Monthly Archives: March 2014

Cartoonist’s Delight

Barrel-shaped and strong as an ox, Steve Bilko was right out of the comic strips.

When Bilko broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals, he was tagged “Humphrey” after the mountainous blacksmith and sparring partner of boxer Joe Palooka in the popular comic strip of the 1940s and 1950s.Blockbuster Bilko_Jack Manning

After slugging 37 homers his first year in Los Angeles in 1955, Bilko was being called “Stout Steve” and “Sgt. Bilko,” a nickname inspired by the conniving sergeant played by actor Phil Silvers in the hit television series “You’ll Never Get Rich.”

Bilko’s 55 round-trippers in 1956 made him a favorite subject of L.A. cartoonists Karl Hubenthal and Jack Manning.

In a Los Angeles Examiner cartoon titled “Sgt. of Swat” by Hubenthal, shows Bilko about to belt a baseball with a player hanging onto it.

“Why don’t you duck?” the player asks.

“Duck?” the ball says to the player. “I’d like to hide…at least you get a nice hot shower. All I get is a long ride and asphalt bruises.”

Manning begins a Bilko cartoon in the Los Angeles Herald-Express with “B is for Blockbluster.” A pitcher is shown ducking a mighty Bilko swing and observing, “Far better I should pitch this guy from a tank.”

That pretty much summed up the way pitchers felt about Bilko.

Sacramento’s Roger Osenbaugh pitched sidearm to Bilko so he wouldn’t crowd the plate.  After doing this in one game, Osenbaugh was enjoying a beer at a restaurant bar. “I was standing up and the next thing I knew somebody had come up behind me and lifted me up in the air so that my feet were off the ground by a few inches – lifted me up in the air.”

The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Osenbaugh had no idea who it was but he knew it was someone like Humphrey Pennyworth, capable of swinging a 100-pound sledgehammer.

“Your first reaction is what in the world is going on?” Osenbaugh said.

He was able to swivel his head and see Bilko, standing next to George Freese, the Angels’ third baseman and Steve’s roommate in ’56. “The next time you sidearm me, I’m going to come right through the box with it,” Steve said, grinning.

Osenbaugh got the message. “Pitchers were certainly aware of the fact that Bilko was up there and that he could come through the box with a line drive that could do you some serious harm,” he explained.

The incident didn’t change the way Osenbaugh pitched Bilko but it reminded him to be ready to duck on the mound and stay away from bars when Bilko was around.

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Remembering Uncle Bob

“Death steals everything except our stories,” Jim Harrison writes in the poem, Larson’s Holstein Bull.

I’m reminded of this every time someone I know dies.

Uncle Bob was all about family as exemplified by this photo taken in the late 1980s at Minneapolis’ Metrodome. He is flanked by his wife, Joann, left, holding one of their grandchildren, and Mary White, the author’s wife. Son Sean is seated below in the “Love God, Hate Sin” t-shirt.
Uncle Bob was all about family as exemplified by this photo taken in the late 1980s at Minneapolis’ Metrodome. He is flanked by his wife, Joann, left, holding one of their grandchildren, and Mary White, the author’s wife. Son Sean is seated below in the “Love God, Hate Sin” t-shirt.

On Sunday, March 23, my sister’s husband of 50 years, Robert Earl Keith, died. He was 72. Everybody in our family called him Uncle Bob because it fit him to a tee. “Uncle Bob was a riot,” our oldest son, Shane, said on learning of his death. “I always enjoyed my time with him.”

Shane recalled playing video games with Uncle Bob, eating ice cream, decorating Easter eggs and all of his jokes. “He taught me that a small jewelry box with a cotton liner, and a hole cut in the bottom, combined with a small amount of ketchup, can make for a rather convincing severed finger ‘found in the yard.’”

Uncle Bob sang like an angel, doing a heavenly rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at my wedding.  Shane remembered Uncle Bob singing the same song at his wedding even though the program called for “I Held You in My Arms Just Yesterday.”

