Jimmie Foxx came to Galesburg two decades past his prime.
He was a shadow of the man they once called “The Beast.”
But local residents could still see it: Foxx was reminiscent of a lumberjack — bulging triceps, square jaw and a thick neck.
In his playing days, he crowded the plate and produced a short, yet brutal swing.
For years, he was the most feared right-handed hitter in baseball.
But when he moved to the sleepy railroad town in western Illinois, Foxx faced something he rarely dealt with in his playing career: failure.
In 20 seasons, playing mostly for Philadelphia and Boston in the American League, Foxx earned three Most Valuable awards, won two World Series and was selected to nine All-Star games. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1951 with 534 homeruns, 1,921 RBIs and a .325 career batting average.
But in retirement, Foxx battled alcoholism and financial ruin.
“It’s a classic rise and fall story in American history,” John Bennett, a historian with the Society for American Baseball Research, who has studied Foxx’s life since 1993 said.
Foxx bounced between various towns, struggling to find meaning outside the game. He coached, worked in radio, cut meat and drove an oil truck. At one point, he even had a part-time job as a gas station attendant.
It was all the result of poor investments, careless spending and bad luck.
Foxx had a “pathological dread” of being viewed as stingy, according to biographer W. Harrison Daniel. In his book “Jimmie Foxx: The Life and Times of a Baseball Hall of Famer,” Daniel wrote that Foxx would almost always pay for his teammates’ meals, along with his roommate’s hotel, telephone and valet fees. He was also known to leave cab drivers and tailors 200 percent tips.
As he grew older, Foxx’s alcoholism worsened.
In the late-1950s, he coached in the Boston Red Sox farm system and repeatedly arrived late to games or too drunk to manage.
“By this time, his drinking was so bad, he couldn’t function,” Bennett said.
The Red Sox relieved him of coaching duties in 1959.
“I’m broke and I guess I always will be,” he told the Associated Press shortly after.
Foxx was still at the team’s spring training facility when he received a telegram from now-deceased Galesburg businessman Nunc Mangieri, who invited the retired slugger to open a restaurant in Illinois.
In Foxx, Mangieri saw a friendly man who could excel in retirement if placed in the right circumstances. He did not have to handle finances or cooking, but instead served as a diversion for customers who stopped in for a steak or an autograph.
“I needed a job. There’s no kidding about it,” Foxx said to the AP. “It’s hard for a man over 40 to get work.”
A passerby would probably never guess that 232 E. Simmons St. once belonged to Jimmie Foxx’s Restaurant. It is now Accounting Systems Inc., located in one of many rustic buildings in downtown Galesburg.
The restaurant opened Aug. 26, 1959 and featured charcoal hearth steaks and a $1.10 lunch buffet. Dick Lindstrom, whose father owned Lindstrom’s TV and Appliance, located several blocks from the restaurant, occasionally ate there.
“It was easy for me to go over in the summertime and have lunch. Foxx would usually just be in the back, talking to customers,” he said.
The walls displayed Foxx’s old uniforms, trophies, and bats used by Al Simmons, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Foxx, who hired former Negro League player Eddie Thompson to handle food operations, received encouraging telegrams from Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Hank Greenburg, among others.
“A lot of people loved to go in and talk baseball with Foxx,” local historian Tom Wilson, who was a teenager when the restaurant opened, said. “My father became friends with him at the Elks Club and took me to eat there several times. As I remember, Jimmie joined us each time and was very congenial and easy to talk with.”
Foxx grew up in Sudlersville, Md., a town of less than 400 people. His rural background likely explains why he committed to a restaurant in Galesburg, rather than a familiar metropolitan area like Philadelphia or Boston, according to his 71-year-old daughter Nanci Foxx Canaday.
“He was born on a little old farm, population: zippo. That’s one of the reasons Galesburg was appealing to him. It kind of took him back to his roots,” she said.
Canaday can remember dressing up for games near the end of her father’s career.
“I must of only been three or four years old,” she said.
Her most prominent memories, though, are of Foxx as an involved parent.
“He was always super good. He liked to horseplay a lot. We’d always have the neighborhood kids at our house. People would say, ‘Oh, your father is famous,’ but he was just dad to me,” she said.
She said he also enjoyed his time as a Galesburg restaurateur.
