Former Cubs player Dave Hillman, right, and author Gaylon White autograph books on Tuesday at Eastman's Toy F. Reid Center in Kingsport. (Dave Grace photo)
KINGSPORT — During Tuesday's book signing at Eastman's Toy F. Reid Employee Center gift shop, a fan handed 86-year-old Dave Hillman a pair of vintage baseball cards to sign.
One depicted Hillman with the Chicago Cubs in 1958. The other was from 1959, after the right-handed pitcher had been traded to the Boston Red Sox.
When the Cubs dealt Hillman to the Red Sox, he was part of the first interleague trade in the history of Major League Baseball. One day, Hillman may be more popularly remembered for his brief return to the minors.
Hillman picked up 21 wins for the pre-expansion Angels in 1956, contributing to that team's epic Pacific Coast League pennant run. That season is the subject of "The Bilko Athletic Club," a recently published book by Kingsport author Gaylon White.
"That was the best move I ever made in my life. I loved that ballclub," said Hillman, a Dungannon native who was 28 years old when he went to California.
"It was a great ballclub. Everybody felt at home. They were together. They were relaxed and pulling for each other, like family members, more or less. And everything just fell together," said Hillman, whose teammates included Steve Bilko, Gene Mauk, Jim Bolger and George Freese.
White first interviewed Hillman in 1976, when the author inaugurated research for a book idea that subsequently was shelved for decades. He became reacquainted with Hillman in 1992 when White took a job in Kingsport as a corporate speech writer for Eastman.
The men didn't finally get together until eight years later. That meeting at Jack's Restaurant prompted White to resurrect what became the Angels project.
White was a fan of Hillman's team when he was a kid growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s.
"Dave missed the early part of the season and went up to Chicago at the end. He could've easily won 30 games that year," said White, who devotes an entire chapter of his book to Hillman. "He was a good pitcher whose major league record doesn't reflect it because he went on to pitch for some bad teams."
In 1956, the minor league clubs of the PCL offered the best live professional baseball available west of St. Louis. Despite minor league status, neither the fan turnout nor the PCL talent level were typical bush-league fare.
The 1956 Angels were a potent mixture of major league talent assigned to Los Angeles by the Cubs. Some were on their way up, others on their way down.
Hillman wasn't entirely certain to which category he belonged when he got there. He was sent down after his rookie season in Chicago.
"I'd spent the '55 season with the Cubbies and I didn't win any ballgames the whole year long. Stan Hack was managing and he liked me for some reason or another. I pitched in 25 ballgames but never figured in a decision," Hillman said.
A sore arm kept Hillman off the mound for the first five weeks of the PCL season and he was on the verge of being cut. Finally he was given a chance to start against Seattle. He pitched. They won.
He went on to experience the most successful — and most fun — season of his professional baseball career.
While "The Slim Virginian" established himself as the Angels' ace, the team's most popular player was Bilko. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound first baseman was the PCL hitting leader in eight categories.
The homer-hammering Bilko was a celebrity player in a celebrity town, and the reason the Angels were nicknamed "The Bilko Athletic Club." He was the namesake for Sergeant Bilko of Phil Silvers' eponymous television series.
"The screenwriter was Neil Simon and the producer was Nat Hiken and they were both Bilko fans. So the name for the character was inspired by Bilko," White said. "What happened that was kind of ironic was that Sergeant Bilko became one of Steve Bilko's baseball nicknames. "
After Hillman left baseball, he put the game out of his mind entirely. He returned to Kingsport to work for his uncle at Fuller & Hillman, a Broad Street clothier he eventually took over.
"I forgot baseball. I just didn't go. And even people in town forgot that I had been a major league baseball player," he said. "Like anything else, if you don't keep your name in front of the public, they forget."comments powered by Disqus