Mahlon Higbee: From the bushes to the majors in a single bound
In baseball, the number .400 instantly recalls names like Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson, Rogers Hornsby, and Ted Williams – all baseball Gods of hitting. .400 is so elusive that even greats like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente have failed to reach that number. Yet, to hit .400, a player does not even have to hit the ball half of the times he steps to the plate – just 4 base hits out of 10 tries gets one to that rarified average and baseball immortality. Yet, in the history of the majors, fewer than forty-two players have recorded that level of excellence over the course of a full season.
Of course, there have been far more players who have hit .400 or above during a small part of a season. A player can occasionally get hot – but eventually he cools down, and the average returns to the mere mortal range.
What always interested me are those guys who hit .400 or above during their “cup of coffee” in the majors, only to never appear in a big league game again. For those who haven’t heard the term, a “cup of coffee” is an old phrase used to describe a player who gets called up for 5 or less games and then never plays in the majors again. In other words, he only had time to drink a cup of coffee before being sent back down to the minors. Think Archibald “Moonlight” Graham.
As of this writing, there have been 334 guys who hit .400 or better while playing in no more than five career Major League games. In this story, I’m going to introduce you to one of those 334. What sets his story apart for me and makes his .400 all the more incredible is that besides his hitting an even .400 in his “cup of coffee” stop in the majors, he did so in his first season of pro ball, going directly from the lowest rung of the minor leagues to the majors in one mighty leap. The player is Mahlon Higbee, and here’s his story.
MAHLON JESSE HIGBEE was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1901. His father Jesse was a foreman at the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company, which produced porcelain bathroom fixtures. His mother, Elsie, took care of the growing Higbee brood, which eventually included William, Mahlon, Harold, Alice, and Theodore. Mahlon learned to play ball on the same Louisville sandlots that produced Ferdie Schupp, the New York Giants pitcher who caused a sensation in 1916 when his .091 ERA set the new record in that category. Like Schupp before him, Mahlon’s next step up from the sandlots was to one of Louisville’s many industrial league teams of the day, joining the Epp’s Cola team as an outfielder in 1920. Epp’s was a local competitor of the new carbonated beverages like Coca-Cola and Pepsi and sponsoring a ball team was great advertising back then. Mahlon started the ’21 season with Epp’s but soon moved up to the next rung on the baseball ladder: semipro.
Like almost every area of the country in the years before World War II, there were many small towns that operated ball teams that competed against rival towns and against visiting barnstorming teams. Usually more than half of the players were unpaid locals, but the rest of the key positions were filled by outsiders who were brought in and paid a small salary. Sometimes this included room and board and or a cushy job in one of the local industries. The team Mahlon joined was in Clinton, Kentucky, a town located in the southwest part of the state, about 15 miles from the Tennessee border. Unfortunately, this gig didn’t last long – the team disbanded halfway through the summer. Fortunately, Mahlon was able to hook up with the town team in Dawson Springs, at that time called the “health resort of the upper south” and home to many upscale hotels and spas that took advantage of the area’s curative waters. When the spa season ended, Mahlon returned to Louisville, where he helped the Epp’s Colas win their league semi-finals by going 3 for 4 with a double and triple.
Between his time in Dawson Springs and his late season heroics with Epp’s, Mahlon had carved out quite a reputation for himself as one of the best amateurs in the region. At this time, Louisville was home to the Colonels, a club in the American Association, one of the three “Class AA” minor leagues, the designation given to the level just below the major leagues. Roger Schupp, a local baseball fan who was plugged into the Louisville amateur scene, tipped off the Colonels about the budding star right there in their backyard. After playing one game with the Clown Cigarettes team at the start of the 1922 season, Mahlon Higbee signed his first contract making him a professional ballplayer.
As the Louisville Colonels played in the highest level of minor leagues, it was too much to ask the 20 year-old Mahlon to jump right into their lineup. Though the Colonels were unaffiliated with any big league teams, they did have working agreements with clubs at the lower levels of the minor leagues where they could send players to gain experience before recalling them back to Louisville. This began Mahlon Higbee’s incredible freshman year odyssey through professional baseball.
MAHLON’S FIRST STOP was with the St. Petersburg Saints of the Class C Florida State League. Saints’ manager George Block reportedly “didn’t like the looks of the youngster,” and he was shipped back to Louisville without playing an inning. The Colonels then sent their young prospect to the Madisonville Miners of the Kentucky-Indiana-Tennessee League. Better known as the KITTY League, this was Class D ball, the lowest step of the minor league ladder. However, just like in St. Petersburg, Madisonville’s manager didn’t think they needed the newbie.