“Uncle Bob informed me he didn’t know that song, but was willing to learn it quickly,” Shane said.

Shane was quickly advised by his wife-to-be that the program was wrong. “Uncle Bob, not missing a beat and with a big smile, told me he would be glad to slip in the words I had fabricated if I wanted him to, followed by a wink.  I told him to sing it ‘straight up’ and all would be well.  A little trickery in a wedding program always keeps bored guests on their feet.”

As it turns out, the song Uncle Bob performed at Shane’s wedding was “Sunrise, Sunset” from the movie, Fiddler on the Roof:

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly fly the years

One season following another

Laden with happiness and tears.

With tears in our eyes, we celebrate the wonderful stories Uncle Bob leaves behind.

Past Gives Meaning to the Present

Jack and Joe Hannah in concert. (Photo by author)
Jack and Joe Hannah in concert. (Photo by author)

Why should anybody care about a player, Steve Bilko, who has been dead since 1978 and a minor-league Los Angeles Angels team that played 58 years ago?

Brothers Joe and Jack Hannah along with Joe’s son, Lon, make up the Sons of the San Joaquin, honored eight times as the best traditional singing group by the Western Music Association. Jack has been selected best songwriter in the cowboy music category six times.

Jack was a promising pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves organization before he injured his throwing arm. Joe, a catcher for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, played 13 seasons in the minors.

“You play the game to make the major leagues,” Joe says, summing up the feelings of everyone who has played pro baseball.

Joe and Jack never made it to the majors. But they have wonderful memories of their years in the minors.

Mildred Joyce White, 93, with a copy of The Bilko Athletic Club. (Photo by author)
Mildred Joyce White, 93, with a copy of The Bilko Athletic Club. (Photo by author)

Jack put it elegantly in a letter to Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club: “What would life be if it weren’t for the remembrances? We have the future of which we know nothing, we have the present, which is so close and moving so swiftly by that we can’t make much of it, but the past is as clear as our memories will allow. It’s the memories of the past that convince me how important what I am doing is in the present.”

 

I read this quote to my mother when I gave her a copy of the book. Mom is 93. The past is much clearer in her mind than the present. She has only her memories of the past to give meaning to the present.

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

 

It’s Bilko Time!

Long before Rambo, there was Bilko. The names sound alike. They suggest raw power and brute strength. And they conjure up images of action and heroism. Rambo, of course, was a fictional character. Bilko’s name was used in a popular ‘50s TV show and later in a movie, Sgt. Bilko, but Steve Bilko, the baseball player, was the real deal, the stuff of legends.

bilko_litho10.indd

 

Stout Steve blasted baseballs to kingdom come. He drank copious amounts of beer without showing the effects. He was pals with actor John Wayne, but preferred staying home with his wife, Mary, and their three kids to watch Lawrence Welk and Roller Derby on TV.

He once sent a ball shooting into a large tree outside the ballpark like a lightning bolt, ripping off a branch with two youngsters sitting on it. Another Bilko homer smashed into a woman’s face, sending her to the hospital. Steve was at the woman’s side the next day, offering condolences and wishing a speedy recovery.

 

Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing anywhere from 230 to 300 pounds, Bilko was barely the legal drinking age of 21 when he was being compared to baseball greats Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Johnny Mize and even Babe Ruth.

He was only 24 in 1953 when he smacked 21 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals, his first full season in the majors.   He appeared to be on his way to the greatness predicted for him when, suddenly, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs where he languished on the bench the rest of the ’54 season.

Bilko ended up in Los Angeles, playing for the Angels in the old Pacific Coast League.  In 1956 he walloped 55 homers, becoming to L.A. what Mickey Mantle was to New York City.  Both were Triple Crown winners. But Bilko had three more homers and six triples to Mick’s five.

Bilko clouted 56 homers in 1957 to give him 148 in three seasons with the Angels. He played briefly for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958 and the major-league Angels in 1961-62. He was back in the minors in 1963, his last year in pro ball.

