Chuck Hiller

This article was written by David E. Skelton

“Only 56 more and I’ll catch Babe Ruth,”1 quipped Chuck Hiller after accomplishing what the Sultan of Swat never could. On October 8, 1962, this singles hitter made history by striking the seventh World Series grand slam – and the first by a National Leaguer – in leading the San Francisco Giants to a 7-3 win over the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the 1962 Fall Classic. The dinger represented Hiller’s fourth homer of the year. He never attained more than six homers in a season and spent just one year as a fulltime major league player. Despite these limited accomplishments, he continued drawing a paycheck in professional baseball for over five decades.

Charles Joseph (“Chuck”) Hiller was born on October 1, 1934, one of three children of George and Olivia Barbara (Freund) Hiller, in Johnsburg, a northwestern suburban Chicago village in McHenry County, Illinois. The community was settled in the first half of the 19th century by German immigrants who included many of Chuck’s ancestors on both sides of the family. These relatives immigrated to the region before the mid-1850s to take up farming. Around 1930 Chuck’s father George, an Illinoisnative, broke from agriculture. A day laborer in his mid-20s, the industrious young man branched into carpentry by the 1940s, later establishing George Hiller & Sons Contracting,a building construction enterprise that thrived long after his passing. Chuck studied business administration at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota). Evidenced by his induction into the National Association of Intercollegiate Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Joseph, Missouri, six years after leaving the St. Thomas Tommies he also excelled at sports. He was expected – along with his brother Richard – to join their father’s venture after college. This expectation did not take into account the aggressive pursuits of Cleveland Indians’ scout Cy Slapnicka.

An ineffective hurler in the early 1900s, Slapnicka found far more success as a major league scout with the signing of such notables as Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau and Roger Maris. There was a bit of an unsavory side to Slapnicka as well; he was called before Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis on numerous occasions for questionable contract manipulations. Convinced Hiller was major league material, Slapnicka was not going to let a family construction venture stand in his way. He successfully offered Hiller a very small bonus2 and a $300 monthly salary to report to the Cocoa Indians (D) in the Florida State League. Hiller wasted little time acclimating to his Atlantic coast surroundings at second base. Through July 8 he placed among the league leaders with a brisk .325 average. Though his average tapered off Hiller earned an All-Star selection (in a poll of league managers and sportswriters) and ranked among the league leaders with 148 hits, nine triples and a surprising 11 home runs. A promotion to the Minot (North Dakota) Mallards in 1958 led to another profitable campaign as Hiller placed among the Northern League leaders in doubles (23), triples (12) and runs scored (89). After the season Richard Klaus, the manager of the St. Cloud Rox, noticed that the Indians did not protect Hiller before the minor league draft. On December 2, 1958, on the strength of Klaus’s recommendation, the parent San Francisco Giants selected Hiller in the draft.

Hiller was advanced to the Class-B Eugene (Oregon) Emeralds where he validated Klaus’s confidence by producing a brilliant 1959 All-Star campaign. The left-handed hitter led the Northwest League with 166 hits and nine triples while placing among the leaders in runs scored (92), RBIs (77) and an eye-popping .341 average. Included amongst this barrage was a career-high 13 home runs. In the winter Hiller was assigned to the Florida Instructional League where sustained success earned a jump to the Texas League (AA).

Assigned to the Rio Grande Valley Giants in Harlingen (located near Texas’s southernmost tip) Hiller continued his offensive onslaught in 1960. A .449 pace in his first 49 at-bats set the stage for another All-Star campaign and unanimous selection as the league’s Most Valuable Player. Hiller led the Giants to a pennant with a .334-3-74 batting line (accompanied by a career-high 17 stolen bases), earning selection to the fourth annual National Association All-Star team (AA). “[Hiller’s] hitting has been tremendous,” said manager Ray Murray. “In addition, he’s a great hustler. He’s a sure bet to make the majors someday.”3 While assigned to the Arizona Instructional League in winter Hiller’s name surfaced as ready to make the jump from Double-A and lock down San Francisco’s second base job (a veritable turnstile since the Giants’ 1954 league championship while in New York).

