SABR

Lyle Bigbee

This article was written by Ed Bartholemy.

Lyle Bigbee was an imposing figure. Six feet tall, 180 pounds with red hair, he was a three-sport star at the University of Oregon and went on to play both major-league baseball and professional football. But by August 4, 1942, the 48-year-old Bigbee had lost his way. Sitting in a room in a Portland, Oregon, boarding house, where he lived by himself, Lyle Bigbee put a gun to his own head, fired one shot into his right temple, and died.i

Lyle Randolph Bigbee was born August 22, 1893, in the postage-stamp-sized community of Waterloo in Linn County, a lumbering area in northwestern Oregon.ii He was the second of three sons born to Claiborne Fox Bigbee and Callie (Morris) Bigbee. His father, Claiborne Bigbee, was a native of Missouri, and was descended from a line of Bigbees who had come to America from England in the 1600s.

His mother, Callie Morris, came from a family of Oregon pioneers. Her father was only 13 when, with his widowed father, he came across the Oregon Trail from Illinois in 1850. Her mother made an arduous crossing with her family in 1851 at the age of 10. An Indian raid resulted in their wagon train losing all of their cattle and most of their wagons.iii Both the Bigbee and Morris families settled in Linn County and both Claiborne and Callie Morris Bigbee became educators. Claiborne, whom the newspapers referred to as Professor Bigbee, was a high-school teacher, and later a truant officer. Mrs. Bigbee taught at the local elementary school. The family lived on a farm.

Claiborne Bigbee was a ballplayer in his youth and was “the first man to pitch a curve ball in this section of the state.”iv All three of his sons followed in his footsteps and took up baseball. In 1911 the Albany High School baseball team featured Lyle Randolph “Babe” Bigbee as a right-handed pitcher (and part-time left fielder), his older brother, Morris Benjamin “Buck” Bigbee, at third base, and younger brother Carson Lee “Skeeter” Bigbee at shortstop and catcher. On April 29 Lyle threw a no-hitter, with Carson catching. In the summer the brothers played for the Albany Athletics in the semipro Willamette Valley League. Lyle was a dominating pitcher in high school and in semipro ball, racking up big strikeout totals in a number of games.

The Albany High basketball team was also a family affair. With Lyle and Carson at the guard spots and Morris at forward, they captured the 1911 Western Oregon high-school basketball championship. In all, the Bigbee boys earned seven letters for athletic achievement in 1911. Morris, a senior, and Lyle, a junior, both lettered in baseball and basketball. Little brother Carson, a sophomore and the best athlete in the family, added a third letter as quarterback of the football team.v Lyle earned three letters himself in his senior year, when he also played football. Outgoing in spite of a speech impediment, Lyle was class president his junior and senior years at Albany High. He also made his school-teaching parents proud as a member of the Literary Club.vi

After graduating from high school in 1912, Lyle joined Morris at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Lyle played baseball and football his freshman year. In the summer he continued to pitch for the Albany Athletics. He also worked as a clerk for the Oregon Electric railway depot in Albany. On June 21, 1912, Bigbee was walking on the edge of the railway ties, checking cars on a siding and talking to a motorman. Distracted by his work and the conversation, he didn’t notice the rapidly approaching southbound Eugene Limited train barreling down the adjacent track until it was almost too late. Bigbee’s athletic ability served him well. He jumped back at the last minute, saving his life, but he was still struck by the train, and was tossed 20 feet. He hit his head on the railroad switch and suffered a gash to his head and severe bruising on his left hip and shoulder.vii But Bigbee recovered quickly. He was back on the mound for Albany by July 13, and in August he was dancing in Newport, a coastal Oregon town where he spent the last part of his summer.

