Obituary: Dave Hillman (1927-2022)

RIP to Dave Hillman, a pitcher from the 1950s and ’60s who suffered from poor support and freak injuries throughout his career. He also was the oldest living ex-Red and Ex-Met. He died on November 20 from natural causes at his assisted care facility in Kingsport, Tenn. He was 95 years old. Hillman pitched for the Chicago Cubs (1955-59), Boston Red Sox (1960-61), Cincinnati Reds (1962) and New York Mets (1962).

Darius Dutton Hillman was born in Dungannon, Va., on September 14, 1927. His father, W.C. Hillman, was a railroad foreman, and he and wife Ollie had six children. Darius, or “Dave” as he was called, graduated from Dungannon High School in 1945. He served in the Air Force for 21 months and then played semipro ball with Coeburn of the Lonesome Pine Baseball League before entering professional baseball in 1950. Per his SABR biography and the SABR Scouts Committee, Tim Murchison was the Cubs scout who signed him. Hillman spent two seasons with the Rock Hill (South Carolina) Chiefs of the Tri-State League, winning 14 games in 1950 and 20 games in ’51. He was named a Tri-State All-Star in 1951, and he threw a 7-inning perfect game against Greenville on May 28, winning the first game of a doubleheader 9-0. Later that August, he tied a league record with a 16-strikeout performance against the Spartanburg Peaches. Hillman led the league with 203 strikeouts that season.

Source: The Evening Herald (Rock Hill, S.C.), May 29, 1951. All other photos in this story courtesy of Gaylon White.

Though Hillman began his pro career later than most pitchers, thanks to his stint in the military, the Cubs did not see fit to rush him along, even after his 20-win season in 1951. He didn’t spend a whole season in Triple-A until 1953, when the 25-year-old right-hander pitched for the Springfield (Mass.) Cubs of the International League. He struggled there, with a 2-12 record and a 4.42 ERA while splitting time as a starter and a reliever. One of those wins, though, was a no-hitter against the Toronto Maple Leafs on August 10. Hillman bounced back to win 16 games with Beaumont in 1954, but the Cubs didn’t even invite him to spring training until 1955, when he was 27 years old.

“This I regard as my year,” he told the Kingsport Times-News in January of 1955. “The Chicago Cubs have purchased my contract and I will go to spring training with them. The outcome remains to be seen, but there is one thing for sure… I’ll be giving it all I have when I’m in there.”

Hillman made his major-league debut in the Cubs 15th game of the season, on April 30 against Brooklyn. He worked 2 innings and was welcomed to the majors by Jackie Robinson, who belted a 2-run home run off him in his first inning of work. Hillman worked a scoreless eighth inning, but the Cubs still lost 7-2. He gave up 2 more runs to the Phillies in his next outing and was sent to the minors when the rosters were reduced in early May. Hillman came back to the Cubs in June and spent the rest of the year with the team as a reliever. He made a handful of starts but didn’t make it past the fifth inning in any of them, and he ended the year with a 5.31 ERA in 25 games. He struck out 23 and walked 25 in 57-2/3 innings.

While it never showed up on an injury report, it could be that Hollywood had a little to do with Hillman’s struggles in 1955. A motion picture crew came to film the Cubs’ spring training, and Hillman was asked to do some pitching for the camera. The rookie agreed and pitched… and pitched… and pitched, even though it was just the third day of camp and his arm wasn’t in shape. As a result, Hillman ended up with a sore arm and wasn’t as effective as he could have been that year.

Dave Hillman with his Cubs teammate, Ernie Banks.

Hillman found himself back in the minor leagues in 1956, but he made the best of it, winning 21 games for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, being named to the PCL All-Star Team, and leading the Angels to the PCL pennant. He won that many games even after missing six weeks with a sore arm at the start of the season. The Cubs gave him a couple of starts toward the end of the season when bonus baby Moe Drobowsky left the team to attend classes at Trinity College. Hillman pitched well, allowing 3 runs to the New York Giants on September 19 and 4 unearned runs to the Cardinals on September 25. The last-place Cubs lost both those games, so Hillman ended up with an 0-2 record, despite a 2.19 ERA. Fortunately for Hillman, it was the last season where he spent most of his time in the minor leagues. Aside from a few games with Portland in early 1957, he was a major-leaguer for the rest of his career.

