Grave Story: Carson Bigbee (1895-1964)


Here lies Carson Bigbee, an outfielder whose clutch hit helped win the 1925 World Series for the Pirates. He was also part of a pretty notorious player mutiny that ended his big-league career. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1916 until 1926.

Carson Lee Bigbee was born in Lebanon, Ore., on March 31, 1895, and grew up in the town of Sweet Home. He was the youngest of three children, and they all played baseball. His older brother, Lyle Bigbee, also made it to the major leagues as a pitcher in the 1920s. They were teammates in 1921 with the Pirates, in fact. The oldest son, Morris, played amateur ball but never turned professional. He was good enough to make the Albany Weekly Herald (Ore.) All-Star team in 1910 as a third baseman, picked from a local Twilight League. Morris played for Phi Alpha Pi, and Carson was named as the All-Star shortstop. The Herald called Carson a “wonder” and added, “His fielding average is fine, and his batting average is among the first on the list. He throws almost perfectly and covers all the ground that is required of any shortstop.”

Claiborne Bigbee, the patriarch of the family, was a pioneer schoolteacher and rancher, and he and his wife, Callie taught in several towns in Linn County, Oregon. In fact, he taught up until he died from pneumonia in 1927. One report said that he was the first man to throw a curve ball in Albany, which may explain why his sons took to baseball so readily. Callie Bigbee lived in Oregon until she died in 1968 at the age of 99. She was such a beloved teacher that her former students held annual reunions for 31 years until she could no longer attend.

Carson Bigbee’s grave at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, Ore.

Carson Bigbee attended Albany High School and was a good-fielding shortstop, an impressive quarterback on the football team and a starting forward on the basketball team. By 1912, Lyle had moved into the pro ranks in the Northwestern League, and several teams were interested in his 17-year-old brother. Carson ultimately elected to finish his high school education and attend the University of Oregon.

All three of the Bigbee brothers made names for themselves at the University of Oregon’s athletics programs. The three of them played on the baseball team at the same time and were said to have terrorized opposing pitchers. Carson gained such a reputation for his speed on the bases that he was nicknamed “Skeeter,” which would follow him for the rest of his career. He was also the football team’s starting quarterback and a very good basketball player. He once nearly outscored the University of Idaho all by himself. Oregon won 29-19 in 1915, and Bigbee, the right guard, scored 17 of those points.

Oregon’s baseball coach, Hugo Bezdek, also happened to serve as a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He promised to send the Pirates his new prized player as soon as he had enough experience to cut it in the majors. After two years at Oregon, Bigbee decided to go pro in 1916 and tried out for the Portland Beavers, along with brother Lyle. The manager wasn’t impressed and sent both players to the Class-B Tacoma Tigers of the Northwestern League. Lyle headed to try his luck elsewhere, but Carson proceeded to hit .340 for Tacoma and stole 50 bases as well. Pittsburgh bought his contract at the end of July.

As soon as the Northwestern League’s season was ended, Bigbee headed cross-country and showed up in Pittsburgh on August 24, 1916. He was exhausted from the long trip, but Pirates manager Jimmy Callahan threw him right into his first game that day, as left fielder Frank Schulte was ill and needed a day off. Bigbee, despite the train-lag, had a sensational debut. He cracked a triple in his first at-bat against the New York Giants’ Jeff Tesreau, delighting the home crowd with the speed at which he raced around the bases. His next at-bat resulted in a liner off Tesreau’s leg that he beat out for a single. He advanced all the way to third base on a sacrifice hit and scored on a single. He went 2-for-4 with a walk and made some good plays in left field, too.

Source: Ancestry.com

“Bigbee’s work for his first day in the big league was highly pleasing, but the most remarkable feature of his play lies in the way he remembered all that had been told him,” praised Callahan after the game. “Although he had been in the city but a short time, he never became mixed up on instructions, going through with every signal in perfect fashion. For one who has just entered a new field with strange surroundings, this young man certainly put up a remarkable game.”

Bigbee played in 43 games for the Bucs in 1916 and hit .250, with 8 stolen bases and a .341 slugging percentage. He played primarily at second base and third base, though he would eventually come to make left field his home. He certainly wasn’t going to play his primary position of shortstop, not with Honus Wagner around in his second-to-last season.

Bigbee’s sophomore season was a little bit of a letdown, as he hit just .239 in 133 games, with 19 stolen bases, while adjusting to left field. He also missed a couple of weeks after getting hit in the face by a pitched ball, breaking a bone in his face. While he didn’t get to play up to his potential during the regular season, he showed he could be as disruptive a force as Ty Cobb in an April exhibition game in New Orleans. He reached base all five times he came to bat, stole three bases (including home once) and won the game in the tenth inning by drawing a walk, running immediately to second and dashing home when the threw from the catcher went into the outfield.

“Carson Bigbee stole everything except the groundskeeper’s dinner bucket,” reported the papers. “The boy with the moving picture name, who expects to wed the daughter of an Oregon Senator, was wilder than a cheer leader at a football game.” (He did marry that Oregon senator’s daughter, by the way. Bigbee and Grace Ellen Bingham married in October of 1917, had two daughters, divorced at some point in time and re-married in 1947. In between, Bigbee married a Dorothy Scott in 1943.)

