Grave Story: Billy Hitchcock (1916-2006)

Here lies Billy Hitchcock, whose life in baseball included stints as a player, coach, manager and minor-league executive. As an infielder, Hitchcock played for the Detroit Tigers (1942, 1946, 1953), Washington Senators (1946), St. Louis Browns (1947), Boston Red Sox (1948-1949) and Philadelphia Athletics (1950-1952). He also served as a manager for the Tigers (1960), Baltimore Orioles (1962-63) and Atlanta Braves (1966-67).

Billy Hitchcock was born in Inverness, Ala., on July 31, 1916. He would follow in the footsteps of his older brother Jimmy, who was born in 1911. Jimmy was Auburn University’s first All-American in baseball and football and played in 28 games for the 1938 Boston Braves.

After graduating from Union Springs High School, Billy Hitchcock attended the Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Va., before enrolling at Auburn  in 1934. He played in Auburn’s first bowl game, the Bacardi Bowl, held in Havana, Cuba in 1937. He scored the only touchdown for the Tigers as they tied Villanova 7-7. He was also a part of the baseball team that won the school’s first SEC Championship in 1937. Hitchcock was no slouch in the classroom, as he was elected to the Phi Kappa Phi honor society and graduated with a degree in business administration in 1938.

Hitchcock signed with the Yankees after his graduation, but his professional debut was delayed by a year, as he recovered from torn cartilage in his knee – a football injury. He made it to the minors in 1939 and spent three seasons with the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. He hit progressively better each season, culminating with a .296 average in 1941, with 21 stolen bases. With rookie Phil Ruzzuto at shortstop, the Yanks had no place for Hitchcock, so they sold his contract to Detroit for the 1942 season.

After a couple of pinch-running appearances, Hitchcock got his first start on April 25. His first major-league hit was a 2-run double off Bob Harris. From that point forward, Hitchcock was the starting shortstop. He had a .211/.280/.246 slash line through August 11, when he departed the Tigers to join the Army.

Source: The Vancouver Sun, November 10, 1960.

Hitchcock initially remained stateside, running the physical training program in Boca Raton, Fla. In 1943, he joined the 334th Bomb Group Jay Birds baseball team in Greenville, N.C. Hitchcock later was sent overseas, where he earned a Bronze Star in the Pacific and three battle stars, according to his obituaries. He served as the chief of athletics for the Army Air Forces, Pacific Ocean areas and eventually attained a rank of major.

Hitchcock was discharged in February 1946 and reported almost directly to the Tigers Spring Training camp in Lakeland, Fla. He surprised the Tigers by hitting well enough to make the team. However, he barely played once the season started. Hitchcock played in 3 games for the Tigers, getting a walk in 4 plate appearances. He was purchased by the Washington Senators on May 17 and given a chance to play third base, ahead of the better-as-a-benchwarmer Sherry Robertson. He hit a mere .212 in 98 games in his only season with the Senators.

Hitchcock moved around the American League after that. His contract was sold to the Browns, and he played every position in the infield for them in 1947. He hit .222 with 28 RBIs and homered for the first time in the majors. It was a solo shot off Red Sox pitcher Bob Klinger in the top of the 13th inning on June 18. It would have won the game, but the Browns, being the Browns, blew the lead in the bottom of the 13th inning, then blew a 2-run lead in the bottom of the 14th, and then lost the game 6-5 in the bottom of the 15th.

Hitchcock’s next stop was with the Red Sox, as he and pitcher Ellis Kinder were traded for Sam Dente, Clem Dreisewerd, Bill Sommers and $65,000 in cash. He hit .298 for Boston in 1948 in 49 games as a second and third baseman and was lauded for capably filling in at second base for an injured Bobby Doerr in the thick of the pennant race. The Red Sox finished in second place, and Hitchcock fell back to earth in 1949. He barely cleared the .200 mark and was traded at the end of the season to the Athletics for catcher Buddy Rosar. He did give the Boston fans one more great moment on August 13, 1949. Filling in for injured first baseman Billy Goodman against the Senators, Hitchcock walked in the bottom of the 8th with the score tied at 11. He advanced to third base and, noticing that young pitcher Dick Weik wasn’t watching him, stole home to put the Red Sox on top 12-11. Boston won 13-11, thanks to Hitchcock’s daring.

The best stretch of Hitchcock’s playing career were the three seasons he spent in Philadelphia. He was slated to be a backup infielder once again, but he hit so well in 1950 that the A’s couldn’t keep him off the field. By mid-July, Hitchcock was hitting .353, good enough for 4th in the American League. He cooled off to .272 by the end of the year, but he was a highlight on a last-place team with not many reasons to cheer. Okay, he also hit into an MLB-leading 30 double plays, but outside of that he was a highlight.

At the age of 34, Hitchcock topped the .300 batting average mark for the first and only time in his career in 1951. He hit .306 in 77 games, with 36 RBIs and a .371 on-base percentage. He was moved to a reserve role in the middle of the summer when he slumped at the plate, but a hot streak in September brought him back over the .300 mark. Hitchcock cooled off in 1952, though he played in a career-high 119 games for the A’s. He batted .246 with 56 RBIs to close out his Philadelphia career.

Even before he’d officially retired, Hitchcock was considered managerial material. There were rumors that he would lead the Buffalo Bisons, which was the Tigers’ top farm club. He’d eventually get there, but first he was traded back to Detroit to finish out his career as a player. Hitchcock hit .211 in 22 games for the 1953 Tigers and signed a contract to serve as a player-manager for Buffalo in 1954.

