Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Joe Higgins - The Man Who Saved Baseball in Kingsport

A couple of months ago someone told me that J. Fred Johnson Stadium isn’t really J. Fred Johnson Stadium. “Just look at the plaque on the outside.”

I went to a D-B baseball game last week and finally got around to checking out the plaque on the outside wall, near the entrance to the baseball stadium:
“In memory of H. Joseph Higgins 1951.”

Is it really Higgins Memorial Stadium? Why have I never heard that? And who was H. Joseph Higgins?

First things first: it is not Higgins Stadium.

According to a Times News story from August 26, 1951, when the plaque was mounted, it was not to rename the stadium but to honor “the late H. Joe Higgins, leading figure in the history of organized baseball in Kingsport and the Appalachian League.”
And that brings us to Joe Higgins. Who was Joe Higgins?

When he died of a heart attack in 1951 at the age of 53, Times News golf columnist Rex Harrington – yes, apparently we had a golf columnist in 1951 – devoted his column “Slicing in the Rough” to a tribute to Higgins, whom he called “one of Kingsport’s and the world's finest gentlemen and sportsmen.” Harrington said Higgins was “if not the father then the stepfather of baseball in Kingsport.”

Higgins had come to Kingsport in 1923. This newspaper reported on January 19, 1923, “Joseph Higgins arrived from New York the first of the week. He is the first of a number of linotype operators to be employed by the Kingsport Press.” Kingsport was a very small town then and the paper reported those sorts of things.

He would work at the Press until his death. His baseball work was a sideline.
At first he was head of the local City Industrial League, a semi-pro outfit featuring baseball teams sponsored by local industries, including the Press.
When a movement formed to resurrect the old Appalachian League, a Class D minor league which had folded in 1925, Higgins was one of the leaders.

Harrington wrote, “Joe was among those instrumental in bringing professional baseball back to Kingsport in 1938 after a lapse of some 13 years. He played a leading role in the new club and in 1941, when it appeared that the sport was doomed here, he assumed control of the entire stock. That saved the day for Kingsport. Not too long after that he was the main factor in keeping the Appalachian League going during the hard years of World War II. It was one of two Class D leagues to continue operation all through the war and Joe Higgins was the main reason.”

That team, the Kingsport Cherokees, were league kingpins in the war years, winning the league pennant in 1944 and 1945 and finishing second in 1943. (Lefty Akard was manager for part of the ’44 season!) But the team’s fortunes declined in the postwar years, finishing sixth, sixth, eighth and eighth in the first four years of the post war period.

Harrington wrote, “Joe kept baseball running in Kingsport after the war, when at times it seemed there was no interest whatsoever. But he repeated his love for the game and received new inspiration to carry on.”

But one man couldn’t support winning baseball – and a family - on a Press supervisor’s salary.

“Pressure became great for Kingsport to have a better ball club. It had the best one man could offer. In fact, very few individuals could have done so well. So Joe still thinking of the game and the fans, sold the controlling interest to a group of local businessmen (in January 1951). He didn't quit, though. He remained in a prominent role as vice president of the club.”

The paper reported he had $30,000 invested in the club and was selling it for half that.

Suddenly things turned around in the 1951 season behind new manager Jack Crosswhite and stars Ned Jilton, George Wright, Powell King and Muscle Shoals.
The team was cruising toward its first pennant in six years when Joe had his fatal heart attack. He didn’t live to see the Kingsport Cherokees win the Appalachian League championship of 1951. But he was responsible, he had laid the groundwork, and when he finally got the working capital he needed, he brought in the ball players who could win.

So it’s not Joe Higgins Stadium. But maybe it should be, at least the baseball part.

From January, 19, 1923 Kingsport Times:

The arrival of the Kingsport Cherokees, April 14, 1938 newspaper:

Joe Higgins untimely death from June 25, 1951 newspaper:

Times golf columnist Rex Harrington pays tribute to a baseball man:


At 12:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just this week my sister and I went through a box of our father's baseball memorabilia from the Brooklyn Dodgers and with the correspondence was his 1942 contrast with the Kingsport Baseball Club and signed by H. Joseph Higgins, so I googled him and found your blog..thanks for the wonderful tribute.
We also have photos of my father with Babe Ruth and Bobby Fellers which I believe are from somewhere in Florida, dad in a J.Grays uniform and Ruth is wearing a baseball uniform with an "All American " round patch with a flag in the middle and what looks like an S over a B on the left sleeve.
Fellers is wearing a jacket.
Great memories of our Dad as a very young(17) Brooklyn boy who the Dodger scouts saw playing at Ebbet's Field and signed him up.
Going to read the articles about Joe Higgins now, thanks again.


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