Hillman found steady work with the Cubs as an innings-eating swingman in 1957 and ’58. Unfortunately, the Cubs were pretty terrible during this time, and he didn’t get many wins to show for his work. He had a 6-11 record in 1957 and a 4.35 ERA, but some bad luck was involved in that record. Hillman was knocked out of a game against Brooklyn on July 20 in the first inning when Gil Hodges hit a line drive off Hillman’s hand with 2 outs and a runner on base. Hillman had to leave the game, and reliever Don Kaiser promptly gave up hits to Sandy Amoros, Gino Cimoli and Randy Jackson to score 4 Dodger runs, 2 of which were charged to Hillman. He ended up with the loss as the Cubs fell 7-5. The Dodgers beat him again later that summer when he entered in the 12th inning of a 3-3 game. Hillman worked a scoreless 12th and 13th inning and almost got out of the 14th when Cubs second baseman Jack Littrell and right fielder Walt Moryn collided while trying to chase down a Jim Gilliam pop fly. What should have been the third out turned into a bloop single, and Elmer Valo singled in the winning run one batter later.

It wasn’t all tough luck. Hillman won his first major-league game on June 25 when he held the Pirates to 1 run over 7-1/3 innings for a 5-3 win. He earned his first save with 2-1/3 scoreless innings against St. Louis on August 8, and he beat the Giants in his first complete game win on August 24. Hillman had an excellent 1958 season, in spite of the deceptive 4-8 record. He started 16 of his 31 games, and his 3.15 ERA was the best among the Cubs starting pitchers. Cubs manager Bob Scheffing didn’t give him a chance to start until July, and Hillman picked up complete game wins over the San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies in his first two starts. He also threw a 10-inning complete game win over the Giants on August 15, striking out 10 batters. He had a shutout until the bottom of the ninth inning, when Orlando Cepeda hit a game-tying home run. Hillman still got the win when catcher Cal Neeman homered off reliever Stu Miller in the top of the 10th inning. Lee Walls added an insurance run to make the final score 3-1.

Hillman had the busiest season of his career in 1959, when he started 24 of his 39 games and threw 191 innings. He had an 8-11 record, a 3.53 ERA and a 111 ERA+. He threw a career-best 4 complete games, recorded his only career shutout against Pittsburgh on May 6 and struck out 88 batters — also a career high. His 8th and final win was a complete game, 12-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 26. That loss, along with a Milwaukee Braves 3-2 win over Philadelphia, knocked the Dodgers into a first-place tie, and they had to beat the Braves twice in an additional series to reach the World Series, which they won over the “Go-Go” Chicago White Sox.

“I went out there, honey, and I’ll never forget the control that I had,” Hillman recalled to baseball historian and author Gaylon White about that last game against the Dodgers. “I could thread a damn needle with that ball. I was just sitting back and sh-o-o-o-m-m-m…throwing that thing in there.”

Prior to the 1959 season, trades had not been permitted between the American and National Leagues. A new rule created a 21-day window for interleague trades in the offseason, and the Cubs dealt Hillman and infielder Jim Marshall to Boston for first baseman Dick Gernert. It was reported to be the first interleague deal ever in baseball, though some sources say that the trade of Cincinnati Reds reliever Tom Acker for Kansas City A’s catcher Frank House was made official first. Hillman was eager to go to the Red Sox and shake off the “hard luck” label that had haunted his career. His time with the Cubs was marked by offenses that couldn’t score for him, relievers that couldn’t protect leads and managers who didn’t use him consistently in the starting role. “Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not sore at the Cub organization or anybody in it. But I definitely feel I could have done a lot better if I’d been given half a chance,” Hillman said. “I believe I could have won at least twice as many games by pitching every four days.”

