Grave Story: Lee Fohl (1876-1965)

Here lies Lee Fohl, who led three teams in an 11-year career as a manager in the big leagues. He also had the briefest of playing careers as a catcher. Fohl played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1902) and Cincinnati Reds (1903) and managed the Cleveland Indians (1915-1919), St. Louis Browns (1921-1923) and Boston Red Sox (1924-1926).

Leo Alexander Fohl was born in Lowell, Ohio, on November 28, 1876. His father, John, was a Civil War veteran who was part of Company F, Ohio 39th Infantry Regiment. After the War, he worked as a farmer and moved his family to Missouri in the 1880s, where he was a stockyards worker. According to Fohl’s SABR bio, the family moved to Pennsylvania, John’s home state, when Lee was 10 years old. He apparently never received more than a fourth grade education

Lee Fohl’s grave in Calvary Cemetery, Cleveland.

Unlike most other players of the era, Fohl didn’t play in any of the recognized minor leagues of the era, so most of his playing experience came in indie ball in Pennsylvania. A “Fohl” starts to show up as a catcher for New Kensington in box scores starting in 1897. He was referred to as a fine fielder in those early recaps. There was also a boxer, Leo Fohl, who appeared on a card in New Kensington, but it’s not possible to determine if it’s the same person.

Fohl spent his 1902 season playing for the Junctions of Lawrenceville, Pa. At one point he hit two home runs in a 23-8 rout of another semi-pro team called the Verners. Pittsburgh Pirates manager Fred Clarke decided to sign Fohl and pair him with Harvey Cushman, a young pitcher making his second start, on August 29, 1902. The result was a 9-3 loss to the Chicago Orphans. Cushman was wild and gave up 5 runs in the second inning while walking 9 batters in the game. The Pittsburgh Press insinuated that a veteran catcher would have helped him, but Fohl did his part. While he went 0-for-3 at the place, he drove in a run with a sacrifice fly and threw out a base-stealer. Cushman got a couple more starts and didn’t pitch particularly well, regardless of who was behind the plate. Fohl, though, did not appear in another game for the eventual pennant-winning Pirates.

Lee Fohl in his indie ball days. Source: New Castle Herald, April 22, 1908.

The young catcher couldn’t catch on with the Pirates, but manager Clarke did like Fohl enough to get him a spot with the Des Moines Undertakers (what a team name) of the Western League in 1903. Given the first chance to really play professional ball for the first time, Fohl hit .296 and piqued the interest of the Cincinnati Reds. It was clear, reported the Press, that Fohl “knows how to use a snubbing stick as well as any wind paddist in that company.” Translation: he was a good-hitting catcher.

The Reds had to pay Des Moines a “tidy sum,” per reports, and guarantee Fohl a $400-per-month contract in 1904. For all that money, the catcher got into a total of 4 games with Cincinnati. He managed 5 hits, including a double and a triple, in 14 at-bats for a .357 batting average.

Lee Fohl’s major-league playing career ends here, though he sure thought he had his next catching assignment all locked up. In 5 games, Fohl slashed .294/.333/.471 with the 5 hits, 3 RBIs and 3 runs scored. He threw out 6 of 11 baserunners, but he had 4 passed balls and a .933 fielding percentage. One paper later reported that Fohl lost his his job with the Reds for “doing a whirling dervish set under every foul fly that made an ascension in his territory.” Translation: he couldn’t catch a pop foul.

So, about that next job. The Reds sold his contract to the Detroit Tigers, and manager Ed Barrow said he would pay Fohl $250 a month. Fohl made his way to Detroit only to find that Barrow didn’t have the authority to offer that kind of money. Fohl, frustrated, went home to Pennsylvania. He filed a claim against Detroit for his salary with the arbitrary commission that ran the game at the time, but it was denied. He spent all season with the Homestead team in Pittsburgh and caught 111 games.

By the time the 1905 season rolled around, Fohl was 28 years old and had made a good name for himself in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He signed with the Binghamton Bingoes of the New York State League and played there briefly. When the Homestead team joined the new Ohio-Pennsylvania League, He played there for a spell before finishing the season with the Youngstown Ohio Works of the Ohio-Pennsylvania League.

Over the next few seasons, he drifted among teams in Ohio and was involved in a near-riot in Youngstown in 1906. After some questionable calls, Youngstown and New Castle were tied in the 9th inning of a game with the bases loaded. The pitcher threw the ball to third base, where baserunner Fohl grabbed the third baseman, ripped the ball out of his hands and threw it into the crowd. Three runs scored, but umpire Sam Wise incredibly ordered just two of the runners back. The game ended with arguments from both teams, the Youngstown crowd stormed the field, and Wise ended up calling the game – in Youngstown’s favor!