The Giants had produced middling results since moving to San Francisco following the 1957 season. The poor production brought new manager Alvin Dark to the helm in 1961. Lineup changes were also expected when a large crop of youngsters populated the Giants’ spring training camp. Hiller played a prominent role: “[The] scrappy kid has taken this camp by storm … [with his] amazing[ly] smooth swing.”4 “Dark is especially anxious to get his appraising teeth into Hiller, a hustling [Eddie] Stanky-type … he hasn’t the grace afield of, say, a Red Schoendienst. But he has good range on ground balls, has a good, accurate arm and hustles until exhaustion sets in.”5 Though veteran Don Blasingame controlled the inside track at second base, Hiller’s spray-hitting, line drive style was perceived conducive to the windy environs of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. When Hiller began the Cactus League season with 13 hits in his first 28 at-bats, Blasingame’s future appeared in doubt. On April 27 the veteran was traded to Cincinnati.

Dubbed by national scribes as the Giants’ “hottest young prospect,”6 Hiller made his major league debut against Pittsburgh on opening day in Candlestick Park. In his second at-bat he delivered a single to left against veteran righty Bob Friend, advancing fellow-rookie Tom Haller to third to set up a successful scoring opportunity. But Hiller went hitless in his next 23 plate appearances. He was faulted for swinging at too many first pitches, a case of over-anxiousness that was seemingly corrected with a double off Cincinnati hurler Bob Purkey on April 18. The extra-base hit ignited a 12-for-33 surge. Hiller then see-sawed from a .172 May to a .292 June. But three errors in four games – fielding proved a career-long challenge for the second baseman – set the tone for a July demotion to Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League. Hiller earned a September call-up on the strength of another all-star campaign. He ended his rookie season with a ..238-2-12 line in 240 at-bats.

The youthful Giants had competed for a pennant in 1961 and sought to capture the flag the next year. But question marks remained at second base. General Manager Chub Feeney tried unsuccessfully to acquire expansion-drafted Joey Amalfitano from Houston or Charlie Neal from the New York Mets.7 But the team’s on-field skipper did not share his boss’s reservations. Convinced Hiller had been advanced too quickly in 1961, the former All-Star infielder anointed the youngster as his second baseman despite a poor spring training. “I looked awful,” Hiller recalled. “But one thing kept me going. Dark told me I wouldn’t lose my job in spring training and that no matter how bad I looked, I’d start the season at second base … [That show of confidence] gave me a lift and kept me going.”8 Dark’s confidence was soon rewarded. Following a slow start Hiller constructed an eight-game hitting streak that boosted his average to a lofty .326. His defense also showed improvement with a seven-assist outing against Chicago on April 29. Though Hiller would go on to lead the league in errors by a second baseman, scribes enthusiastically reported, “Hiller has completely erased the question mark at second base.”9

Hiller’s steady bat – hitting streaks of 10, nine and another eight-game surge – kept the Giants within striking distance of the Los Angeles Dodgers throughout the season. On September 9 Hiller’s ninth-inning leadoff single initiated a four-run rally to beat their rivals and move within 1.5 games of first. “A springtime question mark … [Hiller] developed into a pennant-drive exclamation mark.”10 The Dodgers’ season-ending collapse resulted in a tie for first. The Giants prevailed in a three-game playoff series to move on to the World Series.

Beside a record-setting Series grand slam, Hiller’s first-inning leadoff double in Game 2 became the decisive tally in a 2-0 San Francisco victory. But the Fall Classic was not as well-scripted as hoped. Remembered for the historic four-run blast, few recall that Hiller struck out in an identical bases-loaded situation in the preceding at-bat. In the seventh inning of Game 3, he was unable to get the ball out of his glove in a potential inning-ending double-play. The play would have prevented Roger Maris from scoring the Yankees’ decisive third run in a 3-2 squeaker. In the ninth-inning of Game 7 both Hiller and Felipe Alou struck out following a leadoff single by Matty Alou. Had either player moved the baserunner up, he would certainly have tied the score on Willie Mays’s two-out double. Instead the Giants went down in defeat in what proved to be Hiller’s only post-season experience. Despite the heartbreaking loss Hiller basked in the post-season notoriety, including an appearance at the National Auto Show in Detroit among a select few Giants’ and Yankees’ stars.

