When Mike (Pinky) Higgins retired as a player following the 1946 season, he had forged a solid reputation in baseball. He'd played 14 seasons as a third baseman in the American League, made three all-star teams, been in two World Series, and had a lifetime batting average of .292. In 1938, while with the Red Sox, he set a major league record (later tied by Walt Dropo) with base hits in 12 consecutive at-bats.
But the world of baseball was about to change, and he did not change with it.
Pinky Higgins was, and remained, an outspoken racist.
His racism did no harm to his reputation during the time he played because baseball itself (the business, not the sport) was racist in those days. It wasn't until 1947, the year after Higgins retired as a player, that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with Brooklyn Dodgers. By then, Pinky (a nickname he detested) had begun his managing career with the Roanoke Red Sox in the Piedmont League.
As he worked his way up through the Red Sox farm system, managing in Birmingham, then Louisville, baseball gradually integrated. But not the Sox. When he took over as manager of Boston in 1955, the team was still lily white -- and mired in mediocrity. It was during his time as skipper of the team that he made his attitude on integration perfectly clear to sportswriter Al Hirshberg when he told him, "There'll be no [n-word deleted] on this ballclub as long as I have anything to say about it."
Hirshberg was not affiliated with any newspaper at the time, so Higgins' racist statement went unreported until 1973, when he (Hirshberg) wrote a history of the Red Sox and finally put down in writing what Higgins had said. Several other sportswriters of the day said they'd heard Higgins make similar statements but did not report them at the time because it was an age when the writers travelled with the team -- and even stayed in the team's hotels. They ate, drank, and played cards with the manager, and did not write about his personal prejudices. To do so would be to risk being ostracized and possibly losing the highly coveted baseball beat. Higgins' racism, however, profoundly affected the team.
In 1959, he was still the manager when Pumpsie Green, an African-American, looked ready to make the team. In Scottsdale, Arizona, where the Red Sox then held Spring Training, Green had been outstanding, but Higgins didn't have much to do with him. Green didn't even stay with the rest of the team; he was housed 15 miles away, in Phoenix. Nevertheless, it was assumed he'd be with the Sox when they headed back to Boston; but Higgins, amid howls of protest, had him shipped back to the minors.
The Red Sox stumbled out of the gate that year and never got any better. On July 3, they were in last place when Higgins was replaced as manager by Billy Jurges. Finally, on July 21, less than three weeks after Higgins was ousted, Pumpsie Green was called up. The Red Sox, at long last, became the last team in the major leagues to integrate. But it hadn't happened on Pinky Higgins' watch.
Though out as manager, Higgins was far from done with the Red Sox. He stayed on as a consultant, and -- more significantly -- as a drinking buddy of Tom Yawkey, the owner. Yawkey, to put it mildly, enjoyed a taste or two in those days, and Pinky ("Call me Mike") was more than willing to match him, drink for drink.
When, less than a year later, Jurges was given the axe as manager, Yawkey replaced him with -- wait for it -- Higgins, the same guy he'd canned only the year before. As he grew more chummy with Yawkey, he grew more distant from the players. Carl Yastrzemski, a high-profile rookie, wasn't even sure that Higgins knew who he was.
Two years later, after an eighth place finish, Higgins was out again as manager -- but in as general manager. He'd been promoted -- as hard to believe as that might be. He, Yawkey, and Old Grand Dad must have really hit it off. His power in the organization only increased as the Red Sox continued to slide. The new field manager was Johnny Pesky, who'd built a stellar reputation as the manager of the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. Higgins gave him the responsibility of running the team, but not the authority, which he reserved for himself. Pesky never had a chance, and neither did the Red Sox.
After the 1965 season was over (ninth place in a ten team League), the Sox, with their reputation as an unfriendly place for players of color firmly entrenched, finally cut ties with Higgins.
He returned to his native Texas, where he'd first learned baseball -- and racism. He wasn't born a racist; no one is. It's something we are taught, a fact that is best said in a lyric from "South Pacific" by Oscar Hammerstein, Jr.
You've got to be taught before it's too late
Before you are six, or seven, or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught.
Higgins might have left Boston behind, but he brought his drinking habit with him.
On Feb. 27, 1968, while driving drunk in Louisiana, his car plowed into a state highway crew, killing one and injuring three others. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to four years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He was paroled after just two months for health reasons. He died of a heart attack only two days after being released from prison, on March 21, 1969.
Four years after that, Al Hirshberg's book, with its damning quote, came out. That is how Pinky Higgins will be remembered, not as a ballplayer, a manager, or a front office executive, but as a racist.
What's that line from Shakespeare about the evil that men do living after them?
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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