“Daddy, he just enjoyed interacting with people. It didn’t matter if you were the president or the garbage man. He would sit there and sign autographs for hours if that’s what people wanted,” she said.
Canaday has remained active in preserving her father’s legacy — she has attended multiple memorial ceremonies and accepted awards on his behalf.
In September 2006, Canaday was at Fenway Park when Red Sox first baseman David Ortiz eclipsed her father’s 67-year-old single-season club record for homeruns.
The 250-pound slugger approached her after the game. He said he had been reading Foxx biographies to prepare to meet the legend’s family.
“I told him, ‘Daddy always said records were made to be broken,’” Canaday said.
Aside from the restaurant, Foxx was also involved in the local youth baseball league, where he occasionally threw out the opening pitch and his son, Jimmie Jr., played. (Foxx, Jr., could not be reached for comment.)
Lindstrom, then a 14-year-old first baseman, fondly remembers a game against the hall-of-famer’s son on a Saturday in the late 1950s.
The sun had begun to set beyond the third baseline at H.T. Custer Park, and Lindstrom was feeling mischievous. He stood guarding the bag just steps away from Foxx, Jr., whom he recognized as Foxx’s son.
“The first base coach wasn’t paying attention, so somebody suggested we try a hidden ball trick,” Lindstrom said.
He caught the pickoff attempt, unsuccessfully tagged the diving base runner and faked a throwing motion back to the pitcher.
Foxx, Jr., stood up, brushed off his uniform and took another lead off the bag.
“I tagged him out, and you could tell how surprised he was,” Lindstrom said.
Foxx’s time in Galesburg was much less graceful.
In August 1959, the aging ex-slugger suffered a heart attack three days before the restaurant was scheduled to open. He was bedridden for three weeks, which delayed its grand-opening for several months. The untimely nature of the incident reflected the kinds of complications he suffered after leaving baseball.
Foxx, for example, lost more than $40,000 on a golf course investment in Florida, which the United States Army took over as a World War II training facility. All told, Foxx lost approximately $750,000 (or the equivalent of $6.5 million in 2012) on poor investments, “fast living” and bad luck, according to a 1959 article in the Peoria Journal-Star.
“It’s a different world for athletes. Guys today have a lot easier time when they get out of the game,” Bennett said. “Foxx certainly tried very hard to make a living in a variety of ways and never let his ego stop him from trying to provide for his family.”
The restaurant closed less than a year after its opening.
Wilson said people at the time “took [Foxx] for granted.”
“I don’t think people realized and paid attention to what a super baseball player he was,” he said.
Lindstrom suggested Foxx was too far removed from his playing career — people were instead looking for Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
“I think it would have been great today, but to make it something on a community this size, it was hard to do,” Lindstrom said
In August of 1960, Foxx fell down a flight of stairs at his home and suffered a skull fracture, concussion and black eye. By July of 1962, Foxx had applied for Knox County unemployment benefits of $33-per-week.
“I’ve just been on the wrong end of everything,” Foxx said to the Journal Star.
After Galesburg, he worked at a horticulture nursery in Rocky River, Ohio, followed by a Cleveland department store.
He died in 1967 after choking on a piece of meat.
“Jimmie, who was to act as a host and greeter, was a natural for the job as he was one of the most talented handlers of people I have ever seen. The failure of the restaurant was no fault of Jimmie’s,” Mangieri said after his death.
Foxx’s best years coincided with the height of the Great Depression, during which one in every four Americans was unemployed. He also played just 80 miles from and in the same league as one of the most storied New York Yankees teams in history.
“He was always second-fiddle to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He was never the biggest star in the game. He was never in the biggest market,” Bennett said. “But he was good. He was really, really good.”
In 1932, Foxx hit .364 and 169 RBIs for $7,500. Meanwhile, Ruth, who batted .341 with 137 RBIs the same year, earned $75,000. It was a glaring discrepancy.
If today’s world of cutthroat sports bargaining had existed then, high-powered agents like Scott Boras or Arn Tellem would have been on the phone with front-office executives demanding they renegotiate Foxx’s contract.
Perhaps it would not have mattered.
In 1959, Foxx, graying and 20 pounds overweight, was asked by the Journal-Star whether he would relive his chaotic, challenged life.
“I’d do it all over again,” he said.