Sunday, September 6, 2015

204. Mahlon Higbee: To the Major Leagues in a Single Bound

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.

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