Hiller’s amazing comeback is one of Tigers’ greatest triumphs over adversity

John Hiller's 1973 Topps baseball card shows him in his road uniform during spring training in 1972, a year after suffering a massive heart attack.

John Hiller’s 1973 Topps baseball card shows him in his road uniform during spring training in 1972, a year after suffering a massive heart attack.

I’m not sure what John Hiller was thinking when this photograph was taken, presumably during spring training of 1972. He appears to be looking somewhere into the stands, while at the same time being aware that the Topps cameraman is trying to take his picture. Hiller looks a bit distracted, which is understandable given his probable state of mind at the time. In 1971, he had suffered a heart attack, which not only put his career into jeopardy but at least temporarily raised questions about whether he was going to live. When you’re trying to come back from something like that, you can be excused for having multiple thoughts going through your mind.

How did Hiller get to that point in the early 1970s? His professional career began in 1962, when the Tigers signed him after scouting him as an amateur pitcher in Canada. Three years later, Hiller made his big league debut for the Tigers. By 1967 he had gained traction as a reliever and fill-in starter for Mayo Smith’s club.

Although we tend to remember Hiller as a reliever almost exclusively, he actually made his mark on the 1968 world championship team as an occasional starter. Among his 12 starts, two stood out in particular. In an early August appearance against the Indians, he struck out the first six batters of the game. Later that month, he recorded a one-hit shutout against the Chicago White Sox.

The Tigers saw enough from Hiller to include him on the World Series roster against the St. Louis Cardinals. He made two relief appearances against the Redbirds but did not fare well, giving up three runs in two innings, bad enough for an ERA of 13.50. Still, he was a member of a world championship squad, which mattered far more than two irrelevant relief appearances.

Given the presence of three excellent starters in Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich, and Earl Wilson, the Tigers used Hiller mostly in relief the next two seasons. He was not yet anointed the team’s relief ace – that role was shared by Don McMahon and Pat Dobson one year and then assumed by Tom Timmermann the next – but he remained valuable with his ability to pitch multiple innings and make the occasional spot start. He also made use of a new addition to his repertoire, an effective slider taught to him by innovative pitching coach Johnny Sain.

Then came the near tragedy of that day in January 1971, as he finished off a cup of coffee and started his first cigarette that morning. Hiller didn’t just suffer a heart attack that morning; it was a massive one. He was only 27 years old. So why did this happen to such a young man, seemingly in good health? He was a chronic smoker, a habit that he had picked up at the age of 13. Hiller had no idea that smoking could damage his health. He didn’t see any advertisements that warned against the habit. Similarly, none of his friends or family members told him about the danger.

Hiller had also added weight to his frame since the 1968 season. The combination of smoking and weight gain led directly to two blockages in his heart valve.

After being hospitalized, his doctor recommended that he undergo intestinal bypass surgery, which was experimental at the time, as a way of allowing him to lose weight. The surgery went well, eventually allowing Hiller to go home. By the time he left the hospital, he weighed 148 pounds, down from the 220 pounds that he weighed at the time of the heart attacks. By that winter, Hiller was working out a full three hours a day. He completely quit smoking and cut down significantly on his drinking.

Still, it was obvious that Hiller faced a long rehabilitation and an unlikely comeback. The Tigers believed that he would never pitch again and released him. The Tigers were well aware of a player with the NFL’s Detroit Lions, Chuck Hughes, who suffered a fatal heart attack during a game at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers did not want to repeat that tragedy.

The Tigers did throw Hiller a morsel of consolation. Early in 1972, they invited him to spring training, but he failed his physical. They would not permit to him pitch in any of their spring games. So they offered him a position as a minor league pitching instructor. At the end of spring training, the Tigers offered him another consolation prize. Designating Hiller as one of their coaches, the Tigers agreed to carry him as a batting practice pitcher.