The Colonels searched around and finally found a spot for him with the Hopkinsville Hoppers, another KITTY League club. Madisonville soon regretted their decision because Mahlon hit over .500 the first month of the season. By late July, he returned to earth with a still heavenly .385 with 16 homers, 101 RBI, and 31 stolen bases. Despite playing in the lowest level bush league far from the big cities of the major leagues, the New York Giants got wind of Higbee’s impressive KITTY League 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 1922 edition of the Giants boasted no less than six future Hall of Famers in their regular line up. They could boast of having beaten Babe Ruth and the upstart Yankees in the World Series the previous fall and were on their way to winning another pennant that summer. In short, back in 1922, the New York Giants were exactly what the Yankees would later become – the embodiment of baseball excellence.
McGraw refreshed his team season after season by relying on a vast web of amateur scouts in every dusty corner of the country that tipped the Giants manager off to any undiscovered talent. When McGraw was notified by about the KITTY League phenom, he dispatched one of his trusted scouts for a professional evaluation. In the first game he watched in Hopkinsville. Mahlon belted two home runs and made an unassisted double play at third base. The scout checked into the local hotel and spent a week watching Mahlon do his thing. By the end of his stay, the Hopkinsville owner had a check for $2,500, the scout had Mahlon’s signature on a Giants contract, and Mahlon had a train ticket to New York and the major leagues.
MAHLON HIGBEE left Kentucky on September 24, 1922. The Giants had just clinched the National League pennant and were bringing up some of their prospects to play out the last week of the season while the regulars got some rest before the World Series. Most of the youngsters getting their cup of coffee that week were guys with years of experience playing at the higher levels of the minor leagues. With just 16 major league teams in 1922, there were less than half of the roster spots available as there are today. Thus, many players of big league caliber were stuck in the minors for most of their career. What set Mahlon Higbee apart was that he was about to make the jump from the lowest minor league to the majors all in a single season of playing pro ball!
By the time Mahlon Higbee’s train pulled into Grand Central Station, 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 shutout ball. Higbee did record a sacrifice hit, presumedly pleasing John McGraw by letting him know the young slugger could also play “small ball,” the style of play the Giants skipper 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 he would later score the go ahead and ultimately game-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 of the year, Higbee played right field. In his first two at bats the rookie failed to get a hit, but in the sixth he came alive. 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.
While he didn’t get to play in the Fall Classic, John McGraw kept his young protégé baseball player busy. While the big league season was finito, New York’s many semipro teams were still playing ball. These weren’t town team-level scrubs, but highly competitive clubs that fielded ex-pros and other high-level ballplayers who, for one reason or another, decided against pursuing the big league dream. In addition to competing against one another, these semipro squads played the best Negro League teams as well. As he sometimes did with prospects he favored, McGraw fixed it so Mahlon was able to play a few more weeks with and against this high level of competition. When the semipro season ended, Mahlon was given $270 for his time. The young recruit headed straight to the Polo Grounds, where he appeared at John McGraw’s office door. The old manager was floored when Mahlon handed him the cash, telling McGraw that he had no right to keep it as he did it for the Giants, who had already paid him.
“Keep the money, my boy.” McGraw said, “and come back here next year able to earn a whole lot more. You are the first ball player I ever saw who attempted to give us money.”
IN THE OFF SEASON, the newspapers speculated about how far Mahlon Higbee would go in his career. Of the kids brought up by McGraw that last week, it was Higbee and shortstop Travis Jackson that impressed the most. Jackson, who had no hits in 8 at bats but sparkled in the field, would go on to have a 15-year career with the Giants and a plaque hanging in Cooperstown. On the other hand, Mahlon Higbee, the guy who batted .400, never appeared in another big league game.
So what the heck happened?
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 fourth 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 recalled Mahlon, but decided instead to send him to the Portsmouth Truckers in exchange for fellow Kentuckian Kent Greenfield and future Hall of Famer Hack Wilson. The once promising Giants phenom now found himself in Class B ball, one rung back down the ladder. He hit .279 with 12 homers, but a serious collision with the outfield wall in Richmond sidelined him for weeks, and his batting eye never recovered.
He took time out in the winter to marry Alberta Wintergerst of Louisville. The newlywed soon received an unexpected wedding present when he learned his contract was sold to the Nashville Volunteers of the higher Class A Southern Association. Unfortunately, despite a hopeful start, he failed to make the grade in spring training and was returned to Portsmouth. Still hampered by his injuries, Mahlon only managed to get into 26 games. He took 1926 off to recalibrate and recuperate back in Louisville. The following spring the Evansville Hubs of the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League (usually mercifully shortened to the “Three-I” or “III League”) gave Mahlon a shot, but he injured his leg on opening day. After batting a disappointing .188 in 16 games he decided to call it a career.