Like many kids growing up in L.A. at the time, I was in awe of Bilko and wondered why he didn’t go on to star in the majors as well. What happened?

fa_895_bilko50thhr970
Steve Bilko swats his 50th home run in this photo by Art Rogers from the Los Angeles Times archive.

I embarked on a life-long journey to find out. I spent an entire day with Bilko at his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, in 1976. I went on to interview more than 200 fans, umpires, sportswriters and players, including most of the players on the ‘56 Angels – the team nicknamed the “The Bilko Athletic Club” and the inspiration for this blog and the book by the same name.

 

The passage of time has failed to dim the memory of the Bilko legend.

Last May the Los Angeles Times featured a photo of Bilko belting his 50th homer of the ’56 season:   http://framework.latimes.com/2013/05/06/steve-bilkos-50th-home-run/

Another photo, taken in April 1962, shows a bored Bilko blowing bubbles as L.A. officials honor the ’62 Angels during ceremonies at City Hall.

Bilko blows bubbles during April 16, 1962, ceremonies at L.A. City Hall for the Angels. (Photo by John Malmin, Los Angeles Times)
Bilko blows bubbles during April 16, 1962, ceremonies at L.A. City Hall for the Angels. (Photo by John Malmin, Los Angeles Times)

Stout Steve made a habit of bursting pitcher’s bubbles.

“Steve hit bullets,” recalled Gale “Windy” Wade, the Angels’ centerfielder from 1955-57. “He didn’t hit those long, high floating fly balls. He wracked them.”

Wade can vividly remember Bilko’s routine in the clubhouse after a game. “The first thing he’d do is take off his shirt and sit there by his locker and drink at least two beers before taking a shower. Bilko could drink more beer than you could haul in a vehicle.”

That brings us back to Rambo and Bilko. Rambo time has come and gone. With the publication of The Bilko Athletic Club, it’s Bilko time!

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

‘Something Very, Very Special’

Bob Thorpe at San Diego High in 1952. (Courtesy Bob Borovicka
Bob Thorpe at San Diego High in 1952. (Courtesy Bob Borovicka

Tony Freitas was throwing a baseball for a living seven years before Bob Thorpe was born.  When they hooked up in Stockton, California, in 1953, the 45-year-old Freitas had more than 5,000 innings under his belt. The 18-year-old Thorpe was fresh out of San Diego High School and being touted as a future superstar.

In 1952, Thorpe paced San Diego High to the Southern California baseball title and San Diego’s Fighting Bob American Legion Junior team to the national championship finals where they lost to a Cincinnati, Ohio, team with another kid phenom – Dick Drott. The pair wound up pitching for the Los Angeles Angels in 1956.

On seeing Thorpe play in the Legion tournament, Sid Keener, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, wrote a letter raving: “The boy reminded me of Joe DiMaggio – build, arm, batting power.” He concluded: “If Thorpe is not another Bob Feller, then I will miss my forecast.”

Thorpe won 28 games in 1954 at Stockton. His manager, Gene Handley, was involved in the Chicago Cubs’ signing of Greg Maddux in 1984.

“He was the same type of pitcher as Maddux – not an overpowering fastball but effective because he set up the hitters with off-speed pitches,” Handley said. “He had an outstanding changeup. And that’s something for a young man coming out of high school.”

Despite a 7-7 record and 4.86 ERA, Thorpe impressed the Angels’ Dwight “Red” Adams, a veteran pitcher.  “Bob didn’t throw as hard as Drott, [Gene] Fodge or [Bob] Anderson.  But he threw good enough. He was a serious-minded guy on the mound and about his work.”

Thorpe was different from the Angels’ other kid pitchers.

He relied on finesse, not speed. “He was the ultimate pitcher even as young as he was,” Anderson said.

He didn’t say much, prompting teammates to call him “The Quiet Man.” “Bob particularly didn’t talk a whole lot about Bob,” said Bob Borovicka, a high school teammate and his closest friend.

