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MLB Hitting Machines: A tale of two Teds

Ted Cox’s Major League rookie record reflected his hitting instructor’s Hall of Fame greatness

By Darl DeVault
Contributing Writer

Midwest City baseball legend William “Ted” Cox died at 65 Wednesday March 11, 2020 of cancer in the Hospice Quality Care in Midwest City after a three-month battle with the disease. He was memorialized Saturday March 14 at Barnes Friederich Funeral Home Chapel in Midwest City.

Known as Ted Cox, the former Major League Baseball star and record holder grew up in Midwest City to become the only Midwest City High School first round draft choice in the last 50 years.

Hitting phenom Ted Cox set the Major League Baseball all-time rookie record by hitting safely in his first six at-bats in 1977. Cox said his Boston Red Sox hitting instructor Ted Williams made that possible.

Both ballplayers still own the best consistent contact hitting records in 150 years of baseball—Cox for going 6-for-6 to start his career and Williams for a .482 career on-base percentage. Williams is also the last MLB slugger to hit more than .400 in a season in 1941 as a Red Sox.

More than 19,000 MLB ballplayers have had a shot at breaking these historic records. Not one has even been close, while ballplayers proudly wore a patch on their uniforms last season celebrating their sport’s 150th birthday.

Cox also said Charles Lodes, Midwest City Bomber coach, sparked him to become baseball’s hitting machine of unmatched efficiency to start a career. “Coach Lodes was very influential in my baseball development, getting me the exposure to scouts that helped me be drafted No. 1 by the Boston Red Sox,” he wrote in a tribute when Lodes died.

Cox said he owed the start of sports career to his parents and especially his mother, Ernestine Cox, now 91. His father Virgil died in January of 2013 at 94.

Cox said his mother gave him one of the best starts any son could ask for in Midwest City in the early 1960s. His mother took him to practices when Cox started playing sports at seven years old.

Cox said his mother made sure he made it to football and basketball practices before he settled on baseball his senior year. He was the starting quarterback and a point guard for the Midwest City High School Bombers.

Cox played short stop and never batted lower than .437 in three years as a starter in high school while also playing basketball and football for the Bombers.

The American League Boston Red Sox drafted right-hander Cox in 1973 as the only Bomber baseball player selected in the first round in the last 50 years. That same year the league implemented the Designated Hitter’s (DH) rule allowing a player to hit in the pitcher’s place in the lineup throughout the game. This rule change would later prove important in Cox setting the record for the best start in baseball.

Williams, known as the greatest hitter ever in MLB history, taught Cox to be a more consistent contact hitter as a special coach for four years every fall in the Florida Instructional League. Cox climbed the minor-league ladder, stepping up a class each year under Williams’ watchful eye.

“From first meeting Williams in 1974 at fall instructional (league) after joining the Red Sox, the importance of those conversations escalated during my first big-league spring training in 1976,” Cox said in 2019. “Williams liked to hang out at the batting cages observing our swings, sometimes making really loud comments over the background noise.”

The legendary Williams’ suggestions had an immediate impact on the young athlete’s future.  “Williams showed me and strongly suggested I try a couple of things,” Cox said. “Those tips certainly helped as I saw instant improvement in my ability to drive the ball into the outfield.”

He became a more productive and powerful hitter throughout his climb thanks to Williams’ coaching each fall. At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds by 1977, he evolved into a skilled hitter with a major-league swing with the help of coaches Williams and Johnny Pesky.

“Successful hitters have extraordinary eyesight, reflexes and reaction time to go with great hand-eye coordination,” Cox said in 2019. “But all that won’t get you on base unless you hit the ball. For that you need real major-league coaching to help you develop a swing so fluid that every pitch they want to throw is your favorite pitch to hit.”

At the close of Triple-A play, the Red Sox called up the 22-year-old Cox from Pawtucket, R.I., during their 1977 stretch drive. He owed his call-up to a phenomenal season in Triple-A. His keen eye and fluid swing at the plate helped the Pawtucket PawSox win the Triple-A regular-season league championship that year.

Cox hit .334 with 14 homers and a team-high 81 RBIs in 95 games to earn the Topps 1977 Minor League Player of the Year honors. He was also the International League MVP and All-Star third baseman.

