Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans’.
Baseball wouldn’t exist without comebacks.
They’re intrinsic to the game. Even the best of teams endure dozens of losing series on their way to titles. All Stars have to come back from countless bad innings. There isn’t a Hall of Famer alive that hasn’t come back from his share of severe slumps. Making a roster means knowing the bumps & bruises and stiffness & soreness involved in a 162-game season. In baseball, everyone battles, loses, slumps, and hurts - that’s unremarkable. Those who manage to overcome the adversity - they’re the remarkable ones.
It’s a game of comebacks, but perhaps no one has ever come back quite like John Frederick Hiller.
After a few token appearances in late 1965 and 1966, Hiller established himself as a fireballing lefty reliever during for the Tigers during their 1967 pennant race. He became a dependable bullpen presence over the next three years, putting up a 2.99 ERA while serving as Detroit's closer, middle reliever, and spot starter. All in all, he had the makings of an above-average, if not unforgettable, career. And then, in January 1971, at age 27, he had a severe heart attack.
It required months of hard conditioning and mental toughness for Hiller to come back to day-to-day normalcy, but even more work to return to the Major Leagues within a year and a half. And yet, return he did, and in absolutely stunning fashion - a man who couldn’t make a big league roster on Opening Day 1972 was a pen stable for the Tigers by the end of the season, and then a fourth-place finisher in the voting for the 1973 AL Cy Young Award. In the latter campaign, he actually beat out the likes of Rollie Fingers and Mike Marshall in being honored as 'Fireman of the Year'.
Against all odds, a heart attack victim not only came back from a potentially life-threatening condition, but came back far stronger than ever. By the time Hiller hung up his spikes in 1980, in fact, he’d strung up enough good years to earn places in the Tigers’ All-Century roster and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
In the years since his retirement John Hiller has served as a Minor League pitching instructor and worked in the insurance business, all while continuing a decades of commitment to heart-related charities and Tigers fantasy camps. Recently, John discussed one of the great comebacks of all time:
How did you get started in baseball?
Back in Toronto, we had modest means, but we had plenty of kids and games. I mean, in one block, we might have had 25, 30 kids, so we always had enough to play whatever was in season. We were hockey nuts, primarily, as you might expect, but we had organized summer teams for the Kiwanis Club.
I wasn’t much of spectator and I wasn’t much of a student of the game, either, to be honest. I just liked to run around and play. I got along because I was a lefty who threw strikes.
Were you considered much of a prospect?
Nah, the Major Leagues never entered my mind until I was 16 or 17 or so, when a scout asked me to try out at Toronto Maple Leafs Stadium. I remember old [manager] Charlie Dressen, he took a look and said, ‘son, I hope you haven’t thrown out your hockey skates’. (chuckles)
Still, I just loved playing and got better and better. One time, I struck out 22 guys in seven innings - I think one guy got on a wild pitch - and that got some more attention. A great old scout named Cy Williams, out of Buffalo, took a look at me for the Tigers.
Williams offered me $400 a month to play baseball. This was a time when I was finishing up 11th grade, making $10 a week bagging groceries. Wasn’t an especially hard decision. My bonus was a pair of shoes he had stashed in his car trunk.
The attitudes toward physical conditioning were different when you came up in 1965, 1966, 1967, especially when it came to pitchers. Can you talk about that?
Conditioning, working out, really wasn’t a big deal back then. No one exercised during the off-season - most everyone had a regular paying job back at their home town, and we’d round back into shape over a few weeks in Spring Training. Even in camp, Johnny Sain, our pitching coach on the Tigers, used to say ‘You can’t run the ball across the plate’. He focused on the mental game and mechanics, far more than strength. We drilled every day, but it was about getting movement on the ball rather than athleticism.
You know, I’d smoked from the time I was 13 years old. I don’t think anyone ever told me I shouldn’t smoke. Back in the ‘60’s, there were so many smokers on the team that it was just expected. I never drank until I played in [the Minors at] Jamestown, New York, and even then, it was just to be one of the guys. I hated Rum ‘n Cokes at first but it eventually just became part of the life. I’d go over to the bar, and I’d see 12, 13 teammates there, most of them drinking and smoking away.
I understand that led to your later heart issue, but so did weight problems.
When I was growing up, I could run like the devil - I was an outfielder when I didn’t pitch, because I had real good range. In the Major Leagues, though, I stopped running and started eating. It seemed like every time I worried about something I had another hamburger. I gained weight every year so, by 1971, I was up to 220 [lbs] on a 6’ frame.