And he tended to hang out with veterans like Adams. “He always got along with older ball players,” Borovicka said, “because there was never that me-me-me or I-I-I stuff with him.”

“Bob Thorpe had maturity built into him when he was born,” Anderson said.

Gene Leek faced Thorpe in high school before playing in the majors for the Indians and Los Angeles Angels. “I knew he was going to play pro ball. Everybody was talking about how he was going to make it big.  Even in high school, he was working the corners on you. He wasn’t trying to throw it down the middle. He was pitching.”

The pitch that had everybody talking was Thorpe’s curveball.

“He had a downer – off the table type like Sandy Koufax,” said Leek.  “He came over the top with it. When you see a curveball like that, you go ‘Whoa!’  And he could get it over. He pinpointed that thing.”

Tony Freitas won  348 games in 22 minor-league seasons.
Tony Freitas won 348 games in 22 minor-league seasons.

A 6-foot-1, 170-pounder, Thorpe was signed by Cubs scout Jack Fournier and sent to Stockton in the Class C California League. “The kid won’t impress you right away,” Fournier said. “He isn’t unusually fast and they’ll get hits off him. But he’ll be rough with men on base. He’s got the poise of a big leaguer now.”

When Thorpe joined Stockton in ‘53, the player-manager was Freitas, called “the Bobby Shantz of the bush leagues” because at 5-foot-8, 165-pounds he resembled the pint-sized Shantz who won 119 games in his career, including 24 for the Philadelphia Athletics in ‘52. Freitas was considered by many the best minor-league pitcher of all time with 348 victories, tops among lefties. He pitched in the majors for the Athletics and Cincinnati Redlegs, once striking out Babe Ruth. He won 20 or more games six straight seasons for the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League.

The pairing of Freitas and Thorpe as teacher-pupil was perfect as Freitas was a so-called dinker, throwing lazy curves and changeups with impeccable control. Freitas helped Thorpe develop a changeup and how to move a hitter around in the batter’s box to set up pitches. “Put it in there close enough so that it looks good,” Tony advised Bob. “But, of course, make sure it isn’t.”

“Tony had a great influence on Bob,” Borovicka said.”Besides the nuances of pitching, he helped him develop a changeup that was his bread-and-butter because it allowed him to keep the hitters off-balance. Tony was the difference between Bob being ordinary and something very, very special.”

Like any great teacher, Freitas set an example, posting a 22-7 record and 2.38 ERA. Thorpe had a 16-8 mark and 3.52 ERA.

Handley replaced Freitas as Stockton’s manager in ‘54 – the spectacular season that propelled Thorpe into the national limelight.

Thorpe had Freitas-like numbers: a 28-4 won-loss record; 2.28 ERA; 197 strikeouts and only 94 walks in 300 innings. Even more amazing, he finished 33 of the 34 games he started.

horpe was the first player in Cubs history to jump from Class C to the majors. (George Brace photo
Thorpe was the first player in Cubs history to jump from Class C to the majors. (George Brace photo)

“He had no real weakness whatsoever,” Handley said. “He could do it all. He was a crafty pitcher. I didn’t have a pinch-hitter who was any better than him so I’d let him stay in the game. He was a good fielder, ran the bases well, just an all-round good athlete.”

In the letter he wrote comparing Thorpe with DiMaggio and Feller, the Hall of Fame’s Keener noted: “If I had my say about the boy, I’d put him in the outfield. He swishes line drives over the infield and long drives past the outfield.”

In 1955, the Cubs were counting on Thorpe to become the first player in franchise history to jump from Class C to the majors. “Watching him on the mound, you would think he was a 30-year-old veteran major league pitcher instead of just a 20-year-old kid with only two years’ experience in a Class C League,” Cubs manager Stan Hack said, adding: “But it’s a long haul from Class C to the majors.”

Hack decided Thorpe was up to the task. “He has looked very good and right now I’d say he could win in our league. At least I’ll start him in selected spots and we’ll find out.”

