This article was written by David E. Skelton
In 1951 The Sporting News encapsulated the career of Frank Hiller stating, “This is the human story of the man who stands outside looking in … with desperation, pathos, perseverance as its theme … [Once] one of the ‘anointed,’ a hand-picked [New York] Yankee prospect from the start … And then, as the Fates snipped the thread, [Hiller] was a Yankee unnoticed, who actually had to plead to pitch batting practice!”1
Six years earlier the Yankees were busily turning down numerous offers for the one-time collegiate star. But injuries slowed Hiller’s progress, turning him into a forgotten man in the Bronx. In 1950 the righty hurler appeared to have reversed his fortunes with the Chicago Cubs. But injury found Hiller again, cutting short a once-promising career.
Frank Walter Hiller and his twin brother William were born on July 13, 1920, the second and third sons born to Theodor and Catherine (Kremer) Hiller in Irvington, New Jersey outside Newark. Theodor was born in 1894 to German immigrants in New York City and made a living as an electrician. Catherine emigrated at age 12 with her family from Austria-Hungary in 1908. Frank was the only child to have developed an interest in sports among a variety of pursuits, particularly music. He was the president of his high school glee club and played clarinet in the band. A seven-letter achiever, Frank excelled at basketball, football and especially baseball where he went undefeated as a pitcher. Through 2014 he is the only Irvington High School alum to advance to the major leagues.
This success followed Hiller to Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He continued as a three-sport star while also finding time to join the school choir. Under the tutelage of Lafayette Leopards’ coach and former major league infielder Bill Coughlin, the righty compiled a record of 22-2 that garnered attention from professional scouts. Bucky Harris, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943, remarked, “I like the boy because he has intestinal fortitude, the most important thing for a pitcher to have next to a steel arm.”2 But Harris and the Phils were left empty-handed when Yankees scout Paul Krichell, a former catcher who notably signed Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri among others, inked Hiller in 1943. With war-depleted rosters at every professional level, Hiller3 was assigned close to his hometown surroundings with the Newark Bears (AA).
From 1943 to1945 Hiller proved one of the most dominant pitchers in the International League. On July 26, 1944, he hurled a seven-hit, 7-0, shutout against the Rochester Red Wings, one of his six whitewashes that led the league. Hiller’s 15 wins and 3.08 ERA earned consideration for the league’s Most Valuable Player award. The following year a record of 14-8, 2.58 helped hoist the Bears to a successful 89-win season. Hiller’s two wins against the Montreal Royals, including a 5-1 four-hit victory in a decisive 7th game match, led Newark to its first Governor’s Cup championship in five years. They lost to the Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series while the Yankees were busy brushing aside numerous “interesting potentialities”4 in trade for Hiller. No one, including the prized righty, yet realized the damage done when Hiller felt his elbow pop delivering a pitch against the Colonels.
In the Yankees’ training camp the following spring Hiller could not pitch without pain. Team doctors diagnosed neuroma of the ulnar nerve, a condition brought on by a bruised muscle which produced a jabbing shock with every pitch. Hiller pitched through the pain and won promotion to the Yankees. On May 25, 1946, he made his major league debut in Boston with two innings of two-hit relief. A week later he earned his first start, and suffered his first loss, against the St. Louis Browns. A miserable three-inning relief appearance on June 9 resulted in a second loss and a demotion to Newark (now AAA ). Less success ensued – a 22.50 ERA in four appearances – due to the damaged arm and a decision was made to operate. After wearing a cast on his elbow for approximately one month, Hiller was sent to the west coast to work out with the University of Southern California baseball team for the remainder of the year.
On February 14, 1947, Hiller’s future appeared brighter when he was selected to accompany many of the Yankee stars on an exhibition tour through the Caribbean. But his fate had likely been determined four months earlier with New York’s acquisition of righty Allie Reynolds. Hiller was assigned to the Kansas City Blues (AAA) in the American Association. He wasted little time acclimating. On May 4 Hiller delivered a “sparkling”5 2-0 six-hit performance against the Indianapolis Indians, one of his five shutouts to once again pace a circuit. In August he was sidelined at least two weeks with a shoulder ailment. He suffered some brutal outings upon his return. But Hiller righted himself to finish with a record of 15-5, 3.45 while placing among the league leaders in most pitching categories. In December Yankees’ general manager George Weiss positioned Hiller among “the cream of minor league talent.”6
Hiller reported to spring training unsigned7 for the 1948 season but fully expecting to compete for a starting job. When righty Bobo Newsom was released on February 6, Hiller was projected to replace the aged veteran in the rotation. But 18 days later this scenario changed when the Yankees acquired lefty Eddie Lopat from the Chicago White Sox. Despite Hiller’s strong Grapefruit League stats – just two runs and eight hits in his first 13 innings – he received little chance to break into the rotation. Relegated to the back of the bullpen, Hiller received only six inning of work (two appearances) through the season’s one-quarter mark. On June 4, when sophomore righty Spec Shea came up lame, manager Bucky Harris turned to Hiller at home against the Detroit Tigers. Surrendering just five hits in eight innings, the New Jersey-native captured his first major league victory, a 7-4 win that The Sporting News assessed “certainly will merit more frequent consideration [for Hiller] from now on.”8 Hiller spelled Shea for four additional starts in July but otherwise spent the entire year working from the bullpen. His ERA soared to 6.52 in August as the unfamiliarity of working on short notice took its toll. “I didn’t know how to pitch in relief,” Hiller explained. “I couldn’t loosen up my arm quickly … Bucky Harris lost confidence in me, and so did I … I had to ask to pitch even in batting practice.”9 Despite only 62 1/3 innings with a middling record of 5-2, 4.04, the Yankees would not budge when the Browns sought Hiller instead of righty Red Embree in the five-player swap of December 13.
