Prank calls and a heart attack? Detroit Tigers’ John Hiller did it all

Detroit Free Press

Bill Dow
 |  Special to Detroit Free Press

Free Press special writer Bill Dow continues his “where are they now” series about former Detroit Tigers players.

Today’s profile is on John Hiller:

How we remember him

One of the premier relievers in the 1970s began his 15-year career with the Tigers as a spot starter in 1965. He was the last player from the ’68 champs on the team when he retired in the middle of the 1980 season. A heart attack in 1970, at age 27, sidelined the Toronto native for the ‘71 season, but he returned in 1972 to help the Tigers capture the division title. The next year, he broke the major league single-season saves record with 38, went 10-5, compiled a 1.44 ERA, was named The Sporting News’ Comeback Player of the Year, Fireman of the Year and earned the Heart of the Year award by the American Heart Association. The crafty left-hander finished fourth in voting for both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.  

Nicknamed “Ratso” after the character from the movie “Midnight Cowboy,” he was an All-Star in 1974 and finished the year 17-14 with a 2.64 ERA and a career-high 134 strikeouts. He is the Tigers’ all-time leader in games pitched (545) and third in saves (125). 

After the Tigers

Dissatisfied with how he was being used by manager Sparky Anderson, on May 30, 1980, he abruptly retired and returned to his home in Duluth, Minnesota, before moving to the Upper Peninsula, where he has lived for over 35 years. He later sold insurance, owned a pet shop, operated a country store and worked as a Pepsi distributor. From 1985-87, he served as a roving minor league pitching instructor for the Tigers before retiring due to a health issue.


Hiller, 77, lives in Iron Mountain and Mesa, Arizona, with Linette, his wife of 35 years. He enjoys watching his grandson, Scott, play baseball, football, basketball and run track at Escanaba High School. For the past 18 years, Hiller has played in an annual 1880s vintage baseball game on Mackinac Island.

Growing up a hockey fan in Canada

“I started playing hockey at 8 or 9, but I couldn’t really stick handle and skate at the same time, so by age 14 I was a third-string goalie. My hockey hero was Toronto’s goalie, Johnny Bower, so it was a thrill for me to be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame with him. But I also liked the Wings’ Terry Sawchuk because he was one of the first goalies to come out of net. I probably saw five or six games a year at Maple Leaf Gardens with my buddies. The security wasn’t really great and we found ways to scrounge our way in. As I got older and playing more baseball, I watched the Toronto Maple Leafs minor league baseball team and saw Sparky Anderson play for them. My first Tiger manager, Charlie Dressen, managed them at one time. I had a pitching tryout at the ballfield and he told me, ‘Hey kid, don’t throw away your skates.’ ”

Losing the ’67 pennant, winning 1968 World Series

“I was called up in the early part of 1967 for the pennant race and did some spot starting and relief pitching (4-3 with a 2.63 ERA, two complete game shutouts, 65 innings pitched). When we lost the pennant on the last day of the season, I remember seeing Hank Aguirre sitting on his stool and crying. I was disappointed, but maybe not caught up about it like the veterans. In ’68, I felt more a part of the team and had success except for my two mop-up appearances in the World Series. When we won the pennant, we all went to the Lindell AC bar where Jimmy and Johnny Butsicaris let us go behind the counter and hand out drinks with all the fans celebrating with us. It was a magical season to say the least.”


Memorable moments in Tiger Stadium history

Eight memorable moments at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

His heart attack and comeback

“I was never in the best of shape and had three little heart attacks one morning in January of 1970. I didn’t tell (general manager) Jim Campbell until February that I would miss the 1971 season because I was having a stomach bypass in April to control my body’s absorption of cholesterol. It saved my life, but I went from 215 pounds to 148. No one thought I would play again but I was determined. I worked at a department store in Duluth and exercised every day at the YMCA. In February of ’72, Jim Campbell hired me for $7,500 to be a minor league pitching instructor. I lived on $2.50 a day meal money and slept in Billy Martin’s clubhouse office in Lakeland that was full of cockroaches. The pitching coach in Lakeland, John Grodzicki taught me how to throw a wicked change-up and that changed my whole career around. In July, the Tigers gave me a tryout when they were in Kansas City. Campbell signed me for $17,000, which was a $3,000 pay cut from my 1970 salary. I had not faced a live batter in 18 months and the first person I faced was Richie Allen, who hit a homer off the façade at Comiskey Park. I settled down and Billy told the others, ‘Look, he came back from the dead and didn’t walk anybody.’ Within a week I was the closer. I used to get letters from younger people who had suffered heart attacks and they told me I was an inspiration to them. That always made me feel great.”