Despite Bigbee’s tepid season, he had one thing working in his favor. Hugo Bezdek, his old college coach, was named the Pirates manager in the middle of 1917. The Pirates didn’t see any great success in his two-and-a-half seasons at the helm, but Bezdek stuck around long enough to see his former pupil entrench himself in left field.

Apart from getting married, Bigbee spent his 1917-18 offseason working in the Seattle shipyards. He was drafted in July but somehow did not miss much time away from baseball. The 1918 season was shortened because of World War I, but Bigbee showed some improvement in his game. He hit .255 in 92 games with 47 runs scored, and he hit his first big-league home run off Brooklyn’s Rube Marquard – a shot to the left field fence at Forbes field that went for an inside-the-park homer.

Bigbee had his breakout season in 1919, and it was sorely needed. Star Max Carey battled injuries all season long and was limited to 66 games, so Bigbee stepped into his role as center fielder and slashed .276/.332/.328 in 125 games. He stole a career-high 31 bases and played an excellent center field. Carey reclaimed his center field spot in 1920, but Bigbee just moved over to left field and continued to hit. He brought his batting average up to .280 in 1920 while stealing 31 bases again. He reached new heights in 1921, when he had a slash line of .323/.364/.427. He had a total of 204 hits and led the NL with 161 singles. Bigbee also added 23 doubles, 17 triples and 3 home runs to his offensive numbers while scoring 100 runs and driving in 42. He had a 23-game hitting streak that was tied for the league’s longest of the year.

“Carson Bigbee looks like one of the best outfielders in the National League just as he did last year,” reported the Sporting News. “Bigbee is remarkably fast on his feet and covers a lot of ground. He is not at all spectacular, but he goes about his daily tasks with an earnestness that has won him the approval of the team’s followers and made him one of the most popular men on the Pittsburgh team.”

Bigbee was joined by his big brother Lyle for part of the season, as the pitcher made 5 appearances for Pittsburgh to conclude his major-league career. The Pirates won 90 games, good for second place, and would remain a first-division team for the next few years. Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss rewarded Bigbee for his play with a $10,000 contract, making him one of the highest-paid outfielders in baseball. He earned every penny of it in ’22.

Bigbee spent 1922 among the league leaders for the NL batting title, battling Rogers Hornsby most of the way. He tailed off as Hornsby finished at .401, but Bigbee still hit .350, which was good enough for fourth in the NL. His 166 singles led the NL again, and he reached career highs in total hits (215), doubles (29), runs scored (113), RBIs (99), walks (56), on-base percentage (.405) and slugging percentage (.471). The dramatic increase in RBIs came from a lineup change that moved him into the cleanup spot. He also struck out a measly 13 times in 691 plate appearances. He was the only NL hitter to record five hits in a game twice and had four hits in a game five times. Defensively, he led the NL in putouts (341), assists (28) and double plays (7) from left field. His .953 fielding percentage was a little below league average, but he got to many more balls than any other left fielder.

For a few seasons, Bigbee became one of the best outfielders in the National League. He wasn’t always recognized as such – he was rather unassuming and was overshadowed in his own outfield by Carey. But those in the know appreciated the ballplayer that he had become. John McGraw had made an inquiry in 1922 about how much it would take to acquire Bigbee for the Giants. “Nothing less than the Polo Grounds,” was the response Dreyfuss was said to have given.

By the time 1923 rolled around, Bigbee was 28 years old and was already starting to slow down a little. He missed much of September with leg problems and finished just shy of another .300 season – he hit .299. He got off to a good start in 1924 and hit .287 through the end of May. Then, his batting average plummeted down to the .240s by July. Furthermore, Pittsburgh’s outfield became crowded by the emergence of Hazen “Kiki” Cuyler. Cuyler had played a handful of games for the Pirates in each of the three previous years, but he hit .354 in 117 games with the team in ’25. Someone had to go to the bench to give Cuyler more playing time, and the slumping Bigbee became the odd man out. Bigbee’s health may have been a contributing factor to his offensive decline. He had been bothered with nasal problems and underwent several surgeries prior to the season’s start to correct it. Bigbee said it took most of the year to feel better, and he did improve late in the season. However, given Cuyler’s strong play, Bigbee was limited to pinch-hitting and a few spot starts when Cuyler had an injured shoulder. He pulled his batting average up to .262 by the end of the season, though 69 of his 74 hits went for singles.

After several years of second- and third-place finishes, the Pirates finally won the NL pennant in 1925 and knocked off the Washington Senators in 7 games to win the World Series. They did it with an outfield of Carey, Cuyler and Clyde Barnhart, all of whom hit well over .300 and were responsible for a large share of the Pittsburgh offense. Bigbee, just a couple seasons removed from being one of the best outfielders in the league, had few chances to contribute and hit just .238 in 66 games, appearing mostly as a pinch-hitter. He appeared in four of the World Series games, with 1 hit in 3 at-bats – but what a clutch hit it was.

Ad from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, July 7, 1922.