Whatever the Yankees thought they saw by retaining Hiller did not materialize in 1949. A poor start to the season – solely in relief – resulted in Hiller’s assignment in May to the Kansas City Blues where he remained throughout the year. When Yankees’ righty Bob Porterfield suffered his third injury of the season in August, speculation arose that Hiller would be recalled but nothing came of this. Hiller led the Blues with 101 strikeouts and placed among the team leaders in innings pitched (169), wins (11) and ERA (3.57). He also made the acquaintance of catcher Ralph Houk, who helped Hiller develop a forkball. They became lifelong friends. When the organization proposed a pay cut for Hiller in 1950, he threatened to quit unless reinstated to the majors by promotion or trade. Hiller was granted permission to try to sell himself to the other major league clubs.
It is unclear the role, if any, that Hiller played when New York sold him to the Cubs on February 10, 1950, for $25,000. The sale was contingent upon Hiller’s spring performance, with Chicago reserving the right to return the 29-year-old to the Yankees by May 1. When Hiller twirled three innings of perfect relief against the Cincinnati Reds on April 28, the Cubs cleared a permanent spot for the righty. Under the guidance of pitching coach Charlie Root, a former Chicago mound stalwart, Hiller’s newly-developed forkball successfully tantalized National League hitters. When staff hurlers Bob Rush and Johnny Schmitz struggled in the rotation, manager Frankie Frisch turned increasingly toward Hiller. On May 26 he earned his first major league shutout with a 4-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates (lowering his ERA to a miniscule 0.68 in the process). Two months later Hiller initiated a six-game win streak. On September 19 he twirled a two-hit shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies. At season’s end Hiller’s .706 winning percentage trailed only Sal Maglie of the New York Giants in league competition, a remarkable feat for the near-last place Cubs. Hiller’s record of 12-5, 3.53 in 153 innings (38 appearances) represented a high-water mark for his career.
Nominally designated the staff ace – particularly after the spring training struggles of Rush and Schmitz – Hiller was honored with the Cubs’ opening day assignment in 1951. He turned in a complete game 8-3 win against the Reds. Exactly one month later Hiller shu tout the Brooklyn Dodgers and brought his record to 4-2, 3.31. The victory elevated the surprising upstart Cubs to within one game of first place. But success for both team and pitcher soon dissipated. Thereafter the Cubs plummeted to last place with a mark of 39-63 while Hiller’s fate suffered similarly. Excluding a masterful June 28 one-hit shutout against the St. Louis Cardinals in which he faced the minimum 27 batters (and where he also injured his back,10 contributing greatly to his second-half demise), Hiller suffered a record of 1-10, 6.26 over the season’s remainder. He surrendered a career-high 17 home runs while leading the league with nine HBP. The continuing back problems caused Hiller to miss numerous assignments, including nearly the entire month of September. A career-high 12 losses trailed only Paul Minner on the Cubs’ staff. On January 3, 1952, Hiller was traded to Cincinnati for knuckler Willie Ramsdell. “Frank assured us his back no longer bothered him,”11 said Reds manager Luke Sewell, a fervent believer in Hiller’s abilities.
Hiller’s 1952 campaign largely mirrored the preceding year as a strong start yielded to a dismal finish. He twirled 20 consecutive scoreless innings over his first three starts and owned a mark of 4-2, 3.17 entering a May 26 match against the Pirates, a team with which he had great success (one-third of Hiller’s 30 major league wins came against Pittsburgh). But Hiller wrenched his knee on a seventh-inning leadoff infield hit by pitcher Bob Friend that ignited a three-run tally for a Pirates win. Hiller concealed the injury from management and suffered three miserable starts before being sidelined. On August 22 another injury was sustained when Hiller broke his nose in a first base collision with Phillies’ outfielder Richie Ashburn on the second play of the game (Curt Simmons, the opposing starter, joined Hiller in the hospital shortly after when he was struck on the wrist by a line drive). The injuries contributed to Hiller’s dreary mark of 1-6, 5.89 through the balance of the campaign.