Hillman’s first season with the Red Sox was derailed by freak injuries that reduced his playing time and almost ended his career… or worse. He and outfielder Marty Keough had been granted permission to travel to Mesa, Arizona, during spring training to visit some the pitcher’s former Cubs teammates. On their drive back to the Red Sox camp in Scottsdale, their car hit a soft shoulder and rolled four times. Keough was thrown from the car and badly bruised his back. Hillman got the worst of it and suffered a cut on his head that needed seven stitches to close. He also wrenched his shoulder, and initial reports feared that the injury might be career-ending. He made his way back to the mound, though his only work for the Red Sox over the first few weeks of the season was a scoreless 3-inning relief performance against the Yankees on April 21. He didn’t pitch regularly until late May and was hit hard all throughout June. He showed signs of regaining his form with 4 scoreless innings over two outings in early July. Then, Hillman tried to bunt against Baltimore’s Hoyt Wilhelm on July 4 and was hit on the hand, ripping off a fingernail on his throwing hand. He made just one more appearance after that injury and allowed 3 runs on 4 hits to the Orioles over 1-1/3 innings on September 27, raising his ERA to 5.65 in 16 appearances. He lost his only 3 decisions.

After two devastating injuries in 1960, Hillman came back to have a fine season as a reliever in 1961. He won his first American League game on April 27 with 6-2/3 scoreless innings against Detroit in relief of Ike Delock. Hillman worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the third and held the Tigers scoreless for the rest of the game. Vic Wertz and Russ Nixon homered to give the Red Sox the 5-2 win and Hillman his first victory since 1959. He ended up with an above-.500 win-loss record for the only time in his career, winning 3 games against 2 defeats. His ERA was 2.77 in 28 games, all of which were in relief, save one. He made his only start against Detroit on August 19, and he cruised along with a 1-0 lead until the eighth inning. The Tigers’ Chico Fernandez singled, Mike Roarke bunted him to second base and opposing pitcher Don Mossi drove in the tying run with a single. Hillman struck out Jake Wood, and then Bill Bruton hit a line drive back to the pitcher, breaking Hillman’s thumb. For a second straight season, an injury to his pitching hand brought his season to an early end. Boston lost the game 3-2, but at least Hillman didn’t get saddled with the loss.

The Red Sox sold Hillman’s contract to the Cincinnati Reds in October of 1961, but the broken thumb made it more difficult to throw his curveball. The pitcher, now 34, started the 1962 season in the Reds bullpen and gave up 4 runs in 3-2/3 innings in 2 appearances. He was sent to Syracuse but had barely arrived when his contract was purchased by the New York Mets. The Mets, who had gotten off to a terrible start in the franchise’s first season, tried to reconfigure their roster and bring any potential major-league talent they could find. In short order, the team added Hillman and catchers Harry Chiti and Sammy Taylor. Hillman made his Mets debut on April 28 against Philadelphia and gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Don Demeter. He threw scoreless outings in each of his next three relief appearances, but a series of poor performances in late May saw his ERA rise above 9. Hillman was a much improved pitcher in June, allowing just 1 run over 6 innings. However, the Mets still sent him back to Syracuse at the end of the month. Given the choice of returning to the minor leagues or retiring, Hillman chose to quit baseball and more onto the next phase of his life.

“I have spent all my life in baseball and naturally I hate to give it up,” he said on June 28, 1962. “I just decided that now is the time for me to start thinking of something other than baseball — the clothing business in particular.” During his offseasons, Hillman had worked at the Fuller and Hillman clothing store in Kingsport, which was owned by an uncle, and he decided to make it his new career. He never looked back at his decision, and he never regretted his career, hard luck and all. “Baesball gave more to me than I gave to baseball,” he said in 1980. “I’ve gotten to know people here in Kingsport that recognized me from my baseball career that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. It was the greatest experience of my life.”

Dave Hillman, right, with author Gaylon White. Hillman was featured in a couple of White’s books.

Hillman pitched in parts of 8 seasons in the majors. In 188 games, including 64 starts, he had a 21-37 record and a 3.87 ERA. He threw 8 complete games, including 1 shutout, and he earned 3 saves. He struck out 296 batters in 624 innings and had a 1.321 WHIP. Baseball Reference credits him with 5.9 Wins Above Replacement, and his career ERA+ is 103.

Hillman married his wife, Imogene in 1947. They were together until her death in 2011. The Hillmans had two children, Rob, who died in 2017, and Sharon, who survives him. Imogene wasn’t in love with the idea of being a baseball widow, but she supported her husband throughout his career. “Dave always told the children and me that his ambition was to reach the major leagues and stay there a while,” she said in a 1968 interview. “His favorite saying has always been, ‘Set your goals, and don’t settle for anything until you’ve reached them.’ I admire this quality in him more than almost any other.”

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