Reporting to spring training in 1963 as a second base fixture, Hiller sought to build upon his success. But a middling .255 Cactus League campaign turned worse when the season began: .129 in April. A three-error game on April 20 against Chicago did little to help his cause. Eleven days later Hiller fractured his left wrist11 against Pittsburgh outfielder Bill Virdon’s knee on a tag play at second. The Giants attempted to option Hiller to Tacoma, but Commissioner Ford Frick overturned it because Hiller was unavailable to play. He returned June 1 and went hitless in 15 plate appearances, dropping his average to a minuscule .108. Slowly Hiller began turning his terrible campaign around. His eighth-inning game-winning double on June 15 preserved future Hall of Famer Juan Marichal’s only career no-hitter in a 1-0 duel against Houston righty Dick Drott. Well past the season’s midpoint Hiller’s average finally peeked above .200 while a four-hit game against Pittsburgh on September 15 allowed for a subpar finish of .223-6-33 (.189 versus lefties). The disappointing campaign compelled Hiller to settle for a pay cut (to $16,000) in the offseason. Further insult was added when Dark announced that “[Jim] Davenport will be my second baseman next year.”12

Remembering the tutoring he received from Don Blasingame in the spring of 1961, Hiller worked closely with the third baseman to learn the new position and a close friendship was born (Davenport eventually sought out Hiller as his roommate during the season). Usually a slow starter, Hiller exploded with a near-.400 average in Cactus League play when Davenport was called away due to family illness. This surge included a 380-foot blast on March 20, 1964, against Los Angeles Angels righty Bob Lee, followed three days later by a game-winning triple against Boston. Hiller’s strong spring, combined with Davenport’s extended absence, caused Dark to begin the season with a platoon at second. On May 2 Hiller delivered the game-winning hit against the Dodgers in a 12-inning 5-4 victory. A leadoff home run against future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson on May 27 helped lead the Giants to a 2-1 win over St. Louis. The homer raised his average to a meager .178. Hiller had plenty of offensively-challenged company. The Giants entered a June series against Philadelphia with a lowly .227 batting average accompanied by a major-league-leading 54 errors. Dark repeatedly shuffled his lineup until the team eventually decided to promote infield prospect Hal Lanier. Relegated to mostly pinch-hitting, Hiller earned a mere 46 at-bats after June 28 (including time missed while hospitalized with a nine-inch head wound after being struck during batting practice on September 23).

Under the guidance of new manager Herman Franks, Hiller began 1965 much as he’d finished the previous campaign: just seven plate appearances – including a pinch-hit homer – 25 games into the season. But events on the other end of the country resulted in more playing time for the Illinois native. On May 11 Mets’ second baseman Ron Hunt suffered a shoulder separation in a game against the Cardinals. That same day they acquired Hiller from San Francisco for $20,000. The move disappointed Giants’ fans. A “pleasant young man, with a grin as wide as his range around second base,”13 the prematurely balding Hiller was much beloved in the City by the Bay.

Acquired as a backup to infielder Bobby Klaus, Hiller’s bat quickly pressed him into the starting lineup despite the ever-present difficulties afield (he committed errors in three consecutive games beginning May 31; 14 miscues in just 82 games at second base). On June 28 Hiller was the hitting star (6-for8) in a doubleheader sweep of Milwaukee. Four days later he connected for the second of three career-high homers against Bob Gibson. Crediting teammate Joe Christopher with suggesting a faster swing, Hiller’s average peaked at .286 while the New York press dubbed him Killer-Diller. When Hunt returned to the lineup Hiller was tried in the outfield and third base but was eventually relegated to pinch-hitting. He finished with a .235-6-22 line in 310 plate appearances,

Mets’ manager Wes Westrum offered, “[Hiller] is more valuable on the bench as a pinch-hitter. We’re a stronger club when I have him available in an emergency.”14 The 31-year-old proved his manager correct with a club-record and league-leading 16 pinch-hits in 1966.15 Possessing a lofty .380 average in 100 at-bats (career: .243), Hiller joked, “I gotta protect it, so I gotta get hurt.”16 His brisk hitting helped pace the Mets to 18-14 in July, their first winning month in franchise history. On September 28 the oft-challenged infielder also participated in turning the Mets’ fourth triple play in franchise history. A meager 14 hits in his final 72 at-bats dropped Hiller’s average below .300 but he finished with a respectable .280-2-14 line.

