Dead Player of the Day (Pinky Higgins Edition)

In which I open the encyclopedia to a random page and riff on what I find.

#25 Mike “Pinky” Higgins 3B 1930, 1933-1944, 1946 (1909-1969)

Higgins played in the American League during a particularly fecund offensive era, so his career .292/.370/.428 rates aren’t quite as good as they look. He was at his best at the beginning and end of his career, but had five years in the middle when he didn’t hit much; from 1936 to 1940, he hit .289/.370/.410 while playing in good parks, which is only a superficial improvement over a league that hit .280/.354/.413 during that period. He did have some legitimately good years, such as his sophomore season, when he hit .330/.392/.508. His big moment on the diamond was setting a record for hits in consecutive at-bats with 12 in 1938. Ironically, it wasn’t a very good year for him; he hit .303/.388/.406  while playing at Fenway in a league that hit .281/.358/.415. He also hit for the cycle in 1933, had a five-hit game in 1938, and had a three-homer game in 1940. Defensively, he was error-prone. In 1687 games from 1933 to 1944, he made 345 miscues. As a point of comparison, Stan Hack played 1466 games in those same years and made 204 errors, which is to say that Higgins erred 141 more times in just 221 more games. In short, he was a player you could live with if he was only expected to be a supporting part and not a star, and he got to two World Series on teams where he wasn’t even the fifth-best player.

Higgins played for the Red Sox in 1937 and 1938 and made an impression on owner Tom Yawkey, who liked to hang out with his players. Both liked hunting and drinking, not necessarily in that order. They also liked drinking and drinking. Not only did the Red Sox buy him from the Tigers in 1946, when Higgins was a 37-year-old failing to come back from a year lost to wartime service, but after the season the club immediately hired him to manage in the farm system. Saying, “I want to start at the bottom and prove I can manage,” Higgins started with Roanoke of the Piedmont League and then worked his way up through the system over seven years, taking over the big-league team in 1955.

Del Baker, who managed Higgins with the Tigers and coached for him with the Red Sox, said he had “never worked for a fellow who could handle players better than Higgins or get more out of them.” Alas, this was true (if it were true; the record is exactly the opposite) only if you were white. Higgins, a Texan, was not an architect of Boston Red Sox racism, but he was one of its chief perpetuators as manager from 1955 through 1959 and 1961 to 1962 and general manager from 1963 to 1965. “They’ll be no niggers on this ballclub as long as I have anything to say about it,” sportswriter Al Hirshberg claimed Higgins had said to him. He bravely reported this in a book published four years after Higgins was dead. A Boston sportswriter once told Higgins that he thought that Minnie Minoso was the best player in the AL; Higgins said the writer was “nothing but a fucking nigger-lover.” Another writer who dared to question Higgins on his racial policy had a plate of Beef Stroganoff dumped in his lap. None of this got out at the time—very few Boston sportswriters cared to risk their access by reporting honestly about Higgins during his time in office.

The Red Sox did not have an African American player, or even an African American employee, until 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson. Even that was grudgingly done. After Pumpsie Green hit .444 with three homers in spring training that year, after seven seasons in the minors, there seemed to be no way for the Sox to avoid taking him north. Instead, Higgins sent him down, somehow overruling GM Bucky Harris in the process. “Another season or half-season at Minneapolis is what this boy needs.” Green was sent down and hit well. When a reporter dared to ask when Green mightbe recalled, he got the “nigger-lover” treatment and a stream of tobacco juice spit on his shirt. Higgins was removed as manager in early July (he remained in the organization as a scout—Yawkey wasn’t about to throw away his drinking buddy) and replaced by Billy Jurges. Green made his debut about three weeks later, though he didn’t play much. Less than a year later, Jurges had been deemed a failure and was replaced… by Higgins.

Higgins couldn’t undo the integration of the Sox right away. Green remained on the club until Higgins, who was promoted to general manager in October, 1962, traded him to the Mets in December of 1962 (although he did receive Felix Mantilla, a native of Puerto Rico who wasn’t any nearer to being white by Higgins’ definition than Green). Pitcher Earl Wilson, who had followed Green to the majors after Higgins’ removal in 1959, then pitched 13 games for the club in 1960, conveniently disappeared back to the minors for all of 1961. The Red Sox would later trade him to the Tigers over a trumped up episode of “drinking” that really had to do with their own cowardice in backing Wilson over a spring training incident in which a racist bartender refused to serve him. Willie Tasby, another African-American the club had shockingly traded for during Higgins’ absence from Boston, was not protected in the December, 1960 expansion draft and was selected by the Washington Senators.

Higgins had little to do with the Wilson trade as he finally was let go altogether in September, 1965. His record as manager was 560-556. None of his clubs were competitive. He climaxed his term as GM with the team’s only 100-loss season between 1930 and the present. Adding to his special legacy, Higgins finished his life by killing a (apparently African American) highway worker in a drunk driving accident. Driving on Interstate 20 in Louisiana while scouting for the Astros, he hit a 65-year-old man named George Killen and injured two others. He was sentenced to four years at hard labor in spite of having two heart attacks in his past. In recognition of his condition, he did “light duties” in the prison hospital. He served two months and was paroled; he died of a heart attack almost as soon as he was released. Informed of his death, Earl Wilson said, “Good things happen to some people.” Think about that. Was he reflecting on Yawkey’s embrace of this pathetic primitive, or his own happiness in seeing Higgins meet an early demise?

The Yawkey Red Sox were racists through and through before Higgins and probably after him. They gave a joke tryout to Jackie Robinson in 1945 and filed a joke scouting report on Willie Mays when he was with the Birmingham Black Barons. Yet, Yawkey was a traditional racist in that he kept his views to himself, not daring to expose them to the public for fear of disapproval or backlash. To this day, there are no documented instances of Yawkey saying or doing anything bigoted, just the glaring evidence provided by the makeup of his ballclub and the transparent excuses (“there are just no good African American ballplayers available, sorry) offered by such club shills as Eddie Collins, Joe Cronin, and Bucky Harris. Higgins, though, had no shame. He was right out in the open, in one of America’s greatest cities, after Jackie, and Willie, and Hank Aaron, after the integration of the military, Brown v. Board of Ed, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, and so on, figuring no one was going to call him on it and apparently not caring anyway. What kind of a person so proudly revels in his own ignorance? Only a pig so happily wallows in its own filth. Good things happen to some people indeed. 

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Good article. I knew that Higgins was an avowed racist but hadn't known the details.
Excellent article. It seems as though the Red Sox' whitewashing of their record on integration would be a great topic for a long article or book.
Howard Bryant, for one, covered it in his fine book "Shut Out," one of several sources for this profile. I recommend it.
I'm guessing now that it may have been 1945 or so when I met "Pinky Higgins." A bunch of us kids were gathered on the porch of the corner grocery as we always did, and it was late into the night when a tall, dark stranger in an overcoat, hat, and carrying a brown bag with a bottle in it, ducked in from the rain. In the ensueing minutes, I was in the middle of a pleasant exchange with this stranger, and in no time, he was convinced I knew baseball, which, of course, no one does. I wondered over the years whether it was Pinky or not, but he knew I could rattle off the current names such as Newsome and McCoskey, etc.....And my rear was sore for a day or so thereafter because I got it pretty good for having stayed way too late at the fair, so to speak. I'm 77 now and it doesn't matter whether it was Pinky or not, although. Either way, it's a ghost story...