Grave Story: Whitey Hilcher (1909-1962)

Here lies Walter “Whitey” Hilcher, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds for parts of four seasons. The “Whitey” nickname came from his blond hair. He played for the Reds from 1931-32 and again from 1935-36.

Walter Hilcher was born in Chicago on February 28, 1909. It doesn’t appear that his family stayed in Chicago for long, though. Hilcher and his brother Charles attended college at the University of Alabama starting in the fall of 1926. He would eventually make his winter home in Foley, Ala., where he could hunt and fish in the offseason when he wasn’t working at the family hardware business with his father and brothers.

Newspaper reports indicate that Hilcher was a good pitcher for the Tide but was frequently let down by the poor defense of his teammates. He struck out 11 batters while allowing just 3 hits in an 18-3 pounding of Louisiana State University on April 10, 1930. That had to have been one of his final college games, as he signed with the Peoria Tractors of the Three-I League later that year.

The 21-year-old college grad found professional baseball much harder than college ball, as he staggered to a 4-12 record with a 7.62 ERA in his first pro season. He did improve in 1931, even though his record was 12-18. His ERA dropped to a more manageable 4.37, and his walks per 9 innings fell from 6.4 to 3.5. He performed well enough to attract the interest of the Reds, who bought his contract and brought him to the major leagues in September 1931.

Source: Great Falls Tribune, July 21, 1936.

Hilcher’s debut was a success, even though the Reds lost to the Phillies 8-3 on September 17. He threw 4 innings of scoreless relief, allowing 3 hits and 2 walks while striking out a batter. Reds manager Dan Howley gave Hilcher a start on September 27 in Game 2 of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals. He surrendered 4 runs on 13 hits in a 5-3 loss. “The youngster was not exactly slaughtered, but he found the going tougher than it was at Peoria,” reported The Cincinnati Enquirer.

The 1932 season began badly for Hilcher, as he started against the Cubs on April 15 and was knocked out of the game in the 4th inning, having allowed 5 earned runs on 6 hits and 3 walks. He carried an ERA of over 10 into the month of August, when a few decent outings brought it to 7.71. After that kind of year, it’s little wonder that he spent the next two seasons in the minor leagues with the Minneapolis Millers in 1933 and the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1934.

After a lack of playing time with the Reds in 1932, Hilcher was happy to be working again, even if it was in the minor leagues. He won 12 games with the Millers and 13 with the Leafs, though he didn’t exactly dazzle on the mound — he surrendered more than 200 hits each season. Hilcher was a 19-game winner with the Leafs in 1935 and was effective enough that the Reds brought him back to the majors after a two-year absence. He tossed an 8-hit shutout against the Boston Braves on September 13 for his first MLB win, and he beat them again two days later in relief. After going 2-0 in 4 games with the Reds with a fine 2.79 ERA, Hilcher had put himself back into the Reds’ plans.

For the first few months of 1936, Hilcher continued to pitch great ball for the Reds. Used as a reliever, he had a 1-2 record through the end of May but with a 3.24 ERA. He was hardly used again after that, and I can’t tell if it was due to injury or something else. A couple of poor performances raised his ERA to 6.17, and he was sent to the Nashville Volunteers of the Southern Association on July 9. That was the end of his MLB career.

In parts of four seasons with the Reds, Hilcher had a 3-6 record and 5.29 ERA. He appeared in 31 games, with 6 of them being starts. He struck out 28 batters and walked 33.

Source: The Minnesota Star, May 12, 1933.

That demotion was not the end of his pro career, however. After finishing 1936 with a 6-5 record in Nashville, he headed west to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. He pitched for the Beavers from 1937 through 1942, winning more than 50 games. He was well-liked enough that when he was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1937, the Beavers played in a charity game in his honor, raising $500 for medical expenses (or $5,000 — reports varied, and it seems an extra zero may have been added once the story got into syndication) . His best season was 1938, when he had a 21-19 record and a 3.25 ERA, throwing 285 innings in 44 games. Hilcher finished his professional career pitching for Portland and the Hollywood Stars in 1942.

Hilcher, who turned 34 in 1943, joined the military and served in the Signal Corps division of the Army. They’re the group that manages communications, which during World War II would have dealt with radar and radio. He was stationed in England for at least part of the War and was a first base coach and pitching coach for the base’s baseball team. Hilcher eventually adjusted to the cold English weather and was a top pitcher for the 66th Division’s Black Panther baseball team, which was a contender for the European Theater championship in 1945.

He would then spend the last 16 years of his life in the Minneapolis area. He was the proprietor of the Johnson-Hilcher Plastering Co. and a member of the Minneapolis Homebuilders Association. Walter Hilcher died on November 21, 1962 at the age of 53 from a heart attack (cause of death per The Baseball Necrology). He is buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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