On November 29, 1966, the Mets traded Hunt to the Dodgers in a four-player swap. They announced plans for a Hiller-Eddie Bressoud platoon at second base the next season. Hiller was excited about the chance for increased play. But injuries ensured little. On March 13, 1967, he strained his right shoulder hurrying a throw in an exhibition against Boston. Seven weeks later Hiller fractured a bone in his right hand after being struck by a ball during batting practice. He was placed on the disabled list. Meanwhile Mets’ coach Yogi Berra was busy behind the scenes orchestrating a trade for his former Yankee teammate Phil Linz. Playing in Philadelphia, Linz wanted to return to New York to be close to the restaurant he’d acquired during his years with the Yankees. On July 11, shortly after his roster return, Hiller was traded to the Phillies for Linz.

Philadelphia had a second base platoon already in place with Cookie Rojas and Tony Taylor. Hiller received very little play: 31 appearances, 27 as a pinch-hitter. Assigned to the minors in October, Hiller was selected by Pittsburgh in the rule 5 draft on November 28. The Pirates had a vested interest in acquiring the aging infielder – since 1966 Hiller feasted on Bucs’ pitching (.474 in 38 at-bats, including three game-winning hits). Their investment accrued dividends on May 5, 1968, when Hiller’s eighth-inning pinch-hit single ignited a three-run rally in a come-from-behind win over his former teammates in Philadelphia. But as was often the case throughout Hiller’s career, an error-prone glove accompanied his keen bat. In a marathon match against the Mets on May 21, Hiller was inserted as a defensive replacement in the 17th inning. Two plays later his throwing error allowed a walk-off win for New York. Following a successful pinch-hit on June 2 (a run-scoring double against Atlanta), the Pirates waived Hiller and promoted prospect Freddie Patek. Unclaimed, Hiller was assigned to the Columbus Jets in the International League. In his first at-bat Hiller delivered an RBI pinch-hit single. Though he served a profitable utility role (.275-3-36 line in 273 at-bats) for the Jets, Hiller’s glove again came into play in the Governor’s Cup playoffs. His error in the series-ending Game 4 contributed to a 3-1 loss to the Jacksonville Suns. It proved to be his last game as a player.

In 1969 the Pirates hired Hiller as manager of the Salem (Virginia) Rebels in the Class A Carolina League, initiating a 35-year career as a manager and coach. The next season he moved back to the Mets organization where he managed the Tidewater, Virginia affiliate (AAA) and helped shepherd the careers of Ken Singleton, Jon Matlack and a volatile Tim Foli. Three years later Hiller was selected by Texas Rangers’ manager Whitey Herzog as a third base coach. (The strong bond between the two dated to Hiller’s playing days in New York when Herzog served as the Mets’ third base coach. During the 1966 All-Star break their families spent time together in the Catskill Mountains.) In 1973 Rangers’ catcher Ken Suarez had one of the most productive seasons in his seven-year career. He credited Hiller for making him “more aggressive … more offensive minded.”17 Hiller returned to the Mets’ fold when Herzog was fired but rejoined his friend in Kansas City in 1976 (a move that temporarily ruffled feathers in New York – Joe Frazier, the Mets’ new manager, had tentative tapped Hiller as his third base coach)..

Over a four-year period Royals’ stalwarts Frank White, Willie Wilson and U.L. Washington each cited Hiller for their career development. Teamed with the player that replaced him on the Pirates roster in 1968, Hiller was also a strong proponent of Freddie Patek’s All-Star pursuits in 1976. Hiller remained in Kansas City until Herzog’s departure in 1979. As he would continually do, Hiller returned to the Mets’ fold as manager of the 1980 Kingsport, Tennessee, Rookie League affiliate, serving as the first professional skipper to slugger Darryl Strawberry. When Herzog was appointed general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in August 1980, many scribes predicted Hiller would become the team’s manager in 1981. Herzog instead absorbed the dual role of manager and general manager and hired his friend as a coach. In 1984 Hiller stepped down to manage the Cardinals’ Johnson City, Tennessee, Rookie League affiliate. Another longtime friend, Giants’ new manager Jim Davenport, stepped into the picture the next year by hiring Hiller as his third base coach. The San Francisco reunion was short-lived when Davenport did not survive the 1985 season.