New Castle got a measure of revenge some weeks later. In a rematch, Fohl beat out a bunt for a single. He took a leadoff and was tagged by the first baseman, who caught him napping with the hidden ball trick. New Castle was mad about that game for years to come, and the New Castle Herald mentioned it whenever Fohl was in the news. The audacity of his play grew with every telling, so that story has several versions.

Fohl spent two seasons with Columbus of the American Association. He hit .277 in 1907, but he didn’t attract and major-league teams. His defense, it was said, was too questionable. He lost his batting eye in 1908 and dipped to a .221 average. Columbus decided to make him a player-manager of their Lima club in the Ohio State League. Lima promptly won the pennant in ’09, and Fohl, already considered a good developer of talent, moved to the Akron Champs of the O-P League, which was another Columbus farm club.

Fohl continued his winning ways as a manager, and he began to excel once more as a hitter. He suffered burns to his face in early 1911, and there were concerns that his eyes were damaged. He hardly missed time and hit .317. He also won two pennants while managing Akron. Fohl was called up to Columbus as a player-manager in 1912 in the Interstate League, and he led the team until it folded in July. He finished the season with a team in Huntington, W.V. The next year, Fohl apparently decided to get himself a little stability, so he bought a team in Waterbury, Conn., to act as its player-manager in 1914. The deal cost him about $4,000. He would have finished first again, but he had to sell off his best outfielder to another team to try and stay in the black. He lost money on the deal and blamed the lack of attendance on… the Irish.

“Waterbury is almost unanimously an Irish city and the fans simply would not warm up to my team, which did not have an Irishman on it,” Fohl explained. He also blamed the train travel and the Eastern League’s schedule, which was brutal because each trip was a one-game stand. Fortunately, Fohl didn’t have to worry about the Eastern League long, because he was hired to coach Cleveland in 1915 under manager Joe Birmingham.

Cleveland was in the midst of an identity crisis at the time. They were no longer called the Naps, as they had been for a decade, because their namesake, Nap Lajoie, had departed. Now called the (admittedly problematic) Indians, they weren’t particularly good. The 1914 team went 51-102 under Birmingham, and the 1915 edition wasn’t much better. Birmingham got the team off to a 12-16 start when owner Charles Somers requested his resignation. Fohl was named manager temporarily and proceeded to hold down the job for the next four-plus years.

Old newspapers are the source of phenomenal illustrations. Source: The Capital Times (Madison, Wis.), May 22, 1918.

He was a relative rarity in the major leagues – a skipper without an extensive playing background. While in Cleveland, he had to maximize the abilities of a directionless team. The first year, the Indians finished 45-79 under Fohl and ended up in 7th place. In 1916, the Indians finished 77-77 and ended up in 6th place. In 1917 and 1918, he guided them to third and second place finishes, respectively.

By 1919, the Indians were a much different team than the one with which he started. The biggest addition was Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, acquired in a big trade from Boston. The additions of Smoky Joe Wood and the development of players like catcher Steve O’Neill and second basemen Bill Wambsganss helped. The Indians also developed a great rotation, led by Stan Coveleski, Jim Bagby and Guy Morton. Morton was a Fohl find back when he was managing Waterbury. The team was primed to make a run at the AL pennant.

All the good work Fohl did with the Indians was undone in one game, on July 18, 1919. Cleveland was in the thick of a pennant race and leading the Boston Red Sox 7-3 going into the top of the 9th inning. Fohl had pinch-hit for starter Hi Jasper in the 8th inning and had to bring in a reliever to finish the game. He chose Elmer Myers, even though Myers had thrown a complete game two days prior. Myers retired two batters but gave up a double and three walks. That made the score 7-4 with the bases loaded, two out, and Babe Ruth coming to the plate. Fohl went to the mound again and summoned Fritz Coumbe, a talented lefty who, due to injury, had not pitched in two months. Ruth barely missed his first pitch, but the second pitch was right in his wheelhouse. He connected with an offspeed pitch that cleared the right field screen, left League Park, sailed over Lexington Avenue and landed in the backyard of one of the houses on the other side of the street. Or so the story goes. At any rate, it was a grand slam home run that resulted in an 8-7 win for the Red Sox.

