This week I wanted to showcase a large illustration I recently completed of Paul Derringer. Besides wanting to bring the old Reds ace to life in full color, I also looked forward to re-creating the scoreboard and factories that formed the outfield walls of Crosley Field. Turned out to be one of my favorite drawings...
One would think a pitcher with a record of 7-27 would find himself back in the minor leagues, right? Not Paul Derringer - he got a $2,500 raise. In 1933, the year he put up those terrible stats, Derringer had an ERA of 3.30, better than league average, and his walks and home runs allowed per inning was among the lowest in both leagues.
Paul Derringer’s career had more dramatic peaks and valleys than Kentucky's Red River Gorge. He came from Springfield, the son of a prosperous Kentucky tobacco farmer and former baseball player. Built like a line backer and over six feet tall, Derringer had a blazing fastball delivered with a dizzying leg kick and pin-point control. By 1931 he was pitching for the Cardinals where the rookie won 18 games as St. Louis went to the World Series. Then he had the misfortune of going from the best team in the National League to the worst when he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. That’s the season he lost 27 games.
Derringer was a surly fellow and he often ended arguments with his fists. His decade-long feud with former Cardinals teammate Dizzy Dean culminated in a full-blown on-field brawl in 1939. Perhaps due to all his pent-up rage (or maybe he was just tired of losing), Derringer began winning despite a lousy Reds ball club. In ‘36 he won 22 games and by 1938 the Reds had themselves a good ball club. Derringer’s 25-7 record in 1939 was the best winning percentage in the league as the Reds won their first pennant in twenty years. In 1940 the big right hander won 20 games and then 2 more in the World Series as Cincinnati won it all.
Derringer retired after his 16 wins helped the Cubs to their last pennant in 1945. He finished with 223 career wins and is the third most winningest pitcher in Cincinnati Reds history.
who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own
horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself.
That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that
needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider
Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads?
It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers
an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of
the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a
while some crackpot writes a clunker - like the creep on Good Reads
that said I should have had someone who knows English write the copy
(that was a surprise as Simon & Schuster's editing process is
quite impressive and very rigorous). I for one often look at the reviews
on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the
only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a
factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write
your thoughts about my work.
80 Years ago today Len Koenecke met his end in the skies above Canada. This re-post from a few years ago is for you Len...
the advice of a few colleagues, I've been actively searching around for
someone to represent my baseball illustrations. After many years in my
line of work I've built up an impressive body of work,
but through it all I know one thing - I'm a terrible business man -
most artists are. Talking about my work has always been a tough thing
for me to do, I've always been shy about tooting my own horn and as a
result I've never been able to take advantage of opportunities a more
savvy professional would have leaped at, and I'm finally come to the
point where I'm seeking someone to handle that. That said, if anyone has
any suggestions, I'd be most appreciative.
But back to baseball...
I've been working on this week's story for quite some time. The
illustration was completed 6 months ago and it's one of my favorites so
far. What artist could turn away from that striking dark blue
Indianapolis Indians flannel uniform with the white socks? The subject
of the story has a chiseled granite mug that no illustrator would pass
up the opportunity to render. But it's the story that makes this week's
chapter worth while. Len Koenecke was always fascinating to me - he's a
footnote, a trivial oddity you come across in quite a few baseball
anthologies and I've been looking forward to researching it from the
perspective of contemporary accounts. My Grandfather, who was a die-hard
Brooklyn Dodger fan at the time Koenecke was roaming center field at
Ebbets Field, would talk about him every so often and I suppose it's
through him that I heard of him first. Over the past months I've amassed
a nice-sized binder of clippings and accounts and finally gotten 'round
to putting the whole thing together this Thanksgiving weekend...
It seemed like some crazed pulp magazine story but it was really happening.
