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For several years, there has been no more uncomfortable seat in baseball than the one currently occupied by Michael Franklin Higgins, a large, blue-eyed Texan who sometimes answers to the incongruous nickname of Pinky. Manager since last fall of the Boston Red Sox, Higgins is the fifth man in nine years to tackle the touchy job. The betting is that he will keep it for a long time.
Ever since Joe Cronin escaped in 1947 from the bench to the front office, where the brickbats land with a thud instead of a crash, the Red Sox managers have lived a life of triple jeopardy. Saddled by what are generally conceded to be the worst press relations in the league, they have had to face, usually alone, one of the most prolific, exacting and competitive presses in the land. But if they have had troubles from these sources, they are as nothing compared with the going over they have had from the rabid, baseball-wise following of a million self-appointed assistant managers. When things went wrong at Fenway Park—and they did often in those trying years—the fans exploded with a clatter that suggested time bombs had been thoughtfully provided by the management under each seat. And the wrath of the fans landed with a loud, resounding smack on the head of the man who at the moment was thoughtless enough to answer to the name of manager. The trick was not so much to manage. It was to survive.
Why Pinky Higgins should want the job, much less think he could succeed at it, is still somewhat of a mystery among sound baseball men. Yet the fact remains that for the past eight years the low-pressure Irish Methodist has surely and steadily stalked his way to Fenway Park.
When he quit as a major league player after the 1946 World Series, Higgins could have become manager of the Class AAA Toronto club of the International League. He turned the chance down in favor of the same job with Roanoke in the Class B Piedmont League. The difference was that Roanoke was in the Red Sox farm system, while Boston had only a loose working agreement with Toronto. "At Toronto I would have had only two or three Red Sox men," Higgins commented recently. "At Roanoke I had a whole ball club of 'em."
Higgins has had whole ball clubs of Red Sox ever since. But there was a time last fall when it seemed as if all the training might go for naught. He had just finished his most successful season, winning the Little World Series with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association, when he was offered the managership of the Philadelphia Phillies. Higgins told the Boston management about it, and they decided to pay off Lou Boudreau, whose contract as manager still had a year to run. Boston wasn't allowing Higgins to escape.
JUMP FOR GENIUS
This week, as the Red Sox continue to show surprising strength in chasing the American League pennant, the Boston management's quick decision to grab hold of Higgins has the aura of genius about it. Boston's brain trust could look bad, though, if the team should go into the kind of tailspin it suffered beginning in the second month of the season, when nothing Higgins did went right. The return of Ted Williams is credited with adding much of the lift, and undoubtedly his presence in the lineup has been a boost to morale. But other Boston managers have foundered with Williams on the roster. Those who are counting on Higgins to keep the team in high fettle are depending rather on qualities not often sought after nor found in a new manager: sound knowledge of his players and their wholehearted respect. Of the 44 men who were on the roster at spring training headquarters in Sarasota, Fla. this March, 23 had played for Higgins somewhere along the line and all 23 swore by him.
What it is exactly that Higgins has is hard to lay a finger on. Patient, colorless, plain, slow of speech and manner and action, he is a living bromide, the still water that runs deep, the honesty that is the best policy, the virtue that is its own reward. He is a good, kind, unspectacular man, rugged and simple and given to uttering such homely phrases as "Rules are made to be broken" and "A happy team is a winning team."
Even these phrases do not come readily. Higgins speaks in a deep drawl and his voice is so low that a visitor has to pay close attention to catch everything. He rarely answers a question without turning it over for inspection several times first. Sometimes he ponders so long that he appears to have forgotten the question. His easy ways give him the disarming manner of a country boy and strangers often mistake him for a ready mark in the big city. But they soon discover that underneath he is as shrewd as a banker and a sharp man in a corner.
In one sense Higgins is fortunate in taking over the Red Sox this year. The many woes that once beset his worthy predecessors have for the most part vanished. The press, and even at times the public, chastened by the near-certain knowledge that their antics were in some part responsible for the repatriation of the Braves in Milwaukee, are acting with a restraint that proper Bostonians should find comforting.