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.

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