Posts Tagged ‘Tom Yawkey’

Pinky

April 20, 2018

Pinky Higgins

When I was a kid I had one of those baseball board games that had a spinner and some cards representing real players. You spun the spinner (it wasn’t as awkward as that combination of words) then consulted the player card to get a result. It was a step up from normal spinner games in that it tried, by use of the card, to get something closer to a real player’s result (Babe Ruth would hit more homers, Ty Cobb would have more singles). All the players were historical and I’d heard of all of them except one: Pinky Higgins. What follows is not simply my normal look at the playing career of Higgins, but some thoughts on other parts of his career.

Michael Frank Higgins was born in Red Oak, Texas in 1909. At the time it was a small East Texas town. Now it’s part of the Dallas suburbs. The “Pinky” nickname came from his childhood and he seems to have hated it. He made the big leagues in 1930 as a third baseman for the 1930 Philadelphia Athletics. The A’s won the World Series, but Higgins didn’t play in the Series. He was back in the minors in 1931 and 1932, then resurfaced with the A’s in 1933. He stayed there through 1936, then shifted to Boston (the Red Sox, not the Braves) where he remained through 1938. From Boston it was on to Detroit, where he got into the 1940 World Series.  In 1945 he was off to World War II, then came back for one final season in 1946, splitting time between Detroit and Boston. He finished his career in the 1946 World Series. For his career he hit .292 with a slugging percentage of .428, 140 home runs, 1075 RBIs, a 107 OPS+ and 27.5 WAR.  He also managed to hit for the cycle in August 1933. All in all, not a bad career.

After retirement from the game he managed in the Red Sox minor league system, then in 1955 became manager of the BoSox. He remained into 1959, then took over again in 1960, remaining to 1962. During the latter stint as manager he was also in charge of player personnel, making him a de facto general manager. He remained there until 1965, when he was fired. The Astros picked him up as a special scout.

Higgins drank, and he drank a lot. In 1968, while driving drunk in Louisiana he hit a highway worker. The worker died and Higgins was sentenced to five years in prison, one year deferred. He served a few months and was released with heart problems. He died in 1969, less than two days after his release.

But Higgins became, both during his tenure with the Red Sox and after his death, the center of a raging controversy about baseball and race. Although there are a few ex-players and staff who disagreed, almost everyone who knew Higgins agreed he was an extreme racist. Some have gone so far as to blame him for the failure of the Red Sox to integrate prior to 1959.

Now I grew up in Oklahoma and in West Texas. I’ve met my share of East Texas bigots (and to be fair about it, bigots from a lot of other places) and it wouldn’t surprise me that Higgins, growing up when and where he did, had his fair share of racial prejudice. But it seems silly somehow to blame him for the Boston race problem. He never owned the team. Tom Yawkey did. Yawkey never pushed to integrate the Red Sox (and for what it’s worth, Yawkey was from Detroit, a distinctly non-Southern town). Between the time Brooklyn brought up Jackie Robinson in 1947 through the arrival of Pumpsie Green in Boston in 1959, the following men served as General Manager of the BoSox: Eddie Collins (through 1947), Joe Cronin (through 1958). Neither man moved to employ black ball players at the Major League level (Cronin had several black players in the minors, but never promoted any of them). As far as I can tell, neither ever went to the owner with a plea “Mr. Yawkey, we’re losing and we can right the ship if we add a couple of black players.” Maybe they knew Yawkey would tell them “No.” As manager Higgins never pushed for integration either. I’m quite certain that Higgins was no friend to Black Americans, but it’s unfair to attribute the late arrival of a black player to Boston to him. He may have agreed, but he had a lot of others who nodded along with him.

 

The Crusader

February 2, 2011

Wendell Smith

Crusader is one of those words that’s really out of fashion today. It brings up all the images of religious zealotry and fanaticism that make people shy from it. But there is a place for crusading zeal. Wendell Smith knew where that place needed to be and he worked long and hard, with unquestioned zeal, to help accomplish the integration of American sport.

