season, Fox split his time between the box and the Biddeford outfield, posting a 9-8 pitching mark in 17 appearances,47 while batting .256 in 29 games, overall, before the Biddeford club disbanded on July 17. Shortly thereafter, Fox and batterymate Jim McKeever were signed by the Waterbury (Connecticut) club of the Southern New England League.48 Three losing starts later, Fox was released by his latest club. At home that fall, Fox reported that he had “offers from several clubs in the South” and thought that he would “haul up in Savannah” for the coming season.49
The following spring, however, Fox could not be located on the baseball landscape. In mid-July, Sporting Life informed readers that his “whereabouts are unknown.”50 But three weeks thereafter, Fox suddenly resurfaced wearing the uniform of the Washington Nationals, a hapless club headed for a (28-92-5, .233) last-place finish in final National League standings. In dire need of pitching help, the Nationals decided to audition Fox against the St. Louis Maroons on August 9. The results were not pretty. In an eight-inning complete game, Fox walked 11, surrendered a like number of base hits, threw three wild pitches, and committed a fielding error on way to a 13-3 loss. The “miserable”51 performance moved a hometown newspaper to observe that “a half dozen local amateur twirlers can be found who are much [Fox’s] superior and it is strange that ballplayers of experience should have recommended him” to the Nationals.52 To no great surprise, Fox was released immediately, it being further reported back in Boston that Fox “jumped town with the advance money and a few dollars he borrowed from the [Washington] players. A certain landlord would also like to see him.”53
The August 1886 fiasco closed the books on the major league career of John Fox. With four different clubs during parts of four seasons, he posted a 13-28 (.317) pitching record, with a 4.16 ERA in 356 2/3 innings. Fox also notched 104 strikeouts, walked 98, and threw 47 wild pitches, while opposition hitters posted a .287 batting average against him. His own hitting was tepid: a .176 BA, with only five extra-base hits and four RBIs in 238 at-bats. Fox’s fielding ranged from poor as a bare-handed outfielder (.727 fielding percentage in 16 games) to mediocre as a pitcher (.818 in 45 games) to decent as a first baseman (.964 in seven games).54
Following the 1886 season, Fox receded from public view, with only snippets of info about the remainder of his life available. In October 1887, John and Julia Fox suffered the heartbreak of losing their only child when daughter Lillie died at age four. The couple remained living in the Roxbury section of Boston thereafter, with John working as a clerk. In December 1889, the Boston Globe reported that “John Fox, the old Boston league pitcher, talks of going back into the business. Few pitchers had a better arm than Fox.”55 He never made a serious comeback attempt but pitched for various local semipro teams. Fox was also active in the Catholic Association of Roxbury.56
In late winter 1893, Fox contracted pneumonia. After three weeks in bed, he died at home on April 16, 1893. John Joseph Fox was only 34. Following a Requiem Mass said at St. Joseph Church, the deceased was interred at Mount Benedict Cemetery, West Roxbury. Survivors included his widow, mother, and married sister Ellen McGlynn.
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Natalie Montanez and fact-checked by Jeff Findley.
Sources for the biographical info imparted above include the John Fox entry in Major League Player Profiles, 1871-1900, Vol. 1, David Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011); US Census and other Fox family data accessed via Ancestry.com, and certain of the newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Unless otherwise specified, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.
1 Roxbury was incorporated into the City of Boston in 1868.
2 Our subject’s siblings were Ellen (born 1855), Marie (1857), and William (1860).
3 Per the 1870 and 1880 US Census reports.
4 A newspaper account of Fox’s major league debut described him as “an amateur … [who] did very well.” See “Cleveland vs. Boston,” Chicago Inter Ocean, June 3, 1881: 3.
5 Per the John Fox profile in Major League Player Profiles, 1871-1900, Vol. 1, David Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 68.
6 Same as above.
7 Statistical probability and circumstantial evidence apart from the tell-tale photo further support the conclusion that Fox threw right-handed.
8 “The Bostons ‘Buckeyed,’” Boston Globe, June 3, 1881: 4.
9 Per “Boston 7, Detroit 1,” Cleveland Leader, June 16, 1881: 4.
10 “Handsomely Vanquished,” Boston Globe, June 19, 1881: 5.
11 “Won and Lost,” Cleveland Leader, June 28, 1881: 8.
12 Mostly as a result of excellent work by Jim Whitney, the Boston team ERA was 2.71.
13 Although modern baseball reference authority list him as bats unknown, game accounts and circumstantial evidence make it highly probable that Fox was a righty batter.
14 Baseball-Reference says that Fox was added to the National League blacklist during the owners meeting in winter 1881, but the writer was unable to confirm this assertion. Meanwhile, 19th century baseball historian David Nemec states that Fox spent 1882 “in independent ball.” See Major League Player Profiles, above at 68.
15 Massachusetts marriage records accessible on-line establish that John J. Fox and Julia Crahan were married in Roxbury on May 14, 1882.
16 “Victory for the Baltimores,” Baltimore Sun, May 4, 1883: 1.
17 Per “Fox Fined,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, June 16, 1883: 2. The disruption was prompted by a “sharp trick” upon baserunners attempted by Fox. Umpire John Kelly disallowed the ruse and then imposed a $10 fine on Fox for arguing too strenuously, as reported in “Sporting News,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 16, 1883: 5. After Fox stormed off the field, Kelly threatened to forfeit the game unless Fox returned to the box, which he eventually did, reluctantly.
