Grave Story: Miller Huggins (1878-1929)

Here lies Miller Huggins, who had a long career as an undersized but scrappy second basemen before becoming one of the game’s most renowned managers. He is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame after winning 6 American League pennants and 3 World Series championships with some of the greatest Yankees teams of all time. Huggins played for the Cincinnati Reds (1904-09) and St. Louis Cardinals (1910-16) and managed the Cardinals (1913-17) and New York Yankees (1918-1929).

Miller James Huggins was born in Cincinnati on March 27, 1878. He would take on the nickname “Hug,” but he’d also be called a variety of names that pertained to his small stature – “Mighty Mite” chief among them. Even in an era where ballplayers were smaller than they are today, Huggins stood out. Baseball Reference lists his height at 5’6”, and I think that’s about 4 inches too generous. Huggins’ father, James Thomas Huggins, was a grocer, but in his native Scotland he was said to have been a fine cricket player. However, he objected to his son going into baseball. There were a couple of reasons for that. For one, he didn’t agree with playing ball on Sundays. For another, young Miller became a law student at the University of Cincinnati, and a lawyer was a more mobile profession than baseball player at the dawn of the 20th Century. So in order to not tarnish the family name, Huggins played ball under the name of Miller Proctor.

The Huggins family plot in Spring Grove Cemetery, in Cincinnati.

Huggins played with a team in Mansfield, Ohio, in 1899 and then the Fleischmann Mountaineers in 1900. The St. Paul Saints and manager Jimmy Ryan then signed him for the 1901 season. The first year with the Saints, at least, was a bust. Huggins hit a lowly .210 in 70 games, and his poor hitting skills might have torpedoed his chance to be sold to the Cubs in the offseason. Huggins turned around his luck quickly, however. He rebounded to a .328 batting average in 1902, and he became a fan favorite. Particularly among the female fans, according to the Saint Paul Globe. “… he is frequently seen escorting some vision of loveliness to Wildwood when he should be learning more about the statute in such case made and provided,” the Globe said of the erstwhile law student. “He admits his weakness in this respect, but insists that it will wear off as he grows older.” Huggins never married, much to his own regret.

After another above-.300 season with the Saints in 1903, Huggins reached the major leagues. The White Sox and Charles Comiskey were after him, but the Reds outbid everyone for the hometown boy’s services. Huggins’ desire to play in front of a home crowd also helped.

As he was in St. Paul, Huggins quickly became the darling of the Reds fanbase, starting with a solid rookie campaign in 1904. He slashed .263/.377/.328 with 88 walks, 96 runs scored and 13 stolen bases. In the field, he made Reds fans recall the days of Bid McPhee, who held down second base for the team for much of the 1880s and ‘90s. Not only did Huggins catch anything hit toward second base, but he also handled a fair bit of right field as well, which could cause some communication problems with right fielders who didn’t expect the little infielder to have such a big range

One comparison that could be made to Huggins was “Wee” Willie Keeler. Keeler, who was still playing for the Yankees at the time, was Huggins’ idol. They were about the same size, and Huggins choked up high on the bat like Keeler did – though Keeler was the better hitter. Also, Keeler was a left-handed batter, and Huggins taught himself to be a switch-hitter.

An on-base machine in a time when the skill wasn’t as valued as it is today, Huggins led the National League with 103 walks in 1905, and he scored 117 times while driving in 38 runs – both numbers were career highs. He also raised his batting average to .273 and was eighth in the NL with a .392 on-base percentage. Huggins had probably his best offensive season for the Reds in 1906, when he slashed .292/.376/.338. He also reached career highs with 41 stolen bases and 159 hits while cementing his role as the Reds’ leadoff hitter.

Source: Kenosha Evening News, June 27, 1908.

In the offseasons, Huggins ran a successful cigar store in Cincinnati and later was part owner of a roller skating rink. He never made use of his law degree, but had he gone into the field, he would have stood out as an honest man. During one game in 1907, Huggins laid down a squeeze bunt and reached first base while the fielders tried in vain to keep Reds baserunner Mike Mowrey from scoring. Huggins was credited with a hit, and he disagreed with the decision. “That was no hit – it simply was a case of fielder’s choice and Mowrey’s good sprinting that landed me on first.” He protested his hit enough that National League president Harry Pulliam had to weigh in and back the official score. Huggins continued to state that the scorer’s call was wrong, and Pulliam was wrong for supporting it.