Game Seven of the ’25 World Series was to have been a duel between Washington’s Walter Johnson and Pittsburgh’s Vic Aldridge. However, the Senators knocked Aldridge out in the first inning and took a commanding 4-0 lead. Johnson wasn’t dominant but held the Pirates back until the Bucs scored a couple of runs off him in the bottom of the seventh inning to tie the score at 6. Roger Peckinpaugh of the Senators connected with a solo homer off reliever Rey Kremer in the top of the eighth inning to give Washington a 7-6 lead. Johnson retired the first two batters in the bottom half of the inning before allowing a double to catcher Earl “Oil” Smith. Bigbee was sent in to pinch-hit for pitcher Kremer and smashed a double to left field that scored pinch-runner Emil Yde and tied the game. Johnson remained in the game but loaded the bases and allowed a ground-rule double to Cuyler, making the score 9-7. The Pirates maintained the lead and ultimately won the Series.

Bigbee was one of the heroes that brought the World Championship to Pittsburgh. By August of 1926, he was unceremoniously released. Though he was hitting in the low .200s at the time as a utility outfielder, his release had nothing to do with his play. The Pirates were managed by Bill McKechnie, who led the Pirates to World Series glory the previous year. With owner Barney Dreyfuss traveling in Europe, the oversight of the team was left to Sam Dreyfuss, his son and team treasurer, and Fred Clarke, former Pirates star and team vice president. Clarke either was asked to sit on the bench and act as an assistant to McKechnie, or he decided to do it himself; reports vary.

“No team can thrive under two managers,” Carey later said in a statement. Apparently the team was getting mixed messages from McKechnie and Clarke, and they were losing as a result. After losing a doubleheader to Boston, McKechnie tried to call a team meeting but canceled it. Carey, Bigbee and pitcher Babe Adams – the team’s longest-tenured Pirates – decided to hold a straw vote to see if Clarke was welcomed to stay on the bench. Those three and three other unidentified players voted against Clarke, who became furious when he heard of the vote and refused to return to the bench unless the players were severely punished.

“That men of the type of Carey, Adams and Bigbee should take the lead in an attempt to force action, because they believed that conditions existed which demanded such a course, is taken by many local baseball followers to indicate that something radically wrong exists within the Pittsburgh Club, and that stern measures may be necessary to correct it,” stated The Pittsburgh Press. The Press noted that the three ringleaders were known for their integrity and loyalty to the club.

Other papers, and the management, took the opposite view and saw the three ballplayers as mutineers. Sam Dreyfuss, Clarke and McKechnie held a meeting about the vote, and McKechnie went on record that he welcomed Clarke’s presence. After the meeting, Dreyfuss released Bigbee and Adams unconditionally and put Carey on waivers. Bigbee and Adams never played in the majors again, and Carey was picked up by Brooklyn, where he had a few more reasonably productive seasons before retiring in 1929. The whole event became known as the “ABC Affair” after Adams, Bigbee and Carey. The 1926 Pirates finished in third place, and McKechnie was replaced by Donie Bush as manager.

Bigbee’s career with the Pirates lasted for 11 years. He had a slash line of .287/.345/.369, with 1,205 hits that included 139 doubles, 75 triples and 17 home runs. He scored 629 runs and had 324 RBIs – almost a third of which came in his 1922 season when he drove in 99 runs. He also stole 182 bases. Baseball Reference gives him 11.5 Wins Above Replacement.

After winning the World Series, Bigbee and some of his teammates went on a road trip to California with their families. They stopped in Arizona to admire the scenery. Bigbee is at the top of the photo with his daughter Jean. Grace Bigbee at at the bottom row in the middle. Also shown are Pirates George Grantham (top row, far right) and Ray Kremer (bottom row, with daughter). Source: Arizona Republican, November 3, 1925.

Bigbee was just 31 years old when his major-league career ended, so he headed back to the West Coast to continue his career. He started with the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League in 1927 and was released in July. He then signed with the Portland Beavers and played with them through the middle of 1928, finishing the ’28 season with the Los Angeles Angels. He was released in January 1929, ending his playing career.

While he was on the West Coast, Bigbee had gone into the grapefruit business with former Pirates teammate George Cutshaw. They had a farm in the Imperial Valley near Los Angeles. He survived a bout of pneumonia in 1930 that, according to newspaper reports, had him “at death’s door.” He recovered and eventually moved back to Oregon, settling in Portland and working in the automotive industry. He tried to join the Pirates scouting staff, as his travels took him throughout the Pacific Coast League territory, but there was no room for him with Pittsburgh. He did get back into professional baseball, as manager in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. He led the Springfield Sallies in 1948 and the Muskegon Lassies in 1949. His old teammate Carey was president of the AAGPBL by then, and he brought Bigbee on board. He didn’t have much success as a manager, but he was said to have been an enthusiastic backer of the league and popular with his players, according to the AAGPBL’s website.

Carson Bigbee died at his home in Portland on October 17, 1964, at the age of 69. According to his old business partner Cutshaw, he had been ailing for several years. He is buried in Willamette National Cemetery in Portland.

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