SABR

Elliot Bigelow

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

At a certain point one begins to wonder how hard it really was to make the Boston Red Sox in the 1920s. This was a dead decade for the Sox. This was a team that finished in last place eight times and never finished closer than fifth place. This was a team that finished as far back as 59 games behind and never was nearer first place than 23½ games out.

The Red Sox did have some pretty good outfielders, but were they in a position to turn down a man who never hit lower than .349 in Class A ball? Apparently they were. Even winning the Southern Association’s RBI crown while hitting .361 in 1927 didn’t do the trick. Finally, the .395 he hit for Birmingham in 1928 did the trick. The Red Sox acquired Elliot Bigelow in a trade with the Washington Senators on December 15 and he was finally given a shot to make a big-league team. Washington was seeking to reacquire Buddy Myer (the Senators had swapped him to the Red Sox in May 1927), and they gave up a lot to get him, including pitcher Hod Lisenbee and four other players, one of whom was Bigelow.

Given the opportunity, Bigelow got into an even 100 games in 1929, beginning on Opening Day and playing through the last game on the schedule. He hit .284 – but he was back in the minors in 1930. He played three more years, hitting a cumulative .343 in 1,553 at-bats, but never enjoyed another look in The Show. Bigelow finished his 12 seasons of minor-league baseball with a .349 average.

His older brother John’s handwritten notes describe the beginning of his career:

“My brother Elliot A. Bigelow and I started our baseball days together in 1913, I believe. He as a pitcher-outfielder and me as an infielder. He was a southpaw with a very fast ball and a good fast breaking curve. We started playing with our hometown team – Tarpon Springs, Fla., in or about the above-told date. Elliot pitched a game against the Tampa All-Stars striking out 15 and beating them 5-4. He, had he continued pitching, could have played in anyone’s league by the time he was 18, but in pitching a long game in a drizzling rain sustained an arm [injury] from which he never recovered  but his batting carried him a long way.” [1]

Elliot Allardice Bigelow was born to William and Margaret (Allardice) Bigelow on October 13, 1897, in Tarpon Springs, Florida. He was the youngest of three children. William was a “horticulturist,” according to the 1900 census, a native of Iowa whose father was from New York and mother from Vermont. Margaret’s mother also came from Vermont; her father came from Scotland. The couple’s first-born was a daughter, Helen, born in March 1894. John was born in September 1896 and Elliot was born 12 months after that.

Something happened in the decade that followed. William no longer appears in census records but by 1919 Margaret had married a fruit farmer named John T. Hill and all three children were listed as his stepchildren. Elliot went to 10 years of public schools in Tarpon Springs, and then two years of college prep at the Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts.

Elliot described himself as a citrus farmer at the time he registered for the draft during the First World War. His professional baseball career began after the war was over, when he played for the St. Petersburg Saints in the Class D Florida State League in 1920. He hit .287 with 10 home runs in his first year. Bigelow – who was widely known as Gilly – played for the Saints in 1921 and 1922 as well; the league had upgraded to Class C in 1921. Gilly hit .315 and then .343.

In 1923, after he had another fine year with the Saints, hitting .312 in 260 at-bats, Bigelow finished the season in Class B with 17 games (.367) with the Macon Peaches in the South Atlantic League. He started 1924 playing for the New Orleans Pelicans in spring training but wound up once again with St. Petersburg, hitting a league-leading .388 with 12 homers, 10 triples, and 30 doubles, and scoring a league-leading 85 runs. The league “went blooey,” as one paper wrote, and disbanded on August 8. All of the players became free agents, which Bigelow turned to his advantage. The Philadelphia Phillies were among the teams offering him an invitation to spring training but some were worried about his arm, which they had heard had been injured. Bigelow didn’t wait until the springtime and was able to secure a reported $1,000 bonus to sign for 1925 with the Class A Southern Association Chattanooga Lookouts.

Bigelow played for Chattanooga in 1925 and 1926, batting .349 and then .370. Reportedly only three balls had been hit over the right-field fence at Andrews Field, and two of them were hit by Bigelow. His hitting in St. Petersburg had already earned him another nickname – Babe – during his time with the Lookouts, and he really cashed in big one day early in the year. Local merchants often offered prizes for the first home run hit in the season, the first run driven in, and the like. An undated newspaper clipping from his Hall of Fame player file listed the haul he got in either 1926 or 1927 for hitting the first double ($5 in cash from the Lookout Billiard and Barber Shop and 1,000 Camel cigarettes from N.C. Stone) and the first home run. As a left-handed pull hitter, he wasn’t expected to hit one out of Andrews with its capacious right-field expanse and deep fence, but in the ninth inning of the game in question, “the inducement was so strong he changed his style and over the left-field fence she went.” Bigelow had to make the rounds of several establishments to collect his winnings:

--a new suit of clothes from the Palmer Clothing Company

--a $100 share in a building lot in Dallas Heights, Tennessee

--one carton of cigarettes, by V. E. Glover of Market Street

--a $5 box of cigars from Hamilton Cigar Stand

--$7.50 credit on a charge account at the People’s Clothing Company

--a $5 bill from the Savoy Cigar Stand

--a three-pound box of Whitman’s candy from Squibb’s Drug Store

--another $5 box of cigars from J. Bass Dyer’s cigar stand

--yet another box of cigars (value not mentioned) from the Monarch cigar stand. [2]