In his 9-year career, Hitchcock slashed .243/.310/.299, with 547 hits in 703 games. He had 67 doubles, 22 triples, 5 home runs and 257 RBIs. In the field, Hitchcock played 250 games at second base, 201 at third base, 142 at shortstop and 48 at first base.

Hitchcock guided the Bisons to a 71-83 record in 1954, while playing sparingly at second base. After one season in the minors, Hitchcock was brought back to the Tigers to serve as a coach under new skipper Bucky Harris. He stayed with the Tigers from 1955 through 1960 as a third base and hitting coach. He got his first taste of managing for one game in 1960 – a footnote to one of the strangest trades in baseball history. The Tigers and Indians swapped managers in 1960, with Detroit manager Jimmy Dykes and Cleveland manager Joe Gordon exchanging jobs. Hitchcock took over the Tigers for a game on August 3 as the two managers traveled to their new teams. He had a pretty easy time, as the Tigers crushed the Yankees 12-2.

During his tenure with the Tigers, the team went through five managers. Hitchcock was always rumored as a replacement, but outside of that one game, he was never given the job. He left Detroit after 1960 to manage the Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League. The Mounties were a AAA affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves, and Braves general manager John McHale convinced Hitchcock that the job would help lead to a big-league managing job. He was right, too. After he led the Mounties to a second-place finish in the PCL with an 87-67 record, Hitchcock was hired to manage the Baltimore Orioles for 1962.

Source: Alabama Journal, August 4, 1971.

The Orioles finished with 85 losses, and Hitchcock took some criticism for a disappointing 7th-place finish. Still, Orioles general manager Lee MacPhail thought he was the right man for the job and brought him back to the Orioles in 1963. The team was hit hard by injuries and players being drafted into military service, which was not the manager’s fault. Hitchcock himself admitted that he may have been a little tentative and mild-mannered as manager.

“I think I’ve learned a lot about the players, and some have to be handled differently,” he said. “I think I can be just as tough as the situation demands.”

The ’63 Orioles did improve to an 86-76 record. It was an erratic team that surged into first place with a 30-15 record near the end of May and then went 8-22 in its next 30 games. A slump at the end of the season knocked the O’s out of second place. Team attendance dropped to an all-time low, and Hitchcock was fired after the season. MacPhail stated that the team would look for a more aggressive personality. That replacement wound be Hank Bauer, who guided Baltimore to two third-place finishes before winning the 1966 World Series.

Hitchcock stayed with the Orioles in 1964 as a talent advisor, working with Bauer on personnel matters and scouting the Orioles’ top minor-league teams. He was signed by the Braves as a Southern states scouting supervisor for 1965. After a year, he was named to the Braves MLB coaching staff, as the team moved to Atlanta for the 1966 season.

The Braves had Bobby Bragan as manager, and after the team stumbled to a 52-59 start, Bragan was fired and replaced by Hitchcock. In this instance, his mild personality was just what the team needed after Bragan’s tenure, which was frequently described as “stormy.” The Braves went 33-18 under Hitchcock and moved up to 5th place. The Braves brought him back for a full season in 1967, and he had a fan in Hall of Famer Luke Appling. Appling was Hitchcock’s first base coach in Baltimore and quit in protest when his friend was fired.

“He’s a fine fellow, knows enough about managing, and he’s a real gentleman with it,” Appling said. “Billy treated his players like men and expected them to act as such. Most all of them liked to play for him… That ‘too easy tag’ was one he didn’t deserve.”

The ’67 Braves dropped to 7th place in the NL. Players quarreled with each other, and Hitchcock was let go with three games remaining in the season. The Braves, showing typical Braves management style, neglected to tell Hitchcock he was fired. They even held a press conference without notifying him; Hitchcock was told of his fate by a reporter.

“The only regrets I have are that I didn’t do a better job as manager for the wonderful fans in the Southeast – and that the people I work for didn’t have the decency to inform me that I had been fired,” Hitchcock said.

Billy Hitchcock was named “King of Baseball” by Minor League Baseball in 1980, the year he stepped down from his role as president of the Southern League. Source: Minor League Baseball.

Hitchcock headed back home to Opelika, Ala. He managed for the equivalent of 3-1/3 seasons spread out over five years and had a 274-261 record as manager. He took a managerial role in a company in Opelika that manufactured physical fitness equipment, but he couldn’t stay from baseball for long. He joined the Expos in 1969 as a scout and, later, field instructor, but retired from baseball again after two seasons. He finally found the perfect job when he was named president of the AA Southern League in 1971. He was able to stay active in baseball while staying home in Opelika.

According to the League’s website, Hitchcock led a rejuvenation of the Southern League that featured many improvements including stadium refurbishments and a concerted effort to make the league more family-friendly. When Hitchcock took over in ‘71, the League’s combined attendance was 333,500. Attendance topped the 1 million mark 1978 and rose to 1.7 million in 1980, when Hitchcock stepped down as president. He was presented with the “King of Baseball” award by Minor League Baseball that year.

Hitchcock was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1975, joining his brother Jimmy, who was part of the class of 1969. Auburn’s baseball stadium was renamed Hitchcock Field at Plainsman Park in 1997 to honor the contributions of the Hitchcock brothers. He was part of the Southern League Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 2014.

Billy Hitchcock died on April 9, 2006, in Opelika. He was 89 years old and is buried in Rosemere Cemetery, also in Opelika. He died days before the Braves were set to honor the 40th anniversary of the first Atlanta team. As part of the celebration to mark 40 years of Atlanta Braves baseball, the team observed a moment of silence before a game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

“He was one of the nice guys in baseball,” said Braves manager Bobby Cox. “He was a real gentleman and well respected by everyone.”

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