Huggins, Miller James

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HUGGINS, Miller James

(b. 27 March 1879 in Cincinnati, Ohio; d. 25 September 1929 in New York City), National Baseball Hall of Fame manager (1964), also a fine second baseman, who led the New York Yankees to six American League pennants and three World Series championships.

Huggins grew up in the Fourth Ward of Cincinnati, then a very run-down, violent neighborhood. It was there that the short Huggins learned to stand up to people bigger than himself. He had a brother and a sister, both of whom remained close to him all his life, with his sister living with him until he died. As a teenager, Huggins played second base for the Shamrocks, a semipro team in Cincinnati. In 1900 he played for the St. Paul team of the American Association.

Huggins began his major league career with a young ballplayer's dream: he was signed by his hometown ball club, the Cincinnati Reds. He was twenty-five years old and to many observers too small—he was five feet, six inches tall and weighed about 140 pounds—but he played in 140 games during his rookie season, 1904, and he scored ninety-six runs, earning the starting job as the team's second baseman. Thereafter, he became one of the best lead-off hitters of his time. He was very good at getting on base, using his small strike zone for many bases on balls. Because of this, his on-base percentage was always high, even though he was not a great hitter. But he was not paid to hit but to score runs, and he scored over 100 runs three times, in 1905, 1910, and 1911, with a career high of 117 in 1905. He was a master base runner when base running was crucial; during the "dead ball" era, teams scraped and schemed just to score one run at a time.

In addition to being an excellent lead-off hitter, Huggins was an outstanding fielder. In an era of fine second base-men, Huggins was a standout, fielding for nearly all of his playing career better than most of his contemporaries. He was especially good at tracking down ground balls hit far to his right and far to his left. He led the National League in assists twice (1905 and 1906), in putouts once (1907), and in double plays twice (1905 and 1906).

Huggins's exceptional intelligence became evident during his years with Cincinnati, and he was a team leader. During the off-season he attended Cincinnati Law School and became a lawyer, although he never practiced law. In 1910 he was traded to the National League's St. Louis franchise. In 1913 he was named the player-manager of the ball club; in 1917 he retired as a player to become a full-time manager. At the end of that year he led a group of investors in an effort to buy the St. Louis club, but he was rebuffed, and he quit the team.

Huggins's record as a manager at St. Louis was not impressive. His team had only two winning seasons out the five he managed, but Ban Johnson, the president of the American League, urged the New York Yankees to hire him to manage their club, which they did. The team he took over was pathetic, but he instilled discipline in them, and they finished third in their league in 1919 and 1920. It was in 1920 that the Yankees began purchasing contracts from the Boston Red Sox, still notorious in Boston, including the contract of star pitcher and part-time outfielder Babe Ruth.

In the World Series in both 1921 and 1922, Huggins was outmanaged by the New York Giants' John McGraw, whose team hammered the Yankees. Indeed, Huggins seemed desperate, taking gambles on players who failed to perform well, even starting the marginal pitcher Harry Harper (4 wins, 3 losses for the season) in game six of the 1921 World Series. Yet, in 1923 Huggins made all the right moves, and with outstanding performances by his pitchers, he and the Yankees finally beat the Giants in the World Series.

After this triumph Huggins faced the greatest trials of his career. Ruth and other Yankee players had let their discipline decline, ignoring curfews and carousing at all hours, and while playing their minds were not on the game. The Yankees finished second in 1924 to the Washington Senators, a fine ball club led by an exceptional pitching staff, but in the next year the team slumped horribly. When Ruth showed up late for practice and hung over on 29 August 1925, Huggins fined him $5,000, by far the most any major leaguer had ever been fined. Ruth exploded in rage. Jake Ruppert, owner of the Yankees, backed Huggins all the way against Ruth, and Ruth had to apologize to Huggins and the team.

It was on that day that Huggins began his most important feat, turning a group of talented boys into men. Much is made of Ruth's wild behavior, but rarely is it pointed out that after 1925, with Huggins's guidance, he became more disciplined, keeping in shape during the off-season and paying attention when he was supposed to.

The Yankees of 1926, 1927, and 1928 may have been the greatest dynasty ever, winning pennants each season and the World Series in four-game sweeps in 1927 and 1928 (they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1926). During these years Huggins had to contend with several prima donnas. His number-three (Ruth) and number-four (Lou Gehrig) hitters often did not speak to each other over some slight or another, and others on the team bickered and complained as well. However, Huggins held the team together with diplomacy, a paternal caring for players with problems, and firm discipline with enough flexibility in it for his players' expansive personalities to be expressed.

On 22 September 1929 Huggins felt unwell, and he made coach Art Fletcher the team's substitute manager. He was taken to Saint Vincent Hospital in New York, where on 25 September he died of blood poisoning. His funeral in Cincinnati was attended by many ballplayers, and the American League cancelled all the day's games in his honor. He is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

On 30 May 1932 a monument in Huggins's honor was placed in center field in Yankee Stadium. It was eventually joined by monuments to Ruth, Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. In 1964 Huggins was named to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for his managerial career by the Special Veterans Committee. In his time Huggins was regarded as one of baseball's best minds, and he was a prototype for the modern manager, who has to be part diplomat to manage teams populated by big egos and big paychecks. He may be fairly credited with saving Ruth's career when Ruth lost all self-discipline and became ill in 1925; he nurtured the shy Gehrig into a star; and he helped his often fractious players think and play as a team.

Harvey Frommer, "Miller Huggins," in his Baseball's Greatest Managers (1985); Hank Nuwer, "Miller Huggins: The Mighty Mite," in his Strategies of the Great Baseball Managers (1988); and William Mead, The Inside Game: Baseball's Master Strategists (1991), explain the importance of Huggins's contributions as a manager. Leo Trachtenberg, The Wonder Team: The True Story of the Incomparable 1927 New York Yankees (1995), describes how Huggins interacted with his team. "Miller Huggins Dies" in the New York Times (26 Sept. 1929) is an obituary that discusses his career and the reaction to his death.

Kirk H. Beetz