Obituary: Don Dillard (1937-2022)

RIP to Don Dillard, who was an outfielder and pinch-hitting specialist for six seasons in the late 1950s and ’60s. He died on his 85th birthday in Greenwood, S.C., on January 8. He was a resident of Orchard Park, S.C., and died at Hospice & Palliative Care of the Piedmont. Dillard played for the Cleveland Indians (1959-62) and Milwaukee Braves (1963, 1965).

David Donald Dillard was born in Greenville, S.C., on January 8, 1937. According to an interview on Historic Baseball, he started playing baseball in high school in Taylors, a town in Greenville County where his family moved when he was young. In his three seasons as a starter, the lowest he hit was .577. He also played in Greer American Legion Ball and in the textile leagues — not unlike another outfielder who preceded him by a few decades, Joe Jackson — with Victor Mill. Dillard, a lefthanded hitter, led Paris to a 13-8 win over Mountain View in the 1954 Greenville County League baseball championship. Not only did he hit for the cycle, but he hit two 3-run homers in the game.

Dillard graduated from Taylors High School in 1955. Considered one of the best prospects to come from the Piedmont region in many years, he triggered a bidding war among several pro teams. He eventually signed with the Cleveland Indians. Local scout Jimmy Gruzdis and chief scout Red Ruffing had watched many of Dillard’s high school and semipro games and brought him into the fold with a $4,000 bonus. Dillard didn’t hit much when he reported to the Class-D Vidalia Indians, batting .246 in 27 games to close out the 1955 season. However, his 1956 campaign with the Daytona Beach Islanders of the Florida State League was fantastic. He slashed .375/.418/.555, with 17 triples, 10 home runs, 127 RBIs and 87 runs scored. Incredibly, he did not win the batting title, because Felipe Alou of the Cocoa Indians batted .380, but it was a remarkable season for someone in just his second pro year. He even drove in the winning run of the Florida State League All-Star Game with a ninth-inning single off Julio Navarro.

“It didn’t take me long to change my hitting style,” Dillard confided to his hometown Greenville News. “I had been getting a lot of fly balls but before long I was beginning to tag most of the pitches on the line, which is what they want.”

Dillard, still just 20 in 1957, didn’t leap up the Cleveland depth chart after one breakout season. He was also bothered by injuries in ’57 that limited his playing time. A great winter ball campaign in Colombia in the 1957-58 offseason put him back on track, though. While playing for Vanytor, he homered 6 times in his first 19 games, and his walkoff 3-run homer against Barranquilla caused delirious fans to carry him off the field on their shoulders.

Dillard moved up to Mobile of the Southern Association in 1958 and hit .319 with 21 home runs. When 1959 rolled around, Cleveland added him to their Opening Day roster. However, there wasn’t much of a opportunity to play, as the team’s outfielders included Minnie Minoso, Jim Piersall, Tito Francona and Rocky Colavito. Dillard was given a total of 10 pinch-hit at-bats — 6 in April and May and 4 in September. He got 4 hits in those at-bats, including an RBI single on May 9 off Chicago White Sox pitcher Ray Moore. for his first major-league hit. The rest of the time, he played in Triple-A San Diego and batted .283. It was much the same story in 1960 — Dillard had 1 hit in 8 plate appearances for Cleveland at the early part of the season and spent the rest of the year back in the minors.

Dillard was 24 years old when he finally got a chance to stick with Cleveland for the entire 1961 season. Though Minoso and Colavito had been traded away, Cleveland still had a trio of quality outfielders in Francona, Piersall and Willie Kirkland. Dillard spelled all three of them, but most of his work came as a pinch-hitter. He was great in the role, batting over .400 with 2 home runs. Dillard broke up a no-hitter by Minnesota’s Al Schroll with a pinch-single to lead off the ninth inning on September 27. He didn’t hit quite as well as a starter, but he still ended the season with a .272/.340/.449 slash line, with 7 homers and 17 RBIs.

Cleveland started off hot in 1962 and spent most of the first half in first place. After stumbling a little and falling into third, the team went on a 6-game winning streak from July 2-7 and moved back on top in the AL. The offensive hero of that streak was Dillard. He had spent most of the first part of the season coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter, and his batting average was below .200. He came into the first game of a July 4 doubleheader, with the score tied at 2, in the tenth inning. He flew out in his first at-bat and then came up again in the bottom of the 13th inning. Chuck Essegian, Woodie Held and Jerry Kindall were all on base after a single, walk and fielders choice bunt, respectively. Dillard belted a walk-off grand slam against Detroit reliever Jerry Casale to make the final score 6-2. The very next day, Dillard did it again, coming off the bench in the fifth inning and hitting a solo homer in the bottom of the ninth against Ron Kline to give Cleveland a 7-6 win. He started the July 6 game against the White Sox and hit an RBI triple off Early Wynn in the first inning, leading the way to a 5-3 victory. On July 7, he homered again off Dean Stone as part of another 5-3 Cleveland win. Dillard got another couple of starts after that streak, but he was benched after his first 0-for game. Cleveland fell all the way to sixth place, and Dillard finished the year with a .230 batting average in a career-high 95 games.

Dillard had played in Toronto in 1960, and the biggest win of his life came when he shared an elevator ride with a native Canadian named Elma Fehr. After a couple more chance encounters, they began dating and eventually married. In the offseason, Dillard and Elma operated the Dillard Fish Camp in Lake Greenwood, S.C. Back when he had first broken into professional ball, he and his father ran a trailer park there. By late 1962, the business had grown to three cabins, 10 boats and a fishing pier. “We like it here,” Dillard said. “When my playing days are over, I think I’ll make a resort area out of this place. Really fix it up nice.”