“It is not yet a foregone conclusion that Bobby will be a winner, nor even that he will remain with the Cubs, but it may be taken as fact that he will one day be a topflight pitcher” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

A crowd of 19,504 watched as Bob took the mound for the Cubs at Wrigley Field to face the Chicago White Sox in the final game of the exhibition season. “I may be making a mistake sending him against the Sox at this stage,” Hack said. “But I think he’s the kind of a kid who can take the assignment in stride.”

The Cubs had high hopes for Thorpe after he won 28 games for Stockton in Class C.
The Cubs had high hopes for Thorpe after he won 28 games for Stockton in Class C.

Thorpe struck out the side in the first inning, but not before the Sox loaded the bases with a hit and two walks. In the second, the Sox scored four runs on two walks and three hits, including a bases-loaded triple. In two innings, Bob struck out four, walked five and gave up four runs on four hits. “The ordeal of making his first pitching effort in a big league park before the biggest baseball crowd he had ever seen was too much for the twenty-year-old Thorpe,” sportswriter John Hoffman wrote in the Sun-Times.

The Sox ordeal made Hack reluctant to use Thorpe during the regular season. Bob pitched a total of three innings in two games, both in relief and the Cubs far behind. He allowed four hits and one earned run.

Thorpe never pitched in the majors again. The Cubs shipped him to Des Moines in the Class A Western League where he finished the year with a 10-10 record and 3.65 ERA.

He started the ’56 season with the Cubs but didn’t get into a game. With the Angels, he appeared in 29 games, completing six of the20 games he started. In 156 innings, he struck out 72 and walked 60.  He led all pitchers with a respectable .274 batting average.

In three of Thorpe’s losses, the Angels scored a total of three runs. “Thorpe had a lot of bad luck,” said Dave Hillman, the ace of the L.A. pitching staff with 21 wins.

:  L-R, Thorpe, Cub manager Stan Hack and star pitcher Bob Rush chat at spring training in 1955. (Author’s collection)
L-R, Thorpe, Cub manager Stan Hack and star pitcher Bob Rush chat at spring training in 1955. (Author’s collection)

That bad luck continued for the rest of Thorpe’s career.

In 1957, he was 7-15 with a 4.05 ERA for the last-place Portland Beavers. This was good enough for the Pittsburgh Pirates to draft him for 1958 but he missed the entire season because of an operation to remove bone chips in his throwing arm.  In 1959, he attempted a comeback with Columbus, Georgia, in the South Atlantic League.

“The Pirates had high hopes for him,” Borovicka said.

Thorpe visited Borovicka before leaving for spring training. “He told me his arm felt good. It was strong again. He thought everything was going to be OK.”

Bob pitched in three games before retiring and heading home to San Diego to work as an apprentice electrician for his father-in-law, Bill Frank. “If you don’t make it in baseball, you can take over my company when I retire,” Bob was told.

By 1960, Bob had worked off-and-on as an electrician for six years. He was close to qualifying for journeyman status.

Les Cassie, Bob’s San Diego High baseball coach, got a call from a newspaper reporter the morning of March 17, 1960. “I’ll never forget that day,” Cassie said.

“Les, you’d better sit down,” the reporter said

And, then, the reporter described what happened.

Bob was electrocuted while splicing a high-powered electric cable. He instinctively jumped back as the power hit his palm and his elbow grounded against a metal transformer box. The force of the current burned his fingerprints into the metal base of the awl he was using to apply insulating fluid.

“In those days, they did it hot,” Borovicka said. “Now, they don’t.  They turn off the power.”

“One of the nicest young men I ever had a chance to coach,” Cassie said. “He gave me 110 percent every day.”

Thorpe and Borovicka, often called “The Two Bobbies,” were a combined 29-2 the year San Diego High won the championship.

“The Two Bobbies were great pitchers,” said Bill Adams, a teammate.

“They were together all the time,” said Cassie.

Thorpe was 25 when he died, leaving his widow, Barise, with two sons, Robert, seven, and Billy, three. A third son, Barry, was born two weeks after Bob died.