His success as a reliever

“Everyone wanted to be a starter. There was more money in it. The way they used relievers back then you had to be blessed with a rubber arm, and I had one. I threw strikes with a fastball, a slurve, which was a cross between a slider and a curve that Johnny Sain taught me, and the change-up which was my main out pitch. If I had all three going, I knew I was going to have a good game. Coming in with the bases loaded, I wasn’t afraid. I worked fast and just went in and threw as hard and as long as I could and challenged the hitters. Bill Freehan called a great game and I rarely shook him off. Duke Sims was an underrated catcher and of course, Lance Parrish was a great receiver.”

[ As Bill Freehan lies in hospice care, his wife reveals their love story ]

The bullpen dugout at Tiger Stadium

“We called the bullpen dugout The Dungeon. In bad weather, it was cold and damp and when it was hot, we would often sit outside on the bench next to the grounds crew. Pat Dobson and I used to play gin down there and sometimes we made long-distance calls. I’ll leave it at that. Other times we had the stadium operator connect us to the opposing team’s bullpen and we would say, ‘Get Sparky Lyle up.’ After Jim Campbell found out, the phone only worked between the dugout and the bullpen. We sometimes traded baseballs for hot dogs. We’d say, ‘Hey kid, ask your dad how many hot dogs he’ll buy for us for a baseball,’ stuff like that.”

The Tigers managers he played for

“I can say that I liked all of them. Charlie Dressen was a lot of fun, but I don’t know if he ever knew my name. He was very easy to play for and old school. One time, we were in a losing streak and he gave Hank Aguirre $100 and said, ‘Why don’t you take the kids out and get ‘em drunk.’ Sometimes he would tell a player, ‘You’re not playing tonight, so here is $200, go to the track and place some bets for me.’ Mayo Smith was the right person at the right time when he took over in ’67. He had a veteran starting lineup and didn’t have to change it very often. Billy Martin liked me and had me pitch 13 out of 15 games one time. He liked to go with the hot hand. Because I was successful, I was in his good graces. If someone messed up, it was like Billy took it personally. Ralph Houk was my favorite manager and he was amazing. After a bad game I remember sitting on my stool, head down, and he came by my locker and asked, ‘Is your family OK?’ I said, ‘Yes Ralph.’ He said, ‘Well then you don’t have anything to worry about. It’s only a baseball game.’ Sparky Anderson was a good manager but I didn’t like the way he used me out of the bullpen.”

‘The Bird’

“Ralph Houk came up to me at the end of spring training in ’76 and said, ‘it hasn’t been made public yet, but Mark has made the team and he is going to locker beside you. Try to keep an eye out for him.’ Mark was the most genuine and honest person I have ever known and was 100% genuine. We needed him in baseball at that moment and he rejuvenated it. When he beat the Yankees on national television and the crowd kept calling for him, Rusty Staub and I convinced him to take a curtain call. If he hadn’t, those fans would still be out there. He was a great pitcher and simply a wonderful young man.”

His sudden retirement in 1980

“Sparky had his own thing about pitching. He started using me to face left-handed batters. I was actually better getting right-handed hitters out. Even if I got the hitter out, he would often replace me with a right-hander. Earlier in my career, I think I went almost four years during a stretch without being replaced. I wasn’t getting them out so he and Roger Craig (pitching coach) took me out to the bullpen to see if I could start throwing sidearm. I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy, here we go.’ I ended up tweaking my shoulder a bit and I wasn’t throwing well. I decided I wasn’t going to embarrass myself after having a decent career. I told Sparky I was retiring and then met with Jim Campbell. He called John Fetzer (owner) and they tried to talk me out of it. I told Jim that before I start opening my mouth it’s probably the best for everybody. I didn’t dress for the game and I told my teammates. It then got out to the media. Sparky said I should go onto to the field and wave to the fans which I did. They starting chanting, “We want Hiller.” I was shaking. It was really special.”

What he is most proud of from playing

“I think probably coming back from the heart attack and surgery when so many thought I wouldn’t play again. I had a decent career and I played the game right. I was respected by my teammates and opponents and I never bad-mouthed anyone. I went about my life the way I was raised by my great parents.”

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