Fifteen days after the season Hiller was traded to the Giants for 22-year-old outfield prospect Gail Henley. New York manager Leo Durocher excitedly explained, “We were lucky to get [Hiller]. The only reason that the Reds were willing to let him go was that they wanted Gail Henley to send to Pittsburgh in the deal for Gus Bell … [But Hiller’s] a lot better pitcher than most people think … he’s going to be a tremendous help to this club.”12 Initially expected to provide relief help alongside future Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, throughout spring training Hiller unsuccessfully competed for the Giants’ fourth starter slot. Working from the bullpen Hiller was nearly unhittable in his first eight appearances of the 1953 campaign (0.93 ERA in 9 2/3 innings). But less success ensued. On June 23 he relieved starter Dave Koslo in the first inning after the starter was unable to garner an out against St. Louis. The Cardinals continued their onslaught against Hiller on their way to a 15-8 drubbing of the Giants. In the 4th Hiller yielded six consecutive baserunners and was removed from the game saddled with a 6.15 ERA. It proved to be his last appearance in the majors.
Days later Hiller was sold to the Minneapolis Millers (AAA) to clear roster space for righty prospect Al Worthington. On October 8 Hiller was traded among a large package of players and cash to the San Francisco Seals for lefty Windy McCall. In 1954 Hiller placed among the Pacific Coast League leaders with a 2.92 ERA. He also placed among the Seals’ leaders with 166 1/3 innings pitched in spite of the recurring back ailment. He was sent to a nerve specialist who hospitalized Hiller at some point during the campaign. The doctor advised Hiller to consider retiring from the game. In the offseason the decision was made easier when the PCL made a concerted effort to cut costs by offering lowball contracts to veteran players across the board. When Hiller’s reduced 1955 contract was delivered to his Kansas City home in February, he promptly retired.
The “City of Fountains” had become Hiller’s home since playing for the Blues in 1947. He met and fell in love with Helen Fletcher, a Kansas City native three years his junior. They were married on October 4, 1947.. Hiller gave much credit to Helen for extending his career on those occasions when she consoled him through some of the rough patches. Their union produced a daughter and two sons. Initially a successful tax accountant in the off-seasons (when he wasn’t barnstorming with Ralph Houk, Gil Hodges and others) Hiller carved a long career with the Massachusetts Life Insurance Company until his retirement in 1981. He remained active in the community, particularly in the athletic field where he and Houk, a Lawrence, Kansas-native, were often seen together hosting fundraisers or speaking to varied youth organizations. In 1956 Hiller was spied throwing batting practice to the Kansas City Athletics. He retained a lifelong passion for music and would accompany his father and brothers in barber shop harmony. In later years the Hillers moved to Berwyn, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. He became one of the first ex-major league players to be affiliated with the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Moved to a retirement community in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Hiller passed away on January 10, 1987 at 66. He was cremated. Hiller was survived by his wife, three children, four grandchildren and two brothers.
Hiller concluded a seven year major league career with an unremarkable record of 30-32, 4.42 – a far cry from the high expectations that had stemmed from a brilliant collegiate career. He developed a reputation for “wilt[ing] in the heat,”13 a mark seemingly supported by a career 13-8, 3.43 through May, a 7-15, 5.98 in June and July. But Hiller was marked more by the incessant injuries that spelled his career. From elbow surgery following the 1944 Junior World Series to back problems, these ills eventually ended his athletic pursuits.
The Sporting News
1 “Diamond Dossier: Frank Hiller,” The Sporting News, April 25, 1951, 7.
2 “Frank Hiller – Baseball (Inducted 1981-82).” (http://www.goleopards.com/sports/maroonclub/mtt/hiller_frank00.html )
3 Due to a 4-F ranking – the result of a knee injury sustained during a high school football game – Hiller was refused entry when he tried to enlist in three branches of service (the Army, Navy and Marines).
4 “Yankee Shineup Program Will Include Lights, With Seating Capacity Increased to 80,000,” The Sporting News, October 25, 1945, 8.
5 “American Association,” The Sporting News, May 14, 1947, 26.
6 “Yankees’ 16 New Performers Valued by Weiss at $750,000,” The Sporting News, December 31, 1947, 6.
7 Hiller was among the last eight players to sign.
8 “Brown’s Belts Tying Stirnweiss to Bench,” The Sporting News, June 16, 1948, 8.
9 “Diamond Dossier: Frank Hiller.”
10 Back problems plagued Hiller since high school.
11 “Gabe, Luke Prove Willing to Gamble Blue Chips on Reds,” The Sporting News, January 16, 1952, 15.
12 “”Ache-Free Backs of Maglie, Jansen Lift Load Off Lip,” The Sporting News, March 11, 1953, 8.
13 “Henley Deal Points to More Activity by Giant Axe-Wielders,” The Sporting News, October 22, 1952, 13.