A Major League Journey
08/18/2017 09:02AM ● Published by Christy Quebedeaux
Gallery: Terry Fox [8 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Suzanne Ferrara | Photos by Fusion Photography
“I am blessed and grateful to have played and been associated with the older ball players of my time, and if God were in front of me today, I would say ‘thank you.’ I don’t know if I could ever reciprocate his goodness and kindness.”
Those are the words of 82-year-old Terry Fox, a retired Major League Baseball relief pitcher and closer, who spends his days in New Iberia tending his cattle and spending time with his 14 grand and great-grandchildren. From 1960 to 1966, the Chicago native played seven big league seasons with the Milwaukee Braves, Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies. It’s a career that didn’t happen overnight. “We worked hard back then because there were several minor league teams, and we had to move all over the country-- sometimes a few times in one year.”
Fox was first introduced to America’s pastime in grade school in the late 1930s, and then in high school, he not only pitched for the Midlothian Blue Jays, but also played “community ball” in which there were no restrictions or age brackets. “It didn’t matter if you were 16 or 38 years old, and there wasn’t a limit on how many players you could have.”
While Fox is quick to say baseball was his number one joy in high school, in the same breath he admits he was focused on a bigger challenge that not many knew about. “I was more concerned about getting through high school. I had dyslexia and it was hard for me to spell and write words; sometimes the numbers would be out of place because I would see them differently.” Fox says this personal challenge wasn’t his only character-building lesson. “Playing in high school was very competitive and favoritism was given to certain people as it is today in high school. Sometimes there was too much influence of family and money.”
Fox, who stood six-feet tall and weighed 175 pounds, was far from spoon-fed in high school. This son of two hard-working parents also worked nights stacking and unloading box cars for a fruit auction house in Chicago. “I could move quick and get the job done, and I enjoyed making the money.” During those weeknights, he hardly slept. “I signed up to be the school hall guard so I was able to sleep for 75 minutes in the hall chair at school until it was time to go to my first class.”
Upon graduation in 1953, the 17-year-old Fox decided to go with an older man to minor league tryouts in Milwaukee. “The Milwaukee Braves were having the tryout at night, and there were about 25-to-35 young people trying for all different positions. They’d have you throw on the sidelines, then they would tell you go out to batting practice. So, after I did that I asked them, ‘What do you think?’ They replied, ‘You have good control, but you don’t throw hard enough.’”
He then tried out for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago White Sox who both offered him a D-contract worth $150 a month. Fox turned down both. Two weeks later, his break came during a trial with The Atlanta Crackers, a double-A team in the Southern Association. “They were playing a regular game, and as the game progressed they threw me in to pitch three innings. I struck out six batters and the scout offered me a ‘C’-contract for $250 a month.”
Fox was sent to play for the New Iberia Pelicans, and success came quickly. “I was Rookie of the Year in 1955 for New Iberia; I had a 13-4 record, and New Iberia won the championship.” That success got Fox thinking. “I asked for a $100 pay raise because I was rookie of the year and because I was doing well, but all they could give me was $50, so I was making $300 a month.”
An intangible force was driving Fox’s career train, and it was at this time Fox had a long talk with God in St. Peter’s Catholic Church in New Iberia. “I asked God if he would give me a chance to pitch in the majors. I just wanted a chance to see if I could pitch in the big leagues, and I wasn’t asking to be a star or a prominent ball player. I just wanted a chance to pitch.”
It was also in New Iberia that the native Chicagoan met his Cajun wife (and Loreauville native) Shirley Dugas. “A bunch of girls were hanging around because there was new blood in town, and we went to their games and to the Teche Club, where the ball players would go,” Shirley explains that’s where they first laid eyes on each other. “I fell for him. He had good looks, a great personality and was very polite. He wasn’t like the Cajun guys, I guess,” laughs Shirley. They were married six months later in January, 1956.
But something else happened that month, something that would linger throughout his major league career. While polishing his car, Fox somehow injured his shoulder, and while it didn’t stop him, “… from that time on it bothered me.”
