John Hiller was not born or raised in Michigan; he is from Toronto, Canada, where hockey remains king. Yet, he is someone who has become synonymous with the Detroit Tigers’ franchise, having pitched his entire major league career for them, and someone who has become forever linked to the state of Michigan. He is one of many Tigers who have chosen to live in the state, making him an even more integral part of the local community as he moves into his early seventies.
Hiller’s story is one that remains underrated. Based upon what he has overcome, he deserves to be treated as a baseball hero. Diehard fans of the Tigers know full well what happened to Hiller 44 years ago and how he carved out a comeback against the longest of odds, but other fans are perhaps not as aware of the miracle performed by this Michigan left-hander.
The day was January 11, 1971. Hiller was home for the winter, anticipating the start of another spring training, which was a little more than a month away. Hiller was expecting that manager Billy Martin would use him as both a spot starter and relief pitcher that season. That scenario never came to pass. That cold winter day, Hiller suffered not one heart attack, but three. Years later, he described the sensations that he felt in suffering the succession of heart attacks. “Incredibly painful, incredibly frightening. I didn’t even know I was having a heart attack, first of all. A heart attack? I was 27 years old.”
What caused the series of heart attacks? At six foot, one inches and 185 pounds, Hiller was not overweight or out of shape. But he was a heavy smoker. He had started smoking at the age of 13. Like many ballplayers of the day, Hiller smoked cigarettes regularly, in part because we did not know the full effects of cigarette smoke on the body. Health warnings did not first appear on cigarette packaging until 1965. For many, that message did not become clearer until the 1970s. By then, Hiller was already well past the stage of being addicted to tobacco.
Due to his long smoking habit, Hiller had incurred two cholesterol blockages to a valve in his heart. His doctors prescribed intestinal bypass surgery. The surgery was deemed successful, but Hiller was told that he would have to miss all of the 1971 season. There was even speculation that his days as a pitcher might be over.
After a spring and summer of rest and recovery, Hiller underwent additional tests in the fall that showed the blockages had almost completely been alleviated. He could now begin working out as part of a comeback effort. Beginning in November, Hiller began a daily workout regimen that lasted for three hours and consisted of stretching, lifting, and running. He would continue that regimen through the following spring.
By the spring, Hiller received permission from his doctor in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to resume pitching. But the Tigers were not as convinced about his readiness. After looking at his medical reports, the Tigers ordered Hiller to undergo more testing in hospitals in Detroit and Ann Arbor. General manager Jim Campbell considered the advice of the Michigan doctors before coming to the following conclusion: “We can’t permit John to return as a player at this time,” Campbell told Watson Spoelstra, corresponding for The Sporting News.
In actuality, the Tigers felt an extra sense of caution because of a recent tragedy in another sport. Only a few months earlier, during the fall of 1971, Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes had died on the playing field as the result of a heart attack. That was the last thing that Campbell and the Tigers wanted to see—a member of the Tigers dying on the diamond in the middle of a game.
To their credit, the Tigers did not abandon Hiller. They offered him a contract to work as a spring training instructor. Once the season began, he would work as a minor league instructor. Unfortunately, he also had to endure a reduction in salary, as the Tigers paid him at the rate of only $7,500, a cutback of several thousand dollars from his salary as a pitcher. As a result, Hiller would spend a good part of the season living on soda crackers and water.
With no other options available, Hiller reported to Lakeland. Not satisfied with work as an instructor, Hiller threw batting practice whenever possible. He showed Martin and pitching coach Art Fowler that he could throw all three of his pitches—fastball, change-up, and curve ball—with effectiveness. Martin and Fowler came away impressed, but they were not prepared to defy orders and allow Hiller to throw in a spring training game. So Hiller continued to throw batting practice sessions only. When the Tigers broke camp, they left Hiller behind, to serve as a pitching coach for the Tigers’ Class-A affiliate in Lakeland.
As frustrated as Hiller felt, his work ethic and resolve drew praise at a forum of the Michigan Heart Association. “It takes discipline, hard work, and single-minded determination to win ballgames,” said Dr. Louis Zako in addressing the attendees at the forum. “That same mental attitude is critical in recovering from a heart attack. I would have to call John Hiller a hero. So are other heart victims who didn’t give up. You have to have the will to win.”
Hiller continued to demonstrate that willingness throughout the early season, even as his future with the Tigers remained clouded. Under the rules of the time, Hiller had been placed on the “voluntarily retired list” and could remain ineligible for up to 60 days. Once that time frame expired, the Tigers would have to make a decision. They could let him remain in Lakeland as a coach, activate him to the major league roster, or give him his outright release.
That latter option remained a viable option, as cruel as it might have seemed. Then in late June, the Tigers delivered the announcement that Hiller would rejoin the team—as a batting practice pitcher and part-time coach, with the option to be reactivated to fulltime pitching status in the near future. The Tigers made the decision based on a recommendation from Dr. J. Willis Hurst, a doctor in Atlanta. Dr. Hurst told the Tigers that Hiller was free of the symptoms that had caused the heart attack. “For Mr. Hiller,” Dr. Hurst explained, “it is better for him to play baseball than not to play baseball.”
The arrangement as a batting practice pitcher lasted only a few days. Billy Martin, who had been impressed by Hiller’s work in the spring, urged Campbell to reactive his veteran left-hander. Campbell did, allowing Hiller to make his season debut on July 8. Debuting in long relief, Hiller allowed a home run to the first batter he faced, Dick Allen, and then settled in for a three-inning stint.
From there, the miracle of John Hiller took off. Martin continued to call on Hiller, mostly in relief, but occasionally as a starter. Hiller responded with a stretch of terrific pitching in July, August, and September. For the season, he pitched 44 innings, including three starts, and put up an ERA of 2.03. He also saved three games, Not only did Hiller pitch well, but he pitched better than ever, dating back to his first full season of 1968.
Hiller wasn’t done. In 1973, he pitched the entire season with the Tigers and forged numbers that bordered on the supernatural. Logging 125 innings as the Tigers’ newfound relief ace, Hiller lowered his ERA to 1.44 and set an American League record with 38 saves. For his efforts, he earned Fireman of the Year honors, the Comeback Player of the Year Award, and the Hutch Award for his spirit and toughness.
Hiller would never again match his numbers of 1973, but he remained highly effective over the next three seasons. His ERA rose above 3.50 in 1977, but he bounced back with a very good 1978 before age finally took its toll in 1979 and ’80. By the time his career had ended, it was clear that Hiller had become the best relief ace in the history of the Tigers. The Tigers have had many closers since then, but according to Dan Holmes’ 2011 article in this space, Hiller remains the best relief pitcher the Tigers have ever had, ahead of Willie Hernandez and Aurelio Lopez. With little hesitance, I would agree.
After his playing days, Hiller considered a career working as a pitching coach in the Tigers’ system, but a circulatory problem derailed that possibility. Instead, he went into the insurance business and briefly operated a pet store in Minnesota.
All these years later, Hiller is married to his second wife, Linette, and lives in retirement in Iron Mountain, a small city located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The down-to-earth Hiller loves life in a village setting. “I just enjoy the small-town flair,” Hiller said a few years ago. “You better just be like you’re everybody else, and they’ll accept you in a heartbeat.”
It’s ironic that Hiller would use the word “heartbeat.” In 1971, that heart nearly stopped beating for good, but sheer work and competitive fire have led to a prosperous career and a long life for John Frederick Hiller.