Cox joined the parent club Friday, Sept. 16, 1977. He got his first shot at the lineup as the team’s DH against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday, Sept. 18, on “Thanks Brooks” Day at Baltimore’s packed Memorial Stadium. Perennial All-Star and Gold-Glove winner Robinson was finishing a 23-year National Baseball Hall of Fame career with the Orioles. His was one of the longest major-league careers with one club.

The sell-out crowd of 51,798 was also treated to the start of Cox’s still-historic two-game hitting streak.

“I still have the lineup card,” Oklahoma City native Cox said. “I remember third-base coach Eddie Yost coming up to me and saying ‘you’re DHing and hitting second.’ I said ‘yeah, right’. Then he pulled out the lineup card and showed me. Before that I had been excited just to be there that day because Brooks Robinson was one of my idols.”

When Cox singled in the first inning the team called time-out and gave him the ball as a souvenir. The public address announcer told the huge crowd that it was his first official major league at-bat and first hit. Little did Cox realize he was on his way to a streak of unmatched excellence in the batter’s box.

In his second plate appearance to begin the top of the third inning, he drew a walk from future Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan, a lefty. Walks are not scored as official at-bats in MLB. With some alert base running, Cox scored his first MLB run that inning, keeping the Sox in the game, although down 3-4.

“If you do not get to study the pitchers, you have to rely on your eyesight to pick up the pitch. You then have to trust your reflexes, and swift reaction time. You are swinging your bat with that practiced hand-eye coordination needed to make contact and drive the ball into the outfield.” Cox said in 2019. “I was relying on that pure instinct Ted Williams helped me build in that first game.”

Cox’s swinging bunt on a curveball in the top of the fifth forced Orioles’ third baseman Doug DeCinces’ barehanded desperation throw to first. The throw was close on that second hit, close enough for feisty Baltimore manager Earl Weaver to object to the call. Weaver held the AL career record for ejections at 98 when he died.

“The first-base ump called me safe and Earl Weaver came storming out of the dugout to argue the call,” Cox said. “I watched the argument and said to myself: ‘Wow, that’s Earl Weaver. This is great’.”

While Cox was at the plate in the top of the sixth inning, All-Star shortstop Rick Burleson stole second. Cox’s two-out, long line drive off future All-Star Scott McGregor to center field resulted in his first major-league RBI, when Burleson scored from second.  Cox was more than just ready to run hard on the base paths. He was alert to the opportunities his hitting provided. Cox stretched that line drive into standing on second by sprinting after the centerfielder’s throw went to the plate to try to stop Burleson from scoring.

The hard-hitting Cox led off the eighth inning sliding into second base headfirst for a double by driving the ball off the right-field wall. He just missed his first major-league home run by six inches. Future National Baseball Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski drove him in on a sacrifice fly to center from third base for his third run in the game.

Cox was 4-for-4, scored three times and drove in a run to help spark the 10-4 victory over the Orioles. This streak helped make a winner of the Red Sox’s other 22-year-old rookie, right-handed pitcher Bob Stanley.

He also gained the attention of the game’s honoree. “Brooks Robinson came over to the clubhouse after the game to congratulate me on my fast start,” Cox said in 2019. “It was a day of big thrills, but I almost passed out when he shook my hand, wished me luck and playfully thanked me for ‘ruining his big day’.”

That Red Sox win pulled them to within 4.5 games of the New York Yankees, who had just made a charge from third to first in the AL East pennant race. The Yankees, loaded with talent, were in the middle of a three-year pennant streak from 1976-1978.

After the game, reporters told Cox he had tied the modern AL record for most hits in a first game. Casey Stengel, Willie McCovey and Mack Jones also shared that record.

Cox told Bob Greene with The Associated Press after the game: “I never imagined I’d start like this.  I was just hoping to get one hit. But I calmed down after my first time at-bat.”

The ballclub returned to Boston to host the Yankees in an afternoon game the next day as part of a two-game series.

In his first appearance as the DH against the Yankees, Cox drove a Figueroa slider into right field for a single, fielded by Reggie Jackson. With that single Cox tied the modern MLB record held by Cecil Travis of the AL Washington Senators. Travis set the record of five consecutive hits at the start of a modern career in a 12-inning game in 1933. National Baseball Hall of Famer Fred Clarke first set the record in 1894 with four singles and a triple.