I guess I was heavy, but you know, I was a Major Leaguer with a few years in. I figured I wasn’t any worse off than the average guy on the street.
What was it like when you had your heart attack in January 1971?
Incredibly painful, incredibly frightening.
I didn’t even know I was having a heart attack, first of all. A heart attack? I was 27 years old. I was sweating at an unbelievable rate, but the pain was more like lung pressure. When we called my local doctor and told him the symptoms, he didn’t think heart attack, either. He just said ‘come down to the hospital and we’ll see’.
Had you ever had medical problems before?
It was the first time I’d been in a hospital; I was in the coronary care unit for two weeks.
After they gave me some medication on that first day, I felt fine. I had no idea how sick I was, but then an internist showed me an x-ray with two blockages in the valves of my heart. That’s when I knew I was in some trouble.
What did the Tigers think?
They didn’t think anything, because I didn’t tell them anything. I had the heart attack on January 11th and I didn’t call [General Manager] Jim Campbell until about - I’m thinking - two days before I was supposed to report for pitchers and catchers [in February 1971]. At that point, [the doctors] were talking heart bypass surgery and I’d finally broken down.
I’ve gone over this story enough times to wonder my mentality at the time, and I really wasn’t thinking about baseball. I mostly thought of my wife and kids, and the fact that I had to play baseball to support them, to pay for our first home. At that point in my life, all I’d done were menial jobs and baseball, so it was, ‘How the hell am I going to take care of my family?’. You know? Don’t get me wrong, I had a love of the game, but I was thinking of survival, first and foremost.
What was your prognosis?
I’ll never forget the day a good man named Dr. Henry Buchwald walked into my hospital room and said he’d heard about the case. One of the first things out of his mouth were, ‘Do you want to return to baseball?’. I said, ‘Of course’. He said, if that was the case, he thought it would be difficult to get back to baseball after open-heart surgery.
The good news was that Dr. Buchwald had been doing experimental surgery on very obese people, where he’d bypass about one-third or more of the small intestine. Combined with a lot diet and exercise, he thought I’d have a good shot at a full physical recovery without an open-heart procedure. So, after talking it over with my family and other doctors, we decided to go with the intestinal bypass.
Were you optimistic about getting back to the game?
For a long, long time, that wouldn’t have made much sense. Put it this way - I was 220 [lbs] or so on the day of my heart attack, and the day I came back after the surgery, I was less than 150. It was a pretty miserable summer [in 1971] - it was all I could do to fight off infections and try to gain back some weight while clearing these blockages in my heart. My legs had atrophied, to the point where I couldn’t walk one hole of golf. Meanwhile, I wasn’t collecting one dime in paychecks.
It was November , I’ll never forget, when I had a big day. The test showed my cholesterol was way down and the blockages were almost completely gone. The doctors were ecstatic. They couldn’t believe it. That’s when I started thinking seriously about coming back.
What did the Tigers think?
(chuckles) Well, Jim Campbell didn’t sound too excited. He said, ‘Well, we’ll fly you up to Detroit and have the cardiologists take a look at you’. I went to Henry Ford [Hospital] in Detroit, and the Tigers’ doctors wouldn’t clear me to come back. They said “No”. The club did offer me a contract for a $7,500 a year, to be a Minor League instructor, starting in Spring Training [of 1972]. It was a comedown from $20,000 a year to play ball, but, like I said, I hadn’t had a paycheck for a year, so I took it.
I can’t blame them, honestly. In 1970, just before my heart attack, a member of the Detroit Lions, Chuck Hughes, had died on the ball field. How would it look if a Major Leaguer dropped dead?
So, going in, you had no roster spot or official help from the team? You were on your own?
As far as the Major Leagues were concerned, yeah (chuckles). [Over the winter of 1971-72] a couple of friends over in Minnesota gave me a job selling furniture, and every spare minute, I’d go over to the Y[MCA]. My bad history was catching up to me (chuckles), but I tried to make up for lost time - running, lifting [weights], stretching. It was three hours a day, every day.
Yeah, I didn’t have any promises or an instructor or even a set exercise program. From the first part of November to the first part of April, I just ran and ran and ran on that tiny basement track.
That was all to get back to what most of us would consider normal strength, but there was a whole matter of gaining back Major League pitching skills. What was it like throwing again after all that time away?