Yet, Hiller was not satisfied. He continued to work hard on his conditioning while maintaining a throwing regimen. As the season progressed, the Tigers noticed improvements as he continued to throw batting practice. In July, the Tigers faced a pitching shortage, caused by injuries to left-handers Fred Scherman and Les Cain. With the need for a lefty reliever more than obvious, the Tigers decided to take the next step, a major gamble given all that had happened, by adding Hiller to their 25-man roster.

Aside from his midseason acquisitions of Duke Sims and Woodie Fryman, it might have been the best move made that summer by general manager Jim Campbell. With Scherman, their best left-handed reliever, on the sidelines, manager Billy Martin welcomed another southpaw in an effort to match up against certain lineups.

After Hiller gave up a home run to Dick Allen in his first appearance back, he began to pitch well in subsequent appearances, enough that Martin showed trust in him as a starter. He gave Hiller three starts, all the while telling his young pitchers to watch how a smart veteran like Hiller mixed his pitches. Hiller’s season culminated in two successful relief outings against the A’s in the playoffs, efforts that tend to be forgotten because of Detroit’s heartbreaking loss in Game Five.

Hiller was not a particularly hard thrower; he threw in the low 90s. But he had two very good pitches; one was the slider taught to him by Sain. The other was a newly added change-up, which he had picked up in the spring of ‘72 from one of the Tigers’ other minor league pitching coaches. The slider had already made Hiller tough against left-handed hitters; the change-up made now gave him a more formidable plan of attack against right-handed batters.

By 1973, Hiller achieved full strength, and Billy Martin took advantage by making him the unquestioned relief ace. Hiller pitched even better in ‘73 than he had in 1972. Even though the Tigers eventually fell out of contention in the American League East, Hiller was stellar. An absolute workhorse, he appeared in a league-leading 65 games. In 125 innings, he struck out 124 batters and posted an ERA of 1.44. He saved 38 games, at the time a record. He earned most of those saves the hard way, often pitching two or three innings at a time. Back then, closers weren’t just reserved for the ninth inning. They were often brought into games in the eighth inning, or the seventh, and often with runners on base. No wonder they were called firemen. And none were any better than Hiller during his fantastic year of 1973.

Hiller offered an explanation to his heightened level of success. “The tight situations don’t seem as tight to me now as they once did,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I used to be a nervous pitcher. I figure now that other things in my life might have been harder.”

Hiller so dominated American League hitters that writers placed him fourth in both the MVP and the Cy Young Award voting. He won the Comeback Player of the Year Award in a runaway vote. He also took home the Hutch Award, named for the courageous Tiger manager who had died from cancer in 1964. Under any circumstances, Hiller’s performance rated as impressive. Given that just two years earlier he had almost died from a major heart attack, his efforts deserve to be called nearly supernatural.

The veteran left-hander never quite matched 1973 again, but he remained very good in the role of Tigers’ relief ace. He won 17 games in relief in 1974, while spinning an ERA of 2.64. He lowered his ERA to 2.17 the next season, though injuries did limit his workload. He returned to health in 1976, slumped in ‘77, and pitched well again in ‘78, at the age of 35. That year, manager Ralph Houk was preparing to leave his position at season’s end. In the final game of the year, he asked Hiller to pitch, just so that he could watch him work one more time.

It was not until 1979 that Hiller really started to show the effects of age. Closing out his career with two summers of struggle in set-up relief, Hiller finally retired in May of 1980. He became the last member of the 1968 world champions to leave the game as an active player.

John Hiller has not pitched in a major league game in 33 years. Fans in their thirties and under likely never saw him pitch. Yet, he remains well known to Tiger fans and historians. To this day, a question regarding the identify of the greatest Tiger closer ever will yield a short list of candidates: Willie Hernandez, Mike Henneman, Todd Jones, and John Hiller. Hernandez, Henneman, and Jones are more recent phenomena, but a good argument can be made that Hiller was the best of them all.

To think, Hiller was just another decent pitcher in the Tigers’ bullpen before the heart attack. Most men would not have been able to make such a comeback. Hiller did it, somehow, and transformed himself from a footnote to a hero.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.