Grave Story: Hugh High (1887-1962)

Here lies Hugh High, who was one of three High brothers to reach the major leagues. His big break in the major leagues came when he had a chance to replace one of the game’s all-time greats – at least for a time. High played for the Detroit Tigers (1913-14) and New York Yankees (1915-18).

High Jenkins High was born in Pottstown, Pa., on October 24, 1887. His younger ballplaying brothers, Andy (born 1897) and Charlie (1898) were both born in Ava, Ill. His father, Richard, was a Pennsylvania native. Mother Margaret Aird was born in Dublin, Ireland, and came to the United States in 1876. Richard High was an electrician by trade, and his ballplayer sons had steady jobs outside of the game; Andy followed in his father’s footsteps as an electrician. Hugh, at a relatively early age, was a plumber, and Charlie worked as an accountant.

Hugh High headed about 75 miles north to St. Louis to play ball. As early as 1907 and 1908, he was playing for a well-respected amateur club called the Talking Machines, and he caught on with the Belleville Maroons of the semipro Missouri-Illinois League in 1910. That year, St. Louis Browns outfielder Danny Hoffman took in an amateur game on a day when he was injured. One of the players who impressed him was High, and he reported back to his boss, Browns owner Col. Robert Hedges. Hedges wasn’t interested, but Hoffman was undeterred and went to Bob Connery, St. Louis native and manager of the Hartford Senators of the Connecticut State League. (He was also the scout who found Rogers Hornsby playing in a small league in Texas, but that’s a story for another time.) Connery went out to see High play and signed the outfielder for his own team for the 1911 season. “He is a left-handed hitter and thrower and is fast on the bases,” reported the Hartford Courant, later adding, “Hugh High is an experienced fielder and his place in the outfield is secure.”

In his first season of pro ball, High batted .302 for the Senators and was noticed by the New York Giants. The Giants bought his contract, reportedly for $3,000, but manager John McGraw never gave him a tryout. As the Courant quipped, “McGraw thought he was too good looking to play in New York.” High was released back to Hartford in 1912 and hit .327, with 31 doubles, 13 triples and 5 home runs there. Scout Bobby Lowe recommended him to the Detroit Tigers, who swooped in after the season and bought his rights from Hartford. He was to get a chance in the Tigers’ outfield, and not just any chance. He was going to get a crack at replacing the great Ty Cobb.

Source: Hartford Courant, March 9, 1911.

The 25-year-old Cobb had closed out the 1912 season by hitting over .400 for the second straight season, with a .409 mark. It was his sixth consecutive AL batting title, and, unsurprisingly, he felt like he should be paid well for his services. He demanded $15,000 in 1913 or he wouldn’t play, and nobody knew for certain if Tigers President Frank Navin would give into the demands or let his star player hold out for the start of the 1913 season. The signing of High was widely seen as a precaution in case Cobb followed through on his threats of holding out.

Navin and Cobb routinely had disagreements about money, so threats between the two were nothing new. High made for a bad insurance policy, however. The Tigers had just played their first season in a beautiful new stadium – Navin Field – and there was no way that fans would have flocked to the ballpark to see a rookie in Cobb’s place – a rookie with no reputation outside of St. Louis and Hartford, especially.

But that’s what happened. High debuted as a pinch-hitter in the Tigers’ second game of the season, an 8-6 loss to the Browns. Starting on April 14, he became Detroit’s starting center fielder for the rest of April, while Cobb sat on the sidelines. His first major-league hit came on April 15 against Cleveland – a single off Cy Falkenberg. After picking up 7 hits in a four-game series against Browns on April 17-20, High’s batting average was a very Cobb-like .364. That was as good as it got for High, though, as he finished April with a more pedestrian .261 batting average. The Tigers finished the month in an even worse state, with a 5-11 record. Cobb rejoined the Tigers in late April, having come to a satisfactory deal with Navin. It wasn’t enough to salvage the Tigers’ season, as the team finished in sixth place.

