John Hiller: From Death's Doorstep to One of the Best

Joey CorsoCorrespondent IJune 1, 2009

Throughout our life time, we are all bound to face some sort of adversity. Whether it be trouble in school, recovering from an addiction,or coping with the loss of a loved one, it is never easy.

Now imagine the people you respect most in your life and think about what they have accomplished. Over their life time they have probably beaten the odds at least once and without possibly not even thinking about it until now, it is likely a key component of your admiration.

Yet as regular civilians we are blessed. We are allowed to deal with life’s obstacles in private, something we take for granted.

Professional athletes on the other hand are not so fortunate. Yes they get the fame and the fortune, but it comes with a steep price. You see, when their life gets messy, they must overcome it with everyone watching.

As strong willed as they might be, most simply cannot handle the pressure. Yet if they find a way to persevere through it all and come back, we anoint them as heroes.

This is the tale of a ball player who unintentionally came knocking on death’s doorstep. Against all odds he reemerged, becoming an inspiration for all.

After making some brief appearances for the Detroit Tigers during the previous two seasons, in 1967 the baseball world was formally introduced to southpaw relief pitcher John Hiller. During this pennant season for the Tiger’s he quickly became their go to guy, posting a solid 2.63 ERA in 65 innings pitched.

Over the next three seasons, Hiller blossomed into one of the better relievers in the game. From 1966-1968 he posted a highly respectable 2.99 ERA, serving as closer, middle reliever, and spot starter. Although he posted middling numbers the next two seasons, Hiller was only 27 and to many in baseball, his future looked bright.

On January 11th 1971, Hiller’s baseball career was put on hold. On that day, Hiller suffered a massive heart attack. Although he had been smoking since the age of 13, a good deal of other players had as well and none had ever suffered this fate.


“Incredibly painful, incredibly frightening” he said when asked about it in a recent interview. “I didn’t even know I was having a heart attack, first of all. A heart attack? I was 27-years-old.”

Hiller was an incredibly lucky man. Although there were two blockages in the valve of his heart, he was told he would suffer no permanent damage with the intestinal bypass surgery. Alive and on the road of recovery, the dream of returning some day began to creep in the back of his mind.

After sitting out the entire 1971 season, Hiller’s tests showed his cholesterol was nearly all the way down and the blockages were nearly gone. Although he would have to convince the Tiger’s he was 100 percent healthy, the dream was now a possibility.

That offseason, Hiller worked harder than he ever had in his entire life. For three hours a day, every day, from the first part of November to the first part of April, he made up for lost time by running, stretching, and lifting like he never had before.

“I hated running and working out, but every time things got tough, I’d squint, look at the guy ahead of me on the track, and think about getting back on the mound at Tigers Stadium.”

Although Hiller’s doctors had given him the okay, the Tiger’s were never quite on board with the idea and he failed the team’s physical. Still, they offered $7,500 dollars a year to be a minor league instructor starting in spring training. Not the $20,000 he was used to, but he hadn’t sniffed a paycheck in over a year and happily accepted.

From the moment Hiller arrived at camp, he had the look of a man on a mission. Hiller took every opportunity to throw batting practice, working hard on his fastball, changeup, and curve. Manager Billy Martin and Pitching Coach Art Folwer were impressed with what they saw, but the team wouldn’t even let him throw in an official spring training game and he was left behind with the A-league team when camp broke.

Those next few months, Hiller hit rock bottom.

“Those weren’t easy times” he said. “The club let me sleep on a mattress in the clubhouse. I saved up my Minor League meal money, $5 a day, and tried to find discount meals. I’ll never forget—

I’d go to a local restaurant and, when they weren’t looking, I’d try to take as many soda crackers as I could and save them up for lunch.”

As much as he wanted to give up at times, his family back in Minnesota kept encouraging him to work hard. A couple months later, all of Hiller’s hard work would finally pay off.

In July of 1972, Hiller finally got the call. Although he had made no rehab assignments and had strictly been pitching to minor leaguers since camp ended, Martin had remembered him from spring training and urged management to give him a chance.

Right from the get go, Hiller was thrown into the flames. The first batter he faced was slugger Dick Allen, who would go onto to win MVP that season. Although he let up a home run, he pitched well the rest of the night and had earned Martin’s confidence.

Hiller never looked back and finished the season with an incredible 2.03 ERA in 44 innings pitched. Not only did he return to the big leagues just a year and a half after his heart attack, he posted the best numbers of his career. To everyone’s surprise, Hiller was just getting started.

“I’d learned my lesson, I can tell you, from before. Once things had gone my way in ’72, I never stopped working.” In 1973, which happened to be the first year of the designated hitter, Hiller had what baseball statistician Bill James once called “the greatest season for a closer in the history of baseball.”

As the Tiger’s closer that season, Hiller posted an incredible 1.44 ERA and posted at the time a major league record 38 saves in 125 innings pitched.

 The awards flew in at an incredible rate, as he was honored with AL Fireman of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, and the Hutch Award, given to the player who best displays a fighting spirit and competitive desire.

Hiller never quite had another season like his magical 1973 campaign, but because of his strong work ethic, he continued to be one of the top relievers in the game. When the career Detroit Tiger retired for good during the 1980 season, he not only finished his career with a miraculous 2.83 ERA but held the club records for career appearances and saves.

Although, it’s been nearly 30 years since Hiller’s last game, his accomplishments are still celebrated by many. At the age of 66, he continues to be in great health and to this day Hiller is still very much committed to all the heart related charities he first became involved with during his playing days.

As you can see, going through adversity is never easy. Although your story might not end up being as well known as John Hiller’s, with a lot of hard work and dedication it can be overcome, and that’s all that matters.


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