Try to picture a 165-lb. guy just doing his best to throw a racquetball against a wall at the Y back in Duluth - that was me. All I was trying to get back a little strength. I wasn’t worrying about movement on the ball or even location, for that matter. I just wanted to show up to Spring Training and prove that I could throw hard, and go from there.
Pete, here’s the strange thing - throwing a baseball was the easy part. I had lost all that upper body weight, but my arm felt good and loose from the get-go. I hated running and working out, but every time things got tough, I’d squint, look at the guy ahead of me on the track, and think about getting back on the mound at Tigers Stadium.
Anyway, by the time I actually got down to Florida [for Spring Training 1972], I was feeling pretty good. They designated me to a couple of Minor League squads and I through batting practice every chance I got, threw on the side, and worked on a change-up. Eventually, I was throwing harder and feeling better than ever.
Did you have stuff?
We didn’t have [speed] guns, but I’d guess I was tossing it at 90, 91 miles per hour. It wasn’t that great by Major League standards but my change-up, eventually, was way above average, and both helped my curve. And, from when I was a kid, I was a lefty who threw strikes.
What did the organization make of you?
I remember [manager] Billy Martin and [pitching coach] Art Fowler coming over one time when I was going good at batting practice, saying, ‘My God’. They couldn’t believe it, but, hey, I was throwing free and loose. My stomach was rock-hard, I was determined.
As for the front office, to them, I was just a Minor League instructor working for peanuts. Jim Campbell wouldn’t even let me throw in an official Spring Training game. [The team broke camp and] left me behind in Lakeland, to work with the A-League team.
Were you frustrated?
I was frustrated about the situation, but I was thinking mostly, ‘How am I going to live’? I was making $7,500 for the year and, between the mortgage and the creditors, there wasn’t much to go around. I remember, when the club headed north, I had $7 in my pocket.
Those weren’t easy times. The club let me sleep on a mattress in the clubhouse. I saved up my Minor League meal money, $5 a day, and tried to find discount meals. I’ll never forget - I’d go to a local restaurant and, when they weren’t looking, I’d try to take as many soda crackers as I could and save them up for lunch.
The good news was, I was too broke to smoke at all or drink hardly ever. The day I got out of the hospital, I remember, I found my last pack of cigarettes lying somewhere. I took a hammer and nailed them to the floor board of my house up in Minnesota. They may still be there today (chuckles).
Why didn’t you ask your old teammates for help?
When I told the guys about it later, they were pissed. At the time, I was too proud to ask, simple as that.
What did the front office make of your aspirations?
In, I want to say, May of ’72, I saw Jim Campbell down there in Lakeland and, the second I saw him, I knew, I just knew - he was there to cut me loose. Supposedly, he was there to check on the Minor Leaguers, but I just knew it, so I got up from the bleachers, walked straight up to him, and said, ‘Jim, if you’re here to release me, go home. I’m not letting you release me’. And I walked away.
Later he told me that he was there to take me off the Voluntarily Retired list and release me. He was a friend, I guess, and he just didn’t have the heart to do it. I suppose he knew I was working hard and there was still hope, physically.
Really, the saving grace in the situation came from my family. I admit, especially around that time with Campbell, I called them up in Minnesota and said, ‘It’s not working out’ and they said, ‘Keep working; don’t give up’.
Thank God there was a fine gentleman in my corner, Dr. Livingoode, who’s since passed away. He was the [Tigers] team physician and the number two at Henry Ford [Hospital], and he always thought I should have a chance to play. I remember, he took me for all these tests up in Atlanta and told me, ‘Trust me, give me some time; you will play again’. He ended up releasing a national statement that said, ‘John Hiller will have a heart attack if you keep him away from baseball before he’ll ever have one on the ball field’ (chuckles).
How did you end up back with the Tigers?
What helped was the fact that there were a couple of guys on the club, Fred Scherman and Les Cain, who were having arm troubles. They weren’t on the disabled list, but I guess Martin kept telling Campbell, ‘Get me Hiller; get me Hiller’.
Anyway, one way or the other, they gave me a call and told me to fly in to Chicago [in July]. They put me in a nice hotel room (chuckles) - I hadn’t been in a nice hotel room in a while - and brought me a contract. Campbell said, ‘We’ve got a contract for you, we want you to dress up and head out for the ball park tonight’. (chuckles) I was shaking.
What did they offer?
Oh, I looked at the contract - they cut me $3,000, [from $20,000 a year] to $17,000! (chuckles). Later on, they said, ‘Well, we didn’t know if you could play again’.
How many rehab assignments had you gone through at that point?