Suddenly, his new teammates withdrew contact in the dugout and the young slugger was sitting alone between bats much like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. In only his second MLB game Cox earned that rare treatment baseball tradition reserves for its history makers.

Another Red Sox ballplayer of unmatched excellence, future National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, sat in the dugout with Cox watching his team play on the field. Jenkins was in the middle of leading MLB in wins for a span of 14 seasons, from 1967 to 1980 with 251 wins. Those victories led Hall of Famer Steve Carlton (four Cy Youngs, MLB’s second-most career strikeouts) with 246 wins and Hall of Famer Tom Seaver (three Cy Youngs) with 245. Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry (two Cy Youngs) won 244 games and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro was fifth with 227. Jenkins had even greater margins over Hall of Famers Jim Palmer (three Cy Young Awards) and Nolan Ryan (most MLB career strikeouts).

Jenkins paid careful attention as Cox make history. As the DH Cox did not play in the field either, so he had plenty of contact with Jenkins who pitched every fourth game.

“I was very surprised that a rookie was so calm—and doing a great feat,” Jenkins said this year. “He showed a lot of confidence in his ability to make contact.”

Then in the bottom of the third inning, Cox singled to right center field for his sixth consecutive hit. This assured Cox his place in MLB history, and validated his Boston teammates’ special treatment in the dugout.

When he came up for his third plate appearance in his second game, leading off the fifth, the near-capacity crowd of 34,346 in Boston’s Fenway Park got to their feet.

“They were going nuts,” Cox said. “They gave me a standing ovation. You know how they put your photo and stats up on the scoreboard—well, for me it was awesome. I looked up there and my average was listed at 1.000 with six at-bats and six hits.”

“I looked back at the Yankee catcher, Thurman Munson, and asked him what I should do,” Cox said. “He told me, ‘I dunno, but enjoy it because you don’t get many of these moments. I guess if you tip your hat to ’em it could shut these people up’.”

Cox tipped his hat to the crowd and stepped into the batter’s box for his seventh at-bat.

Figueroa finally got Cox out on a grounder to Yankee first baseman Chris Chambliss. That groundout ended the most spectacular display of early-career safe hitting for a rookie in MLB history.

His teammate Yastrzemski and others were waiting on the dugout steps to congratulate him for consistent contact in his seventh at-bat and to tell him that he could wake up now, the dream was over.

“Descending into the dugout through that reception I was not aware of the crowd getting to their feet again. Quickly my teammates told me to acknowledge that standing ovation as well, so I came back out of the dugout and tipped my hat a second time,” Cox said. “Reporters later told me mine was the best start ever in the history of the game.”

Sports writers had long ago realized that hitting a baseball in a MLB game is one of the most difficult athletic feats in all of sports. Ted Williams is quoted as saying “The hardest thing to do in baseball is to hit a round baseball with a round bat, squarely.” He also stated: “There has always been a saying in baseball that you can’t make a hitter, but I think you can improve a hitter. More than you can improve a fielder. More mistakes are made hitting than in any other part of the game.”

Jenkins, the first MLB pitcher to throw more than 3,000 strikeouts with less than 1,000 walks in his career, had more to say about Cox.

“Playing at such a high level like Cox and trying to be consistent in the majors is tough,” Jenkins said. “Cox began against some of the best pitchers in baseball and I found it tough myself to win games as a pitcher because there were so many top players on top teams back then.”

Displaying the extraordinary hand-eye coordination coach Williams had worked with him on, Cox went on to hit a long fly-out to left centerfield for his final at-bat in that second game. He did not strike out in his historic first two games. He made contact in every at-bat. His second game was still a respectable 2-for-4 that dropped his batting average to .750 after two MLB games.

“Luck favors the prepared mind. I can say with extreme confidence, Ted Williams had me prepared to take advantage of those first six pitches I connected with in the majors.” Cox said.

Ray Fitzgerald, an acclaimed sports columnist for The Boston Globe, later joked about Cox setting the MLB record, “I don’t know why everyone is so excited about Ted Cox. His average has dropped 600 points in a week.”

