This article was written by David E. Skelton
In the 1930s and 1940s famed New York City restaurateur Toots Shor hosted many of the greats of sports and show business. But in the winter of 1947 Shor’s attention focused on a baseball prospect little known outside the environs of New York – Larry Miggins.
Informed that the St. Louis Cardinals had snatched the Bronx native from his beloved New York Giants via the Rule 5 draft, Shor threatened to “punch [owner Horace] Stoneham and [manager Mel] Ott right in the nose.”1 Though Miggins never attained the acclaim warranted by such threatened violence – he made exactly 100 plate appearances – he was a highly-sought commodity once projected as a replacement for Stan Musial when the Hall of Famer retired.
Lawrence Edward “Irish” Miggins, the third of five children born to Irish immigrants John and Josephine Miggins, arrived on August 20, 1925. The family lived at 1317 Hollywood Avenue, less than 15 miles from the Polo Grounds. Larry grew up dreaming of following his oldest brother, John, who had a brief minor league career,2 and playing in those hallowed grounds. Giants’ scouts kept an eye on him while he lettered in football, basketball, and baseball at Fordham Prep and was the valedictorian of the class of 1943. He intended to enroll at Fordham University, but wartime conditions impelled the school to deemphasize athletics, so he accepted a football scholarship from the University of Pittsburgh. .
Anticipating the draft, Larry also applied for entrance to the United States Maritime Academy. In December, 1943, while waiting to be called, he signed a contract with the Giants’ Jersey City (Class AA) farm club. He made eight appearances with the International League team the following spring before he was called to service. Miggins served admirably in the Merchant Navy while securing a Third Assistant Engineer license from the Maritime College. Through the course of the war opportunities arose for him to work out with the Giants. Discharged on the eve of the 1946 season, he reported to now-AAA Jersey City and opened the season on April 23 at third base. Miggins was captured on film when the debuting Jackie Robinson was photographed sliding into third base. Recalling the events of that fateful day, Larry related how Robinson secured two of four hits by laying two bunts down the third base line. “I was playing him back like the manager told me to do … Robinson led the league in hitting that year … and [eventually] went on to the Hall of Fame… [because] I got him off to a great start.”3
Robinson’s was not the only fiery start to the 1946 campaign. Miggins smacked a total of three home runs over three successive games (17 total bases in 24 plate appearances), a remarkable pace sadly offset by his glove work at third. Three errors on May 1 relegated him to the bench. Thirteen errors in 30 games ensured demotion to Jacksonville (Class A) in the South Atlantic League. The Giants hoped seasoning in the lower minors – including a move to the outfield – would result in a rapid return for their “long-distance specialist.”4
Miggins opened the 1947 season with a return to Class AAA, this time as an outfielder with the Minneapolis Millers in the American Association. A strong start faltered when the manager, desperate for a third baseman following a rash of injuries, returned Miggins to the hot corner. Predictably, errors ensued, leading to a horrible slump. Hitting .233-6-31 in 220 plate appearances, he was again demoted to Class A (Sioux City in the Western League) where he placed among the league leaders with 16 home runs (14 of which were struck in the last month) despite a mere 263 at bats. The fans voted him the Soos’ most popular player. That fall he was invited to barnstorm with Phil Rizzuto, Ralph Branca, and his future manager, Eddie Stanky.
The complex rules regarding draft eligibility were revised by a wartime measure crediting a player’s service time. Whether the Giants had a clear understanding of this revision is uncertain. They allowed Miggins’s name to remain on the minor league roster. He was quickly claimed by the Cardinals for the $10,000 waiver fee, prompting the aforementioned Toots Shor outburst. The Sporting News reported that “[Miggins] was tabbed by the Redbird scouts as one of the best prospects in the minors, possessing speed and a good arm, who will be ripe to step into a regular position in a couple of seasons, should any of the Musial-Slaughter-Dusak trio falter.”5 Forced to keep Miggins on their roster for the entire season or lose him by the same means, the Cardinals’ decision to demote him that spring resulted in a tug-of-war with the Chicago Cubs for the youngster’s services.