The lone passenger picked
himself up off the floor and drew his broad 6' frame up as tall as the
cramped airplane cabin would allow, which wasn't much. The cabin of the
single-engine Stinson SM-1 Detroiter wasn't much bigger than a modern
Chevy Suburban. Surprised that the man still had it in him to get up,
the exasperated co-pilot tore a portable fire extinguisher from the
cabin wall, determined to defend the cockpit from this maniac who was
equally determined to crash the plane. Behind him, the pilot struggled
to keep the Stinson SM-1 airplane steady in the early morning skies over
Toronto. The fight had pitched the plane violently and the pilot had
lost all navigational bearings just trying to keep the plane level. All
three men were yelling incoherently but with the noise from the engine
nothing could be heard, just the twisted faces of two men desperately
fighting for their lives and a third trying his best to end it for them
The passenger pulled his
head down into his broad shoulders and lunged forward. Drawing the metal
fire extinguisher across his body the co-pilot hit the charging man as
hard as he could. With a noiseless scream he easily deflected the heavy
metal canister which spun through the air and hit the pilot in the
shoulder. Defenseless, the co-pilot was no match for the crazed
passenger who now hammered on his body with ham-sized fists until he
slumped to the cabin floor.
Now nothing stood between him and the pilot.
Seeing his friend and
co-pilot rendered useless, the pilot, with one hand on the controls,
reached down at his feet and grabbed hold of the fire extinguisher.
While the co-pilot was a slightly-built man, the pilot was a former
star athlete and
tonight he would need all his strength to save his life. In the dim
cockpit lighting he could see the shadow of the passenger quickly
looming behind his seat. Blindly he swung the extinguisher behind him
and hit something - it was the co-pilot's head. The pilot swung the
extinguisher again and this time hit the looming passenger in the side
of the face. With the big man momentarily stunned, the pilot drew back
and swung, again hitting the passenger in the face. Blood splashed in
all directions and the pilot swung again, another head shot, and then
another. And another. The man took a step back and crumpled
into the back seat in a pool of rapidly spreading blood. As the man
slumped forward, he brought the heavy canister down once more onto the
top of his head before the blood made the extinguisher slip from his
grasp and roll away into the dark recesses of the cabin.
This time he wasn't getting up. The lone passenger, Len Koenecke, outfielder of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was definitely dead.
Len Koenecke's career had
been about as rocky and turbulent as his last airplane ride. He was from
a Wisconsin railroad family, hard-working men who made the giant steam
engines run. Following in his Pop Herman's footsteps, young Len took a
job as a fireman, shoveling coal into the hungry fires that propelled
the Chicago & North Western locomotives across the midwest. The
work hardened the boy's 6' bony frame and he developed hulking shoulders
and powerful arms. More importantly though, young Koenecke was assigned
the Escanaba to Ispheming run where he met brakeman Murray Boyle.
Before Murray Boyle was a
brakeman he was a minor league ballplayer, but now managed the Escanaba
town team. One week Boyle knew Escanaba needed a catcher for that
weekend's game and he asked the athletically-built Koenecke if he'd care
to play. Though he never caught before he did a good enough job that he
kept playing and soon jumped to another semi-pro team where he was
spotted by a fella who told a friend who knew the manager of the Class B
Springfield Senators of the Three I League. Koenecke took a leave of
absence from the railroad and headed south to Illinois. Unfortunately
his skills behind the plate were poor for a class B team and he was
dropped in May without ever playing a game. He slipped over to Moline
which was a class D level and when the Plowboy's regular outfielder got
injured, Koenecke took his place. In 117 games he his 20 homers and
batted a nice .343. In the fall he returned to the Chicago &
Northwestern where he shoveled coal throughout the off season.
When spring came, Koenecke
rejoined the Moline Plowboys. From the hard railroad work he was a
physical specimen to behold, but found it took weeks to finally unlimber
his massive back muscles and swing a bat comfortably. He increased his
average to .389 for 1928 and was sold to the Class B Quincy Indians at
the end of the season. Quincy was in turn owned by the Indianapolis
Indians and the big club had Koenecke join them for the remainder of the
American Association season. Indianapolis was Class AA, the highest
rung of the minor leagues. Getting into 17 games Koenecke hit .394 and
clocked 4 homers. In October he went back to Wisconsin and rejoined the
1929 was much the same as
1928 with the long spring training spent getting his body back to
baseball form. He was sent down to Quincy in the first part of the
season and when his swing came back he moved up to Indianapolis. The
books show he hit .323 for the year. Again, winter was spent with the
railroad where his leave of absences was starting to rub the other
workers the wrong way. Koenecke's Pop Herman was an engineer on the line
and no doubt his position and seniority had everything to do with his
son's excessive leaves each summer. Fact of the matter was that each
time Koenecke returned he pushed out another well-trained worker.
