It’s not easy following in the footsteps of a famous big brother. Arthur “Doc” Hillebrand, two years older than Homer, was one of the most well-known athletes in the country at the turn of the century. A two-time All-American as a tackle on the Princeton University football team, Art was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1970. He also played on the school’s baseball team and was considered one of the top collegiate pitchers in the country. Despite receiving offers from several major league teams, Art never reached the big leagues. In contrast, Homer played parts of three seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates before his promising career was cut short by a freak arm injury.
Homer Hiller Henry Hillebrand (for some reason the parents bestowed two middle names on their sons; Art was Arthur Rudolph Thomas) was born October 10, 1879, in Freeport, Illinois, to Christian Morris and Caroline, or Carrie, (Wenzel) Hillebrand. Homer was the fifth of six children in the family. Their father had emigrated from Germany to America after earning a medical degree from Berlin University in 1867. Sometime later he returned to Germany to learn the latest in the treatment of consumption. Nearly miraculous results were reported when he treated local patients with “Dr. Hillebrand’s Celebrated Consumption Cure.”1 When Homer was around 10 or 11, Dr. Hillebrand moved his family and his practice to LeMars, Iowa, a small town about 20 miles northeast of Sioux City.
The first press reports of Homer pitching were for LeMars High School in 1897.2 Older brother Art had enrolled at Princeton in 1896 and Homer followed him two years later, enrolling in the Princeton Preparatory School, where he played football and captained the baseball team. He entered the university in the fall of 1900 (Class of 1903) and played on the baseball team as a freshman.3 The 5-foot 8, 165-pound right-handed hitting, left-handed throwing Hillebrand displayed the versatility required to play nearly every position on the diamond, a skill that would later help him land a job in the major leagues.
During summer breaks from college, both Homer and Art played semipro ball for three summers (1899-1901) in Flandreau, South Dakota, a small town not far from their LeMars home. Homer made his professional debut the following year when Flandreau entered the Class D Iowa-South Dakota League in 1902. Art also played on the team and managed the club. Homer played multiple defensive positions, including catcher, but at that point in his career, only pitched occasionally. No batting records are listed in Baseball-Reference, but one of the league’s newspapers reported that Homer hit .282 in 64 games, the sixth-best batting average in the league.45
Homer spent the 1903 season on the West Coast, splitting time between Los Angeles of the Pacific National League and the Oakland Oaks of the independent Pacific Coast League. While in Los Angeles, one of Hillebrand’s teammates was pitcher Elmer Stricklett, whom many sources6 credit with being one of the earliest practitioners of the spitball. Although he denied being the inventor of the pitch, Stricklett reportedly taught it to both Jack Chesbro and Ed Walsh. As Stricklett’s catcher, Hillebrand claimed to have been one of the earliest catchers of the spitball and practiced it enough to become proficient when he pitched in the major leagues a couple of years later. Nearly 60 years later, when both Hillebrand and Stricklett were in their 80s, the two men reconnected in California and reminisced about the “wet one” of their younger days.7
In fall 1903, it was reported that both Homer and Art had been signed by the Washington Senators.8 What complicated matters was that the ownership situation of the Senators was somewhat murky at the time. When the team was established in 1901 as a part of the new American League, league president Ban Johnson had retained 51% of the team shares and thus was nominally the majority owner. As a result, he was intimately involved in the operations of the team, including the selection of the manager and the signing of players.9 Therefore Johnson,” …who is well acquainted with the Hillebrands” personally went to Princeton to meet with the brothers. He offered Art a $500 advance, and reportedly secured their signatures to Washington contracts.10 Johnson was quoted as saying, “As for the Hillebrand brothers playing in Washington next season you can say for me that I am willing to wager $500 that the boys will be with the Senators when the time arrives for practice next spring.”11
