Boston Red Sox most controversial figures: Pinky Higgins
By Drew Athans
The third article in a series looking at the most controversial figures in Red Sox history focuses on former player, manager, and GM Pinky Higgins.
The third article in this series looking at the most controversial figures in Boston Red Sox history focuses on Mike “Pinky” Higgins. While the first part focused on an owner (Tom Yawkey) and the second part focused on a GM (Haywood Sullivan), this third part will look at a man who was a former Red Sox player, manager, and GM. Like the first two, he leaves behind a complicated and troubling legacy.
Born in Texas in 1909, Pinky Higgins enjoyed a fourteen year career as a major league third baseman, spent primarily with the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers. However, he did spend time with the Red Sox between 1937 and 1938 and again in his final season of 1946. Higgins was one of the better hitting third baseman of his generation and finished his career with a .292 average, 140 home runs, 1075 RBI, 1941 hits, and made three All-Star teams.
After he retired, Higgins took a job managing in the Red Sox minor league system in 1947 and spent the next eight years working his way up the ranks before finally being named manager of the Boston Red Sox in 1955. His first few teams were good, finishing above .500 although never in contention for the pennant, but in 1959 they stumbled badly and he was fired mid-season.
Incredibly, instead of being let go, Higgins was promoted to “special assistant” to Tom Yawkey, who had become close friends with Higgins. The two enjoyed hunting and drinking together and it was this closeness that would keep Higgins with the Red Sox for far longer than his accomplishments would seem to merit. Even though he wasn’t listed as such, he began acting as de facto General Manager during this time.
After he was installed as manager again in 1960, Higgins had an inordinate amount of say in how the Red Sox roster was constructed. It’s here that how controversial he truly was comes to the fore. In his second stint as manager, Higgins skippered the team until 1962 when he stepped down. He thus was in the unique position of having managed Ted Williams‘ final seasons as well as Carl Yastrzemski‘s first two seasons.
His overall managerial record with the Red Sox was 560-556. He enjoyed winning records in his first four seasons and losing records in his last four, but the Sox never came close to winning a pennant in any of those years. Still, his 560 wins were the second most for a manager in Red Sox history until Terry Francona surpassed Higgins in the late 2000s.
After leaving the field in 1962, Higgins was named GM and executive vice president. As a manager he was well liked by his players for being easygoing, but he clashed fiercely with new manager Johnny Pesky and was also known to be an inveterate racist. His playing career with Boston and the majority of his managerial career coincided during the 1950s when the Red Sox were the last team to integrate, in 1959. He was quoted as saying “there will be no [N-words] on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it.”
He was also known for calling sportswriters who admired black baseball players (including one who mentioned how good White Sox outfielder Minnie Minoso was) “[N-word] lovers.” He resisted calling up black players from the minor leagues during his first managerial stint and even somehow overruled then GM Bucky Harris, who had called Pumpsie Green up to the majors before Higgins sent him back down (this is where his friendship with Yawkey helped Higgins but hurt the integration efforts of the team).
It wasn’t until he was fired partway through the 1959 seasons and replaced with Bill Jurges that the Red Sox promoted Green to the big club and finally integrated. When Higgins came back in 1960, he had no choice over the matter although he did at first resist playing the team’s black players. He eventually traded Green in 1962 and used the flimsiest of pretexts to demote another of the team’s black players, pitcher Earl Wilson, in 1961.
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Eventually, though, the Red Sox built up a fair amount of talent in the minor leagues including prominent black players like Reggie Smith and George Scott, players who would be instrumental in helping the team finally win another pennant in 1967. By then, though, Higgins was long gone. His record as a GM was as mediocre as his managerial record and his drinking had gotten out of control enough that it wasn’t worth Tom Yawkey keeping him around any more.
In September 1965, on the same day that Red Sox pitcher Dave Morehead threw a no-hitter at Fenway Park, Yawkey announced Higgins’ firing. In 1968, Higgins was drunk driving in Louisiana and killed a man named George Killen, a WWII veteran and member of a road construction crew who was doing roadwork. Higgins also injured three other workers in the accident.
He was sentenced to four years in prison and suffered two heart attacks during his trial. After being paroled just two months into his sentence, he died in Texas from another heart attack the day after he was released. Higgins legacy is of a mediocre manager and GM who used his status as Tom Yawkey’s drinking buddy to wield more power (and for a longer time) that it would normally warrant given his track record.
It should also be said that while Pinky Higgins didn’t create the institutional racist policy of the Red Sox during Tom Yawkey’s tenure as owner, he carried it out and helped to perpetuate it. While the control of whether to integrate or not rested with former GMs Eddie Collins and Joe Cronin before Higgins became manager in 1955, he helped keep it going until 1959 when he was fired and the team was forced to finally bring Pumpsie Green up from the minor leagues.
While he isn’t a legendary figure in Red Sox history for his prowess on the field, in the dugout, or in the front office, Pinky Higgins is one of the first names historians always bring up when discussing the shameful racist past of the Boston Red Sox. Both the franchise and the country have come a long way since those days, but it’s worth never forgetting that attitudes such as those held by Higgins were a lot more common in Major League Baseball during the 1940s and 1950s, even more than people already think.