Indians fans were in an uproar and immediately turned on their manager. Why stick with Myers when his control was gone? Why bring in a pitcher who hasn’t pitched in months to face Babe Ruth? The very next day, Fohl went to the office of Cleveland President James Dunn and tendered his resignation. “I feel the fans are not for me, and as I have your interests at heart first and my own last, I think it best for all concerned for me to step down and out,” he said. “The team has a chance to win the pennant and I don’t want to appear in the slight of being a hindrance to it. I hope Cleveland will win the pennant.”

Speaker took over the managerial duties, and while the Indians finished second again in 1919, they would win the AL pennant and the World Series in 1920. He didn’t get a ring (or whatever it was that World Champs got in 1920), but Fohl was the man who put Cleveland in the position to contend. Speaker himself called Fohl “one of the smartest men and keenest students of baseball I have ever met.”

Source: Library of Congress

He didn’t wait long for his next managerial role, as the St. Louis Browns hired him as manager, starting in 1921. He took over a team barely over .500 and turned it into a pennant contender in 1921 and 1922. Led by star George Sisler, the Brownies had the best offense in the AL and a pretty good pitching staff as well. The Browns won 93 games in ’22 and finished in second, 1 game behind the Yankees. The season was essentially decided between a Yankees-Browns matchup in St. Louis on September 16-18. Again, it was a pitching change – two, actually — that came back to haunt Fohl.

At the start of the series, New York had a 1-1/2 game lead over the Browns. They added to it by beating the Browns’ ace Urban Shocker in the first game, 2-1. Hub Pruett shut down the Yankees 5-1 in the second game, limiting the Yankees to a Babe Ruth solo homer. In the third game, the Browns got an incredible performance from starter Dixie Davis and led 2-1 going into the 9th inning. Wally Schang managed an infield hit to start the inning. Fohl immediately replaced Davis with Pruett, who threw a complete game the day before. Schang reached second on a passed ball and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt when catcher Hank Severeid made a poor throw to third. Runners on the corners, nobody out. Pruett walked the next hitter to load the bases, and Fohl brought in Shocker, working on a day’s rest. Yankee pitcher Joe Bush hit a grounder to second baseman Marty McManus, who forced Schang at home plate. Now the bases were loaded but with one out and the light-hitting Whitey Witt coming to the plate. Of course, Witt knocked a single into center field, scoring two runs and giving the Yankees a 3-2 lead. That ended up being the final score. It was the best team the Browns ever had, and they still fell short of the pennant.

Fohl returned in 1923 and by August 7, had the Browns 10 games over .500, in spite of the fact that Sisler was a holdout. However, he was fired by owner Phillip Ball and replaced by Jimmy Austin. Supposedly, the reasoning behind the move was that Fohl didn’t back pitcher Dave Danforth, who had been suspended for doctoring the ball.

Fohl was back in the majors in 1924, this time as the manager of the Boston Red Sox. This was one instance where there was nothing he could do for the team. The Sox, trapped by the Curse of the Bambino (or more accurately, the Curse of Poor Ownership), had lost 91 games and finished in last place in 1923. Fohl raised them to seventh place in ’24. When asked about the team’s chances in 1925, all he would say is, “I hope we will finish better than seventh.”

He was wrong. The Red Sox lost 105 games in 1925 and managed to top it by losing 107 games in 1926. He resigned after the season, and none of his replacements could get Boston to even a .500 record until 1934.

Fohl’s managerial record in 11 seasons was 713-792 for a .474 percentage. Take away the awful Red Sox teams, though, and he is 60 games over .500, with a 553-493 record with the Indians and Browns.

Fohl managed in the minor leagues for a few seasons, for Toronto in 1927 and Des Moines in 1928 and ’29. After that, he later said he was no longer welcome in baseball. “The majors didn’t want me and the minors, they’d say, ‘He’s a major leaguer and he’d want too much money.’”

Fohl returned to Cleveland, where he lived with his family in the offseasons. He had married the former Anna Guehl in 1914, and they had four daughters and a son. He lost his savings and investments in the Depression (“I lost everything but my hat.”), so he made a living by operating several gas stations in the Cleveland area. He worked as a ticket taker for the Highland Park golf course for the last 17 years of his life.

Fohl was inducted into the Summit County Sports Hall of Fame in 1962, in recognition of his success at playing and managing the Akron clubs during his career. He died on October 30, 1965, at his home (or at his daughter’s home – reports vary) in Cleveland. He was 88 years old. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland.

While his managerial career had a couple of questionable decisions, Fohl said he never second-guessed himself. “Looking backward can’t get you anything but grief,” he said. “If we could go forward like we can look back, it’d be wonderful.”

If you want to read more, here’s how Fohl got a player to deliver a game-winning hit, AFTER he’d been released.

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