June 24th brings us to one of the littlest known stories about major league baseball. It began in Ipswich, County Suffolk, England in 1854, on July 24th, with the birth of Richard Higham. Before Dick was two his parents set their sights on the U.S. Of A., where they settled in Hoboken, New Jersey. When young Dick took up the game during the American Civil War it was called Base Ball (two words).
The first truly professional baseball team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The Red Stockings were run by Harry Wright, who employed nine other men under contract for an eight month period. Harry Wright played centerfield as well as managing the club. His brother George filled the shortstop position for Cincinnati. George Wright was already considered the premier Base Baller of the time, having grown up playing cricket under the tutelage of his father and older brother Harry. As the leading player for the Cincinnati Red Stockings George Wright was paid $1,400 by his brother for the entire season.
In 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings toured the country playing teams from San Francisco to New York and New England, winning almost every game. In 1870, the Red Stockings ran off a twenty-four game winning streak before losing in extra innings to a Brooklyn nine. Though they only lost seven games all year, that one loss to Brooklyn not only proved the Red Stockings mortal Base Ballers, but it caused attendance at their games to decline. At the close of the season Harry Wright was forced to disband the team.
However, in 1871, Ivers Whitney Adams, President of the American Net and Twine Company, useed $15,000 of his and fellow investors to lure Harry Wright to Boston to form and manage a fully professional baseball club. Brother George came along as did three other Cincinnati teammates. The Boston Red Stockings eventually changed their name to the Braves. In the 1950s they moved to Milwaukee then in 1966 became the Atlanta Braves, making this the oldest continual major league franchise.
The year 1871 proved pivotal as amateur and professional ballplayers completely split. The ensuing organization of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players provided for a schedule of games played solely by contracted ballplayers. Fans simply called it the “National Association.” The league was a loose confederation without a centralized office and without any power to control or fine its members for perceived failings. Wealthier teams hired players away from their rivals in mid-season.
In 1871 National Association teams played between nineteen and thirty-three games. The Fort Wayne Kekiongas (Kekionga having been a Miami Indian settlement) won the honor of hosting the first National Association contest on May 4, 1871 by way of a coin toss. On that day they bested the Cleveland nine by a score of 2-0. Twenty-year-old Bobby Mathews tossed a five hit shutout over eight innings before the game was canceled by rain showers that refused to let up enough to resume play before dark. That was pretty much the highlight of the Kekionga season. A season ticket for two Kekionga fanatics cost but $5. However, only 200 fans attended on opening day and it got worse. By summer, underpaid players jumped to other teams or simply went home. The community had raised the money to build a grandstand for the team, nicknaming it the “Grand Duchess.” In early November the “Grand Duchess” caught fire and burned to the ground.
Nineteen-year-old Dick Higham was more fortunate in 1871. His team, the New York Mutuals, played a full season of thirty-three games, finishing in the middle of the new National Association standings. Higham hit .361 in 21 games (94 at bats). For the next several years he played with the Mutuals along with brief tenures with the Lord Baltimores and Chicago White Stockings.
1876 brought the formation of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, essentially the forerunner of today's National League. Higham played that season for the Hartford Dark Blues, tying for the league lead in doubles. Higham played through the 1880 season often captaining his team and sometimes serving as player/manager. In 1881 he became an umpire for the National League. In those days umpires were selected by the club owners. A list of potential umpires was circulted among the owners. The twenty-four top vote-getters received umpiring positions. In 1881 Higham received the third highest vote total. Another interesting element to umpiring in the National League in 1881: an umpire was assigned to a single team for lengthy periods of time. In 1881 Higham umpired only the games of the teams in Troy, Providence, and Detroit.
In 1882 he was the second highest vote-getter among returning umpires. 1882 marked another significant milestone in the organization of the “National Pastime.” The National League banned all gambling by players, managers, or umpires.
Higham began that season umpiring the Detroit games. Early in the season William G. Thompson owner of the Detroit club (the Wolverines) and mayor of the city supposedly became suspicious about some of Higham's umpiring calls. Legend has it that Thompson hired a private detective who produced letters between known gamblers and Higham, purporting to outline a code in which Higham would send a telegram saying it was a good day to buy lumber if he, Higham, was going to arrange for a Detroit win. No telegram apparently meant Detroit would lose.
The latter half of the alleged code seems full of holes. An article from the Society for Baseball Research (SABR) denies the validity of the private detective story. The bottom line is this: On June 24, 1884, the National League banned Higham from umpiring for activities related to gambling. He remains the only major league umpire ever banished for such behavior.