It was not reported whether anyone ever collected, but neither of the Hillebrands played for Washington. A couple of months later it was reported that in fact no contracts had been signed, but Art had signed an agreement to play for Washington, and to secure the services of his brother only if he decided to enter professional baseball. One factor in his decision not to do so was that their father (after presumably paying for Ivy League educations) objected to his sons playing professional baseball. Art also held the upper hand in the negotiations as he was being paid more as Princeton’s head football coach than the Senators were offering. As for Homer, when he finally realized what was going on, he “…absolutely refused to play [for Washington].” Even after Art returned the $500 advance, Johnson tried to get the brothers to reconsider, “…but they steadfastly refused to do so, and will not be seen in a Washington uniform next season – nor in any other uniform, for that matter, for neither of them will play baseball.”12
What did two of the most sought-after players in the country do instead? They went home to South Dakota and took over running the family ranch after their parents retired and moved back to Illinois. After a one-year hiatus from baseball, on February 28, 1905, Homer signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Several factors influenced his decision. Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss saw him pitch when he was at Princeton and Pittsburgh pitcher Mike Lynch opposed him in college when Lynch was pitching for Brown University. Pittsburgh catcher Fred Carisch remembered him from when they both played in the Pacific Northwest League in 1903 and recommended him to Dreyfuss. In addition, Hillebrand and Pirates pitcher Deacon Phillipe were practically neighbors. Phillipe owned a ranch about 60 miles from the Hillebrands’ ranch in South Dakota and they likely had known each other for years. During their time as Pirates teammates, Homer and Phillippe often shared news from home.
Hillebrand went to spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he was being counted on as a “general utility” man, playing first base primarily, but manning the outfield, pitching on occasion, and — although he threw left-handed — catching when needed.13 That spring he was involved in a heroic rescue. Out walking one day, he came upon a man and woman in a carriage being pulled by a runaway horse. Just as the rig was about to crash down a mountain side, Hillebrand managed to grab the reins and, after being dragged for a distance, was able to bring the horse under control. Having saved the lives of the occupants, the modest Hillebrand merely tipped his hat to the lady and walked away saying, “Oh that was nothing. You see I have been living on a ranch in the Dakotas for several years and am accustomed to capturing wild unbroken bronchos and horses. That’s one of the first things a fellow has to learn when he goes upon a ranch.”14
Although slowed by a sore back during spring training, he played multiple positions and showed enough that manager Fred Clarke named him a regular member of the pitching staff. Clarke said Hillebrand, “…has as much speed as Rube Waddell, without the Rube’s eccentricities.15 He played sparingly early in the season, but on June 15 he started as catcher in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Exposition Park in Pittsburgh. With the Phillies Sherry Magee on third, Kitty Bransfield hit a grounder to shortstop Honus Wagner. Magee broke from third. Wagner’s throw pulled Hillebrand down the third base line, resulting in a collision that left Hillebrand with a serious spike wound on his foot. He was out of action for nearly a month.
After recovering from his injury, Hillebrand made his pitching debut on July 10 against the Chicago Cubs, hurling four innings of hitless ball in relief of starter Charlie Case. Three days later he again relived Case and limited the Brooklyn Superbas to just one run over seven innings to pick up his first major league win. He never caught again but filled in in the outfield and at first base between regular turns in the pitching rotation over the next month. In his final start of the season in the second game of a Labor Day doubleheader, Hillebrand held the Cubs to three hits in outpitching Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in a 3-2 Pirates win. In his rookie season he had a 5-2 record in ten games on the mound with a 2.82 ERA. He played in another 29 games in the field and batted .236 overall.
Hillebrand returned to Pittsburgh in 1906 but was the odd man out on a strong pitching staff that featured Phillippe, Vic Willis, Sam Leever, and Lefty Leifield. Consequently, he saw little action over the first part of the season. It was later revealed that he complained of a sore left arm most of the summer. After being examined by a physician, it was determined that, “…one of the shoulder bones was out of place having slipped over the collar bone.” According to Homer, it had likely occurred not from pitching, but while he was sleeping.16 The doctor put the bone back in place and Hillebrand seemingly made a full recovery. On August 16, in just his fifth game of the season, he shut out the Boston Beaneaters on six hits, 8-0. He followed that up with a 5-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals a few days later.