Baseball just didn't pay enough for Koenecke to take the winter off nor
was he sure his career would go anywhere. The constant back and forth
between the mid and high minors left him uncertain of his future so he
needed to keep his railroad job as long as he could. In February he
married Gladys Stoltenberg which made his position even more precarious.
He needed to keep both feet in, it was just the smart way to play it.
That spring he again wound
up in the lower Class B level and stayed there except for 67 games with
Indy where he his a disappointing .250. The long time it took each
spring to work back into baseball shape was taking its toll on him and
when he returned to the railroad in the fall, he was confronted with a
decision: work or play. No more leaves of absence. Koenecke chose
In the spring he came
barreling into training camp and made the Indianapolis roster to stay.
Throughout the season he prowled the outfield like a hungry leopard and
hit everything in sight. He punished the American Association pitchers
at a .353 clip, second best on the team. He led Indianapolis in hits
(224), triples (19) and home runs (24). In one great leap Koenecke went
from human pinball machine to top-rung minor league star. And important
people were watching.
John McGraw, long-time
manager of the mighty New York Giants, was looking around for a new
outfielder. The Cardinals and Cubs had usurped the Giants as the best
teams in the National League and the hated Yankees were now THE New York
team to root for. McGraw was determined to find a ballplayer of immense
quality to plug the gaps of his sinking ship, win pennants and fill the
stands. Although he was in ill-health, McGraw boarded a train west and
personally scouted the Indianapolis Indians' phenom from the stands.
Liking what he saw, the Giants manager bought Koenecke for an
When he boarded the train
to Los Angeles for spring training, Koenecke left behind a trail of
Indianapolis baseball records that still stand: 5th highest season
batting average (.353); 3rd in hits (224); 1st in runs scored (141); 4th
in triples (19) and 3rd in RBI (131).
sunny L.A., Koenecke was the talk of the camp. His high price tag made
him a sure topic for the newspaper boys and McGraw fed them lines
proclaiming that his new outfielder was sure to "be a bright star in the
National League". On the field he performed well, seeming to live up to
the hype that swirled around him.When the Giants suited up for Opening
Day, Len Koenecke was right along with them wearing number 31.
1932 was a dismal year for
New York. No matter what McGraw tried his boys slipped further and
further down the standings. The Old Man was not well and perhaps this
rubbed off on the team. The Giants were beginning a transition from the
old-time baseball of their manager and the modern-day tactics of the
heir-apparent, outfielder Bill Terry. The new $70,000 wonder-boy had a
hard time breaking into the veteran lineup. The outfield consisted of
future Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Freddie Lindstrom and 2 time National
League MVP and 5 time All-Star Jo-Jo Moore. None-the-less McGraw played
Koenecke off and on but after 40 games he was barely batting .250. Most
insulting to McGraw was his 5 errors in the outfield including an
unforgivable misplay on a ball that gave Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean an
inside-the-ballpark home run.
The New York Giants at this
time was a close-knit fraternity and difficult for any outside
ballplayer to break in. McGraw was a hard man to play for and many
players failed to make good solely because of his criticism and acidic
personality. Besides being an over-aged rookie, Koenecke reportedly was
quiet and had a fragile ego, a trait that didn't bode well for a new
ballplayer, especially one who had the press clippings and expectations
that he came with. To make an already bad situation worse, somehow he'd
gotten under the skin of Bill Terry, McGraw's right-hand man. When the
Old Man retired after the first 40 games of the season, any protection
he was getting from McGraw evaporated. New skipper Bill Terry had enough
on his plate than worry about bringing along a 28 year-old rookie he
had personal problems with. Despite what his mentor might have thought
of Koenecke's talent, Terry sent the $70,000 Man across the Hudson River
to the minor league Jersey City Skeeters.
While it must have been
frustrating for Koenecke to again be swung back and forth between teams,
he performed well with the Skeeters. The Giants might not have a place
or time for him but his .355 with 18 homers got the Brooklyn Dodgers
interested and they swapped Lefty O'Doul and Watty Clark for him and
infielder Sam Leslie. Brooklyn let Koenecke spend another season in the
minors and he batted .334 with the Buffalo Bisons for the 1934 season.