18 “A Great Game of Ball,” Indianapolis Journal, June 22, 1883: 9. The long-distance Fox homer was also noted in “An Interesting Game at Indianapolis,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 22, 1883: 6.
19 As reflected in “Notes,” (Wilmington, Delaware) Daily Gazette, June 26, 1883: 1.
20 Per “Local Laconics,” Daily Gazette, July 11, 1883: 4; “Base Ball Notes,” (Wilmington, Delaware) Every Evening, July 10, 1883: 1.
21 “Bad Luck for Certain,” Daily Gazette, July 16, 1883: 1.
22 “A Creditable Victory,” Daily Gazette, July 17, 1883: 1.
23 As calculated by the writer from game accounts/box scores published in the four Wilmington dailies. Baseball-Reference does not include his stay in Wilmington in Fox’s record.
24 “Quicksteps Active,” Every Evening, September 7, 1883: 1.
25 See “Base Ball Matters,” (Wilmington, Delaware) Morning News, August 2, 1883: 1; “Ball Notes,” (Wilmington, Delaware) Morning Republican, August 1, 1883: 4; “After the Quicksteps’ Pitcher,” Every Evening, July 31, 1883: 3. Had the transfer to Cleveland been effectuated, Fox’s salary would have risen from $125/month to $150.
26 Per “Base Ball Notes,” Daily Gazette, September 4, 1883: 4.
27 As calculated by the writer from box scores/game accounts published in the Trenton Times and (Trenton) Daily State Gazette. No mention of Fox’s tenure with Trenton is included in his Baseball-Reference entry.
28 As reported in “Notes,” Daily Gazette, October 11, 1883: 1; “Base Ball,” Trenton Times, October 7, 1883: 7.
29 The descriptive used in the game account published in the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, May 13, 1884: 4.
30 “Another Black Mark,” Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, June 10, 1884: 2.
31 As reported in “The Ball Field,” Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Patriot, June 24, 1884: 2; “Base Ball Notes,” Philadelphia Times, June 22, 1884: 2; and elsewhere.
32 Per “Notes,” Every Evening, June 21, 1884: 1; “Ironsides Badly Beaten,” Trenton Times, June 20, 1884: 1. It was further reported that Fox was to have received a $500 bonus if he refrained from drinking during the season.
33 As reported in “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, July 30, 1884: 7; “Only a Few Errors,” Trenton Times, July 23, 1884: 1; and elsewhere.
34 “Base Ball Lovers Hopeful,” Trenton Times, July 24, 1884: 1.
35 See “A Sharply Contested Game,” Trenton Times, July 28, 1884: 1; “A Terror in the Box,” Daily State Gazette, July 28, 1884: 3.
36 As reported in “Local Bunters,” Daily State Gazette, August 28, 1884: 3, and “The Ironsides Win,” Daily State Gazette, August 27, 1884: 3. The fine was $10.
37 Per “The Trentons Defeat the Yorks,” Daily State Gazette, August 28, 1884: 3.
38 See “One of Fox’s Whims,” Trenton Times, August 28, 1884: 1
39 See “An Exciting Game,” Daily State Gazette, August 29, 1884: 3.
40 See “City Notes,” Trenton Times, September 4, 1884: 1.
41 “Fox To Be Blacklisted,” Daily State Gazette, September 12, 1884: 3
42 Same as above. See also, “Nearly a Whitewash,” Trenton Times, September 12, 1884: 1.
43 Per “Trenton Beaten,” Sporting Life, September 24, 1884: 2. The Elizabeth AC won the game, 4-1.
44 As calculated by the writer from game accounts/box scores published in Trenton dailies. Baseball-Reference does not include his 1884 tenure with Trenton in its entry for John Fox.
45 The nine was also known as the J.L. Sullivan Club of Boston. See “Waterburys 10, Meridans 3,” New Haven (Connecticut) Register, July 26, 1885: 4.
46 The Biddeford signing of Fox was mentioned in “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, May 20, 1885: 7, and “The Second Lost,” Trenton Times, May 18, 1885: 1. Fox pitched and played shortstop for the Boston Unions in a 20-2 loss to Biddeford on May 6, per the Portland (Maine) Daily Press, May 7, 1885: 2.
47 The Fox pitching record is extracted from box and line scores published in various northern New England newspapers. Baseball-Reference provides only Fox’s batting stats with Biddeford.
48 Per “Notes,” Portland Daily Press, July 27, 1885: 2.
49 According to “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, November 4, 1885: 3.
50 “Questions Answered,” Sporting Life, July 14, 1886: 6.
51 The adjective used for Fox’s pitching in “Out Door Sports,” Washington (DC) Critic, August 10, 1886: 1.
52 “The Nationals’ New Pitcher Is Not a Success,” (Washington, DC) National Republican, August 10, 1886: 1. Elsewhere, it was noted that while Fox was “wild and ineffective,” errors by the Washington defense made ten of the runs surrendered by him unearned. See e.g., “Games Played Monday, Aug. 9,” Sporting Life, August 18, 1886: 4.
53 “Out on the Fly,” Boston Herald, August 31, 1886: 2.
54 Fox had no fielding chances during his one appearance as a major league shortstop.
55 Major League Player Profiles, above at 68, quoting the Boston Globe, December 1, 1889.
56 Per the Fox obituary in the Boston Globe, April 17, 1893: 5.