Before They Were The Rangers, Pt. 3: Ted Williams and Nellie Fox
Nellie Fox was a Hall of Fame player. Inducted by the Veterans Committee in 1997, Fox enjoyed a 19 year career as a second baseman, mainly for the Chicago White Sox. Fox was the epitome of the “pesky” hitter. He only hit 35 home runs in his career, but he struck out less than any player of his era. Look at Fox’ career stats at Baseball-Reference.com and you’ll see that in an average 162-game season, Fox would strike out only 15 times. The man made contact with the ball, constantly, and rode it to a career .288 average.
Fox ended his career with the expansion Houston Astros in 1964 and 1965. Another Hall of Fame second baseman, Joe Morgan, credits Fox for helping him with his approach at the plate and to baseball. It is this aspect that Nellie Fox isn’t as well known for, but he should.
Ted Williams was also a Hall of Famer. The Splendid Splinter was perhaps the best pure hitter in baseball history, A career .344 hitter, Williams is baseball’s all-time On Base Percentage leader, reaching base over 48% of the time for his career.
Both Fox and Williams were great players. The first time they got together after their playing careers was nothing short of miraculous.
The expansion Senators had been in the American League since 1961 and had nary a single winning season to show for it. In 1968, they were coming off a 65-96 campaign under first-year manager Jim Lemon. New owner Bob Short, who three years later would move the team to Texas, decided a change was needed. Lemon was dismissed and the Senators, also hurting at the gate, made a decision that was as much based on getting people through the gates as they were with improving the team. They hired one of the greatest players of all time, Ted Williams, to manage the team.
Williams had to cringe when looking at his team for the first time. He was taking over a team that had a TEAM batting average of .224 in 1968. Even taking away pitchers’ at bats, the Senators hit a woeful .231.
Williams wasn’t hired as a hitting coach. He was the manager. Someone else would have to handle the day to day chores of working with the batters. In fact, it might have even been a necessity. Williams was cantankerous as a player and had a little patience when dealing with athletes who didn’t match his own talent level. Williams turned to his fellow All-Star, Nellie Fox. Fox, the hitting coach for the ’68 team, stayed on board and would be Williams’ hitting coach through his entire tenure as manager of the Senators and Rangers.
Both the manager Williams and the hitting coach Fox had reputations for making contact, not striking out much and drawing walks. Both routinely walked multiple more times than they struck out. Now they were coaching a team for whom recognizing the strike zone was a challenge. The Senators big slugger, Frank Howard, hit 44 home runs and drove in 106 runs in ’68, but he also struck out 141 times. Epstein struck out 91 times while only managing 13 homers.
Williams had not yet written his book “The Science of Hitting.” He had it in his head, though, and for the first time, he had a blank canvas to put it to the test. In Nellie Fox, he had a kindred hitting spirit who had better rapport with the players and who could help explain things better, having been a player who had to work harder than anyone to milk everything he could get from his limited athleticism.
The 1969 Rangers were essentially a carbon copy of the ’68 team in terms of personnel. Among the players Fox inherited was first baseman Mike Epstein, a power hitter with a .234 average in ’68; second baseman Bernie Allen (.241), center fielder Del Unser (.230), right fielder Ed Stroud (.239) and shortstop Ed Brinkman (.187). Fox had his work cut out for him.
Here’s what Williams and Fox accomplished in their first year with the Senators. Epstein went from .234 to .278. In ’68 he had 48 walks and 91 strikeouts. In ’69 he improved to 85 walks and 99 strikeouts. His home run output also increased dramatically, going from 13 to 30 in one year’s time. Second baseman Allen only went from .241 to .247 in batting average but his OBP went from .301 to .337, thanks to increasing his walks from 28 to 50. Frank Howard still slugged his way to 48 homers and 111 RBI, but his walks went from 54 to 102 while cutting his strikeouts from 141 to 96. Del Unser’s batting average went up 56 points in one season. And perhaps the biggest turnaround at the plate came from the light-hitting shortstop.
Ed Brinkman had a reputation as a great defensive shortstop. The problem with Brinkman was he couldn’t hit a lick in the majors. One of the original Senators thanks to a September call-up in 1961, Brinkman entered the 1969 season as a career .208 hitter. He had a little extra base power, with a career high 8 home runs in 1964, but he was a pretty free swinger. In 1964, he had 26 walks and 99 strikeouts. Two years later he walked only 29 times while whiffing 105 times. Brinkman was a mess, so much so that by ’68 he had lost his job to Ron Hansen, getting it back only because Hansen was traded to the White Sox.
Brinkman never became what could be considered an outstanding offensive player, but he blossomed and had the best years of his career under the tutelage of Fox and Williams. From .185 in 1968, Brinkman became a .266 hitter in 1969. From someone who once had 105 strikeouts to 29 walks, the 1969 season saw Brinkman draw a career high 50 walks while striking out a mere 42 times. The 1970 season turned out even better, with Brinkman hitting about the same at .262, while increasing his walks to 60.
As a team, the Senators as a team saw their batting average increase from .224 to .251, their On Base Percentage increase from .287 to .330 and their runs scored from 524 to 694, all with virtually the same players from the previous year. Not surprisingly, the Senators went from 65-96 in 1968 to 86-76 in 1969, the only winning season the Senators had before moving to Texas.
Ted Williams gets all the credit for the Senators 1969 season and, in fact, earned AL Manager of the Year honors that season. At the very least, Nellie Fox deserves an honorable mention for the part he played on that team.
- Remembering The Washington Senators, Part 1 (mlblogsonestrikeawaytwice.wordpress.com)