By 1913 Lyle Bigbee was playing three sports at the University of Oregon. He was 5-feet-11 and weighed 170 pounds, and was frequently referred to as “husky” in the local press. He was a forward on the basketball team, which may have been his best sport. Brother Carson also played basketball for Oregon, and they were the top players on an otherwise weak Oregon squad. Lyle played halfback on the football team, and was known as a particularly skilled dropkicker, blocker, and pass receiver. Carson was the quarterback. And the Oregon Ducks baseball team featured all three Bigbee boys, with Morris at second, Carson at shortstop and Lyle pitching. Besides being teammates in three sports, Lyle and Carson were also fraternity brothers, at Phi Delta Theta. In the summers Lyle pursued his two favorite pastimes, pitching in the Oregon semipro leagues and deer hunting.

In the spring of 1916 both Lyle and Carson Bigbee left the University of Oregon to sign with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League, and headed south to Sacramento, California, for training camp. Beaver manager Walt McCredie was not impressed by the Bigbee brothers. He released them both to the Tacoma Tigers of the Class B Northwestern League. The fleet-footed Carson “Skeeter” Bigbee tore up Northwest League pitching, hitting .340, and was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates in July. The mistake cost Walt McCredie $5,000.viii

Lyle, on the other hand, had injured his arm in a college football game and had not fully recovered. He was cut by Tacoma in May and spent most of the summer of 1916 pitching for a strong semipro team in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He was a star, featured as both a right-handed pitcher and a feared left-handed hitter, posting a .470 batting average. But he pitched poorly in a big season-ending game against a team from Weed, California. The 9-6 loss led to accusations that Bigbee had been paid to throw the game by gamblers who had bet heavily on Weed.ix The game, something of an informal semipro championship of Northern California and Southern Oregon, drew heavy wagering on both sides. The evidence suggests that it was sour grapes on the part of the losing Klamath Falls gamblers rather than corruption on the part of Bigbee that led to the charges. Bigbee had been sick for a few days, but with Klamath Falls’ only other pitcher suffering from a sore arm, manager Ray Watts decided to take a chance on Bigbee pulling through. Lyle gamely went out and pitched, and for his trouble was accused of throwing the game.x

Bigbee’s strong play in Klamath Falls, combined with his brother’s meteoric rise to the big leagues, earned Bigbee another shot with the Portland Beavers at the tail end of 1916. He appeared in eight games. He pitched his first professional game against the Los Angeles Angels on September 2 in Portland. With the Beavers trailing 10-3 in the eighth inning, Lyle came on in relief. He gave up three runs and walked seven batters, with a wild pitch thrown in for good measure.xi Struggles with control would be a recurring theme in Bigbee’s pitching career.

Bigbee’s other seven appearances for Portland in 1916 went well enough that he was invited back in 1917. In March the Beavers made the wildly impractical decision to hold their training camp in Honolulu, Hawaii. Manager McCredie set up games with the Colored Giants, with a team of all “Chinese” players, and with local college nines. So the Beavers set off on a seven-day ocean trip on the British steamship Niagara from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Honolulu.

At the start of spring training, Bigbee tipped the scales at 190 pounds, 20 pounds more than he had weighed in his college days. At the dinner table on the boat trip to Honolulu, his appetite provided entertainment for the British crew, apparently not accustomed to the ways of Oregon farmboys. A waiter brought a bowl of peaches for the table, and Bigbee thought the large serving was just for him. As the waiter was quoted in the Oregonian newspaper, “then instead of dipping out a peach or two for himself ’e pours the cream hinto the dish and heats the whole bloime business.”xii

Bigbee featured a curveball with a lot of movement.xiii Sporting Life reported that he was “making the ball do the Hula Hula” over in Hawaii. He had added a spitball to his repertoire as well, and he would become known primarily as a spitball pitcher. But Bigbee’s problem had never been making the ball dance. It was getting it over the plate. His “wild and wooly” pitching cost him a spot on the Portland roster.xiv He considered returning to the semipro team in Klamath Falls for the 1917 season, but instead was able to catch on with the Spokane Indians of the Class B Northwestern League. He got into 18 games as a pitcher, posting a 7-9 record, and also saw action as a utilityman in the field. But the Northwestern League season was cut short on July 15 due to war-related attendance woes. Perhaps the highlight of Bigbee’s 1917 campaign came on May 30 at Natatorium Park in Spokane, when he hit a line drive into the Bull Durham sign and won $50.

