Obituary: Tom Hilgendorf (1942-2021)

RIP to Tom Hilgendorf, a relief pitcher for three different teams in the late 1960s and ’70s. Hilgendorf, a resident of Comanche, Iowa, died on March 25 at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. He was 79 years old. Hilgendorf played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1969-70), Cleveland Indians (1972-74) and Philadelphia Phillies (1975).

Thomas Eugene Hilgendorf was born in Clinton, Iowa, on March 10, 1942. He attended St. Mary’s High School in Clinton, but the lefty pitcher (and occasional switch-hitting first baseman) only played on the school baseball team in his senior year. In 1959, he pitched for the Clinton Merchants of the Interstate League. He was 3-1 in the short season, with 54 strikeouts in 21 innings. That was where he was discovered by St. Louis Cardinals scout Kenny Blackman. When Hilgendorf graduated in 1960, the Cardinals signed the young Iowan and assigned him to the local Keokuk Cardinals of the Midwest League. Between Keokuk and a brief stay in Dothan, Ala., Hilgendorf appeared in 13 games in relief and had a 3-1 record and 3.00 ERA.

Cardinals scout Kenny Blackman and Hilgendorf review his contract. Source: Quad City Times, June 18, 1960.

Initially, the Cardinals had the teenaged left-hander work as a reliever. Once he made it to the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the summer of 1961, he was moved to the starting rotation. He got his first professional shutout against St. Cloud, allowing only 5 hits — 2 to a rookie center fielder named Lou Brock. Later that season, when his arm was sore, the team even had him play a few games in the outfield — he was always a pretty fair hitter. For each of the next three seasons (1962 to 1964), Hilgendorf won 11 games while working primarily as a starter. He was a Northern League All-Star in 1962 while pitching for the Goldeyes. After two excellent seasons with AA Tulsa, The Cardinals moved Hilgendorf to the AAA Jacksonville Suns of the International League in 1965. The rookie was put back in the bullpen and did not perform well there, and he was sent back to Tulsa to finish off the year.

As many players did, Hilgendorf played winter ball, and in 1965 he and his first wife, Carol, went to Nicaragua. There, he contracted hepatitis, and it took weeks for the ailing player to get back home to Iowa and months to recover. He was asked by his wife to retire, and he spent two years working for a DuPont cellophane plant in Clinton. But he wasn’t happy and didn’t see a future for himself working all-day at a machine, so he returned to the game after a two-year absence. He split 1968 with AAA Tulsa and AA Arkansas and had a combined 7-5 record and 3.32 ERA in 52 games, including 4 starts. He struck out 103 batters in 110 innings and proved that the two-year layoff hadn’t hurt him much.

The Cardinals first brought Hilgendorf to the majors the following year, and he made his debut on August 15, 1969, in Atlanta. He worked the final inning of an 8-2 loss and walked 2 but allowed no runs. He wasn’t used very often, but he was effective when he pitched. He picked up 2 saves against the Expos at the end of the season, combining with Jerry Reuss and Sal Campisi for a 2-1 4-hitter on September 27. He made 6 appearances with St. Louis in 1969 and had a 1.42 ERA. He allowed 3 hits in 6-1/3 innings.

Hilgendorf spent the first month of the 1970 season with the Cardinals, picking up a save (against the Expos, again) in his first appearance. He was sent to the minors in May in spite of a 1.93 ERA and returned to get regular work in August. His record isn’t great (0-4 record, 3 saves, 3.92 ERA), and control seemed to be his biggest problem. He walked as many batters as he struck out (15 of each in 20-2/3 innings) and also threw 3 wild pitches. That December, the Cardinals traded him to the Kansas City Royals for pitcher Ike Brookens. Hilgendorf never appeared in a regular-season game with Kansas City. He spent a season and a half pitching well at AAA but never getting a chance at the majors. He had even considered quitting but came back for one more season. That season, 1972, was the one where he was finally given his break, and he made the most of it.

The Cleveland Indians acquired Hilgendorf in a trade that July and immediately brought him to the majors. After a few relief appearances, he was made his first major-league start on July 30, in the second game of a doubleheader against Milwaukee. Cleveland, faced with 4 doubleheaders in 8 days, had no choice but to press the 30-year-old rookie into service. He threw a complete game win over the Brewers, scattering 6 hits in a 6-1 victory and getting his first major-league win.

“I knew I could get the job done if I was just given an opportunity. That’s the one thing I’ve got on my side — confidence,” he said after the game. He also credited his array of pitches, including a forkball that got four ground-ball outs.

With his time in the Cardinals organization behind him, Hilgendorf could talk about the frustration of never getting his opportunity. “I never even went to a big league training camp until 1970,” he said, and he had a point. The Cardinals of that era had a pretty solid pitching staff, with very little room for a rookie southpaw to make an impression.

