Season Opener

No reason to wait until April for the baseball season to begin.

Tune in 10 a.m. Tuesday, January 12 to Daytime Tricities on WJHL-TV, Johnson City, Tennessee, to see Dave Hillman, aka Mr. Automatic, and author Gaylon White discuss the 1956 Los Angeles of the old Pacific Coast League, the inspiration for the book, The Bilko Athletic Club.

Dave Hillman at his home in Kingsport, Tennessee. Photo by Alan Lee

Dave Hillman at his home in Kingsport, Tennessee. Photo by Alan Lee

Dave earned the nickname Mr. Automatic in 1956 when he won 21 games for the Angels despite missing the first six weeks of the season because of a sore arm.

Pitching for the for the Coeburn Blues in the Lonesome Pine League in 1948-49, Dave was dubbed “Fireball” as scouts came to see if he was as fast as his nickname.

Tim Murchison, a scout for the Chicago Cubs, was in the stands for a Saturday night game in St. Paul, Virginia. He sat next to Dave’s parents.

“I was firing away,” Dave recalled. “They didn’t have big catcher’s mitts in those days – just small ones with very little padding. Every time I threw a fast ball, the catcher backed up. And, then, the umpire kept backing up.”

After the game, Murchison told Dave’s mother: “I’m going to sign that boy if it takes everything I got.”

Dave signed with the 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 end of the 1956 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.

Ironically, few people know Hillman by his real name – Darius Dutton. Dave is a nickname given to him by his boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, in their hometown of Dungannon, tucked in the Appalachian foothills of southwest Virginia near the Tennessee border.

Darius was born September 14, 1927 – the fifth of Carmel and Ollie Hillman’s seven children. Carmel was a carpenter for the Clinchfield Railroad, now CSX, which runs through Dungannon to the coal mines in the area.

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.”

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.

Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic in 1956.

Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic in 1956.

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 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 Blackwell. “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 wasn’t much bigger (160 pounds) when he pitched for the Angels in 1956. “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.

John S. Blackwell is buried at the Fincastle Cemetery near Dungannon, Virginia.

John S. Blackwell is buried at the Fincastle Cemetery near Dungannon, Virginia.

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 was known 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.

Dave flashes the ring the ’56 Angels received for winning the PCL championship.

Dave flashes the ring the ’56 Angels received for winning the PCL championship.

“They let us out of school,” Dave recalled. “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 wound up pitching in the majors for the Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Redlegs and New York Mets. He retired from baseball in 1962, returning to Kingsport where he has lived ever since.

 

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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 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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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