Borovicka eventually married Barise and raised his friend’s three boys. They refer to Thorpe as “Father” and Borovicka as “Dad.”

“I tried my best to raise them the way he would’ve raised them,” Borovicka said. “I think he would be pleased with the job I did, although it’s probably not as good as he would’ve done if he had lived.”

Borovicka will always wonder what might’ve been “had Bob not hurt his arm.”

Bob would’ve been on the mound at Chicago’s Wrigley Field pitching for the Cubs instead of working as an electrician. “Things might’ve been different,” Borovicka said. “There’s just no way of knowing what he would’ve done.”

But one thing Borovicka knows for sure is that his best buddy was “something very, very special.”

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

The Slim Virginian

Dave Hillman was the ace of the Los Angeles Angels pitching staff in 1956 with 21 wins but so little was written about him that most people didn’t know his real name was Darius Dutton.

Dave was a nickname given to Hillman by his boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, in their hometown of Dungannon, tucked in the Appalachian foothills of southwest Virginia near the Tennessee border.

About 400 people lived in Dungannon while Hillman was growing up. Everybody knew each other because, in many cases, they were related. John and Dave, for example, were distant cousins. “My grandmother was a Blackwell,” he says.Dave Hillman_ChiCubs

One day Dave Macon, a banjo player in the Grand Ol’ Opry, came to town to perform at the local school.  While picking and singing, Macon flipped his banjo in the air, caught it and continued playing without a break in the music.

John was a jovial guy with a hee-haw type of laugh that filled the school auditorium.  “I was sitting behind him and laughed until I cried. The next day he started calling me Uncle Dave Macon. As the years went by he cut it down to Uncle Dave. And then it became Dave.”

John was 16 years older than Dave. He left Dungannon briefly in the early 1930s to pitch professionally for a team in Richmond, Virginia, before returning to operate his father’s grocery store and play baseball on weekends in the semipro Lonesome Pine League. Dave was only five the first time he saw John pitch but he remembers it well: “He had the darnedest curveball of any human being I had ever seen in my life. And he could throw hard.”

Dave was a scrawny nine-year-old when he started playing catch with his hero. “He’d monkey around throwing the ball. He could throw a knuckleball, curveball and everything else. We played burn-out.”

On graduating from high school, Dave weighed only 138 pounds. He was a slender 160 when he pitched for the Angels in ‘56. “I didn’t do like a lot of kids and throw with my arm; I used my legs to leverage my weight. And I figured out what I had to do to get more spin on the ball.”

There was no baseball team or coaches at Dave’s high school. All he had to go on was what he learned from playing catch with Blackwell. “It stuck with me all my life.”

At 8:30 the morning of February 14, 1939, Dave, then 11, was sitting in class at school when his teacher, Carrie Addington, received news that her brother, John Blackwell, was dead after a shootout with a deputy sheriff at Dungannon’s Poplar Cabin Filling Station.

As this 2010 photo attests, not much is happening these days in Hillman’s hometown of Dungannon, Virginia. (Author’s photo)
As this 2010 photo attests, not much is happening these days in Hillman’s hometown of Dungannon, Virginia. (Author’s photo)

John was a free spirit, who liked to drive his truck through the streets after a big rain storm, splashing water everywhere. He carried a pistol and tended to be trigger happy. The day before the gun battle, he shot out Dungannon’s new street lights for the fun of it.

Word spread quickly that Ben Sluss, a deputy sheriff, was going to arrest John for vandalism.

John was sitting behind the counter as Sluss crossed the street to enter the service station. John removed a pistol from his pocket and placed it on top of a nearby safe. He thought Sluss was coming to take him to jail.

Sluss actually was on his way to deliver money John had asked him to collect on bad checks he had been given.

“How are you, John?” Sluss inquired.

“All right,” replied John.

When Sluss reached in his pocket for the money, John grabbed his pistol and started shooting.  Sluss was struck by three bullets but somehow fired back after falling to the floor. John was killed by a bullet to the head. Sluss died the next day from his gunshot wounds.