Born in Detroit in 1914, Wendell Smith graduated from West Virginia State College (a segregated university). He edited the sports page for the college newspaper, majored in journalism, and played baseball. After graduation he joined the Pittsburgh Courier the leading black newspaper in Pennsylvania in 1937. By 1938 he was sports editor. He waged a continuous campaign to integrate American sport, especially baseball.  Although individual sports like track and boxing could produce excellent black athletes like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, team sport (outside a handful of universities) was a bastion of segregation in the era. Smith argued that if black Americans could excel as individuals, they could do equally well as members of a  professional team, something players like Jackie Robinson had proved in college.

With World War II still going on, Smith hit upon the idea of having a tryout of Negro League players. He reasoned that with many of the Major League stars off at war, the teams would need the best quality talent they could get in order to win. This would be especially true of teams that were not usually in pennant contention and contenders who were losing because their best players were gone. And if they didn’t, then it showed their racism to the world.  He managed to talk Tom Yawkey’s Boston Red Sox into holding a tryout on 16 April 1945 for three black players: Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethro, and Marvin Williams. The Red Sox evaluation was that they weren’t good enough. Robinson, of course went on to win the first Rookie of the Year Award and make the Hall of Fame. Jethro also won a Rookie of the Year Award. Turns out the BoSox were right about Williams (1 out of 3) and Smith was right about racism.

Undeterred, Smith continued to support integrating baseball as the sport that would gain the most instant credibility for black players. There is no evidence that he personally influenced Branch Rickey’s move to integrate the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946-7, but Smith certainly supported the idea. His newspaper paid for Smith to accompany Robinson during both the 1946 minor league year and also during the 1947 season on team road trips. Until the arrival on Dan Bankhead in the 1947 season, Smith served as a sort of unofficial roommate and confidant of Robinson, especially in those towns where Robinson was not allowed to stay in the same hotels as the white players. His articles on the road trips are some of his best work.

In 1938 Smith applied for membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America. He was turned down. It wasn’t because he was black (Of course, it wasn’t. They just wouldn’t do that, would they?) but because his newspaper was not owned by a white person (Say what?). In 1948, the BBWAA changed its mind and Smith became its first black member. That made him the first black man who could vote for the Hall of Fame.

In the late 1940s, Smith moved to Chicago and began covering mostly boxing for a local newspaper. In 1964 he joined WGN and became the television station’s first black sports anchor. He continued to write a newspaper article or two while working on television. He died in 1972. In 1993 he was award the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing (thus getting his name in the HofF) and in 1996 his wife donated his papers to the Hall of Fame, where they are available for research.

The above should tell you I really like Wendell Smith. He’s not the greatest writer to win the Spink Award (I think Grantland Rice is), but he wa very good. His style was somewhat folksy, but his ability to cut through the nonsense to get at what he wanted is excellent. He understood the value of confrontation (ala the Red Sox episode), but could also let his prose make his case for him (like the Robinson hotel stories did). I think it took much too long to get him the Spink Award and I think he deserves to move a step beyond that. I’d like to see his full enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, plaque and all. I know a lot of people will disagree with me. After all, the man didn’t play the game. But then neither did Ban Johnson, William Hulbert, Tom Yawkey, and a lot of other members of the Hall. For what he meant to both the sport and the country, I think he should be there.

This post allows me to begin a celebration of black history month in the US with a look at a black American writer. I intend to make a few more looks at the Negro Leagues and other aspects of black baseball off and on during the month. Hope you will enjoy them.

Yawkey in, Ruppert and Kauffman Out

June 4, 2010

I truly love baseball. I think it’s a great and grand game and wouldn’t trade it for all the World Cup moments in history. But there are times I despair over the game. Some things that happen make no sense to me (maybe I’m just too dense and am missing something). Here’s an example. Why is Tom Yawkey in the Hall of Fame and Jacob Ruppert and Ewing Kauffman not?

