NOTES: This is a free excerpt from my book, Eastern Shore Road Trips #2: 26 More One-Day Adventures on Delmarva. Enjoy! More info on the book here.
JIMMIE FOX OF SUDLERVILLE
Itty bitty Sudlersville is the first of four stops in this tour of the Shore’s rich baseball history. Located off of Route 301 as it heads up from Queenstown toward Delaware, this town with a population of just 497 is the birthplace of one of the greatest sluggers of all time, Jimmie Foxx.
At the corner of Main and Church Streets, there is a statue of the man known during his career as “Double X” and “The Beast.” And there is an array of Foxx memorabilia on display in the town’s old train station.
Foxx dropped out of high school to join a minor league team in nearby Easton, but he didn’t stay long. The team sold Foxx to the Philadelphia A’s, and he soon made his major league debut in 1925 at the tender age of 17.
Foxx’s career spanned 20 years with the A’s and Boston Red Sox. He hit 30 or more home runs in a dozen straight seasons. He had 100 or more RBI in 13 straight years. In 1932, he hit 58 home runs. He actually hit 60 that year—enough to tie Babe Ruth’s then-record total—but he lost two homers to rainouts. In 1929, when he was hitting better than .400 deep into July, he landed on the cover of Time magazine. He won three MVP awards.
Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez famously said of Foxx: “He has muscles in his hair.”
The most amazing Foxx factoid of them all is this: He held the record for being the youngest player to reach 500 career home runs for an astounding 68 years—until Alex Rodriguez passed the mark at a slightly younger age. Foxx was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1951.
His relationship with his hometown over the years was a bit complicated. Sudlersville held big banquets in his honor in both 1929 and 1933. At the first one, everyone got up to sing a ditty titled “Jimmie Boy! Our Jimmie Boy!” to the tune of “Maryland My Maryland.” At the second one, the tune was “Jingle Bells” and the lyrics began: “Jimmie Foxx, Jimmie Foxx is our hometown boy, he can hit the ball so hard it fills our hearts with joy …”
After his career ended, Foxx lived in Ohio, mostly. He came back home with some frequency, but managed somehow to lose some of the affection his hometown had previously displayed. There are rumors of some hard drinking. Foxx also had financial woes later in life, and there is one story about how on a visit back to Sudlersville no one in town would cash a check for him.
On the other hand, there was Gil Dunn. A lifelong fan, Dunn put up a makeshift wall of tribute to Foxx in the pharmacy he ran on Kent Island. Later, he started begging for and even buying memorabilia. He started promoting the little corner of tribute as the Jimmie Foxx Museum.
Foxx himself showed up at the pharmacy one day in 1967. He led Dunn out to his car and opened the trunk.
“Here is some stuff you may have. … Nobody else wants it,” Foxx said. The treasure trove included MVP awards, gloves, uniforms, baseballs, and more. That’s the heart of the collection that is in the train station today—as of this writing, the station is open on the first and third Saturdays of the warmer months, or by appointment.
Foxx passed away at age 59 in 1967 by choking on a piece of food while visiting his brother in Florida. With the passage of time, Sudlersville has come back around and re-embraced its native son. His statue went up on Main Street in 1997. There is talk of expanding the train station and making the Foxx memorabilia into a stand-alone attraction.
One last bit of Foxx trivia before we move on. Shortly after he retired from baseball, Foxx spent a year managing a professional women’s team, the Fort Wayne Daisies. The Tom Hanks movie “A League of Their Own” is based loosely on what happened that season.
WILLIAM “SWISH” NICHOLSON OF CHESTERTOWN
Stop two on the baseball tour is Chestertown, the hometown of William “Swish” Nicholson. The son of a local farming family, Nicholson might never have reached baseball stardom if it wasn’t for being color blind. That’s why the Naval Academy rejected his application. Instead, he stayed home and went to Washington College.
Nicholson made his big-league debut with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1936, but it was with the Chicago Cubs between 1939 and 1948 that he really made a name for himself. Cubs fans used to chant his nickname over and over when Nicholson came up to bat. He twice led the National League in home runs and runs batted in. He was the star of the team in 1945, when the Cubs made it to the World Series, but lost.
Physical problems associated with diabetes led to Nicholson’s retirement. He came back to Chestertown and lived the rest of his life on the family farm. In 1991, the town held a big dinner in his honor. Lots of big leaguers showed up to sing Nicholson’s praises and the event led to a local fundraising drive that rounded up $35,000 in private money to put a statue of Nicholson up in front of City Hall in 1992. That’s where it stands today.
Nicholson died in 1996—he is buried outside of town in the Old St. Paul’s Churchyard. My favorite bit of trivia about him dates to a July 23, 1944 doubleheader against the New York Giants. Nicholson hit home runs in four consecutive at bats that day. When he came up again in the eighth inning of the second game, the bases were loaded. But the Giants had seen enough. They walked him intentionally to force in a run. No one else in baseball received such a bases-loaded intentional walk for more than 50 years after that, until Barry Bonds got the same treatment in a 1998 game.
