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Bob Fothergill

Bob Fothergill

Position(s):
OF
Nicknames:
Fats
Born:
August 16, 1897
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
5' 10"
Weight:
230 lbs
Major League Debut:
4-18-1922 with DET

Fothergill was an outstanding line-drive hitter more famous for his girth than his hits. Charitably listed at 230, the 5'10" outfielder was sensitive about his size and preferred Bob or Roy (his middle name) to Fat. The stories were told in every dugout: Leo Durocher once complained it was illegal to have two men in the batter's box; during a crash fasting program, Fothergill supposedly bit an umpire after a called third strike; there were several accounts of his shattering outfield fences in pursuit of fly balls. But he could hit. In 1927, his top year, he batted .359 with 114 RBI for the Tigers. Eventually relegated to pinch hitting, he led the AL with 19 in 1929. Of those with more than 200 pinch-hit at-bats, only Fothergill has posted a .300 career average.

Playing career

Born in Massillon, Ohio, Fothergill weighed 230 lb. at 5 ft. 11 in. and threw right-handed. He first played professional baseball in 1920 with Bloomington. The Tigers then acquired him and sent him to Rochester where he hit .338 in 1921. In 1922, he led the International League with a .383 batting average and was called up to the big leagues. (David Porter, "Biographical Dictionary of American Sports:A-F," p. 494)

Despite being a consistent .300 hitter from 1922–1925, Fothergill was unable to win a starting spot in a star-studded Tigers outfield that featured Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann, Bobby Veach, and later Heinie Manush. It was not until 1926 that Fothergill won a starting spot in the outfield, as Cobb's defensive play forced him to withdraw from his spot in center field.

Between 1926 and 1929, he was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. In 1926, he hit for a batting average of .367, 3rd highest in the American League behind Babe Ruth and Harry Heilmann. He also had a .421 on base percentage (7th best in the AL) and hit for the cycle on September 26, 1926. He finished No. 12 in the American League Most Valuable Player voting for 1926.

In 1927, Fothergill had his best overall season, as he batted .359 (4th in the AL), drove in 114 RBIs (5th in the AL), had a .516 slugging percentage (7th in the AL), and scored 93 runs (7th in the AL). He was once again among the league leaders in batting with a .354 average in 1929 (6th in the AL).

For his career, Fothergill had a .325 batting average -- the 40th best in major league history. He hit over .300 in 9 of his 12 major league seasons, including 5 seasons hitting over .340. He also hit 36 home runs, knocked in 582 RBIs, and had 1,064 hits.

During the latter half of his career, Fothergill became an accomplished pinch hitter. He is the only big leaguer to garner more than 200 pinch hits with a career batting average over .300. After Cobb's rookie season, Fothergill was the only batter to ever pinch-hit for Cobb. Fothergill holds the Detroit Tigers team record for most hits in a season as a pinch-hitter with 19 in 1929.

Fothergill was fearless as a pinch-hitter, even when he was injured. Teammate Ed Wells tells of a time when Cobb was looking for pinch-hitter in the 9th inning with men on base. Cobb looked down the bench and asked, "Who here can hit?" Fothergill had a badly sprained and taped ankle, but he volunteered, "I'll try." Cobb said, "My gosh, you can hardly walk." Cobb sent him in, and Fothergill hit a line drive into the right-field corner that should have been a double, but Fothergill fell about two-thirds of the way to first base. "He crawled the rest of the way and got a single. Just barely.... But that's the way we played ball back there and then." (Richard Bak, "Cobb Would Have Caught It: The Golden Age of Baseball in Detroit" (Wayne State 1993))

He finished his major league career playing for the Chicago White Sox (1930–1932) and Boston Red Sox (1933). He hit .344 in 28 games for the Red Sox, mostly as a pinch-hitter. He played his last major league game on July 5, 1933, was optioned to the Minneapolis Millers, and retired at the end of the 1933 season. (David Porter, "Biographical Dictionary of American Sports:A-F," p. 494.

