The name is Gene Fodge. But Ernie Banks, widely known as Mr. Cub, called Gene “Fudgie” as in fudge. The word “fudge” took on a whole new meaning in the movie classic, Christmas Story, when Ralphie said, “Oooh fuuudge!” Of course, Ralphie didn’t say fudge; he said “THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the ‘F-dash-dash-dash’ word!”
In 1956 Fodge had a lot of hitters talking like Ralphie. He won 19 games for the Los Angeles Angels, including the one that clinched the Pacific Coast League pennant. “I can still feel the champagne in my eyes,” Fodge said 44 years later. “That will go to the grave with me.”
At age 24, Fodge was the oldest member of the Angels’ prized “Kiddy Corp.” He didn’t throw as hard as Bob Anderson and Johnny Briggs and he didn’t have the baffling curveball of Dick Drott and Bob Thorpe. All Fodge did was pile up more wins than any of the other kid phenoms, reeling off nine straight in July and August when the Angels pulled away from the pack. He tossed two shutouts and completed 11 of the 25 games he started.
“Gene was a worker that didn’t have outstanding stuff but was capable of getting the job done,” said Raymond “Moe” Bauer, the team’s left-handed relief specialist. “He had the kind of thing that you can’t measure.”
“I had the feeling that they underestimated him,” said Dwight “Red” Adams, one of the Angels’ veteran pitchers. “No one said it. But just the way they handled him. I wondered why they weren’t higher on Gene because I thought he was a very good prospect.”
Even Fodge downplayed his accomplishments. “When I can 19 games and still have a 4.31 earned run average, you know what kind of scoring they’re doing,” he said. “It doesn’t say a whole lot for my pitching, but it does say a lot for their hitting.”
Fodge pitched briefly for the Chicago Cubs in 1958, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 15-2 for his first and only major league victory. What made it even more special was that he got the best of two of the greatest pitchers in baseball history – Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.
Drysdale, 22, and Koufax, 23, were just starting their careers at the time but so was Fodge, a 6-foot, 175-pounder from South Bend, Indiana.
“I couldn’t believe all of the telegrams I got from South Bend when I won that game,” Fodge said, laughing. “My parents, my teachers in school, coaches around town, even the mayor sent me a telegram. I’m glad they did it then because they didn’t get another chance.”
Drysdale started the game for the Dodgers, followed by two other pitchers before Koufax appeared. Meanwhile, Fodge pitched a complete game, scattering 10 hits and striking out three.
After beating the Dodgers, Gene started three more games. He was 1-1 with a 4.82 ERA when the Cubs sent him to Fort Worth in July where he finished the year and his career with an 8-3 record.
“Gene was a real competitor,” Anderson said. “He did not have overpowering stuff but he had a good fastball, a good slider and he could spot his pitches pretty well. I thought the Cubs gave him very, very little opportunity. For some reason, they didn’t smile on Gene.”
Fodge was 27 when he went back to South Bend to stay.
In 2000 at the age of 69, Gene was sitting in a South Bend restaurant, reflecting on his career. He arrived in a Ford Ranger with a front license plate reading: CUBS FAN – I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES.
Fodge signed with the Cubs because his father was a diehard Cubs fan, and he believed the opportunity was greater in Chicago because “the club was down and in the process of rebuilding.” “I’m still a live-and-die Cub fan,” he said. “Most of the time you’re dying.”
He was wearing a Sammy Sosa watch and his PCL championship ring. “Every day was ‘Happy Days’,” he said of the 1956 season.
Fodge appeared in only 16 games in the majors but, as he quickly pointed out, “It’s 16 games I’ll never forget.”
“It has been what, 42 years since I was in the majors? I’m still getting stuff in the mail from fans. I can’t wait to open it. I get some of the most interesting letters from people saying, ‘We’re fans from your era and baseball has never been the same.’ I always answer them. My wife says, ‘You’ve never been out of baseball.’ I haven’t really because people have kept me in it.”
Gene died in 2010 at the age of 79.
Family and friends showed up at his funeral wearing baseball uniforms and Cubs shirts. At one point, they sang along with a recording of Harry Caray warbling Take Me Out to the Ballgame. It was a fitting tribute to the only Cubs pitcher to beat Drysdale and Koufax in the same game.
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.
The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:
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