In the 1920s, the Bloomington Bloomers baseball team served as a crucial stepping stone for several players on their way to the Major Leagues. The best and most colorful prospect from the hometown minor league club was Robert Roy Fothergill, a portly, proficient hitter who helped patrol the Detroit Tigers outfield from 1922 to 1930.
“He was one of the last of those rare spirits who appeared to play for the fun of it,” noted baseball scribe Lee Allen. “After the game, you could find him with a thick porterhouse steak and a seidel of beer, and he would chuckle to himself and mumble out of the side of his mouth, ‘Imagine getting paid for a life like this!’”
From 1901 to 1939 (with a few interruptions, such as World War I and the Great Depression), Bloomington fielded a team in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League, at one time one of the more stable and talented “low” minor leagues in the nation.
Bloomington Bloomers Manager Joe Dunn pulled Fothergill out of Massillon, Ohio, where the deceptively quick prospect grew up and was playing semi-pro ball. In his first year of professional baseball, the 22-year-old rookie led the 1920 “Three Eye” (one of the league’s nicknames) in hits (180), runs batted in (116) and batting average (.332). He played a key role in Bloomington’s pennant-winning season as they finished ahead of the league’s remaining seven teams — Evansville, Rockford, Moline, Cedar Rapids, Peoria, Terre Haute and Rock Island.
Fothergill’s talents were such that he captured the interest of baseball lifer and freelance scout Clarence “Pants” Rowland, who served as the intermediary in negotiations between Bloomington’s Dunn and Detroit owner Frank Navin. At the end of the Three-I League season the Bloomers received $3,500 (or more than $40,000 in today’s dollars) from the Tigers for the rights to Fothergill.
The talented but still unseasoned “fence-buster” welcomed the challenge to compete against the best in the game. “Give me a chance and I’ll show those birds up there that I can crack that old apple,” Fothergill told a local reporter after his signing. True to his word, by the start of the 1923 season (this after a stint with Rochester, N.Y., in the International League) he had earned a fulltime roster spot with the Tigers.
Fothergill played in 12 seasons in “the Show” (as the major’s are called), ending a productive career with a lifetime batting average of .325. Though a big league talent at the plate, he had trouble cracking the Detroit starting lineup given the outfield featured three future hall of famers, most notably Ty Cobb.
He was best known for his oversized (at least for the day) physique, and his many nicknames included “Fats,” “Rhino,” “Rotund Robert” and “Rob Roy the Tiger Fat Boy.” Looking at Fothergill at the plate, the irascible shortstop (and future Hall of Fame manager) Leo “The Lip” Durocher cracked that it was illegal to have two men in the batter’s box. Fothergill, for one, never viewed his weight as a handicap on the field. “Detroit pays me to hit,” he once said. “I can’t hit if I ain’t got the power and I ain’t got the power if I don’t eat. And when I eat what I like I get fat. When I diet, I don’t hit. So what in blazes am I going to do?”
He was also the consummate showman known as “The People’s Choice.” “Fothergill doesn’t go into a base upright if he can help it, for that would mean the elimination of his swan-diving slide, and such a thing would be unthinkable,” observed sportswriter Bud Shaver. “Robert is too much the artiste to be thus callous to his public.”
During the 1930 season the Tigers traded Fothergill to the Chicago White Sox, and he finished his big league career three years later with the Boston Braves. Suffering from poor health, a 40-year-old Fothergill passed away in Detroit on March 20, 1938.
Though “Rotund Robert” is gone, the stories remain. Once, when facing right-hander “Moose” Earnshaw of the Philadelphia Athletics, Fothergill took umbrage to a threatening inside pitch. On the next toss he belted what was said to be the longest home run in his career. “He’s rounding the bases nice and easy,” recalled teammate Charlie Gehringer, “and then when he gets to third base he comes running like a freight train and does a complete flip in the air and lands on home plate! Never saw him do that before. Man, he brought the house down!”