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In 1905, MU grad Byrne Bigger chose the law over a baseball career; never second-guessed his decisio

The photo above was reproduced from the 1904 University of Missouri yearbook. The next year, Byrne Bigger was the captain of the university's baseball team.

The photo below was taken by William B. Spaun, personal friend of Judge Bigger, during the 1950s.


For the Courier-Post

Ten years after he graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1905, the name Byrne Bigger, captain of the 1905 baseball team during his senior year, still gained attention when spoken of in the realm of college baseball.

When Larry Gray, freshman coach for the university, and H.H. Broadhead decided to organize an alumni baseball game at the end of May 1915, few had forgotten Bigger’s athleticism and accomplishments as a first baseman for the team in 1905.

Jean (Mrs. Dow) Moore, Bigger’s niece, remembers the story that upon graduation from the university, Bigger had a tough choice to make. He had an offer to play professional baseball for a major league team, or he could put his education into play and pursue the practice of law.

“He decided that (baseball) was a pretty rough life, and he might lose out on getting into the world of law,” Jean said.

His father’s role as a respected attorney in Laclede, Linn County, Mo., could have also been a strong influence. Ultimately, Byrne Bigger moved to Hannibal, where he opened a law office. For several years he occupied a suite of offices in the Hannibal Trust Co., building, at Third and Broadway.

Even though he didn’t play professional baseball, his enthusiasm for the game never waned.

“He was an avid fan of baseball the rest of the life,” Jean said. “He and his sister-in-law, Aunt Sue from Cincinnati, (she was in Hannibal often) would sit in his living room with several radios going to keep track of the games.“

Despite his lifelong love of baseball, and the invitation to participate in the alumni game 10 years after earning his A.B. degree at the university, Bigger never looked back upon his decision to choose the law over sports. Elected probate judge for Marion County, he assumed the bench Jan. 1, 1919, and held that post for the next 43 years.

“All of the time, he never had anyone run against for family and children’s court,” Jean said. “He put his name on the ballot, he didn’t have to speak a word. People trusted him and wanted him to be in that sensitive court.”

He died Nov. 21, 1962.

Family connection

By the end of the first decade of the 20th Century, Byrne E. Bigger and his wife Elizabeth were settled into the home at 2909 St. Mary’s Avenue; a two-story white-sided house they would call home for the rest of their lives.

The Biggers lived next door to the Sparrow grocery store, owned by Clarence and W. and Clara Sparrow.

Jean Moore’s father, Benjamin Franklin Otten was one of the dairy farmers that sold products to Sparrow’s store. Elizabeth Bigger would watch out her window, waiting for Mr. Otten to arrive at the grocery store to make his daily delivery of fresh dairy products.

Outside the store, “Dad would hand her a quart of milk, and she would go inside and pay for it,” Jean said. “His milk was easily made into whipped cream. It was unpasteurized, and the cream came down far in the bottle. Aunt Beth and Uncle Bigger liked it in their coffee. Every day, she was there.”

Stylish dresser

Byrne Bigger followed the style of his collegiate days by wearing shirts with starched collars attached.

“He liked the shirts that had studs at the neck; he had gold studs that fastened onto collars,” Jean remembers. “There was a little upraising around the neck of the shirt. That little gold stud would go through the button hole and you were fixed for the day. The collar was kind of wide, and went right up under the chin.

“As long as he could buy the shirts, he would buy them. After he couldn’t buy them any more, Aunt Beth would make all of his shirts. He was tall and gangly, with long hands and long fingers,” Jean said. “He was a sweetheart.”

‘Bigger just won’t drive’

Byrne Bigger “never drove a car, ever.” Jean remembered. “Aunt Beth did it all. She drove him everywhere. He walked to work every day.”

He was a dedicated Mason and rose to Grand Master of the Grand Lodge, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, in Missouri during 1928. During that time he visited all of the lodges in Missouri, and “Aunt Beth would drive him, so he could speak,” Jean said. The same year, Harry Truman’s sister was Grand Matron of the sister order. “She once gave the Biggers a pen Harry Truman had used when signing a bill of their interest.”

“My father-in-law (I.D. Moore) would say, ‘Bigger just won’t drive.’ They all called him Bigger or Uncle Bigger.” Jean didn’t realize he had a first name for the longest time. “Byrne was his first name.” After he was elected Grand Master in Missouri, politicians asked him to run for governor. He turned that offer down. “He said he didn’t like the seamy side of politics,” Jean said.

Bigger once told his niece, “When you go into a voting booth, no one knows how you voted. Keep it that way, honey.”

Bigger also served on the national board of Boy Scouts of America. He was involved in Boy Scouts all of his life, Jean said.

No children of their own

“(Byrne and Beth Biggers) never had children,” Jean said. “They adopted two daughters, of Aunt Beth’s sister, her nieces, Helen Jean and Elizabeth. Helen Jean was a very popular little gal. When she was a teenager, ‘Midnight Cruises’ on the Mississippi River were popular with young people. The boy next door asked her to go on a cruise with three couples. On the way to the boat, they had an automobile accident. She got frightened and tried to jump out of the back seat and the car ran over her.”

“(The Biggers) didn’t get over that.”

“The other girl, Elizabeth, she went to Missouri U and met a guy named Jim. After they graduated college, they married and had two children. When I was 90 my children had a party for me (in Pennsylvania) and my husband was gone, but here were his relatives coming to my birthday party. I thought that was pretty special. Their children came.”

Linn County roots

Clay Cicero Bigger (1855-1924), Byrne Bigger’s father, grew up in the tiny town of Laclede, Missouri, which is not to be mistaken for the town of Laclede near St. Louis. Laclede, in Linn County, as of the 2010 census, had a population of 345, down from 415 at the 2000 census. (Wikipedia)

Clay Bigger cast a pretty big shadow in Laclede, serving as a well-respected attorney for the rural area. But he certainly wasn’t the most prominent of all the children who grew up in Linn County. That title went to Clay Bigger’s childhood friend, Johnny Pershing.

General John Pershing, history notes, was a general in the United States Army who led the American Expeditionary Forces to victory over Germany in World War I. (Wikipedia)

Just before Christmas in 1919, nearly a year after his son had assumed the probate judgeship in Hannibal, and while the nation was beginning its return to normalcy after the war’s conclusion, Clay Bigger and Johnny Pershing once again had an opportunity to sit down in Laclede and laugh over childhood Christmas memories. Clay Bigger played a prominent role in the small community’s welcome home celebration for their returning war hero.

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