By Glen Sparks
He was Carson “Skeeter” Bigbee of Linn County, Oregon, born on March 31, 1895. He played 11 seasons in the big leagues, all of them with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and was the younger brother of Lyle Bigbee, who also played ball and who met a tragic end.
Skeeter Bigbee, grew up in a lumber town. His dad, Claiborne Bigbee, from Missouri, played baseball and supposedly hurled the first curveball “in this section of the state,” per the July 24, 1912, edition of the Portland Oregonian. Skeeter’s mom, Callie (Morris) Bigbee, descended from a family of pioneers. Her dad and grandfather left Illinois in 1850 to go west via the Oregon Trail. Callie’s mom crossed the country in 1851, surviving an Indian attack en route to the coast.
Carson, along with Lyle and oldest brother Morris, starred at Albany, Oregon, High School. The three also played sports at the University of Oregon. At one point, the Ducks’ lineup included all three Bigbee men—Morris at second base, Lyle on the mound, and Carson at shortstop.
Carson and Lyle signed with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League in early 1916. Team manager Walt McCredle, though, didn’t like what he saw from either of them. He released both after just a short time to the Tacoma, Washington, Tigers of the Class B Northwest League. Carson’s career took off. He batted .340, good enough for the Pirates, who signed him for $5,000 and called him up to the big club.
As a rookie, Bigbee appeared in 43 games and batted .285 with a .314 on-base percentage. The following season, he set a Major League record.
The Pirates were playing the Brooklyn Robins (the forerunner of the Dodgers) on Aug. 22, 1917. Wilbur Connor started on the mound for Pittsburgh, Leon Cadore for Brooklyn. Neither lasted very long. Cooper went five innings, Cadore stayed around for seven. The game, though, took 22 innings. The Robins, though, won 6-5. Bigbee came to bat 11 times, more than anyone ever up to that point. He led all batters with six hits and drove in two runs. (Bigbee shares the record today for at-bats in an extra-inning game with 13 other players.)
Baseball people and sportswriters called him “Skeeter” because he liked to steal bases. Bigbee swiped 182 bags in his career, including a career-high of 31 in 1919 and 1920.
“Skeeter” appeared in just one World Series, in 1925, against the Washington Senators. Near the end of his career, he came to bat just three times and managed only one hit. It was a big hit, though. He knocked a game-tying double in the eighth inning of Game 7 against the great Walter Johnson. Bigbee’s two-base hit drove in Earl Smith to make the score 7-7. Pittsburgh won the game 9-7, and the Series.
The right-handed batter retired in 1926 with 17 home runs over his 11 seasons, playing much of his career during the deadball era. He hit retired .287 lifetime with an on-base percentage of .345, along with 139 doubles and 75 triples. Bigbee topped the 200-hit mark in 1921 and 1922.
Lyle Bigbee, meanwhile, played two seasons in the majors. He went 0-3 with an 8.00 ERA over 45 innings as a Philadelphia Athletic in 1920. The following year, he pitched for the Pirates as a teammate of Carson’s. Lyle got into just five game and pitched only eight innings. He gave up a lone run. The right-hander later spent time in minor-league ball, with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association and the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, among other teams.
Lyle’s pro baseball ended at the age of 30. After that, he drifted through towns all over the west, from Bend, Oregon, to Kelso, Washington, to Casper, Wyoming, and to Santa Rita, New Mexico. He found a job as a night watchman at a copper mine in Santa Rita. He committed suicide in Portland on August 4, 1942, at the age of 48.
Carson Bigbee did some managing after his playing career ended, in the All-American Girls Baseball League. Founded in 1943 by Chicago Cubs owner and chewing gum magnate Phillip K Wrigley, the AAGPBL lasted until 1955. Most teams were located in smaller Midwest cities.