“Batting average, in order to count for anything, should be based on real hitting, not upon poor head work of fielders. Scorers should be allowed to use their judgment on plays of that kind, just as they do clean hits and errors. To give a hit on that play I have named seems manifestly incorrect.”

A batter arguing for one fewer hit in his season tally is odd enough, but Huggins did it in a year when his productivity started to tail off for the Reds. He was still a key man, playing in all 156 games, but his batting average fell more than 40 points to .248. He still walked 83 times, good enough to lead the NL in that category, but it was the start of a decline that would ease him out of Cincinnati. After two more years of falling batting averages, he played himself into a part-time role in 1909; he hit .214 in 57 games at second and third base.

It was during this time that Huggins’ name first arose as a potential big-league manager. Jack Ryder of The Cincinnati Enquirer reported about the Reds’ managerial change for the 1909 season. Clark Griffith was rumored for the job (and eventually got it), but Ryder brought Huggins up as a candidate. “Huggins is apt to go unconsidered on account of his diminutive size, but it is not beef and brawn that are essential in a field leader, but brains and courage. With these qualities little Hug is well supplied. He knows baseball thoroughly in all its angles. He is a close student of the inside game, and a man of craft and skill on the defense.”

As his play worsened in Cincinnati, Huggins was routinely rumored to be departing Cincinnati via trade. It finally happened in February of 1910, when he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals with Frank Corridon and Rebel Oakes for Fred Beebe and Alan Storke. If people thought the 32-year-old Huggins was washed up, he proved them wrong with a solid 1910 season. He raised his average back to respectability with a .265 mark, and he walked a league-leading 116 times for a .399 on-base percentage. Huggins also had 15 doubles, 6 triples and a home run that season.

Huggins kept up his good play with the Cardinals, and the baseball world noticed. Though he matted a mere .261 in 1911, he also walked 96 times and slapped a career-best 19 doubles, while playing his usual above-average defense at second base. He finished in sixth place in the MVP vote and was widely considered the brains of the club.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, September 26, 1929.

The fact he survived the season at all was no small feat. In mid-April, the little second baseman was involved in a three-way collision with first baseman Big Ed Konetchy (6’2”, 195 pounds) and right fielder Steve Evans (5’10”, 175 pounds) as all three tried to catch a pop fly. Huggins was taken out of the game and missed about two weeks with a leg injury. It’s a pretty remarkable recovery time, considering a Konetchy/Evans vs. Huggins collision is as close to windshield vs. bug as baseball gets. What’s more, as Huggins lay injured among the pile of fallen Cardinals, he picked up the ball and hoisted it up into the air as if he had made the catch, and the umpire believed him and called the batter out!

Huggins had his best season in 1912 among rumors he would depart St. Louis. He slashed .304/.422/.357 with 35 stolen bases and 82 runs scored. Why would he leave the Cardinals? He had a standing agreement with player/manager Roger Bresnahan that he could engineer his own trade to any team that would hire him as a manager. As it turned out, he didn’t have to leave the Cardinals at all, because he was named as Bresnahan’s replacement for the 1913 season.

St. Louis was going through struggles as a second-division team, and the addition of the brainy Huggins as manager wasn’t enough to turn them around. While he continued to hit and play well at second base, the Cardinals stumbled to a 51-99-3 record in 1913. He was an improvement as manager, though. Bresnahan was very controlling, directing every player’s at-bat from the bench. Huggins brought a much more relaxed style and gave his players more independence. He was also willing to make moves to improve the team, and they paid off as the 1914 Cardinals won 81 games. By and large, though, the Cardinals were a below-.500 team during his time as manager.

Huggins wrapped his playing career in 1916, acting as an occasional pinch-hitter. He played for 13 seasons and had a slash line of .265/.382/.314. He had 1,474 hits that included 146 doubles, 50 triples and 9 home runs. He stole 324 bases, drew 1,003 walks and scored 948 runs. According to Baseball Reference, he was worth 35.4 Wins Above Replacement in his career. He led the National League in walks four times and in on-base percentage once.

Huggins led the 1917 Cardinals to an 82-70 record, which was his best season as manager to that point. He then departed St. Louis to become the next manager of the New York Yankees, and that transaction is not without a bit of controversy. The official story was that Yankees owner Col. Jacob Ruppert opened the team vaults to hire Huggins away from St. Louis. The Washington Times wrote an intriguing (if likely untrue) report that Huggins was actually hired by AL President Ban Johnson. Johnson, upset at Branch Rickey for leaving the American League’s St. Louis Browns to take a job with the National League’s Cardinals as team president, signed Huggins away from Rickey to be an American League manager… somewhere. Cleveland would have been the first choice, but their manager Lee Fohl led the team to a strong finish. The Yankees needed a replacement for departed manager Bill Donovan and were handed Huggins.

