RIP to Helen Nicol “Nickie” Fox, the winningest pitcher in the history of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. A Scottsdale, Arizona, resident, she died on July 25 at the age of 101. Fox, who also holds the AAGPBL record for career strikeouts, played for the Kenosha Comets (1943-47) and Rockford Peaches (1947-52).
Helen M. Nicol was born in Ardley, Alberta, Canada, on May 9, 1920. As Alberta Dugout Stories noted, she actually outlived her birthplace, as Ardley is now considered a ghost town. Nicol’s parents were both born in Scotland, and the family eventually settled in Calgary. Young Helen was a champion speed skater, but she also played ice hockey, basketball and golf — and of course, softball. She started playing the game when she was 13 and helped lead the Edmonton Walkrites to the Western Canada league title in 1942, winning the final two games at Moose Jaw. As early as 1940, she was setting strikeout records for the Army and Navy Pats in a playoff series against Manville and Olds. She struck out 21 batters on August 25 (in a 2-0 losing effort) and 18 in her next start the following weekend. She also had four hits, including a home run and a triple. In the second game of that day’s doubleheader, she had 10 strikeouts in 6 innings before she was hit by a batted ball and forced out of the game.
In six years of softball in Canada, she won 35 of her 50 starts. So by the time that P.K. Wrigley started searching for players to fill out his professional softball league that would become the AAGPBL, Helen Nicol was already considered one of the best players in Canada. When she left for Chicago to try out for the AAGPBL in May of 1943, the Canadian softball community had a mixture of pride for the hometown girl about to make good and sadness that the league was losing its top pitcher, among other hopefuls from several other teams.
“I haven’t the slightest doubt that Helen will make good in the pro league,” said Pats manager Clare Hollingsworth. “It’s a great chance for her and we certainly wouldn’t want to stand in the way of her advancement. However, if she changes her mind and desires to return we shall gladly welcome her back,” he added.
Nicol ended up with the Kenosha Comets in the inaugural season of 1943, and she lived up to her reputation. In 47 games, the put together a stellar 31-8 record and 1.81 ERA, with 220 strikeouts in 348 innings. Her success was due to the “wrist-ball,” which is what she called the pitch that accounted for so many strikeouts. While hitting was never her strong suit, she also had a career-high .221 batting average that year, with 2 home runs and 18 RBIs.
“I have always enjoyed playing softball more than anything else and dreamed of someday spending an entire summer vacation doing just that. But to be paid for doing it, and be given such a wonderful trip all the way from Calgary to Kenosha, still seems like a page torn from a fairy-tale book,” she told the Kenosha News.
Nicol led the Comets to the championship series against the Racine Belles. Even though she had beaten the Belles in 12 of her 15 starts against the team, she lost two games in the series as the Belles swept the Comets in three games to win the championship. Nicol maintained her winning ways in 1944, with a 17-11 record and a microscopic 0.93 ERA — she gave up 25 earned runs in 32 appearances. She also got a measure of revenge against the Belles by throwing a 2-0 no-hitter against them on Labor Day weekend, September 4, 1944. Again, Kenosha made it to the league championships but lost to the Milwaukee Chicks. For the second year in a row, she was voted the AAGPBL’s best pitcher.
Nicol returned to the Comets in 1945, but with the new name of Helen Fox — she married Corporal Gordon G. Fox on March 3, 1945. She had a 24-19 record, but Kenosha as a team fell into the cellar for the first time in their existence. The team didn’t improve much in ’46. Fox hit .200, and not many of her Comets teammates hit any higher. Her win-loss record fell below .500 for the first time as she ended the year 15-17. Despite the losses, Fox established a new league record with 40 complete games.
The AAGPBL had been incorporating more baseball elements as it evolved from its softball origins. Some of the biggest changes came with the 1947 season, when the ball shrunk and pitchers stopped throwing the ball underhanded. It was a struggle for many of the league’s pitchers, including Fox. She adopted more of a sidearm motion but earned just 6 wins on the season and was traded to Rockford in July for pitcher Mildred Deegan. It was part of a rebuild by the Comets, who dealt mainstay shortstop Dottie Schroeder to Fort Wayne a few days later, as the league tried to shake up some of the second-division teams. (All the teams operated under the AAGPBL management, so trades were engineered more at the league level than team level.)
It took Fox a couple of years to adjust. From a 6-16 record and 2.62 ERA in 1947, she improved to a 17-13 record and 2.61 ERA in 1948. The Peaches improved as well, winning 74 games and reaching the playoffs. They eased past Kenosha and Racine before beating the Ft. Wayne Daisies to win the league’s championship.
In 1949, Fox returned to use prior dominant pitching form, winning 13 of 21 decisions and posting a 0.98 ERA. She was no longer the dominant strikeout artist that she was at the league’s start, but she still fanned 70 batters. That success came with the mid-season implementation of a new 10-inch ball and a longer distance from the plate to mound — rule changes that were supposed to bring more offense into the game. Rockford had a 75-36 record and repeated as the AAGPBL champs, and Fox was named to the league’s All-Star team. The Peaches pulled off the rare three-peat by winning the 1950 championship as well. Fox, who won 14 games with a 1.98 ERA during the regular season, won the championship game, an 11-0 rout of the Daisies. She scattered 11 hits in the game, but her teammates picked up just as many hits against three Ft. Wayne pitchers.
Rockford settled into the middle of the pack for the 1951 and ’52 seasons. Fox, who was one of the few remaining players who had been with the league since its start in 1943, finished her career with two more strong seasons, winning 18 games in 1951 and 8 the following year.
In 10 seasons with the AAGPBL, Fox had a record of 163-118 and a 1.89 ERA. She holds the league record for most wins, as well as most strikeouts with 1,076, most consecutive wins with 13 and most innings pitched with 2,382. She also had a 13-7 record and 1.83 ERA in postseason games, according to the AAGPBL. In 1998, she and the other Canadian ballplayers of the AAGPBL were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. She retired to Arizona, and like many of her compatriots, attended reunions and autograph sessions after “A League of Their Own” was released. She was last interviewed in 2019, while a resident of Hospice of the Valley. The 99-year-old Fox still had a good fastball and fond memories of her time with the league.
“I just love the game,” she said. “It taught me a lesson that if I put my mind to it and I try hard, I can survive. And I played 10 years professional.”
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