Jacob Ruppert was born in 1867. His dad was a brewer but the son went into politics. He served for a while in the New York National Guard (hence the nickname “Colonel”) He ran as a Democrat for the US Congress from New York and served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1899 to 1907, then went into the brewing business with his dad. He rose to become President of the United States Brewers Association between 1911 and 1914. That latter year he became one of two joint owners of the New York Yankees. In 1922 he became sole owner and held the position until his death in 1939. During that period Ruppert, along with Ed Barrow (the general manager), created the Yankees Dynasty. He bought Babe Ruth, brought up Lou Gehrig, hired both Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy, signed Joe DiMaggio and Tony Lazzeri and Joe Gordon and Bill Dickey and…well, you get the idea. The team won pennants in 1921, 1923, 1926, and the World Series in 1923, 1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, 1938, and in Ruppert’s death year, 1939.

Ewing Kauffman was born in 1916, fought in World War II (US Navy), then opened a pharmaceuticals business in 1950. He made a ton of money and merged his company with Merrill Dow in 1989. In the 1970s he brought baseball back to Kansas City. He founded the Royals, named in honor of the old Negro League team the Monarchs. His Royals Academy was innovative, if not overly successful, but it did get us Frank White. He brought George Brett to the big leagues, made his team relevant in a small market and won a pennant in 1980 and a World Series in 1985. The Royals also made the playoffs a slew of times. He built Royals Stadium, a truly state-of-the-art ballpark when it came on-line.  He died in 1993. The Royals were still relevant and had a winning record that season.

Tom Yawkey was born in 1903 in Detroit, adopted by an uncle and inherited a fortune when the uncle died. Yawkey attended Yale, graduated, and purchased the Boston Red Sox in 1933. He owned them until his death in 1976. During that period the Sox won three pennants (1946, 1967, and 1975) and lost all three World Series’, each in seven games. He also passed on integrating baseball when he decided the Sox couldn’t use Jackie Robinson and later couldn’t use Willie Mays. In 1980 Yawkey was elected to the Hall of Fame, becoming the first non-player, non-manager, non-general manager team owner chosen for Cooperstown.

All this brings me back to my original question: “Why is Yawkey a Hall of Famer and the other two aren’t?” Forget for a moment the racism involved in Yawkey’s refusal to integrate his team. I know nothing about Ruppert’s views on race so I don’t know how we should look at him on the issue. Maybe he felt the same way, maybe he ddn’t. And by Kauffman’s  era the idea of a lily white ball team was ludicrous whatever he thought of the possibility. Take a simple look at the three men’s record as championship owners and tell me who you like. Bet you like Ruppert a lot, right? He is arguably the most successful owner in baseball history. And Kauffman isn’t bad either. Consider how small a market Kansas City really is then consider how well the team did with Kauffman at the helm. OK, it isn’t the Yankees, but neither is anyone else. Through good ownership, wonderful hiring policies, great talent, the Royals go from neophytes to champs in less than 10 years (a little more to actually win the World Series). I figure that’s pretty good, especially when you consider what’s happened to KC since Kauffman died. And what do we get under Yawkey in 40 years? Three pennants and zero World Series victories despite having some truly great players. In some ways I think Kauffman did the best because he won with less available than Ruppert, but you can’t push aside Ruppert’s contributions.

I was unable to find the Veteran’s Committee membership list for 1980, the year Yawkey was elected. Maybe the committee was stacked with ex-Red Sox that liked and lobbied for the old man (if anyone finds the list, publish it in the comments section, please). Maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know. Although I would not have voted for Yawkey had I been on the committee, I’m not even sure it was a total mistake to elect him. What I know is a mistake is that neither Colonel Ruppert nor Ewing Kauffman have plaques alongside Yawkey’s.