The only time I’d faced a batter in the previous - what? year and a half? - was Minor Leaguers in batting practice. They knew I had a live arm in my bullpen work, that’s it.
Why did it go like that? I guess Billy Martin was a great believer in the notion that, you call a guy up, that means he can play. Use him right off. Test him. He did that all the time.
What was it like to facing Major League hitters again after all that time?
Dick Allen was my first batter -
The same Dick Allen who was AL MVP that year.
Oh, he was a pretty good hitter every year (chuckles).
I threw him a fastball, he took it. I threw him a curveball, he took it. I remember him looking over at me, as if to say, ‘If that’s all you’ve got, give me more’. The next pitch I threw was a curve, and he almost hit it out of Comiskey Park - the ball hit the facade of the roof while traveling upwards. It must have put a big dent in it (chuckles).
I looked over at [catcher] Billy Freehan and he said, ‘Welcome back, kid’ (chuckles).
Anyway, I pitched two innings that night without walking a batter, and I felt good. The only bad thing was that I crossed up Bill [on the pitching signs] eight times.
What did Martin make of you?
Billy. It’s well known that Billy was a motivator. He’d say to the pitchers, ‘Hiller hasn’t thrown in a year and a half and he’s throwing strikes. You guys have been here every day, and you’re walking the ball park!’ (chuckles).
Things were going well, though, so much that Billy gave me a role as a short man for the first time in my career, and to him, that meant that you were coming in any time the team had the lead from the sixth [inning] on. There was a stretch in the following year where I pitched 13 games in 15 days.
It was a workload a 25-year old wouldn’t attempt today. Were you thinking about your arm or your basic health?
Call it ignorance, a hard head, or what (chuckles) - I never gave a thought about my health. I felt too damn good. Whenever I got beat up out there, hey, that was my day to get beat up.
After finally getting back to the Majors after all I’d been through, I wasn’t going to say a peep about how I was used or not used. I just wanted to play. Most of the time, after I got a call in the bullpen, I couldn’t get out there fast enough. I never refused the ball.
Well, the heart attack was even more of a mental ordeal than a physical one, but the upside was, it wasn’t too hard for me to remember it was only a ball game. I had a chance to make the best of it, so I gave it everything I had, no matter when and where.
There was another thing in that time - there was no arbitration or free agency. Everyone was playing year to year and the club could call you down to the Minors whenever they wanted. I had to do what I was told.
It wasn’t just that you were coming back from a serious heart attack - it was your position on the ball club. If I had to name the most stressful job on the field, it would be closer, because, by definition, you’re only playing when the ball game is on the line.
I was happy to be there, Pete, and besides, I believed, the more keyed up, the better I threw. I remember once, [one-time Braves manager] Eddie Mathews said that ‘I have no idea how he gets by on talent, but he has more guts than anyone I’ve seen on the mound’. I was so proud of that.
What did teammates make of your comeback?
Maybe athletes have changed since then, I don’t know, but our sense of humor was a little morbid. There was a lot of joking. Norm Cash said, ‘Give me the phone number for your next of kin, in case you grab your chest out there on the mound’ (chuckles).
It was probably a way for them to relax, I guess, but I think most, if not all of them, knew exactly where I was coming from. If they’d had a setback, they would have done their damnedest to come back, too, I believe. My teammates, most of them, were my friends.
Before your comeback, you were a good setup man with an ERA barely above 3.00, but when you came back you were even better. In 1972, your first year back, you had the best season of your career with a 2.03 ERA in 25 games. Then, in 1973, you put up what Bill James called the greatest season for any closer in Major League history.
The greatest season for any closer in Major League history, from a guy who couldn’t make it on to a staff less than a year before!
I’d learned my lesson, I can tell you, from before. Once things had gone my way in ’72, I never stopped working. Right away, I went back to selling furniture and working out at the Y in Duluth.
As for the ’73 season, what can I say? Everything really fell into place. It was the first year of the DH. Our best starters, Jim Perry and Joe Coleman, were good pitchers, but they weren’t nine-inning guys, so I had plenty of opportunities. The ball club was in the division race most of the season, so we needed every ball game. In Billy, I had a manager who believed in me, so I’d come in from the sixth inning on.
It got to be ridiculous, almost (chuckles). I remember once, he asked me to pitch to a batter and the next thing I know, it’s five innings later. Every day, it seemed, it was ‘Can you throw a couple innings?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah’. I told you about that streak of 13 games in 15 days, right?