It’s important to note that Huggins got a Yankees team that finished in sixth place in 1917. They were a team in need of help. “Huggins is just the type of manager we need to put the team on its feet,” said Ruppert. “The Yanks need new spirit. They need pep, and I think Huggins is just the fellow to give it to them.”

As recent years have shown, you don’t manage the Yankees without having every move or non-move closely examined by the New York media. Huggins was harshly criticized for almost his entire Yankees career. The papers made fun of his height and grim demeanor and routinely predicted his eminent firing. The stress aged him before his time; his SABR bio notes that he was almost constantly on the verge of quitting the job. But the Yanks did improve. They finished the flu-abbreviated 1918 season with a 60-63-3 record and kept improving from there. Additions like Roger Peckinpaugh, Waite Hoyt and Bob Meusel paid off. Then there was the matter of getting Babe Ruth from the Red Sox and turning him into a full-time outfielder.

Huggins and some of his stars: Waite Hoyt, Babe Ruth, Huggins, Bob Meusel and Bob Shawkey. Source: New York Daily News, September 26, 1929.

Huggins himself traveled to California to handle the negotiations with Ruth, finalizing his sale to the Yankees. “Ruth has assured Huggins that he is delighted with the prospect of batting for 77 games at the Polo Grounds… New York fandom may rest assured the big fellow is determined to set such a home run record in 1920 as has never before been dreamed of,” crowed Ruppert.

Ruth lived up to the deal, clubbing a record 54 homers and batting .376. His one-man show wasn’t enough to get the Yankees the AL pennant, though they finished in third place. It was their best finish in a decade but still a disappointment. Ruppert supported Huggins, but the other owner, Col. T.L. Huston, didn’t have much of a use for the manager. The players nearly rebelled against him as well, claiming he managed the Yankees out of pennant contention. Starting in 1921, though, Huggins would lead the Yankees to six first-place finishes and three World Series championships.

The Yankees first reached the World Series in 1921, and Huggins’ nerves were already starting to fray. He missed a team trip out west during the season, and the Yankees were run by Peckinpaugh and coach Charlie O’Leary in his absence. Prior to the start of the World Series, Huggins went into seclusion to calm himself, while Giants manager John McGraw reveled in the spotlight. The Yankees lost to the Giants in eight games in the 1921 World Series and then were swept by the Giants in the 1922 Series rematch. The Giants sealed their ’22 World Series win by scoring 2 runs off losing pitcher Joe Bush in the eighth inning of the final game. Huggins had ordered Bush to walk the Giants’ Pep Young to load the bases and pitch to George Kelly. Bush wanted to face Young and made his displeasure known when he shouted toward the dugout “Let’s play baseball!” before throwing four balls. He was so rattled that he gave up a 2-run single to Kelly, unleashing a torrent of second-guessers on his manager.

The quiet little manager was thought to be unable to manage all the egos in the Yankees clubhouse, but he brought the team together enough to win the World Series in 1923. In the eighth inning of the Game Six, the Yankees were down 4-1 and facing a Game Seven. After a couple of Yankee singles, Huggins brought in two pinch-hitters and two pinch-runners, and the Yanks put 5 runs on the board. That was without the help of the mighty Ruth, who struck out in his eighth-inning at-bat. The heroes were pinch-hitters Bush and Fred Hofmann, who both walked to set the table for Bob Meusel to hit a bases-loaded single, putting the Yankees ahead for good.

Before the game, Ruth and the other Yankees presented Huggins with a diamond ring for his leadership. “I’m not much on show of sentiment. Some people think I’m a sour, morose crab. But I could hardly make a reply to them,” he later wrote in an editorial. “Long after I have retired… I shall keep and prize that ring.”

Huggins memorial at Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park was once located in play in center field. Source: Wikipedia.

As Ruth became the biggest name in baseball, it was inevitable that he would clash with Huggins. Huggins was a firm believer in physical fitness and training, and Ruth was a firm believer in ignoring curfew and drinking. He had bullied and abused Huggins in the past, but the Huggins had laughed it off. The polar opposite personalities co-existed until 1925, when the Yankees fell all the way to seventh place. Huggins suspended Ruth indefinitely on August 31 and fined him $5,000 for “conduct unbecoming a player.” Ruth had rolled into his hotel in St. Louis around 2:30 in the morning, well past Huggins’ 1:00 a.m. curfew.