In November 1928, the Senators went on a buying spree, snapping up six players from the Southern Association and several more from other leagues. Within a very few weeks, Bigelow was part of the group sent to Boston in the Buddy Myer trade. He was the only one traded who hadn’t at one time or another been a regular with Washington. Manager Walter Johnson explained his thinking in letting Bigelow go, providing insight into why the outfielder hadn’t been to the big leagues before: “Bigelow, while his hitting may give him a chance of earning a regular berth on Carrigan’s team [the Red Sox], would have been a utility hitter at best with us, unless the information I have picked up about him is all wrong. There is no question but what he is a natural slugger; his average of over .390 in Birmingham proves that, but he is a big, slow fellow with a mighty poor throwing arm.” [3] Bigelow’s final .395 average was a bit of a comedown; he had spent a “good part of the season well over the .400 mark, but he was halted temporarily by illness which sent him to the hospital.” He missed most of a month. [4]

The Boston Post concurred with the diagnosis regarding Bigelow’s fielding shortcomings. “His deadly hitting may cover a multitude of defensive sins … [but he] has a poor arm and looks rather awkward in getting after difficult fly balls.” [5]

The timing of the transfer to the Red Sox worked out well for the Senators, but not as well as it might have for Bigelow. In mid-March of 1929, Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis declared all four of the other players obtained from Birmingham free agents and fined the Washington club for transgressions involving their purchase. Elliot Bigelow lost his second shot at free agency; by this time he was already signed with the Red Sox and hitting the ball hard. Washington Post columnist James S. Collins therefore called him “one of misfortune’s children” and underscored Johnson’s assessment of Bigelow’s throwing potential: “For several years he has been tabbed in every ivory hunter’s note book as a murderous hitter, but they all passed him up because of a penguin wing.” [6]

Bigelow batted and threw left-handed. He stood 5-feet-11 and had a reported playing weight of 185 pounds. In his first time up in the big leagues, he drew a base on balls. In his fifth pinch-hitting appearance he collected hist first hit, a double. His first run batted in came in a game that saw the Athletics overwhelm the Red Sox, 24-6. Bigelow’s first (and only) career home run came in Comiskey Park, Chicago. It scored the first of two runs for the Red Sox, who won a 2-1 game over the White Sox behind a five-hitter by Danny MacFayden. Bigelow liked Fenway Park; he hit .308 at home and had 14 of his 26 RBIs there. Bigelow’s best day by far was September 2. He was 3-for-5 with one RBI and two runs scored in the first game of a doubleheader and 4-for-4 with two RBIs and two runs scored in the second game. He stole one base but was caught four times. Though he had played pretty well, the Red Sox didn’t see the need to keep him on board and released him outright to Chattanooga on November 13, 1929.

In 1930 Bigelow saw duty with two teams, the Lookouts and the Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League. He hit .331 for Chattanooga (Single-A ball) but after he was sold to Mission on July 2, he hit under .300 for the first time in a decade (barely under, at .298) with the Double-A PCL team. The Associated Press described him as “a great natural hitter, but a poor fielder and worse at throwing.” [7]

There was some thought of playing for Nashville. The April 2, 1931, issue of The Sporting News said, “The Vols are said to crave a lefthanded hitter and may give Elliot Bigelow a chance, that is if Bigelow will forget he wants $2,000 for signing.” He ended up back with the Lookouts and had an excellent year, playing a full 150 games, with 603 at-bats, and producing a .371 batting average, ranking him third in the league. His 48 doubles were nine more than the second-place batter got.

Bigelow was a free agent. When he’d signed with Chattanooga before the 1931 season, he had not got everything he’d sought and so had bargained and won free agency at the end of the year. Though he was a local favorite, the Lookouts saw the Knoxville Smokies outbid them for Bigelow’s services and he began the 1932 season in Knoxville. The Chattanooga News noted that he’d be playing “under the enemy’s colors” but added that he had such a following that “If Knoxville must beat the Lookouts, it is the hope of every fan that Bigelow gets credit for the feat.” [8] The Chattanoogans fell a half-game short of winning the pennant; Knoxville finished in last place.

Bigelow, however, had done his part, playing in 155 games, batting .327 and getting 62 extra-base hits, with 13 homers, 12 triples, and 37 doubles, which saw him sharing second place in the league with two other hitters. Perplexingly, The Sporting News reported in its November 24, 1932, issue that Bigelow had been released by Knoxville that June, but he had appeared in those 155 games.

From fruit farming, Bigelow had taken up work as a commercial fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico, working off the west coast of Florida. He had been out of baseball for less than a year when he died of cerebro-spinal meningitis at the age of 35, his life coming to its end on August 13, 1933, at Tampa Memorial Hospital.

Sources

In addition to the sources cited within this biography, the author consulted his player file and questionnaire at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.







[1] Note found in Elliot Bigelow’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.



[2] Undated, unattributed clipping in Bigelow’s Hall of Fame player file.



[3] Washington Post, December 16, 1928 



[4] The Sporting News, December 27, 1928



[5] Boston Post, January 20, 1929



[6] Washington Post, March 22, 1929



[7] Atlanta Constitution, July 3, 1930



[8] Undated clipping in Bigelow’s Hall of Fame player file.

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