Published Aug. 5, 2018

The latest in a series on the 1968 World Series champion Tigers.

It happened 50 years ago tomorrow as I write this—on my fifth birthday.

John Hiller took the mound for the Tigers on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 1968 against the Cleveland Indians at Tiger Stadium. It was the first game of a twi-night doubleheader—one of those delicious baseball things of the past that has as much chance of returning as the Triceratops (no matter what Michael Crichton might tell you).

It was a spot start for the lefty Hiller, which was so appropriate. Hiller was the Tigers’ jack-of-all-trades on the team’s pitching staff from 1965-80. But I wouldn’t call him a master of none. This Tuesday night game against the Tribe in 1968 was demonstrative of that.

The first six Indians went down on strikes—three swinging in the first inning and three looking in the second frame.

The performance, at the time, set a big league record for most consecutive strikeouts to start a game.

It also wasn’t the only time that Hiller went on a strikeout spree against the Indians. On the last day of the 1970 season, Hiller fanned seven straight Cleveland hitters.

‘I don’t want to coach. I want to pitch.’

Hiller flies under the radar when the discussion turns to all-time great Tigers pitchers. I’m not suggesting that he should be in that discussion, necessarily, but I know this: John Hiller was, without question, the most versatile pitcher in franchise history. Period.

No matter what the situation called for, you could give the ball to Hiller and not bat an eye. He could start. He could pitch in long relief. He could close games. He could come into a game in extra innings and pitch as long as he needed to. Hiller was the Swiss Army Knife of hurlers.

The Toronto native spent all 15 of his big league seasons wearing the Old English D over his heart. Ironic, because that heart was nearly his undoing in 1971.

Hiller was having coffee and a cigarette in his kitchen the morning of Jan. 11, 1971 when he began to feel discomfort in his left, pitching arm. The discomfort grew and he began to sweat beads. He beckoned an ambulance. Diagnosis: heart attack. Treatment: bypass surgery.

He was 27 years old. How in the world does a professional athlete suffer a heart attack at that age?

It would have been ridiculously easy to write Hiller off at that point. How in the world does a professional athlete suffer a heart attack, and return to action?

Billy Martin was the Tigers’ skipper when Hiller was stricken, and he offered the southpaw a coaching job in the organization’s minor league system. Kind of a roving instructor kind of thing.

“I don’t want to coach,” Hiller told Martin. “I want to pitch.”

There probably was no better manager than Billy Martin for Hiller’s sake.

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Billy, for everything else that he was that wasn’t always good, often campaigned for the unlikely and for the disadvantaged.

It was Billy Martin who arrived at a Michigan state prison in 1973 to watch an inmate named Ron LeFlore play baseball in the prison ballyard. Martin recommended that the Tigers take a flyer on the speedster who could hit. When management pushed back on the idea, Billy had a comeback waiting.

“Where do you think you found Gates Brown? Kindergarten?” Billy said, referencing Gates’ run-ins with the law in his youth.

Martin often thought outside the box—for good and for bad. He drew lineups out of a hat. He put catchers in the outfield to take advantage of their strong arms.

So when Hiller told Billy that he wasn’t about to let a little thing like a heart attack derail his career, Martin lent a sympathetic ear.

Triumphant return

With Martin’s blessing and encouragement, Hiller went to work in rehabbing from his situation, and returned to the big leagues on July 8, 1972. It didn’t go so well against the White Sox in Chicago that outing: three innings pitched, four hits, two runs scored. But he was back. John Hiller was back. After suffering a heart attack.

Martin used Hiller sparingly out of the bullpen in 1972, gradually working the lefty back into the swing of things. Hiller got a spot start on Aug. 11 and gutted out three innings. The opponent? The Indians, of course.

But it was in 1973 when Hiller officially returned, for good.

He saved 38 games, a Tigers record. A few (but only a few) were of the cheap variety, given the antiquated save rule at the time (it was changed shortly thereafter), but nonetheless, Hiller was Fireman of the Year for 1973.

Such was Hiller’s ominipresence on the mound in various situations that in 1974, he had 31 decisions (17-14), all out of the bullpen.

In that magical Year of the Tiger in 1968, just a couple weeks after the Aug. 6 game, Hiller vexed the White Sox with a one-hit shutout in yet another emergency start.

Hiller lost significant weight after his heart attack, but he didn’t lose any zing off his fastball or any motion off his vaunted curveball. If anything, he came back in better physical shape than before he was stricken. He quit smoking. He curtailed his heavy drinking.

Hiller only appeared in 39 games in 1968, but he made 12 starts and managed to compile 128 innings’ worth of work. He imploded in Game 4 of the World Series, but the Tigers lost the game, 10-1, so it hardly mattered.

Fun fact about Hiller: he threw the last pitch at the old Yankee Stadium in 1973, before it was renovated. He got Mike Hegan to fly out.

Hiller was among my favorite Tigers. When you think of rubber-armed pitchers for the franchise, portly Mickey Lolich is the first man you think of. But Hiller shouldn’t be far behind. Lolich knew he’d be getting the ball every fourth or fifth day. Hiller arrived at the ballpark not only not knowing whether he’d pitch that day, but for how long. It also wasn’t uncommon for Hiller to not find out that he was starting that day’s game until he got to his locker to change out of his street clothes.

It would be a stretch to call John Hiller a star of the 1968 Tigers, though he had his moments that year. But on a pitching staff filled with starters who gobbled up innings, Hiller was a trustworthy arm out of the bullpen, ready whenever needed, for as many innings as needed.

Initially bitter and confused about his heart attack at 27 years old, Hiller reflected on it years later.

“It made me a better person and a better pitcher.”