By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Helen Nicol Fox, who emerged from the Alberta hamlet of Ardley to become the winningest pitcher in All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) history, passed away on July 25 at the age of 101.
News of her death was shared with the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame on Thursday. She was one of 68 Canadian women inducted into the St. Marys, Ont-based shrine in 1998.
Nicol Fox passed away at the Hospice of the Valley facility in Phoenix, Ariz., where she had been living for the past few years.
“I just love the game [of baseball],” she said when reflecting on her baseball career in an interview with the Arizona Republic in 2019. “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.”
Hailing from a tiny central Alberta community, Nicol Fox and her family eventually settled in Calgary, where she played several sports, including basketball, golf and hockey, but it was her skills on the diamond that stood out the most. By the age of 13, she was pitching in softball games against players much older than her.
The 5-foot-3, 120-pound right-hander was pitching for a local Army and Navy Pats softball team in 1942 when she was spotted by Chicago Blackhawks winger Johnny Gottselig, who doubled as a scout for the Kenosha Comets, of the newly formed AAGPBL.
With so many men serving in the Second World War, Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley feared baseball would be forgotten in the early ’40s. So to maintain interest in the sport, he dispatched scouts across North America to find the best female players to compete in what would become the AAGPBL. Enticed with salaries ranging from $55 to $150 per week, the initial group of women would form four teams – the Rockford Peaches, Racine Belles, the Comets and South Bend Blue Sox – for the league’s inaugural campaign in 1943.
Nicol Fox was working at the Hudson’s Bay Company for $9.50 a week when she was offered a contract to play for the Comets that would pay her $85 weekly.
“It was a surprise,” Nicol Fox told the East Valley Tribune of the contract offer in a 2011 interview. “I knew nothing about the league, but others had heard about it. Not a lot had been written about it early on.”
But she couldn’t pass up that kind of money and she signed the contract and was off to the U.S. to play in the brand new circuit, where she would be coached on and off-the field. Charm school was part of the league’s Spring Training program and the women donned one-piece, short-skirted uniforms with knee socks, baseball shoes and caps.
“When we first saw those outfits, we just nearly died!” Nicol Fox told the Arizona Republic in 2019.
But Nicol Fox quickly adjusted to the outfit and to her competition in the U.S. In her first season, she appeared in 47 games for the Comets and led the league with 31 wins, 348 innings pitched, 220 strikeouts, eight shutouts and a 1.83 ERA. At one point, she registered wins in 13 consecutive starts – a league record that would never be broken. For her efforts, she was named AAGPBL Pitcher of the Year.
For an encore, in her sophomore campaign, she recorded a minuscule 0.93 ERA – which once again topped the circuit, but thanks to poor run support, she only collected 17 wins. During that season, she also threw a no-hitter and four one-hitters which helped her repeat as the league’s top pitcher.
In 1945, she enjoyed her second 20-win season when she went 24-19 for the Comets and pitched a career-high 357 innings and tied her career-best with 220 strikeouts.
In 1947, the league required pitchers to switch from an underhand delivery to a sidearm or overhand one. Nicol Fox initially struggled to make the transition. She pitched poorly with the Comets to begin the season and was traded to the Rockford Peaches, a team made famous by the movie “A League of Their Own.” She finished that campaign, by far her worst in the AAGPBL, with a combined 6-16 record.
Nicol Fox eventually mastered the new delivery and returned to ace-like form, winning 17, 13 and 14 games for the Peaches from 1948 to 1950 to help them capture three consecutive championships.
She went 18-7 in 28 games for the Peaches in 1951 and notched eight more wins for them in 1952 before opting to hang up her spikes.
“I noticed that the league was folding and the serviceman were returning, so I figured I better get out there and get another job,” Nicol Fox told the East Valley Tribune in 2011.
Nicol Fox retired as the AAGPBL’s all-time leader in wins (163), innings pitched (2,382), appearances (313) and strikeouts (1,076). She also posted a 13-7 record and a 1.83 ERA during the playoffs.
“I enjoyed playing very much, and I enjoyed meeting the people,” Nicol Fox told the East Valley Tribune in 2011. “A lot of people said, ‘I bet you had fun.’ We did, but it was a job. We took the game seriously.”
Nicol Fox was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 and two years later, she was inducted, along with the other 67 Canadian women that played in the AAGPBL, into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont.
Prior to her passing, she had resided in Arizona for more than 20 years and had remained active, playing golf until she was 89.
Her obituary doesn’t indicate that she has any surviving family members.
“I did not know Helen, but would like to express my gratitude to her for paving the way for women in professional sports,” wrote Ali Fazzio in the online memory book accompanying Nicol Fox’s obituary. “When I taught fourth grade, every year I would teach about the AAGPBL during our unit on WWII, and it was always a fan favourite. My students were motivated, encouraged, and inspired by the stories of women just like Helen. May she rest in the sweetest peace.”