With Northwestern League baseball done for the duration of the World War, Bigbee took a job as a shipfitter with J. F. Duthie & Company in Seattle, Washington. He also pitched for Duthie’s pennant-winning team in Seattle’s competitive wartime shipyard league. In a pregame competition that summer, Bigbee showed off his speed when he tied for the lead in a race around the bases. He was timed rounding all four bases in 15.2 seconds. His brother Skeeter wasn’t the only fast one the family.

Bigbee tried to enlist in the Navy in the fall of 1917, but was rejected because of his speech impediment. So he took classes at Seattle’s Broadway High School to help advance himself in the shipfitting business.xv In January 1918, in a shipyard accident, the end of the second finger of Bigbee’s right (pitching) hand was cut off. He joked about it, saying, “Maybe I can develop some freak shoot now that will take me to the big leagues.” The Seattle Times suggested that he might become the next Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown.xvi Finally, in August of 1918, as the war progressed and more men were needed, Bigbee’s draft status was reclassified from Class Two to Class One. In spite of his speech impediment, his finger injury, and his wartime shipbuilding job, he was drafted into the Army. Then, on November 11, the Armistice was signed and the war was over. So Bigbee’s military service consisted largely of playing baseball and football for Camp Lewis in Washington.

The shipyard leagues provided exposure for Bigbee and created an opportunity for him to move up to the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League for the 1919 season. His season was progressing pretty uneventfully until a July 8 game that Bigbee started against Los Angeles. He was again struggling badly with his control. He loaded the bases in both the first and second innings, on five walks and one hit, but pitched out of trouble. In the third inning his luck ran out. The Angels scored seven times, with Bigbee providing seven free passes and uncorking a wild pitch. Still, his manager, Bill Clymer, sent Bigbee back out to pitch the fourth inning, and even part of the fifth, before finally pulling him. The Seattle Daily Times felt that Clymer, in leaving Bigbee in to walk 12 and surrender 10 runs, was sending some sort of message to his pitcher.xvii

He probably was. Clymer continued to use Bigbee regularly, both in right field and on the mound. But in late July, Clymer suspended Bigbee because he “insisted on seeing the white lights too often.”xviii While Clymer claimed Bigbee was suspended because of too much nightlife and too little conditioning, Bigbee insisted it was due to purely personal differences between him and his manager. In the end Bigbee won out. Clymer resigned as manager and was replaced by former New York Yankees infielder Charlie Mullen. Bigbee was reinstated.

Bigbee soon had issues with Mullen as well. He complained about being always pulled from games whenever he had problems with his control. He wanted to be given the opportunity to pitch though his struggles. So Mullen told Bigbee, “You can go in there and pitch nine innings and you’ll stick there if you walk a hundred men or they make a hundred runs.” Mullen made good on his promise. When Bigbee promptly walked the bases loaded in the first inning, Mullen stuck with him, and he pitched out of the trouble. But in the end his wildness caught up with him and Bigbee, pitching the full nine innings, gave up 10 walks, 10 hits and 12 runs in a 12-2 loss.xix He ended up the season with a 4.58 earned-run average, posting a respectable won-lost record of 11-13 while pitching for a last-place team that won only 36 percent of its games.

