Grave Story: Howard Fox (1920-2011)

Here lies Howard Fox, who spent nearly 60 years with the Minnesota Twins in a management capacity. Starting as a minor-league general manager, he rose through the ranks and helped to build the Twins into a World Series Champion team.

Howard Tall Fox was born in Emporia, Va., on September 4, 1920. He grew up on a peanut farm and attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Fox enlisted in the Army and served as a Captain until 1946. His baseball career started back in his hometown after his discharge, as he helped to launch a semi-pro league while helping at his father’s peanut business in the offseason.

The mausoleum at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, Minn., where Howard Fox is interred.

“Finally we decided it would be just as well to go out-and-out pro and get the benefit of a minor league affiliation,” he explained in a 1960 interview with Minnesota sportswriter Halsey Hall. “We joined up with Washington in 1947 where Ossie Bluege had decided to expand the Senators’ farm system. I had had some experience as you know, so Ossie made me the general manager of the club.”

He served as the GM of the Emporia club until 1950 and took on the same role for farm teams in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., Danville, Va., and Orlando, Fla. He was promoted to the parent club, first as the publicity director and then, in October 1956, as the traveling secretary. He headed to the Twin Cities with the rest of the team when the Senators became the Minnesota Twins in 1961.

The role of the traveling secretary then was to oversee hotel reservations and transportation, hand out meal money and generally take care of the players. He coordinated with other teams’ ticket managers to pick up the visitors’ share of the money. Fox handled all the details for the players’ trip to Spring Training, and he worked with the manager to assign road trip roommates. Then there were the “other duties as assigned.” If a player was demoted to the minors, Fox may have to break the news. Much of the care and management of equipment and uniforms was under his charge, too. Essentially, he was a den mother for 24 baseball players. It is not a glamorous job, but it’s a vital one for day-to-day functions of a baseball team.

“When the guys go out on the field they shouldn’t be thinking of anything but heads-up baseball,” Fox said. “I try to take care of all their outside problems so they can really concentrate on the game.”

Howard Fox, riding in his usual spot behind the bus driver. Source: Star Tribune, July 14, 1963.

The role of a traveling secretary is largely an anonymous one, but when Billy Martin is on your team, sometimes the news finds you. Fox, 46, and Martin, 38 and a Twins coach, got into a fist fight in a Washington D.C. hotel in the early hours of July 19, 1966. The trouble started hours earlier on a chartered flight that the Twins and New York Yankees shared to Washington. Fox, who was not directly quoted in any articles I found, told Twins beat writer Bill Hengen that Martin and some of the Yankees players were antagonizing the plane’s steward and that Martin kept talking about the incident on the bus to the hotel. Martin, who was widely interviewed, said that a couple of Yankees players were involved in the plane altercation, but he stayed out of it. Fox, who was traveling with his wife, Yvonne, objected to the vulgar language that was being used.

Once the team bus reached the Statler-Hilton Hotel, Martin was allegedly the last person on the Twins to get his hotel key. When he did, Fox threw it at his face. That caused the fists to fly. Before it was broken up, Fox ended up with a bloody nose and a cut. Martin was fined $100 for using vulgarity in the presence of women.

“…I know he hates he and never did like me from the moment I joined this club in 1961,” Martin said of Fox.

The bad feelings continued until Martin was fired from his job as Twins manager after the 1969 season. Fox, who by then had added the title of vice president along with traveling secretary, purposely stayed out of the decision-making process to fire him. Martin, though, blamed Fox and Twins exec Sherry Robertson, neither of whom particularly liked the manager, of conspiring against him.

“I stepped on the traveling secretary’s toes, but I did it politely,” Martin said. “I think the Twins are the only club where a traveling secretary is more powerful than the manager.”

Martin, it must be noted, is one of the game’s most legendary assholes and is most remembered now for the frequency that he was fired from managerial jobs.