In 1948 St. Louis faced the age-old dilemma encountered by every competitive team with a promising youngster: trying to find playing time for him. The hard-hitting Cardinals had finished the preceding season in second place, a mere five games behind the league-champion Brooklyn Dodgers, and the 1948 squad returned largely intact. Judging that the 22-year-old would garner more experience in the minors, they gambled by asking waivers on Miggins. The Chicago Cubs claimed him, but when they attempted to assign him to their Los Angeles affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. St. Louis stepped back into the picture. They eventually succeeded in returning Miggins to the Western League with the Omaha Cardinals.
The first two games with the Class A affiliate symbolize Miggins’s career. In his May 6 debut he had two hits and two RBIs to lead his team to victory. Two days later his fielding miscue contributed to a defeat. These defensive weaknesses caused general managers to hesitate before promoting the youngster in spite of his bat. On August 1 he set a single-season league record for home runs, a pace that was surpassed by Des Moines’ Carl Sawatski after Miggins was forced to sit due to a pulled ligament. A September call-up provided Miggins with his first plate appearance in the majors, and he was projected to replace Terry Moore when the four-time All Star retired from the game following the 1948 campaign. Miggins was instead assigned to the Houston Buffs in the Texas League (AA).
The slugger exploded in the Houston environs, setting a record for home runs (21) by a Buffs player while placing among the team leaders in hits (146), doubles (22), triples (6), and average (.268). Endeared by fans and peers alike, that winter Miggins was asked to demonstrate his hitting techniques at the dinner-dance sponsored by the Professional Baseball Players Association of Houston. Promoted to Columbus in the American Association in 1950, he continued his offensive onslaught. On April 20 his inside-the-park round-tripper was the decisive blow in a 14-12 slugfest against Indianapolis. A single shy of the cycle, he led the Redbirds to victory over Kansas City on August 5, and carried a 10-game hitting streak through the waning days of the campaign. Once again placing among the team leaders in nearly every offensive category (Miggins’s 18 home runs represented a quarter of the team’s total), he led Columbus to the Junior World Series championship.
Larry’s honest nature and reputation in the game is illustrated by an incident in the fourth game of the semifinal playoffs against the St. Paul Saints, Playing left field, he went to the wall in an unsuccessful attempt to keep an opponent’s drive in the park. The ball hit a seat in the stands and bounced back to Miggins, who promptly threw the ball into the infield. Umpire Bill Jackowski, lacking a clear view of the play, called it a ground-rule double. A rhubarb ensued. Jackowski pursued a course he would risk with few other players. He walked out to left field.
“I lost the ball in the sun and couldn’t tell if it bounced in or went in (to the stands) on the fly, Larry,” the umpire explained. “I gotta ask you man to man: Was it a home run?’ “
Miggins thought a moment and then spoke. “Bill, anybody who hit a ball that far on the fly in this ballpark deserves a home run. Yes, it was a home run — but, for heaven’s sake, from now on, you do the umpiring. I have enough trouble trying to play left field.”6
In January, 1951, St. Louis president Fred Saigh was reportedly in “ecstasy as he described the individual merits”7 of their prized prospect. As the team entered spring camp, they were contemplating a reshuffling of the outfield. By moving Musial from left to center field and Enos Slaughter from center to right, the vacated left field post was open to competition. Miggins was perceived to be among the front runners until manager Marty Marion abandoned the shift, inserting veteran outfielder Peanuts Lowrey in center and returning Musial to left. Further enamored with the strong spring performance of hurler Joe Presko, Marion retained the right-handed pitcher in lieu of an extra outfielder. Miggins was returned to Houston.
The 1950 Buffs had plummeted to last place in the Texas League. The power of first baseman Jerry Witte and Larry Miggins (one-two in home runs for the league) contributed to a last-to-first turnaround that clinched the flag on August 29. Miggins was one of many Buffs players on the All-Star squad in a game hosted by Houston on July 12, and his fine season-long performance ensured promotion to the parent team in 1952.