In 1919 the Philadelphia Athletics had fared even worse than Seattle, winning only 36 games and losing 104. So owner-manager Connie Mack had his scouts scouring the minor leagues looking for new talent. Tom “Tink” Turner was sent to scout players in the West, and he liked what he saw in the big, spitball-throwing Bigbee.xx On December 6, 1919, Mack traded outfielder Merlin Kopp, pitcher Robert Geary, and infielder Ray Bates to Seattle in exchange for Bigbee. It was hoped that Mack’s fatherly management style would allow Bigbee to reach his full potential where Bill Clymer’s impatient style had failed.xxi

So in 1920, 26-year-old Lyle Bigbee reported to the Philadelphia A’s training camp in Birmingham, Alabama, to start his big-league career. A young, inexperienced team, Philadelphia would improve on 1919’s win total by taking 48 games, but still finished last in the American League. Connie Mack’s fatherly style (“grandfatherly,” according to Bigbeexxii) did not help Bigbee much as a pitcher. He got into 12 games and had an ERA of 8.00. When Mack used him as a pinch-hitter, on the other hand, he was quite a success. He had three hits and three walks in 13 pinch-hit appearances. In the minors Bigbee had spent a fair amount of time in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. And his younger brother, Carson, was beginning to emerge as a star outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. So at the end of August, Mack started penciling Lyle into the lineup as his regular left fielder. Unfortunately, Bigbee tried even Connie Mack’s patience in his new role, hitting only .191 in a 13-game test.

One of the hitters who took advantage of Bigbee’s pitching in 1920 was Babe Ruth, who hit the 72nd home run of his career off Bigbee on June 30, in the top of the ninth inning of a game in Philadelphia. But in an offseason interview, Bigbee was more impressed with Ruth’s appetite than with his hitting prowess. “Any ordinary athlete would be a wreck on what he stows away. If he ever drops to the minors he’ll break his club owner with his luncheon account. He eats as much by himself as most ballclubs do. He takes aboard stuff that would kill any ordinary player and then goes out and busts a couple of home runs.”xxiii

During the offseason, Bigbee went home to Oregon. On February 11, 1921, he married 25-year-old Nita Page in her home town, The Dalles, Oregon. The daughter of Italian immigrants, the former Miss Nita Comini had previously been married to Zeno Billings Page, a dentist from Minnesota, and subsequently divorced. Nita had a 5-year-old daughter, Mary Alice Page, who would live with Lyle and Nita in The Dalles. In the 1930 Census she was listed as Mary Alice Bigbee.

Bigbee headed south with the Athletics again for spring training in 1921. But he was hit on the hand in a practice game, and the hand became infected, so he was unable to pitch.xxiv Connie Mack sent Bigbee back to the minors to pitch for the Newark Bears in the International League. In a home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 2, Bigbee incited a near-riot. While Bears left fielder Beauty McGowan was arguing with the home-plate umpire over a strike-two call, the Toronto pitcher threw another pitch, which the umpire called for, and it was strike three. McGowan was incensed, and he and manager Jimmy Walsh argued vehemently. The Newark players came out on the field. Bigbee, who must have had a lifetime frustration at umpires for calling his pitches balls, charged toward the umpire. He was held back by his teammates, but the fans responded to his charge by streaming onto the field. The police had to be brought in to restore order before the game could continue.xxv

Although still issuing a lot of walks, Bigbee did well in Newark, posting a 2.60 ERA and a winning record of 9-6. This earned him another trip to the big leagues, this time with the National League Pittsburgh Pirates. Lyle was once again teammates with his more successful brother, Carson, who, playing left field, was in the midst of a breakout season in which he would hit .323. The Pirates were in first place when Lyle arrived, but he was not a factor in the 1921 pennant race. Manager George Gibson used him sparingly, and almost exclusively in a mop-up role. Pitching late innings in games where the Pirates were far behind, Bigbee appeared in only five games logging a mere eight innings. He gave up a run in his first inning as a Pirate, but threw shutout ball in the remaining seven frames he pitched. On September 15, 1921, he came in to pitch against the Boston Braves in the top of the ninth with the Pirates trailing 6-1. He gave up a leadoff triple to Boston first baseman Walter Holke, then pitched out of trouble without giving up a run. It was Bigbee’s last appearance in a major-league game.