The "Fats" Fothergill Legend

While he was a tremendous hitter in the 1920s, Fothergill is remembered more for his girth than his batting. Numerous books contain stories about the man who was known as "Fats" Fothergill. Fothergill enjoyed life to the fullest and died of a stroke at age 40. Baseball author Lee Allen wrote of Fothergill: "He was one of the last of those rare spirits who appeared to play for the fun of it, and he seemed to be able to extract the fullest amount of pleasure from life. After the game, you could find him with a thick porterhouse steak and a seidel of beer, and he would chuckle to himself and mumble out of the side of his mouth, 'Imagine getting paid for a life like this!'" (Lee Allen, "A Study in Suet," in "The Complete Armchair Book of Baseball (Sterling 1997), p. 3)

Fothergill's "official" weight was 230 pounds, but Tigers manager George Moriarty once joked that it was a moral victory when the dieting Fothergill trimmed down to 256 pounds.

Fothergill's temper at being teased over his girth led to one of the classic baseball stories. According to Baseball's Greatest Managers (1961), Leo Durocher, then an infielder with the Yankees, saw Fothergill at bat for the first time, called time and protested to the plate umpire that Fothergill was "illegal!" Everybody stopped, baffled at Durocher's words. He continued, "Both those men can't bat at once!" The umpires ordered Durocher to return to his position and stop delaying the game. But Fothergill was so angry he glared at Durocher and struck out on three pitches, chasing Durocher into the dugout at the end of the inning.

In 1926, columnist Joe Williams remarked: "His barrier to greatness is a Graf Zeppelin belt line." The 1933 edition of Who's Who in Major League Baseball took this playful jab at the Tiger outfielder: "Fothergill gets over the ground with great agility for one of his peculiar architecture."

Another oft-repeated Fothergill story recounts Fothergill being called out on strikes while on a crash diet (complete with rubber suits and Turkish baths) in 1928. An argument ensued during which Fothergill bit home plate umpire Bill Dinneen who then threw Fothergill out of the game, leading Fothergill to explain: "That's OK. That was the first bite of meat I've had in a month." (Nash & Zullo, "Hall of Shame"; Prime & Nowlin, "More Tales from the Red Sox Dugout" (Sports Publishing 2003), p. 52) The umpire biting story has even been reported on ESPN.com (in a column by Jeff Meron) and in a Washington Post column by Thomas Boswell.

In Richard Bak's "Cobb Would Have Caught It: The Golden Age of Baseball in Detroit" (Wayne State Univ. Press, 1991), Charlie Gehringer recalled his outsized teammate. "He had a time keeping his weight in shape, but he still ran pretty good. In fact, I remember we were in Philadelphia once and we were getting beat about 13-0 going into the last inning when he hit a home run. He's rounding the bases nice and easy--and then when he gets to third base he comes running like a freight train and does a complete flip in the air and lands on home plate! Never saw him do that before."

Gehringer told another story about Forthergill and owner Frank Navin. Navin was constantly riding Fothergill about his weight problem. When Fothergill came to Navin's office in the winter to negotiate his contract, he wore a big, heavy overcoat to conceal the weight he had put on in the offseason. Navin figured out what Fothergill was up to and turned the heat way up in his office. Navin then sat back and engaged Fothergill in a long, drawn-out conversation about his family, hunting, and anything but the contract. As sweat poured off Fothergill, Navin suggested that he take off the coat, but Fothergill insisted he was comfortable. When the conversation finally got around to the contract, Fothergill wanted to get out of Navin's hot office so badly that he accepted Navin's first offer. Donald Honig, "Baseball When the Grass Was Real: Baseball from the Twenties to the Forties..." (Nebraska Press 1993), pp. 43–44)

Gehringer also once said of Fothergill: "He was about as round as he was tall."

Fothergill once got into a beer drinking contest with Babe Ruth and teammate Harry Heilmann and won handily.

Later years

After leaving baseball, Fothergill played sandlot baseball in Detroit and worked for the Ford Motor Company in Highland Park, Michigan. He was hired as the coach of the baseball team at Lawrence Institute of Technology in January 1938, but he suffered two strokes and died in March. Fothergill was 40 years old when he died at St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital in Detroit.

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