When it was time to report for spring training in 1907 Hillebrand’s arm was still bothering him. He consulted surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, but no report of the prognosis for recovery was published. Dreyfuss and Clarke hoped that even though he could no longer pitch, Homer might be able to throw well enough to continue as a position player. But Hillebrand never reported to the club and was released to Minneapolis in June.17 He never reported and instead spend the rest of the summer on his ranch in South Dakota.
In December 1907 Homer traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, to take in the Princeton-Yale football game and stopped off in Pittsburgh to visit friends on his way home. Around the same time an unnamed “close personal friend of the Hillebrand boys and a classmate of Homer’s at Princeton” told a Pittsburg Press writer, “…the original injury to his arm was a permanent one, and he will never be able to use the free and easy movement so necessary to successful pitching. A portion of his arm is stiff, the fracture never having joined properly and I fear that he will make a mistake if he ever returns to the game.”18
The same friend added, “Hope springs eternal in the human heart, however, and it looks as if Hillebrand were determined to try once more.” Sure enough, while in Pittsburgh he met with Dreyfuss, convinced him that his arm would be strong as ever by spring, and was invited to spring training.19 That off-season Homer tried everything he could think of. He contacted other players who had similar injuries for advice and even consulted with the most famous of the early baseball trainers, “Bonesetter” Reese.20 But, after playing shortstop in an exhibition game the following spring he re-injured the arm after making a couple of strong throws to first, a report stating, “There is a snapping noise when he delivers the ball, which is audible to any person standing beside him.21
Despite his inability to throw without pain, Hillebrand came north with the club. On April 24 he “responded to a storm of applause” as he entered the game to pitch the ninth inning of 3-1 loss to St. Louis, retiring the side and striking out one. Now realizing that his arm would never recover, he told Dreyfuss after the game that he could no longer pitch. Despite an offer from Clarke to stay on as a first baseman, he decided to retire. This ended Hillebrand’s professional baseball career. In 18 major league games as a pitcher (and 37 more as a position layer) over three seasons (1905-06, and 1908) he had a record of 8-4 with a 2.51 ERA. He struck out 70 and walked 40 in 114 2/3 innings pitched.
One report stated that he remained in Pittsburgh and began a business career, but it is not known how long he stayed in the city. By the time of the 1910 US Census, he was back on the family ranch in Waubay, South Dakota, where he and his brothers Arthur and Clarence were listed as partners in the ranch, living with their oldest brother Fred and his family. By 1920 all four Hillebrand brothers were still on the ranch. Homer married Lela Kathleen Wagner Becker on April 22, 1922, in Woodbury, Iowa. She had a daughter, Isabel, born October 8, 1914, from a previous marriage. Sometime thereafter they, along with Homer’s mother Catherine, moved to southern California, where he listed his occupation as that of a rancher in 1924 and 1925 voter registration forms in Orange County.
Homer and Lela had two sons, Earl William and Homer Jr. Earl was born while the family was in California but sometime between his birth in 1924 and when Homer was born in 1927, the Hillebrands returned to South Dakota, where they remained until around 1935. Possibly prompted by drought conditions during the Great Depression, in 1936 the family moved to Elsinore, California, where Homer’s wife’s brother lived. Shortly thereafter he purchased a dairy farm a few miles from Corvallis, Oregon.22
In the early morning of Sunday, December 14, 1941, fire broke out at the Hillebrand farmhouse. His wife Lela, son Homer Jr. and brother Arthur, who was visiting at the time, all perished in the blaze. Homer managed to rescue his son William, who received severe burns, but he could not reach the other family members in time. Homer suffered minor burns and serious lacerations from breaking a window.23
Homer then held an auction sale, sold the farm, and he and William, who had recovered from his burns, returned to their former home in Elsinore. No marriage record could be found, but sometime later Homer remarried to Grace Alda Warneke. Homer remained in Elsinore until his death on January 20, 1974, of cerebral thrombosis and arteriosclerosis at the age of 94. He was survived by his second wife Grace, his son William, two stepdaughters, seven grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren. Homer was buried at Elsinore Valley Cemetery.