Mahlon returned to Louisville where he and Alberta raised their son and daughter. He worked as a machinist and passed away from a heart attack in 1968.
* * *
TODAY MAHLON HIGBEE is just a single line in the baseball record books – but oh, what a line it is! Leaping from the first rung of the minors to the big leagues in one shot, he 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.
* * *
Now That’s a Strong Cup of Coffee!
When I began writing about Mahlon Higbee, I asked some SABR members if they knew how many players had a strong “cup of coffee” career like Higbee’s. The following are some stats and players we all came up with in the discussion.
Kenn Tomasch figured out that there were 334 guys who hit .400 or better while playing in no more than five career MLB games, and of those, 93 hit a perfect 1.000.
In May 1912, Tigers legend Ty Cobb climbed into the stands to fight a heckler. To protest his subsequent suspension, his teammates refused to take the field for the May 18, 1912 game against the A’s. The Tigers scrounged up a team of local Philly corner boys and put them in Detroit uniforms where they were then mauled by the A’s. The one bright spot in the 24-2 massacre was third baseman Ed Irvin’s two triples in three at-bats. A few years after recording this hellishly good .666 average for his one-game MLB career, Irvin was thrown through a Philly saloon window and killed by a shard of glass to his neck.
The year after Mahlon Higbee had his cup of coffee, the Giants allegedly paid $100,000 for Mose Solomon, a big slugger whose 49 home runs for the Class C Hutchinson Wheat Shockers set a new minor league record. McGraw desperately wanted a Jewish ballplayer to attract New York’s growing Jewish population, and Solomon seemed to fit the bill. Dubbed the ”Rabbi of Swat” by the press, Mose went 3 for 8 in two games before McGraw sent him back to the bushes, some say due to his poor fielding while others blame it on Solomon’s insistence on playing football instead of watching the 1923 World Series from the Giants’ bench.
Over in the Negro Leagues, Joe Taylor went 6 for 10 with a double and a triple in four games for the 1937 St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League, then… nothing. On his Seamheads webpage I learned he was a college man, so I opined that he may have had better opportunities than a life on the road. I asked Blackball historian Gary Ashwill for the dope on Taylor: “Yes, Joe Taylor had other things to do–he was attending the University of Illinois (where he received an MA in 1937) and then Fisk, before embarking on a distinguished career as a sociologist and college administrator.
Author Gary Sarnoff tipped me off to Chuck Lindstrom. The White Sox signed him right out of Northwestern, and he made his big league debut as a defensive replacement against Kansas City on the last day of the 1958 season. In his first at bat in the bottom of the sixth, he drew a walk and later scored a run. An inning later, Lindstrom banged out a triple and drove in a run. He was on deck when the game ended with the Sox beating KC, 11-4. Despite his immaculate 1.000 average, he spent the next three years in the minors before hanging up the spikes to coach ball for Lincoln College.
But the all-time poster boy for incredible one game and done careers will always be John Paciorek. On the last day of the ‘63 season, the Houston Colt 45s called up Paciorek and seven other rookies. Paciorek walked in the first inning, singled in two runs in the third, had another RBI single in the fifth, walked again in the sixth and finished up the game with another single in the eighth. That’s a 1.000 average and three RBI. He majorly messed up his back the next summer and never made it back to the majors – though his two kid brothers, Jim and Tom, did.
* * *
After I mailed out the booklet version of my Mahlon Higbee piece, John Thorn, Official Historian for Major League Baseball (and a long-time friend to The Infinite Baseball Card Set), had this to say about Higbee’s not appearing in the 1922 World Series:
“Being called up in after September 1, he would have required the Yankees’ permission to play in the 1922 World Series, if John McGraw had asked them to do so (the later rule was not yet in effect). I’m thinking that maybe McGraw did so and the Yanks refused… which may have led to the Giants’ refusal to let Lou Gehrig play in the 1923 World Series, which the Yanks had requested”
Thanks, John, for adding another layer of interest to Mahlon Higbee’s cup of coffee! If you don’t already, you should be a regular visitor to John’s always interesting website, Our Game. John digs up the kind of stuff you won’t find any anywhere else – which is what you want in the Official Historian for Major League Baseball, right?
* * *
This week’s story is Number 62 in a series of collectible booklets.
Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 5 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 054 and will be active through December of 2023. Booklets 1-53 can be purchased as a group, too.