When Spring rolled around
again the 30 year-old Koenecke was now an old man in baseball years. He
had a reoccurring foot injury that made him sit out games but he was
still strong and eager to make good. The Brooklyn team that was training
in Orlando was a miserable bunch. Besides youngster Van Mungo and the
elderly Ray Benge the pitching staff was a collection of never-were's
and the majority of the bench were has-beens. It was Casey Stengel's
first season as a Major League manager and he worked hard to make
something of the rubble calling themselves Dodgers.
In what is one of the only
cases of that I've heard of Casey Stengel going out of his way to tutor a
ballplayer, Brooklyn's new manager drilled Koenecke all spring.
Newspapers gave Stengel credit for giving the former bonus baby back the
confidence he left on the Giants locker room floor back in 1932. Where
Koenecke was a good outfielder before, Stengel put Koenecke through the
paces until he caught anything that came near him. When the Dodgers
headed north to start the 1934 season, Koenecke was raring to go.
Go he did. Batting
clean-up, the re-born Koenecke batted .320 against National League
pitching, second best on the team. While not a speed-demon, he was smart
and sure-footed on the base paths but it was in the field where he
excelled. In 123 games Koenecke made but 2 errors - a .994 fielding
percentage and still a National League record. While the Dodgers
finished in 6th place, 23 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, Brooklyn
finally had something to look forward to in the coming season. With Len
Koenecke, the Dodgers had a bonafide star.
The off-season was spent making the usual rounds a newly minted star did back then
- steak and potatoes testimonial dinners and drinks on the house from
coast-to-coast. While newspapers back east speculated on the glories
Koenecke was going to lead the Dodgers to in 1935, Koenecke bulked up
back home in Wisconsin. The formerly reserved and emotionally tender
ballplayer rolled into Brooklyn's training camp in Orlando with a
swelled head and body to match.
If you look at the record
book for 1935 and isolated all other years, on the surface Leonard
George Koenecke didn't have too bad of a season: .283 average in 100
games ain't nothing to sneeze at. Under the hood however, the numbers
tell a different story: where he only struck out 38 times in 536 at bats
the previous year he now swished 45 times in only 374 chances. His
power seemed to disappear over the winter and his already bad feet now
all but hobbled him through out the summer. His record-making fielding
dissipated as well and he was charged with 8 errors. Stengel watched
with horror as his protege of the previous year crumbled before his
eyes. The team as a whole was falling apart, too. Where the year before
the rookie skipper was the darling of the sports page, he soon
discovered his corny jokes and witticisms only make you look stupid when
your team is stinking up the National League.
As the summer churned into
the humid days of September, Stengel was at the end of his rope. Losing
his cool he lashed out at his team for making him look bad. Koenecke in
particular drew his ire due to his disappointing record. As September
began the Brooklyn skipper let the press know that there was changes
a-comin' - and he was cleaning house. Word leaked that Stengel was
trying pawn Koenecke off on any team that would take him - minor league
teams. All these Stengel-fueled rumors swirled around the team as they
brought their losing show on the road. In Boston last year's hero went 5
for 8 then 2 for 18 against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. When the Dodgers
turned up in Chicago, Koenecke sat out the first game then went 1 for 4
before being benched for the last game at Wrigley Field. In the 9th
inning Stengel tapped Koenecke to pinch hit. He grounded out. Didn't
matter anyway. He could have hit a grand slam and it wouldn't have
mattered. When the team arrived in St. Louis the following day, Stengel
had arranged for Koenecke and two other slackers, Bob Barr and Les
Munns, to go to Buffalo. Len Koenecke was sent back to the minor leagues
You have to try get in the
head of Len Koenecke to fully understand what led up to the event
described in the beginning of this story. Baseball lore has twisted the
story of Len Koenecke's demise so many ways it is hard to tell what
really happened in his final hours, but let's try. Here he was, 31
years-old, been sent up and down the rungs of organized baseball so many
times he had to look in a mirror and read his jersey to see what ball
club he was with on any given day. He was a married man with a 5
year-old girl waiting for him in their apartment in Brooklyn. The Great
Depression was in full swing and the once lucrative security of his
railroad job was long gone. His feet were bad and he'd been thrown off
two major league teams in disgrace, both times after garnering high
praise and expectations. With a fragile ego that was probably coming
apart at the seams, Koenecke packed his bags once again. Before he
picked up his plane ticket back to New York he paused and wrote a
postcard to his daughter Anne: "Hurrah, I'll be with you tomorrow."