Bigbee led the Springfield, Illinois, Sallies in 1948 and the Muskegon, Michigan, Lassies in 1949. A biography of Bigbee on an AAGPBL historical site reports that the former major league was skeptical at first about women’s baseball. He “later became the game’s biggest booster as he managed the Springfield Sallies. He had a fine competitive spirit and a pleasing personality made him popular with both players and managers throughout the League.”
“Skeeter” Bigbee died on Oct. 17, 1964, in Portland, Oregon. He was 69 years old. He is buried at the Willamette National Cemetery. Morris Bigbee passed away on May 29, 1978, in Portland, at the age of 88.
By Glen Sparks
He stood just 5-feet-4. No wonder they called him “Wee” Willie Keeler.
He could hit, too. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native had a plan when he stepped into the box. It was always the same plan.
“Hit ‘em where they ain’t,” Keeler advised.
The son of Irish immigrants, born on this date in 1872, did just that. He bunted for base hits, chopped balls down the line, squirted pitches past infielders and lofted offerings into the outfield. Keeler evaded fielders’ gloves like a smart cat evades the family dog.
Keeler batted .341 lifetime and hit at least .362 every season from 1894 through 1900. He led the league in 1897 (.424) and 1898 (.385) as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. (This was the Orioles team that played in the American Association from 1882-91 and in the National League from 1892 through 1899. League owners contracted the team out of the N.L. before the start of the 1900 campaign.)
Over a 19-year career, Keeler collected 2,932 hits, most of them singles. Only 15 percent of the outfielder’s hits went for extra bases. He notched 206 one-baggers in ’98 (out of his 216-hit total), a single-season record number for more than a century. Ichiro Suzuki, a “Wee” Willie of modern times (along with Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn), rapped 225 singles in 2004 for the Seattle Mariners. Ichiro also broke Keeler’s record of eight-straight 200-hit seasons in 2009.
Keeler hit in 44 straight games to start the 1897 season, a record that stood until Joe DiMaggio broke it with his 56-game streak in 1941.
The tiny man wielded a tiny bat, just 30 inches long. Plus, he choked up on the thing. “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, a top player from the day, couldn’t believe it. “He only used half his bat,” Crawford said.
Fans today lament “the lost art of the bunt.” Keeler perfected that art. He could bunt just about any pitch. “Keeler could bunt any time he chode,” Honus Wagner once said.
Keeler tapped the ball to a vacant spot and sprinted down the line. “Wee” Willie could run despite those short legs. The left-handed batter (and thrower) not only bunted for hits, he also slammed 145 triples and stole 495 bases, including a career-high of 67 in 1898. He swiped at least 40 bags in a season five times.
Not surprisingly, Keeler didn’t hit many home runs. He retired with only 33 round-trippers. Of course, he did play in the Deadball era. Most players struggled to mash those soft, beat-up baseballs, blackened by dirt and chewing tobacco stains by game’s end.
Keeler did produce runs, though. He drove in 810 in his career and brought in 94 in 1894. More impressively, he scored 1,719 times and made it across home plate at least 100 times in eight campaigns.
This is another impressive “Wee” Willie stat: He struck out just 136 times in 8,591 at-bats. By comparison, Joc Pederson fanned 170 times in 480 at-bats in his rookie season last year for the Los Angeles Dodgers. When Keeler came to bat, he was under control.
Keeler played for a host of teams in his career. He broke in with the New York Giants in 1892 and left for his hometown Brooklyn Grooms (forerunner of the Dodgers) the following season. The Grooms sent him to the Orioles in 1894. The Brooklyn Bridegrooms (the former Grooms) picked him up in 1899, and the New York Highlanders (forerunner of the Yankees) traded for him in 1903. Keeler played seven seasons there (his longest stint with one team) and finished back with the Giants in 1910.
Heart problems plagued Keeler in the final years of his life. He died New Year’s Day in 1923 at the age of 50. “Wee” Willie, one of the most talented batsmen in the game’s history, was voted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.