OUT OF LEFT FIELD
WAKING UP ECHOES OF
Behind the story of an unbelievable romance
By STAN ISAACS
Ryan Howard, the Philadelphia Phillies' Monster Masher, has gained national attention of late by tattooing home runs since the All Star Game. He reached the last week of the season with 58 homers, tying the record for most homers by a Philadelphia player set by Jimmie Foxx of the Philadelphia (long defunct) Athletics.
It seems fitting then to relate an astonishing story involving slugger Jimmie Foxx, one of baseballs all time greats. Foxx played for 20 seasons with the Athletics and Boston Red Sox. He tacked on two seasons during World War II with the Chicago Cubs and Phillies. He won three Most Valuable Player awards, wound up with 534 home runs (second only to Babe Ruth at the time of his retirement in 1945), drove in 100 runs or more for 13 consecutive seasons and had a .325 lifetime batting average.
When he led the league with 58 homers in 1932 he lost two other home runs. They were hit early in games that were washed out before the game became official, so the homers did not count. (Interestingly, Ryan Howard lost a 56th homer when the umpire mistakenly awarded him only a double for a ball batted back into play by a fan; this should have been ruled a homer.)
Foxx came off a farm on the eastern shore of Maryland as a teenager to play pro ball. He was unsophisticated, a generous free-spender who liked to, as they say, take a drink.
It was astounding then in 1996 to come across a story in the Philadelphia Weekly about a secret love affair between Foxx and Judy Holliday, the acclaimed comedienne on stage and screen, Best Actress Oscar-winner for Born Yesterday. It came about because a writer named Tom McGrath wrote about a cache of love letters between the pair.
At the time Foxx was 37, finishing out his career with the lowly Phillies. Holliday, 24, was drawing rave notices for a supporting role in a Broadway play, Kiss Them for Me.
The relationship was hard to believe because Holliday was a hip, politically liberal woman with an IQ of 172. It seemed unbelievable that she would have an affair with this brawny, unlettered ballplayer. But I checked with friends in Philadelphia at the time and they informed me that the Philadelphia Weekly was a respectable alternative newspaper with a good reputation.
The five-page spread included 14 letters. McGrath said they had come to him from the wife of a friend who had just died. The friend, who said he had been a clubhouse boy for the Phillies in 1945, had told McGrath the letters were between Foxx and Doris Day.
I was skeptical, McGrath wrote. After the friend named Eddie died, McGrath wrote, his wife dropped off the box of letters and they turned out to be a correspondence between Foxx and Holliday, not Day. (Eddie was never much for getting names straight, McGrath wrote.)
The letters traced the growing relationship between the two. They seemingly met in early April, 1945 at a bar in New York when Foxx was in town with the Phillies. Foxx notes that the Phils will be back in New York soon to play the Dodgers, and writes, How about if me and Merv take you and Bev out for a night on the town? Well show you a real major-league good time.
In a letter to Foxx dated May 2 Holliday writes, Boy, you sure know how to make a girls heart race, dont you? Your package arrived this morning, and when I opened it and saw what it was, I nearly dropped dead on the floor.
It was a fur coat, and McGrath notes that it indicated the pair must have really hit it off. Later, Holliday writes, Today I did nothing but think of you--your warm eyes, your big safe arms, your easy laugh.
Foxx tells her about his failing skills. Is there a sadder sight than me on the baseball field these days? He says it wasnt always like this. Back when I was playing for the As I could have hit a ball across the Grand Canyon using only one arm and with my eyes closed.
Before Foxx May 19 letter to her, McGrath notes, Starting in late May the letters between the two became more frequent and more intimate. Indeed, the letters-which Holiday sent from New York and Foxx sent from St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cincinnati-are a remarkable account of two people in love.
McGrath explains that her reference to Lenny who had an altercation at a party with Foxx probably was Leonard Bernstein, the acclaimed composer and conductor, who was a friend of Hollidays. She tells Foxx not to be bothered by what Bernstein said. Youre twice the man he is, no matter how far you went in school or how many books youve read or how many times youve been to the symphony.
Foxx writes about his plan to ask that he be allowed to pitch a game because he had been a pretty good pitcher before Aa manager Connie Mack converted him to an everyday player. I looked up Foxx record and sure enough he was credited with one victory as a pitcher in 1945; he pitched in nine games in 45 and one in39.
In the end Foxx realizes that its time for him to retire as a player and settle down. He writes, Why dont me and you buy a little farm down in Maryland or somewhere, and just be together there?
This scares Holliday. She breaks off the relationship. She writes on Sept. 20, I love you right out of my mind, but Im afraid right now that I cant love you I have this feeling that something big is about to happen to me, something that couldnt happen in Maryland or Philadelphia or wherever you and I would be together.
She opened in Born Yesterday on Broadway in February. Her career took off after that.
A note with the piece in the Philadelphia Weekly says McGrath, a Philadelphia writer, is currently talking to [publisher] William Morrow about publishing the complete collection of the Foxx-Holliday letters in book form.
I decided to call McGrath to find out how he was making out getting the letters published. He did not return several calls. Finally, we connected. When we did, McGrath quickly interrupted before I could ask a question.
He said, I have to tell you that none of it is true.
I was stunned. What! None of it true? A hoax?
With obvious embarrassment McGrath said, We thought the whole thing was so improbable we assumed people wouldnt take it seriously. Some saw through it, but I confess that others didnt. McGrath was a freelance writer. He said the idea originated with Philadelphia Weekly editor Tom Whitaker in connection with the upcoming All-Star Game in Philadelphia in 1996.
Foxx was a local guy, McGrath said, a great player, and we thought this would be a good way to honor him. We were sitting around brainstorming, looking at movie stars and she seemed like a good fit.
The piece was cleverly done. The unsuspecting buy the little errors, i.e. a reference to Harry Truman as Vice President when he already was President. And Foxx misspells the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia. The spread reproduced a letter by her on the stationery of The Dakota Apartments in New York, one by him from the William Penn Hotel in Philly. There is a reference to teammate Vince DiMaggio, Joes brother, who did play for the Phillies that one year.
McGrath said, I would have liked it to have been packaged better with a wink. That would have given people more of a hint that it was a joke. Editor Whitaker said there was no reason to explain the hoax. It was just a winsome thing to do, a way to celebrate Foxx, who is almost forgotten by many people. People didnt seem to mind that it was a hoax because they were happy to see Foxx remembered.
In actuality Foxx came to a sad end. An alcoholic, he squandered the $270,000 he had made as a ball player. He filed for bankruptcy in 1961. Friends were shocked by his appearance. He was drinking, out of work and needed money. Many shut their doors to him.
His last hurrah was as the manager of the Fort Wayne Daisies in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. He didnt like the job and was the inspiration for the crusty, boozy manager played by Tom Hanks in the 1992 movie, A League of their Own.
In 1963 Foxx suffered a major heart attack. In 1967, at age 59, he choked to death on a piece of meat in the shabby Miami bungalow he shared with a brother. On Oct. 25, 1997 his home town of Sudlersville, MD unveiled a statue of him in a tiny park along its main street.
Judy Holliday had died in 1965 at the age of 43 of breast cancer.
©2006 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The photo of JImmie Foxx is courtesy of the official Jimmie Foxx website. This column first posted Sept. 25, 2006.
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