The Brooklyn Dodgers' use
of airplane travel was rare for 1935, especially since the three men the
reservations were made for were being demoted. Whatever the front
office's motives behind the swanky travel plans, Munns, Barr and
Koenecke took a cab to St. Louis' airport and boarded an American
Airlines flight to Chicago. From there they would change planes in
Detroit before arriving in Newark, New Jersey the next day. It was a
long journey but much shorter than taking the train. Somewhere on the
way to the airport the ballplayers picked up a bottle or two of whiskey.
What better way to drown your sorrows and cover up any anxieties of
flying than with booze?
The first leg of the trip
went off fine. They were late to Chicago but made the flight to Detroit.
Witnesses reported seeing Koenecke with a bottle of whiskey in his
hand. Once on board the three men were rapidly becoming intoxicated.
Koenecke, who I've read wasn't known as a big drinker, was by far the
worse of the former Dodgers that day. Juiced-up and combative, the
large-framed Koenecke started a fight with a fellow passenger. When a
stewardess tried to calm things down Koenecke knocked her down as well.
The former railroad fireman's hulking size and strength made him
extremely dangerous in the confined space of the primitive aircraft and
it took a handful of men to wrestle Koenecke to the ground and tie him
up. The plane's co-pilot came out of the cockpit in order to personally
sit on the ballplayer until they landed in Detroit.
He was carried off the
plane passed out and snoring by Munns and Barr who unceremoniously
deposited their former teammate into a waiting room chair. A
representative from American Airlines tore up his connecting ticket and
refunded the Dodgers' money - there was no way they were going to let
him on another flight. Munns and Barr left Koenecke snoozing on a bench
and boarded their own flight back to the minor leagues.
Sometime after midnight
Koenecke snapped awake. Realizing he was marooned in Detroit he
frantically looked around the deserted airport for a way home to his
wife and daughter. Suddenly the door opened and a leather jacketed man
walked in off the runway. Quickly assuming correctly he was a pilot,
Koenecke offered to charter a plane to New York and home. The pilot,
William Mulqueeney, owned a single engine Stinson Detroiter. The small
passenger plane could seat six including the pilot and despite the late
hour and the disheveled state of the man before him, he decided to
accept. The catch was he would go only as far as Buffalo. Koenecke
thought it over and decided he could catch the morning train to New York
City and be home in Brooklyn for lunch.
Mulqueeney, either thinking
he may have some trouble with the intoxicated passenger or just wanted
some company on the flight back, asked his friend Irwin Davis to join
him. Though Davis was later referred to as a co-pilot, he was in fact
just Mulqueeney's pal. He was also known as "The Human Bat" for his
dare-devil parachute stunt where he would jump out of a plane in a black
bat-wing parachute. In 1935 people ate that stuff up and he was fairly
well-known in the Midwest.
Davis later described Koenecke as being under "a great stress" as the three
men boarded the Stinson. Mulqueeney squeezed in behind the controls on
the left side of the cockpit and Koenecke sat next to him in the
co-pilot's chair. The Human Bat stretched out by himself on the plush
bench seat behind them. They were cleared to taxi and took off into the
Both men said later that
Koenecke was quiet for the first few minutes of flight. Then he started
nudging the pilot. No one knows what the hell he was thinking. Maybe he
was just being funny. Lord knows liquor makes many a man a bad comedian.
But this just wasn't funny. In 1935 there was no auto-pilot, flying a
plane back then was a full time operation. In the confines of a
primitive airliner like the Stinson, any false move could be a pilot's
last. Mulqueeney told him to quit it. He did. Then he started up again.
He poked Mulqueeney. Then he nudged him with his shoulders - those huge
rock-solid shoulders. The plane swayed. Mulqueeney told him to knock it
off. Koenecke made a grab for the controls and at that point the pilot
had enough of the sole passenger. Reluctantly Mulqueeney and Davis
coaxed Koenecke into the back seat. But it was far from over.