Source: Arizona Republic, July 1, 1913.

High finished 1913 as a backup outfielder to Cobb, Sam Crawford and Bobby Veach. He batted .230 and reached base at a .335 percentage, thanks to 28 bases on balls. He drove in 16 runs and scored 18 times. In spite of the poor offensive showing, he found favor with Tigers manager Hughie Jennings with his acceptance of his roles in Detroit. He was a solid fielder and pinch-hitter, and he was good-natured and popular with his teammates. “Hugh High hits with just as much confidence when the pitcher has two on him as he does when he first steps into the box. That stuff will win,” reported The Courier-Journal in December.

High performed much the same role with the Tigers in 1914, only he batted much a much more satisfactory .266, with a .363 on-base percentage. Still, he wasn’t going to break into an outfield with two Hall of Famers in Cobb and Crawford, a very good player in Veach, and another Hall of Famer in up-and-coming Harry Heilman. In February of 1915, he and first base prospect Wally Pipp were traded to the New York Yankees, and both players were plugged into the starting lineup. Pipp became famous because of the person who replaced him in the lineup – Lou Gehrig – but he had a very good career of his own with the Yankees. As for High, he had a couple of productive seasons as an outfielder – particularly on defense.

The 1915 season was the second and final season of the short-lived Federal League, and High was able to take advantage of it to secure a decent payday. Playing under the penny-pinching Frank Navin in Detroit was no way to get rich in baseball. High’s SABR biography notes that the Tigers owner tried to pay High less money than he had seen in the minor leagues, which would have been a violation of the National Commission that governed baseball labor relations at the time. When it came time to review his offer from the Yankees, though, High had more leverage. He let it be known that Rebel Oakes, player-manager of the Pittsburgh franchise in the Federal League, had made an offer of $5,000 for his services. He and Pipp both managed to come to terms with Yankees manager Bill Donovan, and likely for more than they would have received in Detroit.

Source: Knoxville Sentinel, March 17, 1915.

The Yankees were a second-division team in 1915, with a 69-83-2 record. The outfield was a particular weak spot, so a defense-first player like High was able to amass a good share of playing time. He played in 119 games and had a slash line of .258/.356/.342, with career best in essentially every offensive category. That included 110 hits, 43 RBIs and 51 runs scored. He also stole 22 bases, though he was caught 13 times. He had 19 doubles, 7 triples and his first major-league home run. It came on July 31 against the Chicago White Sox, and it was a solo shot off Joe Benz in a 2-1 Yankees win. He started the season in left field but missed a week’s worth of games after getting hit in the arm by a pitch in his fourth game. By the time he returned, veteran Roy Hartzell had shown that he wasn’t washed up, and High moved to center field for most of the year. At either position he was very good and led the AL with a .981 fielding percentage as an outfielder. He robbed Boston’s Tris Speaker of two home runs on May 10. High sprinted to deep center field at the Polo Grounds to run down two long fly balls off Speaker’s bat. He also threw out two runners at third base, including Speaker. That was on top of getting three hits and scoring the winning run. “Altogether it was a field day for High, who was frequently applauded,” stated the newspaper report.

In writing about the 1916 Yankees, journalist Hugh Fullerton said, “With High in center the Yanks have one of the greatest fielding outfielders in the business, but he cannot hit much.” Fullerton was wrong in a couple of ways. First, High proved that he could indeed hit, batting within range of .300 for much of the season before a late-season hitless spell left him with a .263 average. Secondly, the outfielder spent most of the year in left field and ended up leading the AL in defense at the position, with a .974 fielding percentage. Frank Gilhooley won the center field spot in spring training, but High’s abilities kept him in the starting lineup for much of the season. A leg injury cut into his playing time in the second half of the season and probably played a part of his late-season struggles at the plate.