“Then, as the Cards kept getting younger, the older I got. Young kids 19 and 20 would get mad because they’d have to chase ground balls and things and they’d point to me and say, ‘Look at him, he’s 29 and doing it.’ I guess I was a good example,” he added, grinning.

Hilgendorf made 4 more starts with Cleveland that year, but most of his 19 appearances were out of the bullpen. He had a 3-1 record and a good 2.68 ERA by the end of the season. More importantly, he had established himself in the major leagues. The Indians would keep him in the big leagues for the rest of his time there, and Hilgendorf didn’t return to the minors until the very end of his career.

It still took Cleveland and manager Ken Aspromonte some time to realize what they had in the southpaw. The team spent the spring training looking for someone else who could do his job and ticketed him for the minors once more. But when no other pitcher proved his worth, Hilgendorf broke camp with the team anyway. After some infrequent relief work, he worked 4 scoreless innings of relief against Baltimore and picked up his first win of the season on May 22. A week later, he threw 5-1/3 scoreless relief innings against Texas for his second win.

Tom Hilgendorf is taken off the field after being struck by a chair during Cleveland’s infamous 10-Cent Beer Night.

“Maybe we made a mistake,” Aspromonte said in the team’s outlook on Hilgendorf. “I’ll be the first to admit we made a mistake. But Hilgendorf was always in our plans. We wanted to see new people in spring training.”

Hilgendorf made 48 appearances for Cleveland in 1973, with 47 of them in relief. His one start ended up as a complete game loss to the Yankees, but he still had a 5-3 record and 6 saves, along with a 3.14 ERA. His control improved, and he fanned 58 batters.

Life was full of ups and downs for Hilgendorf in 1974, and much of it didn’t have anything to do with his performance on the field — which for the record, was a 4-3 record, 3 saves, a 4.84 ERA. On the up side, Cleveland was in Anaheim on July 7, and the pitcher was walking to his hotel room when he decided to take a shortcut that led past the hotel pool. There, he saw 13-year-old Jerry Zaradte in distress. The teenager had been swimming when he was overcome by cramps and sank to the bottom of the pool. Hilgendorf dove fully dressed into the pool and rescued the boy from drowning.

The lowest point of the season was an infamous disaster. It was June 4, 1974, aka 10-Cent Beer Night in Cleveland. The ill-conceived promotion led to drunken fans throwing firecrackers, beer bottles and chairs onto the field before they decided to have a riot right on the diamond in the ninth inning. The Cleveland bullpen had to help defend the opposing Texas Rangers and their manager, Billy Martin. The game was declared a forfeit, and while no ballplayers or umpires were seriously injured, Hilgendorf was hit on the head by a steel chair and had to be escorted off the field by a security guard.

As the only lefty in the Cleveland pen in 1974, Hilgendorf and manager Aspromonte had some disagreements about his usage. The pitcher complained that the constant usage would leave him in an old folks home by the All-Star break, and Aspromonte responded by benching him for extended periods. Unsurprisingly, Cleveland traded Hilgendorf to the Philadelphia Phillies in the spring of 1975. He got plenty of work — he pitched in a career-high 53 games and 96-2/3 innings — but he enjoyed pitching for Phillies manager Danny Ozark. He also enjoyed being able to hit again, after the DH was instituted in the American League. Along with 7 wins and a 2.14 ERA, he went 3-for-12 at the plate for a .250 batting average and 3 RBIs.

“I knew he could pitch, but I started believing in him when he started getting people out,” Ozark said of his lefty ace. “Once he got control of his forkball, he was okay. He was throwing it sidearm in spring training, and the first few times he didn’t have anything on it. When he started throwing it three-quarter arm, he became a different pitcher.”

Hilgendorf made some long relief appearances for the Phillies. He once threw 7-1/3 innings of scoreless relief in an 8-5 win over San Francisco. There was talk that he would move into the starting rotation, but he balked at the change. “I like the challenge of just pitching with the game on the line,” he said. “Starting requires a different state of mind. If I get racked in the first or second inning four days from now, I’ll have to sit four more days before facing live hitters.”

After taking so long to reach the top, Hilgendorf’s stay at the peak of his profession was unfortunately short. He was hit hard in spring training, enough that Philadelphia released him before the start of the 1976 season. He was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he appeared in just 2 games at the team’s AAA team in Charleston, W.V. He was placed on the disabled list and sent to Pittsburgh for surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow. He never appeared in another game.

In his 6-year career, Hilgendorf had a 19-14 record in 184 games, with 14 saves and a 3.04 ERA. He had 173 strikeouts in 313-2/3 innings and walked 127 batters. His career ERA+ is 124, and he was worth 4.1 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. He had a 1.91 ERA at Veterans Stadium, one of the best marks ever recorded at that ballpark. He also won 77 games in 12 seasons of the minor leagues and hit 9 home runs, too.

In his post-baseball career, Hilgendorf worked as a carpenter. He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Janice, seven children and many grandchildren.

For more information: Snell Zornig Funeral Home

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