No obituary could be found, but Homer’s granddaughter remembered him this way: “My grandfather was a wonderful man. Always kind and fair. Although he was nearly seventy when I was born, he taught me to play baseball, mowed our extensive lawns, taught me to drive a car when I was 14 and he was over eighty, and drove that car until he was 92. He and I were the best of friends, me following him everywhere, probably getting underfoot constantly, but he never considered any of my requests or questions out of line. I was raised without a father, but never knew any loss for I had it even better…a grandfather who loved me dearly. I wish all of my children could have known him.”24
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Norman Macht and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics from Hillebrand’s playing career are taken from Baseball-Reference.com, and genealogical and family history was obtained from Ancestry.com. The author also used information from clippings in Hillebrand’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
1 Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, June 4, 1892: 5.
2 “Sioux City Beats LeMars,” Sioux City Journal, May 23, 1897: 2.
3 There is no evidence that Hillebrand returned to Princeton after his freshman year or graduated from the institution.
4 “Official Averages,” Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Argus-Leader, October 8, 1902: 7.
5 It should be noted that a man with the last name Hillebrand (no first name is known in Baseball-Reference) played one game in his major league career, filling in in right field for the Chicago Orphans at Pittsburgh on July 29, 1902. At the same time both the Hillebrand brothers were listed in a box score for Flandreau in an Iowa-South Dakota League game at Sioux Falls, halfway across the country. The Orphan player could not have been either Art or Homer Hillebrand and the identity of the man who played the one game for Chicago that day remains unknown.
6 Peter Morris, Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007), 140-153.
7 “Spit Ball Won’t Return Says Originator,” Santa Cruz (California) Sentinel, July 9, 1961 (?): 15.
8 “Crack Players Join Senators,” Washington (D.C.) Evening Star, November 2, 1903:9.
10 Chicago Inter-Ocean, November 1, 1903: 27.
11 “Ban Johnson Confident,” Washington Evening Star, December 10, 1903: 11.
12 “New Blow Dealt the Senators,” Pittsburg Press, January 31, 1904: 21.
13 “Pirates’ New Player,” Pittsburg Post, March 3, 1905: 9.
14 “Former Freeporter Effects Thrilling Rescue,” Freeport (Illinois) Journal-Standard, March 28, 1905: 5.
15 Pittsburg Post, April 11, 1905: 8.
16 “Found a Shoulder Bone had Slipped,” Covington (Kentucky) Post, August 18, 1906: 6.
17 “Three Buccaneers Are Allowed to Go,” Pittsburg Post, June 22, 1907: 8.
18 “Will Hillebrand Come Back?” Pittsburg Press, December 1, 1907: 18.
19 “Hillebrand to Rejoin Team,” Chicago Tribune, December 4, 1907: 14.
20 “Homer Hillebrand Has Given Up Hope,” Scranton (Pennsylvania) Tribune, March 30, 1908: 7.
21 Pittsburg Press, March 30, 1908: 16.
22 “Arrive to Locate,” Corvallis (Oregon) Gazette-Times, August 10, 1936: 3.
23 “Three of Family Perish in Blaze,”, Corvallis Gazette-Times, December 15, 1941: 1.
24 Letter from Frances E. Walker (granddaughter) to SABR genealogist Bill Haber dated August 13, 1985 in Hillebrand’s Hall of Fame file.