Koenecke lost his mind. He
tried again to shove the pilot. Davis did his best to restrain the
hulking ballplayer but he was just too small. He knocked him back a few
times, every time thinking he would just pass out in his drunken stupor,
but then it would start over. It was getting serious now - both Davis
and Mulqueeney said later they were convinced Koenecke was trying to
crash the plane. Davis tried to fight Koenecke back but the big man
pounded on him, even bit his shoulder, then pounded him some more.
That's when the fire extinguisher came into play.
With the passenger crumpled
in a bloody mess on the floor of the cabin, Mulqueeney brought the
Stinson in for a forced landing on the first flat clear spot he could
find. Both he and Davis were dripping with blood and on top of the dead
man lying in the cabin, when the two men opened the door and spilled out
onto the grassy earth, what they thought were wild animals charged out
of the darkness at them. Fortunately they were just the guard dogs of
the caretaker of the country club they had landed on. They were in
Toronto, Canada. In their airborne do-or-die fight they had over shot
their destination of Buffalo by miles.
The next morning all the
newspapers carried the story of Koenecke's wild flight. Mulqueeney and
Davis were swiftly arrested and charged with murder. Photographers
snapped pictures of the two men with torn, bloody clothes and shocked
expressions. A reporter caught Stengel in St. Louis before that day's
game against the Cardinals and he was uncharacteristically shaken: "I
can't believe it - I won't believe it" he said. It was the manager's
demotion of Konecke that put him on that plane. His teammates were
Dodgers organization circled their wagons and said nothing to the press
except condolences. Team secretary John Gorman later released a
statement to eager newspapermen that Koenecke "apparently was not
depressed when he left the team."
were hired and the rumors began. Some carried the line the big
outfielder was trying to kill himself in one last blaze of glory. Others
said it was some kind of murder, motive unknown. Another claimed
Koenecke made unwanted sexual advances towards the two men - put into
play by the two survivor's lawyer who was probably throwing anything out
there to get his clients off the hook fast.
the story I can't honestly say what his motivations were. Some modern
accounts I've read play up that Koenecke was a brawler who got violent
when he drank, yet I can't find any contemporary accounts supporting
this and I have no clue where those writers got it from. Maybe it's just
an obvious guess - many ballplayers back then were tough boozers, God
knows I've written about quite a few on this site myself. But the things
I've read seem to indicate Koenecke wasn't a bad-tempered tough guy and
he didn't appear to drink more than anyone else. However, it is known
he was tanked up on that final day of his life. Hell, who wouldn't hit
the bottle after being canned from their job and faced with an uncertain
future? But intentionally try to kill himself and two innocent people,
too? It just doesn't seem right and I can't believe it was anything more
sinister than a man mentally at the end of his rope filled with so much
whiskey he didn't fully comprehend what he was doing. Koenecke's widow
Gladys refused to believe he would try to commit suicide and the upbeat
postcard to his daughter seemed to back it up. The Toronto authorities
fully investigated the whole incident and held Mulqueeney and Davis in
custody until a jury sifted through the evidence. When the
Canadian court ruled it self-defense the story quickly went away.
All that remained was a grieving widow, a fatherless daughter and one heck of a story that became a classic of baseball lore.
- The Sporting News (December 20, 1934)
- The Pittsburgh Press (May 7, 1935)
- The Telepraph Herald (August 10, 1934)
- The Milwaukee Journal (March 21, 1934)
- Ludington Daily News (August 8, 1938)
- New York Daily News (April 7, 2003)
- Toronto Sun (June 1, 2009)
- The New York Times (September 17, 1935)
In today's game it's quite common for a ball player to go from Double A ball to the majors. Most players today have at least a few seasons of college ball under their belt before they even appear in the minors. With today's structured and very regimented scouting and farm systems, major league teams know fairly quickly whether a player has what it takes to make The Show. Thirty major league teams means there are almost twice the number of positions available than there were fifty tears ago and that extra room enables clubs to take more risks than they did decades ago - like bringing up rookies after only a single season in the low minors.
That's what makes Mahlon Higbee's story quite interesting. Back in the summer of 1922 Higbee was a 20 year-old outfielder for the Hopkinsville Hoppers of the Kentucky-Indiana-Tennessee League (thankfully called the "KITTY League" for short). The KITTY was classified a Class D loop, equivalent to today's Rookie League level and pretty much the bottom rung of Organized Baseball. By late July the Louisville native was hitting .385 with 16 homers, 101 RBI and 31 stolen bases. Despite playing in a low-level league far from the big cities of the major leagues, the New York Giants got wind of Higbee's numbers.
