RIP to Jim Hicks, an outfielder and first baseman who played for three teams in the 1960s. He died on October 29 at his home in Missouri City, Texas, at the age of 80. Hicks played for the Chicago White Sox (1964-66), St. Louis Cardinals (1969) and California Angels (1969-70).
James Edward Hicks was born in East Chicago, Ind., on May 18, 1940, though there seems to be some controversy about that. His family-placed obituary lists his birth year as 1939, and his Sporting News contract card supports that. Baseball Reference uses the 1940 date, and the newspapers that wrote about him during his career used an age that fit the 1940 date as well. The obituary also states that he was born in Claborne County, Miss., and that the family moved to East Chicago when he was very young. I can’t find anything that corroborates that, but Hicks did grow up to become a top athlete in East Chicago. As a senior at Roosevelt High School in 1958, he was part of the Lake County All-Star basketball team. The 6’3″ forward scored 374 points in 24 games for a 15.6 points-per-game average. He was also one of the big bats on the school’s baseball team and an end on the football team. He was named The Hammond Times Prep Athlete of the Year in his senior year of 1958 after being a runner-up for the award as a junior.
Hicks signed a football scholarship tender with the University of Illinois, but his greatest potential, at least according to his high school coach, was baseball. “He’s got more potential than some of those bonus babies they’re signing,” said Coach Eddie Dudek. “He can run, has a strong arm and hits the ball a mile. What more do you want?”
Hicks spent a semester at Illinois and played on the freshman football team as well as the basketball team. He wanted to play baseball as well, but the school wanted him to stick to football. “They told me I would lose my scholarship if I didn’t play football,” Hicks recalled. When he started getting bills for room and board, he realized that the school did yank his scholarship, and he decided to turn pro. “You see, I wanted to play baseball and I figured I might not get another chance,” Hicks explained.
The White Sox signed him on February 25, 1959. In his first taste of professional ball with the Holdrege White Sox of the Class-D Nebraska State League, he hit .318 and slugged .578 in 62 games, with 10 homers and 56 RBIs. By the end of the season, the League’s managers voted him the best major-league prospect.
Hicks’ progression through the Sox minor-league system was a gradual one. He split 1960 between Class-C Idaho Falls and Class-D Clinton (Iowa). He struggled in his brief stay at the higher level and batted .263 with Clinton. He came back to Idaho Falls a year later and hit .288 with 21 homers and 100 RBIs in 1961. After the season, he entered into military service and was stationed at Fort Knox in Kentucky. He got out of the service sooner than the Sox were expecting, so they had to scramble to find a spot for him in 1963. He spent the first part of the season with Macon of the Sally League, which was a Reds affiliate, until the White Sox moved him to their own Sally League team in Lynchburg. By the end of the year, he had hit 21 home runs, batted over .300 and was named the League’s Most Valuable Player. That performance earned him a promotion to AAA in 1964.
Hicks batted .288 for the Indianapolis Indians in ’64, with 16 homers and 66 RBIs. The White Sox brought him to the majors in September, and he appeared in two games as a pinch-runner. His first MLB at-bat would have to wait until July of 1965, when he was recalled due to an injury to third baseman Pete Ward. Hicks went 0-for-8 in the month of July before picking up his first big-league hit on August 4 against the Yankees’ Pete Mikkelsen. He was sent back to the minors after that hit, but he returned in September and played well in limited chances. He went 2-for-3 in the second game of a September 28 doubleheader against Detroit and picked up his first MLB home run. It was a 2-run bomb off Hank Aguirre and showed that the power he had in the minors played just fine in major-league ballparks, too. For the year, he had a .263 average in 19 at-bats.
Hicks’ 1966 season was very similar to the ’65 one. He started in AAA, was brought to the majors when J.C. Martin went down with an injury, and started off slowly. This time, he never really picked it up and ended up with a .192 average in 18 games. He spent one more season in the White Sox organization but never reached the majors again, leaving him with a .222 average in 33 games with the team.
After another productive year in AAA Indianapolis in 1967, Hicks was acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for first baseman George Kerneck. He spent all of 1968 in AAA Tulsa and put up a monster year, with a .366 batting average, 23 home runs and 85 RBIs — and that was after missing 23 games while serving in the Army Reserve. He was named the Most Valuable Player of the Pacific Coast League. The secret to his success was happiness with his new ballclub.
“This is the first year that I have really been happy, relaxed and confident,” Hicks told The Indianapolis News. “This [Cardinals] organization had faith in me and I wanted to prove them right. When I was in the Chicago organization I felt that I could play as good or better than a lot on that club. But I never for a real good chance. I felt sort of let down.”
Though there were some questions about Hicks’ ability to hit major-league pitching, his performance in Tulsa was too great to ignore, and the Cardinals put Hicks on the 25-man roster in 1969. He was used as a right fielder and pinch-hitter and didn’t have much success, with a .182 average in 19 games. He did have a great game in the field on May 6, 1969. He threw out two baserunners in the fifth inning to help preserve a 3-0 win and Bob Gibson‘s 39th career shutout.
The Cardinals traded Hicks to the Angels on May 28 for outfielder Vic Davalillo. “It was a shock… all of a sudden — boom — but it was great while it lasted,” Hicks said of the news.
Hicks’ statistics with the Angels are… odd. He had 4 hits in 48 at-bats, appearing primarily as a pinch-hitter but also spending time at first base and all three outfield positions. However, he also walked 13 times, and 3 of those 4 hits left the ballpark for a .083/.274/.271 slash line. His first Angels hit was a 2-run homer to center field that led the team to a 4-2 win over Detroit.
Hicks said that his season with the Angels, spent mostly on the bench, was “absolutely the lowest point of my career.” In an attempt to show the Angels that he deserved more opportunities to play, Hicks went to winter ball Puerto Rico over the offseason and hit very well. The team kept Hicks on the roster at the start of the 1970 season, and he went 1-for-4 as a pinch-hitter. He singled off Milwaukee’s Lew Krausse on April 26, 1971 in what would be his final big-league at-bat. Shortly after, the Angels sent him back to the minor leagues.
Over parts of five seasons, Hicks appeared in a total of 93 games and had a .163/.256/.319 slash line in 161 plate appearances. He had 23 hits that included 1 double, 3 triples and 5 home runs, and he walked 18 times with 48 strikeouts. He drove in 14 runs.
The Angels’ AAA team was the Hawaii Islanders, and Hicks became one of the team’s top sluggers. He hit .309 in 86 games and homered 12 times, though knee injuries limited his playing time. He stayed on the Islanders’ roster for 1971 and 1972 as well and hit 26 homers each season while batting well over .300.
Hicks finished his professional career with two seasons in Japan, playing for the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Professional Baseball League. “I’ll be leaving the Islanders with mixed feelings,” he said. “I like the people in Hawaii and the climate, but the contract is a good one. It has to be, or I wouldn’t have considered going to Japan.”
Hicks hit .247 for the Carp over two seasons, with 33 homers and 89 RBIs. In his 13 minor-league seasons, he hit 207 homers while batting .301, so he retired with a total of 245 home runs between the majors, minors and Japan baseball.
After his playing days were over, Hicks spent more than 30 years working for Continental Airlines at Houston’s Intercontinental Airport. He is survived by his wife, Ruth, and six children.
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