So you know what else is in the area, here is Kent County Tourism.
FRANK “HOME RUN” BAKER OF TRAPPE
Stop three is Home Run Baker Park, which is in the heart of Trappe, in Talbot County. Frank Baker’s roots on the Eastern Shore ran deep—his farming family went back six generations working the lands hereabouts.
Legend has it that Baker had decided to pursue a baseball career by age 10. As a teenager he played with minor league teams in Ridgely and Cambridge. He also played briefly for the minor league Baltimore Orioles whose manager, Jack Dunn, rather infamously, cut Baker loose because he “could not hit.”
Baker made his big league debut with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1908, at age 22. This was the height of so-called “dead ball era” when home runs were few and far between. Baker led the American League in home runs four times, but the most he ever hit in a single season was 12. His most famous long balls came against the New York Giants in the 1911 World Series. In Game 2, he hit the go ahead home run off of the famous Rube Marquard. In Game 3, he hit one off of the even more famous Christy Mathewson to tie the game in the ninth inning. The A’s would win that game in 11 innings—and the series in six games.
The big photo on top of this story shows the A’s walking onto the field for a game during that 1911 series. Baker is second from left. He and the A’s went to four World Series between 1910 and 1914, winning three of them. This was the team that had the famous “$100,000 Infield,” which historian Bill James has rated as the greatest of all time.
Baker sat out 1915 in a contract dispute, which eventually ended with him being sold to the New York Yankees. In 1919, that city’s newspaper cartoonist Robert Ripley invented the term “Murderer’s Row” to describe the power-hitting quartet of Baker, Wally Pipp, Roger Peckinpaugh, and Ping Bodie. Baker played in two more World Series with the Yankees—both losing efforts.
The dead ball era came to a close with the rise of Babe Ruth in the 1920s. Baker’s theory about the sudden surge in home runs was that the league had switched to a new type of “rabbit” ball. After his retirement, Baker returned home. He managed the minor league Easton Farmers for a while—it was he who discovered Jimmie Foxx and sold his contract to the Philadelphia A’s. Then he settled back into the farming business. He was a member of the Trappe town board for while, as well as a volunteer firefighter.
Baker was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955. He died in 1963, and he is buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Easton.
DELMARVA SHOREBIRDS AND THE EASTERN SHORE BASEBALL HALL OF FAME
Another Hall of Famer with Eastern Shore roots is William Julius “Judy” Johnson. He was born in Snow Hill in 1899, but his family moved up to Wilmington, Del. when he was just five years old. Johnson was the best third basemen in the Negro Leagues for most of the 1920s and 1930s. He went on to become the first black coach in the major leagues when he joined the staff of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1954. He was the sixth black player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame.
As far as I know, there is nothing in Snow Hill that memorializes Johnson’s birth—there is a statue of him outside of the stadium where the minor league Wilmington Blue Rocks play. But you can pay your respects to Johnson without leaving the Shore at stop four on our tour, Perdue Stadium in Salisbury. This is the home of the minor league Delmarva Shorebirds, and you should definitely take in a game. The Shorebirds serve up a wonderful, family friendly game day experience. Plus, it’s affordable as all get out.
Be sure to arrive at the stadium early. Inside is the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame. Founded in 1997, it has an eclectic mix of old photos, uniforms, bats, balls, gloves, letters, programs, tickets, trophies, and more. The Washington Post once said, “It is the way a baseball museum should feel: like digging through your grandparents’ attic.”
One wall there has photos of all 28 big league players in history who hail from the Delmarva Peninsula. There is fascinating stuff about the old Eastern Shore League teams in the early part of the 1900s. Admission is free. The museum opens an hour before every home game. As of this writing, it’s also open all day on Mondays during the baseball season. Offseason visits are available by appointment.
In the comments below, you will see that a couple of readers have pitched in with additional examples of big leaguers from the area. The great Harold Baines, pictured here with the statue erected in his honor at White Sox park in Chicago, probably would be in the Hall of Fame today if it weren’t for a rickety set of knees that restricted him to the designated hitter position for much of his career. He grew up in St. Michaels, the town he still calls home in retirement. The pitcher Chuck Churn, who grew up in Bridgetown on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, pitched for three teams, including the world champion 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers. And Delino DeShields, who enjoyed a 13-year big-league career, hails from Seaford, Del.
–written by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.
NOTE: The photo up top shows the Philadelphia A’s walking onto the field for a game during the 1911 World Series. Frank Home Run Baker is second from left. The next photos show Jimmie Foxx on the cover of Time magazine and then Foxx with fellow sluggers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Cochrane. The rest of the pictures are self-explanatory. The Shorebirds’ mascot is named Sherman.