Source: The Montgomery Advertiser, May 19, 1967.

Cleveland traded Dillard, pitcher Frank Funk and a player to be named later (Ty Cline) to the Milwaukee Braves on November 27, 1962, in exchange for first baseman Joe Adcock and pitcher Jack Curtis. Dillard, who never understand why he was benched so quickly after his July home run binge, was glad for the change of scenery.

“I have to say that I was a little disappointed with the chances I got with the Cleveland club,” he said on the day of the trade, “and I’d have to say I’m happy about what has happened as of today.”

The Braves considered Dillard a sleeper pick and planned to give him an opportunity to play regularly. He was slowed by an infection and wasn’t able to do more than pinch-hit until May. He reached base in his first three at-bats with Milwaukee, on two walks and a single. When he was able to play every day, he hit well but was taken out of the lineup in early June so the Braves could start both Lee Maye and Mack Jones in the outfield. An 0-for-3 on June 5 lowered Dillard’s batting average to .260, and he started just three more games after that — one in late June and a couple against Chicago in late September. To make matters worse, he was drilled in the head with a line drive throw against the Dodgers on July 20. He was brought into the game as a pinch-runner for Joe Torre in the ninth inning, and when Mack Jones hit a grounder to shortstop, Maury Wills grabbed the ball and fired in the direction of first base. His throw hit Dillard just above the eye and rolled to reliever Ron Perranoski, who flipped the ball to second baseman Jim Gilliam, who tagged a prone Dillard for the final out of the game. Dillard was taken to a hospital in Milwaukee, and he needed seven stitches to close the gash over his right eye. He finished the season with a .235 batting average, in spite of some double vision that lingered after his injury.

Dillard was farmed out to Triple-A Toronto for all of 1964. He spent most of 1965 in the minors as well, except for a short time with the Braves as a pinch-hitter. He had 3 hits in 19 at-bats for a .158 average, and one of those hits came in a controversial game. Milwaukee played the Cardinals in St. Louis on August 18, 1965, and it was noteworthy because Hank Aaron lost a home run and Dillard gained one. With the game tied 3-3, Aaron hit a home run off Curt Simmons that sailed over the right field pavilion roof. However, he was ruled out by home plate umpire Chris Pelekoudas, who said that Aaron left the batter’s box before he hit the ball. Braves manager Bobby Bragan was ejected in the ensuing argument, and Aaron called it “the worst call I’ve ever seen.” In the ninth inning with the game still tied, Gene Oliver beat out an infield single, and pinch-hitter Dillard smacked a Ray Washburn pitch over the wall in right-center field. Maybe. The ball had bounced back onto the field, and the Cardinals protested that it had hit the fence and was still in play. Umpire Bill Jackowski ruled that the ball hit the top of the wall, bounced off a fan in the stands and back into the field, for a home run. The Braves win 5-3 to move temporarily into first place.

Don Dillard ran Dillard’s Lake Resort in Greenwood, S.C., for many years after his retirement. Source: The Greenville News, June 14, 1973.

After the season, the Braves traded Dillard to the New York Mets for catcher Chris Cannizzaro. He was then dealt to the Tigers, but neither team brought him back to the majors. He retired at the age of 30 after the 1967 season, when Detroit gave him a 1968 contract that was less than what he made the prior year. Dillard was frustratingly short of playing time in the majors — about two weeks — to qualify for a pension. He tried to get a coaching job from some of his minor-league teammates who had started their managing careers, like Sparky Anderson and Chuck Tanner, but nothing ever came of it.

Over parts of six seasons, Dillard had a slash line of .244/.292/.387. He appeared in 272 games and had 116 hits, including 16 doubles, 5 triples and 14 home runs. He drove in 47 runs and scored 59 times. He also had a .293 batting average in 10 seasons in the minor leagues.

Dillard said after his retirement that he looked forward to growing his fishing camp business. “I’d rather be at home now,” he said. “We have a boy who starts school next year and another one right behind him. Unless you can be in the big leagues, you can’t make enough money to make it worth being away from home.”

Dillard’s Lake Resort became a great success. Fisherman came looking for bass, catfish, bluegills and more, and Dillard was happy to share all his fishing tips with them or just sell them the supplies they needed. Families looking for a weekend getaway could boat, water-ski or just enjoy nature. He sold a portion of the resort in 1987. Later on, Dillard became a superintendent at a Baptist church in Greenwood, and he and his wife went on mission trips to Brazil and Honduras. Late in life, he gained a regional following for the wooden trellises that he made and sold to local nurseries. He also participated in baseball clinics for area youth, along with former Negro Leagues player Robert “Rosel” Williams.

Dillard was inducted into the Greenwood Athletics Club Hall of Fame in 1997. He remained grateful for his baseball career. “I look back on it, and I got to do what I always wanted to do,” he said in a 2004 interview in The State. “I got to play baseball for 13 years, met a girl in Toronto and am still with her 43 years later. So baseball was pretty good to me.”

Dillard is survived by his wife of 60 years, Elma, as well as sons Jeffrey, Robert and Charles.

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5 thoughts on “Obituary: Don Dillard (1937-2022)

  1. Thank you for sharing Don Dillard’s baseball and his life’s career.
    I met Don and his wife Elma at North Side Baptist Church. Elma asked me to join her Friendship Sunday School Class after my Sunday School teacher retired. We both attend the same Bible class.

    Liked by 1 person

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