The injuries continued to crop up in 1917. He contracted blood poisoning from a blister over the winter in St. Louis and came to training camp only able to wear a sandal on one foot. He started regularly throughout the season, largely because the Yankees had no better alternatives available. Lee Magee, a former star with the Cardinals, continued to disappoint at the bat, and Gilhooley wasn’t the defensive whiz that High was. High hit .236 in 103 games but had only 37 runs scored and 19 runs driven in. His speed also declined, as he stole just 8 bases.

The Yankees seemed to have made up their mind about High going into the 1918 season. They had a variety of other outfielders to use, including Gilhooley, Ping Bodie, Elmer Miller and Armando Marsans. Most of them weren’t particularly good hitters, but Yankees first-year manager Miller Huggins played them all ahead of High. Through the end of May, the 30-year-old High had appeared in 7 games, with a walk and 10 hitless at-bats. Other teams wanted him – The Cardinals were eager to get a local boy on their team, and the Red Sox were also interested. But Huggins instead worked out a deal to send him to the Philadelphia Athletics instead. The only problem with the deal was that High refused to report to the A’s, so Huggins suspended him. Undeterred, High vowed to return to the plumbing trade and found work in a shipyard. The A’s deal fell through, and the Red Sox stepped up to acquire High’s contract, but High demanded that he receive back pay from the Yankees dating to his May 31 suspension. The Yankees refused, and that deal collapsed, as well. High never returned to the major leagues for any team.

Source: Rock Island Argus, June 20, 1918.

High played for parts of 6 seasons in the majors and had a slash line of .250/.345/.318. He had 386 hits that included 54 doubles, 21 triples and 3 home runs. He drove in 123 runs and scored 176 times while stealing 56 bases and drawing 212 walks against 168 strikeouts. He was a .978 fielder in left field and .979 in right field, both of which were well above the league average fielding percentages of the era.

High worked at his shipyard job in 1918 and played in the semipro Bethlehem Steel League. In 1919, he headed out west to join the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League – courtesy of the deep pockets of team owner Fatty Arbuckle – yes, the film star, pre-scandal. High ended up with the second-highest batting average of any regular – his .317 mark was second to Bob Meusel’s .337. The Tigers dominated the PCL and won the league championship, though not without its controversy. It was later revealed that one of the team’s best players, Babe Borton, had attempted to bribe opposing ballplayers. He tried to spread the blame to most of his teammates, but High never suffered any ill effects. He remained with Vernon through the 1923 season and generally hit in the .280s or .290s. He also showed a little bit of previously unseen power, hitting 6 home runs for the Tigers in 1921. His final season with Vernon was his best, as he hit .340 with 28 doubles and 4 home runs. High moved back east to play for the Columbus (Ohio) Senators of the American Association in 1924. There, he hit .306 and tied his career high of 6 home runs. He finished his career with the Reading Keystones of the International League in 1925. He closed out his career with a .307 batting average, leaving him with a .306 batting average in 9 minor-league seasons.

High returned to St. Louis and worked there as a journeyman plumber. He had married wife Gladys in 1913, and they stayed married for 49 years. Hugh High died on November 16, 1962, at the age of 75. He had been ill for some time with heart disease, renal failure and diabetes, but the official cause of death was cerebral anoxia, which occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen. He is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

One final story. Hugh High stood about 5’7” and weighed about 155 pounds during his playing days, which may be a bit generous. As you might expect, his name was usually prefaced with adjectives like “diminutive,” “little” or “midget.” His size didn’t affect his play, but it didn’t make him the ideal person to hold you back in an argument, though. While High was with the Yankees, pitcher Bob Shawkey was ejected from a game by umpire Silk O’Loughlin. Shawkey charged forward to confront the umpire, and the only person who tried to stop him was High. Shawkey, who was no giant at 5’7” and 170 pounds, shook him off easily – a bit too easily. Shawkey suddenly found himself staring down O’Loughlin with no teammates stopping him. Faced with putting up or shutting up, Shawkey just slinked off to the clubhouse. Afterwards, ballplayers who wanted to razz Shawkey shouted “Somebody hold me!” at him.

Hugh High’s grave at beautiful Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

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