Cox finished the remaining 11 games with his first MLB home run and a .362 average, outhitting the Red Sox veterans for that period. That 13-game span of hitting like a veteran himself turned out to be Cox’s career-best effort for average for a 13-game span.

Cox helped the slumping Red Sox bounce back to win 99 games and tie the Yankees for the American League East Championship. The Yankees edged them 5-4 in a one-game playoff in Fenway Park.

Cox wanted to move from DH to playing third base. With 25-year-old third baseman Butch Hobson earning the position with a 30-homer season in 1977, Cox’s future was limited with the Red Sox.

“I started spring training with Boston in 1978 before being traded to Cleveland,” Cox said. Cox’s record-setting start gained the league’s attention and the club used his obvious talent to trade for much needed pitching.

On March 30th, just days away from breaking camp, the Red Sox sent Cox, Mike Paxton, Bo Diaz and Rick Wise to the Cleveland Indians for future National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley and catcher Fred Kendall. Eckersley became the first of two pitchers in MLB history to have both a 20-win season (1978 with the Red Sox) and a 50-save season in a career.

“That spring (with Boston) started with Williams telling me that my swing looked great and not to let anyone change what I was doing,” Cox said. “I got to Cleveland late in that same spring training and their hitting coach told me I needed to change my swing. That’s baseball.”

In 1980 with the Seattle Mariners Cox set another first when on April 9, he became the first hitter to collect a game-winning RBI. MLB was experimenting with keeping track of that statistic for the first time and did so only until 1988.

He went on the play five years and for two other teams: Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays where he was hitting .300 when he finished his career.

After moving 32 times with his wife Debbie of 46 years as a baseball player, Cox returned to Midwest City to raise two sons. He expressed his love of the game by coaching Billy, now 33 and Joey, now 39, and many other young men to many little-league championships.

He said an important part of his life was his wife Debbie while supporting and pulling for his sons. He was proud to put his sports enthusiasm as a former pro athlete into giving many children more opportunities to play baseball.

He said winning games and championships with the Oklahoma Slam, a boys 14-and-under baseball team he coached and helped put together in the Midwest City Baseball League was important to him.

“Vern Ruhle, a former MLB pitcher, and I were thrilled to coach our kids together on that Slam team,” Cox said in 2016. “Vern was the pitching coach at OU and able to coach his son Kenny. My son Joey helped us win several state championships and the boys won the national title in 1993.”

Cox said it was all that success, including a 39-game win streak, that helped him replace the excitement of playing in the majors. “But it was even better this time around as I tried to instill confidence into every kid. It was better because it was more than having my family with me, it was about my family.”

Cox also noted that he saw the Midwest City High School baseball extended family grow when Ryan Budde from that team developed into a major leaguer. “I remember telling the press—if a team has talent and stresses the fundamentals, winning takes care of itself,” Cox said. “This was as dominant of a youth team as I’ve ever seen. They were used to winning.”

Those United States Specialty Sports Association Slam teams won many state championships. Cox also helped organize the leagues.

Cox coached American Legion baseball teams in the 1980s with Doug Weese. He also helped his Bomber mentor, Charles Lodes, coach at Oklahoma City University in 1984.

In 1985, Cox built, managed and served as hitting instructor for Grand Slam USA South, a batting-cage and infield-practice facility in South Oklahoma City.

He was a member of the undefeated Steele’s Silver Bullets slow-pitch softball team in 1988 when they travelled 19,000 miles, playing in 44 states and Canada.

Cox appeared in the 1989 Olympic Festival in Oklahoma City in a competitive slow-pitch softball exhibition.

He also helped coach Midwest City High School baseball teams with Jerry Long and Chuck White in the 1990s.

Cox kept his hand in baseball by being selected the USSSA Oklahoma State Baseball Director in 1997. He was a national committee member and consulted with several other state directors, helping them to get the program started in their states.

Cox said that as close to his heart as owning the MLB record for a hitting debut was, his being selected to the Oklahoma All-Century High School Baseball team at short stop was just as important.

Cox was the only MLB player who could add 6-for-6 to his autograph for the rookie hitting record and likely will be forever. He signed his autograph with 6-for-6 and added MLR for Major League Record.

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