Perhaps unhappy about not getting to pitch much in the big leagues, Bigbee actively sought to get a pitching job back in the Pacific Coast League for the 1922 season, but there were no takers. Not even Tom Turner, who had scouted him for Connie Mack back in 1919 and was now managing the Portland Beavers, was willing to sign Bigbee. He ended up taking a berth with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, posting an 11-11 record and an ERA of 4.97. He continued to struggle with his control, walking more than a man per inning. Bigbee was strong at the plate though, batting an impressive .357, good for second-best on the team.

In the offseason Bigbee joined the Milwaukee Badgers of the fledgling National Football Association as an end. (He is one of 65 men who have played both in the NFL and in major-league baseball.)xxvi After playing in only three games for the Badgers, Bigbee suffered a broken shoulder in a game against Jim Thorpe’s Cleveland team. It is not clear which shoulder it was or what impact it had on his ability to throw a baseball, but his career as a professional pitcher was soon over.

Bigbee started the next year in Milwaukee before he was dealt within the league to the Louisville Colonels, where his manager was future New York Yankees skipper Joe McCarthy. Between the two teams Bigbee got into 70 games that year, but only 19 as a pitcher, and he was wilder than ever. Once again he was better as a hitter than as a pitcher, batting .298, and it was becoming clear that if he had a future as a ballplayer, it would be in the field and not on the mound. In the offseason, Louisville swapped Bigbee to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League for Dixie Carroll, in what was called a swap of outfielders.xxvii He got his wish in returning to the West Coast, but Bigbee was not able to take advantage of the few opportunities he was given to prove himself. He got only 22 at-bats in 18 games while serving as a pinch-hitter, outfielder and first baseman. He was hitting a weak .227 when, on June 3, the league put in place a new roster limit of 20 veteran players and five rookies per team. Bigbee was among three players the Angels cut loose to comply with the limit.

At the age of 30, Lyle Bigbee’s life as a professional athlete was over. He continued to play baseball in semipro leagues, patrolling the outfield in towns like Bend, Oregon, and Kelso, Washington. Lyle and Nita moved around the Western US quite a bit. In 1925 Nita gave birth to their only child, Carolyn Lee Bigbee, in Gallup, New Mexico. Named for Lyle’s younger brother, Carson Lee Bigbee, Carolyn was nine years younger than her half-sister Mary. By 1927 the family was living in Casper, Wyoming, where Lyle was working as a mechanic. In January 1928 he was back in Oregon, at his father’s bedside, when Claiborne Fox Bigbee died at the age of 70. His mother, Callie, outlived his father by almost 40 years. She died in Portland, Oregon, in 1968 at the age of 99.

When his father died, Bigbee moved his family back to Oregon and took over the family farm in Sweet Home in Linn County. Some time between 1935 and 1940, Lyle and Nita were divorced. She moved to San Diego, California, taking both of her daughters. Nita died January 29, 1962, in Sunol, California at the age of 66.

Around the same time his marriage ended, Lyle gave up life on the family farm. In 1940 he was living on his own in the Santa Rita Hotel in the mining town of Santa Rita, New Mexico (birthplace of Hall of Famer and fellow Pirate Ralph Kiner). He was working as a night watchman for the copper mine.

With the outbreak of World War II, Bigbee returned to Oregon and took a job in the Portland shipyards. His life had not lived up to its early promise. As a young man, he was a popular, multitalented athlete with some college education. Yet he never really found his place in the world. His careers in professional baseball and football had been disappointing. He was divorced and was separated from his only child by over a thousand miles. He was doing wartime shipyard work, just as he had during the last war. Only now the promise of his life was behind him, not ahead. Sitting alone in a Portland boarding house, Lyle Bigbee took his own life. He was buried in Liberty-Nye Cemetery in his hometown of Sweet Home, Oregon.