Due to the breadth of his job, Fox worked closely with Twins owner Calvin Griffith. Because of that close relationship, Fox was often dismissed as Griffith’s hatchet man or errand boy. As time wore on, Fox became a right-hand man to owner Griffith and took on more responsibilities, including giving his input on Twins players and managers and negotiating contracts. There were some reports that members of the Griffith family were a little jealous of Fox’s closeness with the owner and sought to minimize Fox’s role. As chairman of the Twins executive committee, Fox was the highest-ranking person not in Griffith’s immediate family. He and a few other non-family vice presidents were called “The Voices in the Wilderness,” for their ability to bend the ear of the owner.

At times, Fox seemed a little too old-school to adjust to contemporary players. His insistence on adhering to a specific dress code caused some bad relations on the Twins. He and Griffith (it’s hard to say who specifically) insisted that the Twins insignia on players socks show below the pant leg. Outfielder Ken Landreaux, though, wore high stirrups that hid the logo. Twins manager Gene Mauch had to play the role of enforcer and bench Landreaux, causing tension on the team and ultimately leading to Mauch’s resignation. Fox also insisted that players wear ties on flights, and he repeatedly fined reliever Mike Marshall for his refusal to comply — $100 per infraction.

“I didn’t wear a tie to Boston, we’ve got a trip to Toledo Thursday (for an exhibition game) and then the trip back home. By the time Howard Fox gets done with me, I’m going to have an awful lot of grievances to file,” Marshall told The Minneapolis Star on May 13, 1980.

Griffith faded into the background until he divested himself of the Twins completely in 1984, selling the franchise to Carl Pohlad. Instead of bringing in his own president, Pohlad named Fox as the team’s Chief Executive Officer and said that Fox was the man who convinced him to buy the team.

“Mr. Pohlad wants a winner and a first-class operation. He will spend the money we need to put a first-class product on the field,” he said.

Fox could be ruthless. Shortly after he stepped into the role of president, he fired Clark Griffith, Calvin Griffith’s son and a Twins executive. Calvin Griffith’s surviving brothers, Billy and Jimmy Robertson, were dismissed as well. The elder Griffith, in his retirement, downplayed Fox’s role for all those years with the Twins. He even stated in an authorized biography that Fox did a “hatchet job” on the Griffith family.

Fox, as president, was able to do things like give a $100,000 bonus to Kirby Puckett after a superb rookie season. The tight-fisted Griffith would have frowned at that kind of expense. He also signed some of the Twins’ homegrown talent like Kent Hrbek to contract extensions and brought in some key pieces, like Roy Smalley, Tom Brunansky and Bert Blyleven. He hired Tom Kelly as manager in the last month of the 1986 season.

Sure enough, the Twins won the World Series in 1987. By then, Fox’s role had changed drastically. After a poor 1986 season, Fox stepped back from the day-to-day side of the business and hired Andy MacPhail as the executive vice president. MacPhail called all the shots from the baseball side, and Fox as president took on more of an oversight role. Before the 1987 season even started, he resigned from that role as well. Jerry Bell was named President, and Fox took on a role of chairman of the executive committee, serving as a liaison between Pohlad and the Twins top management. Even though he no longer had an active role in the Twins, he still cherished that World Series win. It was his last triumph with the team before easing into retirement, though he was semi-active with the Twins into the late 1990s.

“This is the most exciting thing that happened to me in my 40 years in the game,” Fox said after the Twins defeated the Cardinals in Game Seven.

Howard Fox died on June 28, 2011, in hospice care near his home in Orlando, Fla. He was 90 years old and was still a part of the Twins executive board. He is interred at the mausoleum in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, Minn.

“The Minnesota Twins organization is deeply saddened by the passing of our great friend and a longtime steward of the ballclub – Howard Fox,” said Bell, Chairman of the Twins Executive Board. “Howard’s talents, leadership and passion for the game of baseball were quite instrumental in the long-term success of the Twins organization. Today we celebrate Howard’s legacy while sharing our thoughts and prayers with Yvonne and the entire Fox family.”

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