For the final time Hiller was reunited with the Mets – a bond unbroken until his passing in 2004. He served primarily as a minor league instructor except when called upon to replace coach Bud Harrelson on the parent club in 1990. His years as an instructor were spent in Florida where he’d moved years earlier. He settled in St. Pete Beach in central Florida with Pamela, his wife of over 40 years. The union produced three children, the oldest child Stephanie born before Hiller signed a professional contract. Two sons followed.

Hiller was an avid golfer. But as injuries spelled much of his playing career, Hiller was susceptible on the links as well. In 1975, while manager of the Marion (Virginia) Mets, his leg was broken when a golf cart rolled over on him. Hiller also enjoyed working with children and young adults. In the off-seasons of his playing career Hiller served as a circuit court bailiff in his native McHenry County, Illinois, a special program designed to work with troubled youth. He also spent the winters working with his father and brother in construction. Hiller visited Shriners Hospitals for Children and served as guest speaker at fundraisers for youth athletic programs. He remained very active until leukemia claimed him on October 20, 2004. He was survived by his wife, three children and three grandchildren.

Years after becoming the first National League player to hit a grand slam in the World Series Hiller modestly claimed, “I hit one home run and suddenly I [was] famous.”18 Supposed to enter the family construction business Hiller instead carved a long career in professional baseball as a player, coach, manager and minor league instructor. He produced a ..243-20-152 career line in 2,343 big league plate appearances. Though challenged in the field – earning the nickname “Iron Hands” – Hiller was well respected among his peers. “He [was] an outstanding instructor and a take-charge type of guy,” said Whitey Herzog. “He was a great competitor and a real hustler when he played. I always have admired his approach to the game.”19

 

Sources

Baseball-reference.com

Ancestry.com

mcigs.org/early-settlers.html

sabr.org/bioproj/person/b38d9ea2

nytimes.com/2004/10/23/sports/baseball/23hiller.html?_r=0

memorialobituaries.com/memorials/memorials.cgi?action=Obit&memid=136308&clientid=brettf

The Sporting News

 

Notes

1 “’Muscles’ Hiller Picked Light Bat for Series Slam,” The Sporting News, October 20, 1962, 6.

2 Another account states Hiller received no bonus.

3 “Little Rapper Lifts Rio Grande Attack,” The Sporting News, August 10, 1960, 35.

4 “Battler Hiller Winning Fight for Giants’ Job,” The Sporting News, April 5, 1961, 11.

5 “Giants Corral Flashy Kids to Push Regulars for Jobs,” The Sporting News, January 11, 1961, 11.

6 “Names to Watch? Scriveners Spill Lowdown,” The Sporting News, April 19, 1961, 2.

7 The Mets wanted Willie McCovey in return.

8 “Kid Keystoner Hiller Greased Lightning in Field, Steady at Dish,” The Sporting News, June 2, 1962, 17.

9 “Sir Gaylord (Perry) Helps Give Giants Early Foot in N.L. Derby,” The Sporting News, May 9, 1962, 9.

10 “Little-Guy Pagan King-Size Spoke in Giants’ Wheel,” The Sporting News, September 8, 1962, 9.

11 Another accounts states Hiller broke a finger.

12 “Hiller, Davenport – Giants’ Friendly Enemies,” The Sporting News, May 9, 1964, 7.

13 “Battler Hiller.”

14 “Wes Getting No Grins From Met Keystone Comedy,” The Sporting News, April 1, 1967, 19.

15 Hiller appeared on pace to break the National League record of 22 when injuries to others forced him into the lineup.

16 “Major Flashes – National League,” The Sporting News, July 23, 1966, 33.

17 “Suarez Bids for Berth as Bat Barks,” The Sporting News, June 2, 1973, 4.

18 “Don’t Count Scrappy Hiller Out Of Fight for Giant Keystone Job,” The Sporting News, April 4, 1964, 19.

19 “Herzog Jumps for Joy Over Hurdle,” The Sporting News, November 15, 1975, 38.