In the early 1920's the New York Giants were the best and most feared organization in the game. Firmly managed by John McGraw, the Giants boasted no less than six future Hall of Famers in their regular line up and could boast of having beaten the upstart Yankees in the 1921 World Series. In short, back in 1922 the New York Giants were what the Yankees would become in just a few short years - the embodiment of baseball excellence.
So Mahlon Higbee must have made one heck of an impression on the Giants scouts that summer. John McGraw bought Higbee's contract from Hopkinsville for a nice $2,500. Back in the days before minor league teams had working agreements with major league teams, selling young players at the end of a season often meant the difference between finishing the year with their books in red or black ink.
By the time Mahlon Higbee packed his bag and took the train north, the Giants had clinched the National League pennant by seven games. On September 27th Higbee took his position in left field as the Giants hosted the Philadelphia Phillies at the Polo Grounds. The rookie struck out twice as Jimmy Ring pitched shut out ball. Higbee did record a sacrifice hit which must have pleased John McGraw, letting him know the young slugger could also play "small ball" which the Giants skipper much preferred to the new home run game being made popular by Babe Ruth and the Yankees. After seven innings the Phils led 2-zip but the Giants came alive in the eighth. Higbee got his only hit of the game, a two run single which tied the game and later scored the go ahead and ultimately winning run.
The next game was a double header on Saturday September 30 against the Boston Braves. Higbee sat out the first game, a 5-1 loss. Playing left field in the night cap, Higbee went 2 for 4 with an RBI as the Giants beat Garland Braxton and the Braves 5 to 3. The late editions of the New York papers showed that the Giants rookie was batting a lofty .429.
Sunday, October 1st was the last day of the season and another double header against Boston. Higbee sat on the bench as the Braves shut out New York 3 nothing. In the second and last game Higbee played right field. In his first two at bats the rookie failed to get a hit but in the sixth he came to bat again. With a man on first Higbee took an Al Yeargin pitch deep for a two run homer making it 3-0 Giants. The last two innings went fast and uneventful as New York closed out 1922 with a final win.
With the end of the regular season came the final statistics and Mahlon Higbee's 1922 line was fantastic: 10 at bats; 4 hits; 5 RBI; 1 home run and a sterling .400 average. Since he was brought up too late to qualify to play in the World Series, Higbee had to ride the bench as the Giants creamed the Yankees 4 games to 1. It was a given that the rookie would be invited to the Giants' spring training the next year and he was.
Although the Giants were overflowing with outfield talent, beat writers following the team in San Antonio that April tabbed Higbee as the forth outfielder, backing up Irish Meusel and Hall of Famers Casey Stengel and Ross Youngs. Then, right before the Giants broke camp, Higbee wrenched his left ankle. Now instead of holding a train ticket with "New York City" on it he found himself headed to Denver, Colorado.
The Denver Bears played in the Western League and had a loose working agreement with the Giants. The Western League had a classification of A, about same or a little lower than what Single A is today. Higbee played well for the Bears, hitting 2 points shy of .300 with 10 homers and 31 doubles, but it was far from the numbers he put up in 1922. At the end of the season the Giants sent Higbee to the Portsmouth Truckers in exchange for some low-level minor leaguers. The once promising Giants phenom now found himself in Class B ball, one rung backwards. He hit .279 with 12 homers but a collision with the outfield wall in Richmond effectively ended his career.
Higbee was back with Portsmouth in 1925 but he only managed to play 26 games. After batting a disappointing .188 with Evansville in 1927 he called it quits.
Today Mahlon Higbee is just a single line in the baseball record books - but oh what a line it is. Since 1900 roughly 10,000 ball players played less than 10 games in the big leagues. It's called having a "Cup of Coffee", meaning their time spent in The Big Show was barely long enough to consume a cup of joe. Most of those guys have completely uneventful numbers, not leaving much to the imagination as to why they didn't stick. Mahlon Higbee is different. He actually left a line of stats a guy could be proud of and one that makes the casual reader wonder what the heck happened... and now you do.