With an average age over thirty, the Cardinals were the oldest team in the National League, and the outfield trio of Musial-Lowrey-Slaughter (average age: 33.7) contributed largely to this. Under the guidance of newly installed player-manager Eddie Stanky – himself a starter into his mid-thirties – the team appeared satisfied with the veteran presence, and Miggins did not receive a starting assignment until a month into the campaign. In his limited playing time, he was reportedly “off to a promising start.”8 He belted his first home run in Brooklyn on May 13 against Preacher Roe with high school mate Vin Scully in the broadcast booth – thereby fulfilling a boyhood prophecy of Scully’s from a decade earlier that he would someday call Miggins’s first big league home run. In Boston three days later he sent two long drives to the wall off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, either of which would have been a home run in a more hitter-friendly locale (he eventually connected for his second – and last – major-league homer off Spahn four months later). But his time was fleeting – a mere 12 at-bats in June and July – and his hitting suffered accordingly. He finished the long season with 99 plate appearances and a batting line of .229-2-10. Under Stanky the Cardinals maintained the dubious crown as one of the oldest teams in the league, and the advancing age eventually contributed to consecutive second-division finishes. Miggins played no role in this collapse, spending his last two years in pro ball bouncing between Houston and Columbus.
In 1953, the Columbus club took advantage of Larry’s still-menacing power by constructing a shortened left field barrier nicknamed “Mig Alley.” Despite playing a small portion of the season in Columbus, he still placed among the team leaders in home runs. He was returned to Houston to be groomed at first base. A cracked rib delayed his start in the 1954 campaign but he made his debut in spectacular fashion: a home run, two singles and three RBIs in a 10-1 lashing of the Tulsa Oilers. During this period there was no indication that St. Louis was giving much consideration to their once-prized prospect, and when they dangled Miggins in a trade to the New York Yankees’ Birmingham farm club, the twenty-eight-year-old concluded his nine-year professional career. But 1954 held yet another important event in his life.
Six years earlier, single and trying to stick with the Cardinals, Larry was asked by a reporter if a potential mate existed. “’No. I have to make some money before I think of that,’ [he] confided. ‘But I write to a couple of girls.’”9 Whomever he once wrote to, or how many, were soon forgotten in 1952 when he met Irish-born Kathleen Teresa McMahon, a secretary for the Irish Consul in Chicago. Larry was in Chicago on a Cardinals’ road trip when a priest-friend of Kathleen’s sought to introduce her to the young ballplayer. “I said I would have nothing to do with it,” she recalled years later. “My family had said [ballplayers are] like sailors, with a girl in every port . .[But he was so kind and so nice, and he wrote me that night and said he wanted to talk to me again. I had to [eventually] eat my words.”10 They married two years later and settled in Houston where she became an avid baseball fan. They raised four girls and eight boys – tragically losing two sons in 2007 and 2012, and in 2014 enjoyed the company of 35 grandchildren and one great-grandson. A man who subscribes to the adage of never asking an Irishman for a straight answer when a funnier one is possible, Larry was once asked what possessed him to think he could afford to raise 12 children. “It happened because my dear wife Kathleen was hard of hearing. Every night we went to bed, as I was turning out the light, I would softly whisper to Kathleen: ‘Are you ready to go to sleep or what?’ She gave me the same answer every time: ‘What?’”11
After many winters of study at various colleges along his travels, Miggins secured a bachelor’s degree from the University of St. Thomas in Houston in 1953 and later a master’s in Criminology from Sam Houston State. Many of these same winters were spent selling insurance during the offseasons until, in 1955, the popular former player was appointed a federal probation officer by Judge Allen B. Hannay. Miggins remained with the justice department for twenty-five years, twenty-one of them as Chief of the second largest district in the country before taking mandatory retirement. He then spent ten years with the Houston Municipal Court System before retiring for good.
His years in the justice system did not prevent Larry from staying close to the game he loved. In 1955 he was one of 19 former professional players who served as instructors for a boys’ baseball clinic in Houston, and remained active in the program for many years thereafter. He served as vice-president of the Houston Amateur Baseball Federation beginning in 1957, and participated in Buffs Old Timers games into the early 1960s. In July 1958 he was part of a citizens’ committee urging passage of a bond issue to build a sports center and stadium ( the Astrodome), and in 2003 he was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. By 2014 he was one of the few surviving members of the Houston Buffs and, as a longtime member of the Society for American Baseball Research, was a first-person source for the Society’s book Houston Baseball: The Early Years, 1861-1961. He authored The Secret of Power Hitting in 1993.