Fox went to play for the Atlanta Crackers that same year, and over the next four seasons, the parent-club Milwaukee Braves moved his family to nearly a half dozen cities, including stints with the Austin Senators and Mexico City Aztecs. “I have a wonderful wife that was so strong and picked up everything and moved everywhere I needed to go, fully supporting what I do.”
But Fox’s constant movement in the minors was paving his way to the Big Leagues. Remember the conversation Fox had with God at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in 1954? “You see, God was working with me all along to get me to Sacramento (his next stop) where they put me in the bullpen as a relief pitcher. I got to pitch a lot, and I was satisfied with that because I was doing well.” He was 9-and-3 and making $1,300 a month.
The pivotal moment came in 1960 when the Sacramento Solons’ general manager went into the bullpen and called Fox over. “’The Braves want you to report tomorrow to meet them in Cincinnati,’ he told me. I said to him, ‘How am I going to get my family to do that by tomorrow?’ He replied, ‘The Braves said if you can’t make it by the morning, they don’t want you’.”
When he arrived in Cincinnati, Reds general manager John McHale offered him the minimum salary of $7,000, which was less than he’d made in Sacramento. Fox knew he wanted this shot more than anything, “So I told him, ‘Mr. McHale, I’m going to sign the contract to prove to you as well as to myself that I can possibly pitch in the big leagues. And that’s how God got me to the big leagues.”
At age 25, Fox made his first major league appearance a few days later in Milwaukee. Fox pitched well, but the biggest moment came after the game. Walking out of the stadium, Fox was greeted by his wife, two daughters, two brothers, his mother and father and several aunts and uncles. “My wife drove from California, and packed the car with the kids and two dogs and drove all the way to meet my parents in Chicago, and then they all drove to Milwaukee to see me. My wife is quite a person.”
Fox’s shoulder got progressively worse, and he began getting cortisone shots regularly to relieve the pain. “I would pay the team physician of the Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers, to give me injections in my shoulder. He knew what he was doing, but there were many others who couldn’t hit the spot and I would suffer through the whole game.”
In his six-and-a-half year major league career—with the Braves, Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies, Fox never had a losing season. He made $19,000 a year with Philadelphia Phillies, a stark contrast to today’s average salary of $4.5 million (according to USA TODAY’s annual salary survey).
There were certainly notable highlights: In September of 1961, Fox surrendered Roger Maris’ 58th home run; and in 1962, Fox pitched eight innings in what was the longest big league game in 20 years. “It went 22 innings and lasted seven hours, and they were happy I pitched eight innings. Unlike today, there wasn’t a schedule; you would stay in the game if you were pitching well enough, whereas today, the shortman or closer will come in and pitch one inning or to just one batter.”
Fox’s shoulder continued to hamper his playing. In 1967, pitching for Class AAA San Diego Padres, the pain finally won out. “I had to get a shot in my arm three different times in the year in order to finish,” says Fox.
Fox believes the professional game today is a victim of excessive showmanship. “There’s too much individualism and all these players want to be noticed; it’s becoming a show and that’s the sad thing. Back in the day,” he continues, “all of the major leaguers respected baseball. You knew what it took to get there; it took everyone a long time to get there. Today, sadly, I don’t think a lot of them respect baseball like the ballplayers of yesterday.”
After his baseball career, Fox worked for Texaco and then sold cars. In recent years, he’s had to give up playing with a traveling softball team of which he played for 16 years. “I played in the 80-bracket, but I’ve had to quit because I can’t see the ball like I used to. I am disappointed, because that was the last thing I enjoyed in life was playing softball; it’s like when I was playing with major leagues and I had the shoulder pain; you just have to accept it.” Today, he shags balls for players in the 60 and 70-bracket. “I love the camaraderie.”
Yes, he’s coached his son and a grandson through baseball, but at 82 years old, he’s particularly excited to have his great-grandson, six-year-old Carter, coming to his home to learn how to play baseball for the first time. “God willing, I hope he gives me some time to do it.”