When we go to about the 12th or 13th game, we were in Detroit. Billy says, [mock shout] ‘Stay in the clubhouse, don’t even come out’. Sure enough, later in the game he calls me in the clubhouse and says, ‘Do you think you could handle something?’. ‘Sure’. The next day, we’re in New York, and who’s on the phone. ‘You know what you’re doing today, don’t you?’. I said, ‘Pitching, probably’ (chuckles). He said, ‘No, you’re staying at the hotel this time’ (chuckles).
Billy was a character. Another true story - when things were going good back in ’73, the All-Star Game people wanted to honor me, even though I hadn’t been selected by [manager] Dick Williams [for the official American League team]. They were going to put me up, but they wouldn’t pay for air fare and I said, ‘I can’t afford to fly to Atlanta’. Martin said, ‘Ask Campbell’. But I didn’t want to ask Campbell or anyone else for money; that just wasn’t in my makeup.
The next weekend, I walk into the clubhouse and sitting there on the stool in front of my locker are these three $100 bills. I knew who put it there, so I march into Martin’s office and said ‘You shouldn’t have done that’. (chuckles) He says, ‘What?’. I said, ‘Put the money in my locker’. He says, [mock shouting] ‘I didn’t give you any money and don’t you tell anybody I gave you any money! Get your ass out of here!’ (chuckles). That was Billy.
Did you end up going to Atlanta?
My wife and I had a nice holiday.
You had another seven solid years after the Fireman of the Year season, until you retired for the second, and last, time in 1980. What was that like?
It was bittersweet. It was.
I was happy, my family was happy with my career. I was 38 years old, the oldest guy on the team and the last link to our ’68 Championship. We had a young club, with Sparky Anderson in as the new manager, and he wanted to clean house from the old establishment. I told Jim Campbell that it was time for me to go and the comment was, ‘I respect your decision’.
Well, he was finally rid of you.
It’s been 25 years since your last game, but you’ve been honored many times since then. Do you think your comeback had something to do with that, above and beyond your on-field performance?
I always felt really connected to the fans. I never took it personal when they booed - when I had a bad game, I was pissed, too. I’ve never taken a penny for an autograph at the shows and fantasy camps. Maybe the fans pegged me as an old-time Tiger after parts of 15 seasons, maybe they connected me with the Championship.
Unfortunately, heart disease is still a huge problem in this country, so a lot of people have sympathized with the heart attack, too. I know I’ve gotten tons and tons of letters over the years, people asking me things like - seriously - ‘Can you have sex after a heart attack’?
Were those fan letters?
(chuckles) You know what I mean.
Well, some people have told me I’ve been an inspiration, ‘you don’t know what it’s meant to me’. What can I say? I was just a ball player who wanted to make a living; I didn’t set out to be a spokesman for anything, but I was happy for the opportunities to help when they came up. Every time I visited quite a few kids in the hospital or in cancer units, and every time I went there to help them, they helped me by showing their inner strength.
I guess after you become well-known and you win an award or two, you’re supposed to be brilliant or something, but I knew better from my upbringing back in Toronto. I remember at my induction to the Canadian Hall of Fame, I was nervous to be speaking to all the people there. My father said, ‘John, you’re Canadian and you’re a baseball player - they won’t be expecting much’. (chuckles)
On a serious note, I was wondering what you were thinking a few years ago in regard to the death of Darryl Kile.
Well, I felt very sad, like everyone else. I didn’t know the man, but it’s always sad when someone dies so young, just through this sudden thing. You have to think about what that means to his wife and his small children. I have no idea why terrible things happen to some good people while some rotten people seem to get ahead.
I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had my heart attack one day earlier, when we were snowmobiling about 40 miles out in the woods. Maybe I wouldn’t be talking to you today, maybe I wouldn’t have had a single day with my grandchildren. We all ask questions when there’s a tragedy.
You once said that the heart attack ‘made me a better player and a better man’. What did you mean by that?
Maybe I had even more focus, more determination on the field, after I nearly lost out on playing baseball. Maybe I believe in moderation a little bit more, living up here in the Upper Peninsula [of Michigan]. I’m relatively healthy for a guy my age, so it’s possible that the whole thing ended up adding years to my life.
Pete, I never had a lot of expectations. You have to realize, growing up, just because I could play some ball, no one made any fuss over it in the family. In Canada, ball players weren’t half as important as hockey players, anyway. Like I said, I never really expected to sign and, when I did sign, I never expected to stick around long. I suppose coming back made me grateful for all the good things that have happened.
The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.