Walter “Kirby” Higbe was born on April 8, 1915 in Columbia, South
Carolina. He dropped out of high school and
signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1933, playing his rookie
season with Muskogee of the Western
Higbe was with Atlanta of the
Southern Association in 1934, and joined the Cubs organization in
1935, pitching for
of the Piedmont League for the next two seasons.
It was in 1937, that Higbe first demonstrated his potential as a
major league pitcher. He was 21-5 with Moline of the Three-I League and joined the
Cubs at the end of the season, making his debut in the last game of
the season by hurling the last five innings of a 6-4 win against the
Cardinals on October 3.
Higbe spent most of 1938 with Birmingham of the Southern Association, and
was traded by the Cubs to the Philadelphia Phillies in May 1939. The
trade to a non-contending team gave him the chance to pitch on a
regular basis, and Higbe finished the season with a 12-15 record and
a 4.67 ERA, although he led the league in base on balls with 123 (he
would lead the league in base on balls for the next three years).
Higbe was 14-19 in 1940, quite an achievement for the last-placed
club, and he was a National League all-star selection. The Phillies
traded Higbe to the Brooklyn Dodgers in November 1940 and entered
the period of his greatest success. He quickly became a favourite of
the fans in Brooklyn, particularly after he and Whitlow Wyatt tied for
the National League lead in victories when each won 22 games for the
1941 league champions.
Higbe was 16-11 in 1942 and 13-10 in 1943. He entered military
service on October 16, 1943, and completed initial Army processing
at Fort Jackson,
near Columbia, South Carolina, in just three hours instead
of the normal three days because the Fort Jackson Red Raiders ball
team had a game that afternoon!
Higbe was at Camp
in 1944, and pitched in National Baseball Congress Semi-Pro
tournament, earning selection to the All-America team.
In 1945, he was assigned to the Philippines, where he managed the
Manila Dodgers. His line-up included
Max Macon and Frank
LaManna, with Joe Garagiola as his catcher. During this time he
experimented with a knuckleball that gave him later success in the
majors. While in the Philippines, Higbe requisitioned
living quarters that had been designated for the umpires. From there
he sold beer with Early
Wynn to the local Filipinos.
With the war over, Higbe still found himself in the Philippines, and
on January 2, 1946, he pitched for the Manila Dodgers against a team
of National League all-stars led by Chuck Dressen. In front of a
crowd of 25,000 at Rizal Stadium, Higbe was beaten, 5-4, on two home
runs by first baseman Frank McCormick.
Higbe was discharged from service on March 26, 1946. He returned
to the Dodgers in fine form and was 17-8 in 1946 with a 3.03 ERA.
Higbe, however, was one of several Dodgers opposed to the addition
of Jackie Robinson to the team. “The other guys had the good sense
to make peace with Branch Rickey [Brooklyn’s
general manager],” Higbe later explained. “I didn’t, and it cost me
a series share.”
The Dodgers traded Higbe to the Pirates in May 1947. The Pirates
finished seventh that season as the Dodgers raced to the National
League pennant. He finished the year with a 13-17 record, and two of
those wins had been with Brooklyn
at the start of the season.
The Pirates traded Higbe to the New York Giants in June 1949, and
by the following year he was back in the minors with Minneapolis of the American
Association. Higbe continued to pitch in the minor leagues at
ever-lower classifications and retired after having a 12-11 season
with the Rock Hill Chiefs of the Class B Tri-State League in 1953.
Higbe returned to South
Carolina and worked as a prison guard after
serving a short sentence for a minor offence. He later worked as a
postal clerk and as a representative for a chemical company.
Kirby Higbe passed away in Columbia, South Carolina
on May 6, 1985. He was 70 years old.