 

Sources

Most of the material for this article was found in contemporary newspapers found at GenealogyBank.com, NewspaperArchive.com, Google News Archive, and Chronicling America. In particular, articles from his “hometown” papers the Oregonian and the Seattle Daily Times provided helpful feature articles that went beyond the daily game accounts.

Ancestry.com provided the Bigbee family background and general biographical information, especially the US Census 1880-1940, Bigbee’s World War I and World War II draft registrations, and city directories to trace his travels and occupations after baseball.

The Hall of Fame file on Lyle Bigbee provided his death certificate, a self-completed biographical outline for Baseball Magazine and a handful of articles on Bigbee.

His burial site was located on Find A Grave (www.findagrave.com).

Minor-league season stats came from SABR’s minor-league database at baseball-reference.com. Game-by-game data from Retrosheet.com was very helpful in seeing the arc of Bigbee’s short major-league career.

 

Notes

i “Lyle R. Bigbee,” (obituary), Portland Oregonian, August 5, 1942.

ii Sources differ on Lyle Bigbee’s birth date, some showing August 22, 1893, and some showing August 22, 1894. Based on his brother Carson’s birth in March of 1895, the 1894 birth date is not possible.

iii “Tygh Valley Couple Celebrate Golden Wedding Anniversary,” Portland Oregonian, January 5, 1908.

iv “Albany Lad is Fast,” Portland Oregonian, July 24, 1912.

v “Bigbee Wins 3 Letters,” Portland Oregonian, June 14, 1911.

vi Whirlwind, Albany High School Yearbook, 1912.

vii “Lyle Bigbee is Injured,” Portland Oregonian, June 22, 1913.

viii “National League Notes,” Sporting Life, August 5, 1916.

ix “Klamath Falls Loses; Bigbee Blamed by Fans,” Evening Herald, Klamath Falls, Oregon, August 28, 1916.

x “Carman Denies Charges Made,” Evening Herald, Klamath Falls, Oregon, August 29, 1916.

xi “Hits and Passes Feature 2 Games,” Portland Oregonian, September 3, 1916.

xii “Beavers Sea Trip Amusing at Times,” Portland Oregonian, March 2, 1916.

xiii “M’Credie’s Young Pitchers Untried,” Portland Oregonian, March 20, 1916.

xiv “Spokane May Get Young Hurlers,” Portland Oregonian, March 15, 1917.

xv “Lyle Bigbee,” Seattle Daily Times, July 22, 1918.

xvi “Lyle Bigbee May Soon Be Another Big League Star,” Seattle Daily Times, January 11, 1918.

xvii “Did Our Bill Hang It On Our Lyle or What?,” Seattle Daily Times, July 9, 1919.

xviii “Diamond Dust,” Salt Lake Telegram, July 25, 1919.

xix “Essick’s Bengals Put Up Base Blow Barrage,” Seattle Daily Times, August 19, 1919.

xx “New Manager of Beavers Hustling, Likeable Fellow,” Portland Oregonian, January 22, 1922.

xxi “Seattle Club Obtains Three Ball Players From Athletics,” Seattle Sunday Times, December 7, 1919.

xxii “Bigbee and M’Credie Open Hot Stove League Season,” Portland Oregonian, January 14, 1921.

xxiii “Bigbee and M’Credie Open,” Portland Oregonian, January 14, 1921.

xxiv “Connie Mack Asks Waivers On Bigbee,” Washington Times, April 21, 1921.

xxv “Shields’s Single With Three On Beats Leafs,” New York Herald, May 3, 1921.

xxvi Baseball Almanac list of baseball and football players at www.baseball-almanac.com/legendary/baseball_and_ football_players.shtml, compiled by Tim Zieroth.

xxvii “Coast League Trades Players,” Riverside Daily Press, December 14, 1923.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.