Hillman’s boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, is buried with other family members at the Fincastle Church and Cemetery near Dungannon, Virginia. (Author’s photo)
Hillman’s boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, is buried with other family members at the Fincastle Church and Cemetery near Dungannon, Virginia. (Author’s photo)

“They let us out of school,” Dave recalls. “I went to the filling station where he was shot. The filling station was next to the barber shop. They put his body on the pool table in the barber shop. They had his shirt off. There was no blood but plenty of bullet holes. There was one through the shoulders, another in the chest. I was in shock because I loved the fellow. I thought a lot of him.”

Dave went on to pitch two years (1948-49) for the Coeburn Blues in the Lonesome Pine League – the same league Blackwell was pitching in when Dave was a kid. He soon was dubbed “Fireball” as scouts came to see if he was as fast as his nickname.

Dave signed with the Chicago Cubs in 1950, moved to nearby Kingsport, Tennessee, with his wife Imogene and their one-year-old daughter, Sharon, and began his climb up the pro baseball ladder.

By the time he got to L.A. in ‘56, he had a 20-win season (Rock Hill, South Carolina, 1951), two no-hitters and a 25-game stint with the Cubs under his belt. He also had a sore right shoulder.

He recovered to post a 21-7 won-loss record, 3.38 earned run average, and lead the Angels in innings pitched (210), complete games (15) and shutouts (three). “But for a sore arm that kept him inactive for the first five weeks, Hillman would have, at the very least, 25 enemy scalps dangling from his belt right now,” one L.A. sportswriter offered near the end of the season.

Hillman was at his best against the league’s best, going undefeated (8-0) against the runner-up Seattle Rainiers and third-place Portland Beavers.

He was an amazing 11-2 at L.A.’s Wrigley Field, a hitter’s paradise that most pitchers wanted to avoid. “It made me a better pitcher. You don’t take unnecessary chances.  In a larger ballpark, you can make a mistake.  I was always aware that being in a small ballpark, I had to be real careful.”

“Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic,” said Dwight “Red” Adams, one of the Angels’ veteran pitchers. “He went out there time and time again and pitched you that good ball game.”

Hillman went on to pitch in the majors for the Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Redlegs and New York Mets. A career earned run average of 3.87 is a far better measure of Dave’s performance than a 21-37 won-loss record.

From mid-1958 through 1959, Dave’s last season with the Cubs, he was their most effective and consistent starting pitcher despite won-loss records of 4-8 and 8-11. In August 1958, the Sporting News reported: “Hillman, in many respects has been the Cubs’ most dependable pitcher, even though he had a 3-5 record. Four of his losses came in low-run games and had his teammates given him better batting support it is conceivable he would have a 7-1 or 8-1 mark.”

Hillman, right, shows Ernie Banks the knuckler he used to blank the Pittsburgh Pirates on two hits in a 1959 game for the Chicago Cubs. (Associated Press Wirephoto / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.)
Hillman, right, shows Ernie Banks the knuckler he used to blank the Pittsburgh Pirates on two hits in a 1959 game for the Chicago Cubs. (Associated Press Wirephoto / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.)

Pitching for the Red Sox in 1961, Dave knocked the Detroit Tigers out of first place with six and two-third innings of scoreless relief. He allowed only three hits, reminding Detroit manager Bob Scheffing of the ’56 season in L.A. “Dave won 21 games and we romped to the pennant,” he said after the game. “Dave is not an overpowering pitcher but he knows what he’s doing out there.”

By the end of the ‘56 season in Los Angeles, Dave had another nickname – “The Slim Virginian.”

A few years later, The Virginian, a tough ranch foreman played by actor James Drury, became a popular western television series. Nobody knew the real name of the foreman. He was known only as The Virginian.

Few people know Hillman by his real name – Darius Dutton. And virtually nobody in baseball knew of the impact Dave’s boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, had on his pitching career.

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

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