Ruth took to the press and ripped his manager. “Huggins gave me a raw deal,” he told reporters. “The situation is intolerable. Huggins is a bum manager and he’s trying to cover up his mistakes by blaming me. I don’t want to play baseball with anyone but the Yankees, so if Miller Huggins is reinstated as manager next year I retire.” Elsewhere, he called Huggins “incompetent,” blamed him for the Yankees’ second-place finish in 1924 and acknowledged that he’d previously ignored Huggins’ in-game calls because Ruth felt they were wrong. Huggins, for his part, merely said, “I really am not interested in what he has to say now nor where he has gone.”

It was a lose-lose situation. The Yankees were a bad team without their star – though Lou Gehrig took over first base from Wally Pipp and started his own amazing career. Ruth found a complete lack of sympathy among the game’s bigwigs. Ruppert backed his manager, Commissioner Kenesaw Landis stayed out of the situation, and AL President Ban Johnson rejoiced in watching Ruth get put in his place. In the end, it was a lost season, but the slugger came back to Huggins with an apology and maybe a little more humility he had in the past.

Then the Yankees formed their famed Murderers’ Row lineup, and being a part of one of the best teams in baseball history goes a long way toward soothing bruised egos. The 1926 Yanks won 91 games but lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in 7 games. The ’27 Yankees won 110 games and swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. After two World Series titles and three AL pennants, Huggins was finally getting his recognition as one of the sharpest minds in baseball. Then he and the Yankees repeated as World Champs in 1928, just to quell any remaining doubts.

Some writers re-evaluated past opinions of Huggins. It was almost as if they looked past Ruth for the first time ever and saw the brilliant tactician that had been hidden in his shadow.

“What Miller Huggins lacks – perhaps what he should be admired for most – is the inability or desire, probably the latter, to build a legend about himself of uncanny managerial acuteness,” wrote New York columnist Roscoe McGowan. “This might have been done for him long ago but for the presence on the club of that extraordinary player and colorful personality, Mr. G. Herman Ruth, and the not so colorful but highly talented Mr. Henri Louis Gehrig.”

And then he was gone, less than a year after winning his third World Series title. Huggins was so focused on getting the Yankees an unprecedented fourth straight pennant in 1929 that he neglected his own health. He developed a boil on his face that became infected (known as erysipelas), but he didn’t want to take time off in the middle of the season, even though the Philadelphia Athletics had run away with the AL lead. In September, he came down with a flu, and the combination of the two illnesses proved lethal. Huggins was sent to St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City on September 20 with a high fever. Infection had spread from his face throughout his body, and he developed pneumonia. Doctors gave him four blood transfusions in an attempt to save his life, but Huggins died on September 25, 1929. He was 51 years old.

The Yankees heard about Huggins’ passing in the middle of their game against the Boston Red Sox. News had started to filter into Fenway Park at the start of the game, but the players weren’t told until the end of the fifth inning, when umpire Bill McGowan brought the Yankees to home plate and broke the news. The team promptly surrendered the lead before coming back to win 11-10 in 11 innings.

Tributes poured in from pretty much anybody who played with Huggins over his 25 years in baseball. “I’ve seen some smart baseball men, but he was king of them all,” said Ruth, who eventually developed a close relationship with Huggins.

Art Fletcher, the Yankees coach who piloted the team through the rest of the ’29 season, said, “Hug died with his boots on. He never was the man to take care of himself when baseball needed him… I’ve seen a good deal of baseball, played under some of the greatest managers, hut Hug was the greatest of them all. He never got all the credit he deserved, perhaps because he liked to give his share to others.”

Huggins is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager in 1964. The Yankees didn’t wait that long to pay tribute to their late manager. The team’s spring training field in St. Petersburg was renamed Miller Huggins Field. Then in 1932, the team unveiled a red granite block with a plaque for Huggins, located in center field at Yankee Stadium. That marked the beginning of what is now known as Monument Park.

In 17 years as a manager, Huggins had a 1,413-1,134 win-loss record, with 6 pennants and 3 World Series titles. His .555 winning percentage is just behind Hall of Famer Bobby Cox and a couple points better than another famed Yankees manager, Billy Martin. There have been four other managers who have won as many World Series titles as Huggins, and only five managers in baseball history have won more.

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