Besides outstanding athletic talent, Larry was blessed with a wonderful set of pipes. In the spring of 1954, while trying to make the Cardinals’ roster, Miggins was invited to sing at a St. Patrick’s Day hospital benefit in St. Petersburg, Florida. The event was so successful he would not sign his 1955 contract with the Buffs – training in Daytona Beach, 160 miles away – unless the team afforded him a day off to perform again a year later. In the mid-1960s he and Kathleen sang alongside Houston Astros’ players and personnel in a group dubbed the Houston Pinch-Hitters, performing at charity events throughout the city
Throughout his long life, Larry Miggins took enormous pride in his rich, Irish heritage. For forty years he was the biggest enthusiast of the “Irish Hero of Texas” Dick Dowling, and served as chairman of the Dick Dowling Irish Heritage Society. (A statue of Dowling – the oldest civic monument in Houston – is located in Hermann Park, commemorating the Confederate officer’s exploits in the Civil War Battle of Sabine Pass. In 1996 Larry’s efforts contributed largely to the statue’s restoration.) In yet another brush with history, Larry Miggins’s image served as a model for artist-neighbor David Adickes when the latter created the 67-foot statue of Sam Houston near Huntsville, Texas. “’The toughest part,’ Miggins quipped years later, ‘was trying to look wise.’”12
On July 28, 2008, Larry Miggins threw out the ceremonial first pitch before an Astros contest against the Cincinnati Reds – high praise for a player who garnered a mere 100 plate appearances. Retired fifteen years before the advent of the designated hitter, Larry’s proneness toward fielding miscues slowed the slugger’s progress through the minors. It is worth speculating that, had the designated hitter existed years earlier, Larry’s path to the major leagues following numerous home run titles may have been a lot smoother. But his contributions were more than those left on a ball field. For his honesty, civic activity, and good humor, his life has been cherished by many.
Last revised: February 2, 2015
The author wishes to thank Larry and Kathleen Miggins for their assistance in this narrative. Further thanks are extended to Norman Macht for editorial and fact-checking assistance.
1 “He Wanted to Be a Giant, Now He’s Happy Redbird,” The Sporting News, March 31, 1948. 17.
2 Larry’s nephew, Mark, also played professionally 1977-1983.
3 David Barron, “Houstonian had an on-field view of Jackie Robinson’s first game,” Houston Chronicle (April 11, 2013). (http://www.houstonchronicle.com/sports/astros/article/Houston-resident-s-unique-view-on-Jackie-4428529.php )
4 “DeRose Writes A.A. History With Lame Wing,” The Sporting News, July 9, 1947, 17.
5 “Stan Musial to Move Back to Card Outfield Next Year,” The Sporting News, November 19, 1947, 9.
6 Bill McCurdy, “Larry Miggins: Honesty is the Only Policy,” The Pecan Park Eagle (March 4, 2010). (https://bill37mccurdy.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/larry-miggins-honesty-is-the-only-policy/ )
7 “Cards Drop Standpat Policy to Give Youth Spring Fling,” The Sporting News, January 10, 1951, 15.
8 “Cards’ Hopes for Climb Kindled as Musial’s Bat Begins to Blaze,” The Sporting News, May 28, 1952, 7.
9 “He Wanted to Be a Giant, Now He’s Happy Redbird,” The Sporting News, March 31, 1948. 17.
10 David Barron, “Houstonian had an on-field view of Jackie Robinson’s first game,” Houston Chronicle (April 11, 2013). (http://www.houstonchronicle.com/sports/astros/article/Houston-resident-s-unique-view-on-Jackie-4428529.php )
11 Bill McCurdy, “Larry Miggins: Happy 87th Birthday, Larry Miggins!” The Pecan Park Eagle (August 20, 2012). (https://bill37mccurdy.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/happy-87th-birthday-larry-miggins/ )
12 David Barron, “Houstonian had an on-field view of Jackie Robinson’s first game,” Houston Chronicle (April 11, 2013). (http://www.houstonchronicle.com/sports/astros/article/Houston-resident-s-unique-view-on-Jackie-4428529.php )