COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Sixty years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, a Black player named J. Higgins crouched behind the batter’s box at a bygone field in German Village.
The first Black professional baseball player documented in Columbus’ minor league history, Higgins’ 19th-century legacy lives on in framed portraits across town: Huntington Park, the Central Ohio Fire Museum and even the Hey Hey Bar and Grill. But when it comes to pinpointing his full identity, Higgins has left Columbus’ baseball history buffs stumped.
“We don’t even know J.’s first name,” Columbus Clippers historian Joe Santry said.
The man, the myth, the legend: Who was J. Higgins?
Higgins was a catcher, third baseman and center fielder for the 1887 Columbus Buckeyes, a minor league team within the Ohio State League, according to Santry and others who have studied local baseball history.
Donning striped ballcaps, Higgins and the otherwise all-white team hosted opponents from Sandusky to Steubenville at Recreation Park, a wooden stadium built across from Schiller Park in Columbus’ German Village neighborhood in 1887.
But besides the few known details of Higgins’ one-year stint as a Columbus Buckeye, extensive comb-throughs of old city directories, newspaper clippings and library archives have come up dry.
“He has just vanished, and we can’t find him on any team rosters, scorecards – nobody’s been able to find him,” said James Tootle, a Columbus Historical Society trustee and former assistant dean at the Ohio State University.
Lost in baseball history
Whether it be the site of the first concession stand or spitball, Santry said Columbus is home to many of the nation’s baseball “firsts.”
But unlike players Eddie “Dummy” Dundon, whose 1873 hearing loss catalyzed the conception of umpire hand signals, or Eddie “Cannonball” Morris, who became the first pitcher to throw overhand in 1884, Higgins’ status as the area’s first professional Black baseball player garnered little prestige.
“We had a few Black teams that traveled around the state and played Springfield and Toledo – they didn’t make the papers that much,” Santry said of the state’s Negro League teams, which played from the early 1900s to the mid-’60s.
Newspapers at the time were often limited to two- or three-paragraph snippets, which could help explain the lack of detail surrounding Higgins and the 1887 Buckeyes, according to former Columbus Dispatch sports columnist Bob Hunter.
Brevity aside, Hunter said Black figures – even talented ball players like Higgins – didn’t receive the same level of attention as their white counterparts. “That’s kind of the prejudice of that age,” he said.
At the time Higgins joined the Buckeyes’ roster in 1887, Black athletes were not explicitly barred from professionally playing America’s pastime, according to Tootle, who authored a 2003 book titled “Baseball in Columbus.” But some team managers drew the line if an opposing team employed a Black player.
“Sometimes the opposing team, an all-white team, would refuse to play,” Tootle said. “Teams that had a Black player or two said, ‘Well, we’ll have to not carry them anymore.’ There were several instances like that, so it’s kind of rare to find one [like Higgins].”
Because Higgins’ tenure as a Buckeye fell just two decades after the end of the Civil War, Tootle said he must have stayed with a Black family or lived separately from his white teammates during the baseball season.
The surname Higgins can be found in various iterations of Columbus city directories, but Hunter said the ballplayer’s residence in Ohio’s capital city has not been positively confirmed. He may have lived in Cleveland, Cincinnati, or anywhere in between during the offseason, he said.
“If he was from here, you would think there’d be more record of him, or there’d be a story 20 years later, you know, ‘J. Higgins remembers when he played, he was the only Black player on the team,’” Hunter said. “But there’s none of that.”
When Jackie Robinson integrated the majors as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947, Santry said some of his white teammates, like Pee Wee Reese, publicly defended the Black ballplayer. It’s unclear, however, if Higgins received the same level of treatment six decades before.
“The resentment in the professional game sometimes was due to the fact that the Black players would come in and take one of the white players’ jobs, and the white players were all friends,” Santry said. “They sort of resented it in a way.”
The majors are more heterogeneous today than in Higgins’ time, but only 7.2% of players on the league’s 2022 opening day rosters were Black, according to the league.
While most accounts of Higgins’ life have pointed to his status as a Columbus Buckeye, Santry said the photo of the 1887 team has also been labeled as the Columbus Division of Fire’s recreational baseball team for its No. 2 station.
Tootle suggested another theory: Because few documents list Higgins’ first name, the ballplayer may have been playing under an alias. Occasionally, college baseball players – the amateur athletes – illegally joined a professional team to make extra cash in the summer, hence the desire to conceal his identity.
“We would all love to know more about Mr. Higgins,” Tootle said, “but so far, not much.”