Thursday, September 30, 2010

#24 - John Hiller

This is my first blurry card which is too bad because it is a pretty interesting setting. Between the players in the dugout doing the Can-Can and the Wright Brothers airplane buzzing the stadium in the upper left, it is a pretty raucous place (it is actually Baltimore). This card also represents the first time a team has been repeated in the regular set. That's appropriate since this card's subject, John Hiller, made a lot of appearances himself in '73, leading the AL in games while also setting a new record with his 38 saves. And not only did those stats, which included that tiny ERA, get him fourth place in both AL Cy Young and MVP voting, it earned him Comeback Player of the Year. And to top everything off, he really pulled off a heroic act by rescuing a tot that had fallen into a motel swimming pool. All that just two years removed from an incident that nearly ended his pitching career - and his life.

John Hiller was a workhorse reliever - and sometime starter - for Detroit, for whom he played his whole career. He was signed in '63 out of the suburbs of Toronto, where he grew up playing ball as a respite from hockey. When he was signed he was playing local semi-pro ball and was introduced to Detroit by a scout in Buffalo. That year he won 14 in the rotation in A ball and then in '64 John went a combined 10-16 in Double A but with better ERA's at both levels. That fall he threw IL ball as a spot guy, a prelude to his '65 when he was all relief in Double A, lowering his ERA by another run to 2.53. He threw shutout ball in his late MLB debut that year. '66 was supposed to be his first MLB season but John got sick, went down to Triple A to rehab - again in the pen - and saw his ERA climb to 4.43 before another couple innings up top.Then in '67 he had a much better start to his Triple A season - 5-1 with a 3.00 ERA - as a spot guy before his final call-up early that summer.

Hiller came up to Detroit as part of a group of young pitchers that included Mike Marshall, another guy destined for some big relief numbers. John did his spot thing his rookie year and did quite well, throwing to complete game shutouts, saving three games, and walking only nine guys - which would be uncharacteristically low for him - in his 65 innings.'68 was more of the same as his starts doubled, he kept his ERA low despite a significant rise in walks, and he got to get a Series ring. In one game that year John threw nine shutout innings of relief. In '69 and '70, John moved to more of a set-up role, collecting seven saves over that time and adding a slider to his pitch rotation. He generally pitched well though his ERA spiked a bit that first year. Then came that miserable '71.

Hiller had a bit of a weight problem and despite the number listed on his card - which was his weight when he was a rookie - he was over 220 pounds by the end of 1970. In January of '71 he had three heart attacks in one day at age 28, which explains the fat gap in his stats. He spent the rest of the year recovering, which included some experimental intestinal surgery, which sounds like a precursor to gastric-bypass surgery. Anyway, John spent the rest of the year and early '72 doing his own rehab and re-signed with Detroit as a coach (the Tigers had cut him to free up room but it seems the understanding was he would be able to return if he chose so they did not go all Scrooge on him). By July John was ready to return, upped his contract to a player again, and tentatively started pitching again. While there were some rough spots - in August in the games in which he pitched, Detroit went 3-9, though John himself picked up a save and dropped his ERA by over a run - it was generally excellent work and the low ERA and three saves helped Detroit return to the post-season. After his big '73, John had a big follow-up and in '74 he set a record for relief wins with 17 - later tied by a guy coming up in the next couple cards - with another excellent ERA of 2.64 and 13 saves. '75 was going pretty well - 2-3 with 14 saves and a 2.17 ERA when a mid-July injury ended his season. '76 was another big year - 12-8/2.38 ERA/13 saves and a shutout in his only start - followed by a '77 in which John did the spot role again and his record and ERA took a bit of a hit. He had his last good year in '78, during which he was 9-4/2.34/15, followed by two mediocre years and a departure from the majors in 1980. When John retired he had 125 saves, then the fifth most in baseball history, and was also 87-76 with 13 complete games and three shutouts. In the post-season he went 1-0 with a 5.06 ERA in five games.

After playing Hiller worked for a bit as a pitching coach in the Detroit system, but a circulation problem in one of his legs made flying difficult and he returned to Michigan where he had a long run in the insurance business.

The back of the card shows a reliever at the top of his game and John is the fourth guy I have seen - along with Catfish Hunter, Mickey Lolich, and Dave May - whose '73 stats probably warranted at least a "5" card. His cartoon is another reference to sandlot baseball - although the first from Canada - which was a source of players in the '60's. Sandlot baseball was basically any grownup Babe Ruth League (for guys 18 and older) that was not affiliated with any full-time organized baseball organization. That first star bullet occurred in John's final game before his heart attack; pretty eerie.

For the separation gig, we go primarily through the NL:

1. Hiller and Nate Colbert '75 Tigers;
2. Colbert and Ivan Murrell '69 to '73 Padres;
3. Murrell and Craig Robinson '74 Braves.

This is the second time I have used Colbert. The guys that swithched leagues are handy for this exercise because Topps usually has an AL guy follow an NL one. We will see Nate later on.

1 comment:

  1. That's no plane buzzing the stadium--that's the end of the upper deck of the stadium itself. That's County Stadium in Milwaukee before they expanded its upper deck toward the foul poles in the '70s.