I’ll admit, before I mailed this card out, I had no idea who John Hiller was. But one of the great joys of this blog is getting to know these players and their careers. And I’m quite glad I got to know John Hiller. A few facts: Hiller is a native Canadian; he threw 128 innings, in starts and relief, for the 1968 AL Champion Tigers; that same year, he was nicknamed “Ratso” after the Dustin Hoffman character in Midnight Cowboy because, at the time, he was walking with a limp; also that same year, he threw nine, four-hit, shutout innings at the Yankees after entering a game in the 8th inning (the game was eventually declared a tie after 19 innings); he missed the 1971 season after suffering THREE heart attacks in one day; in the seven years after returning from his heart attacks, he posted an ERA+ of 161 – which was significantly better than the seven year PEAK of SANDY F’ing KOUFAX; Hiller’s career ERA+ is 134 – 26th highest of all-time and better than Greg Maddux, Roy Halladay, Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, or Whitey Ford.
Hiller worked primarily as a reliever and spot starter. In 1973, as the fireman on an 85-win Tigers team, he set a major league record for saves in a season (38) and recorded what the Hardball Times ranked as the second-greatest relief pitcher season of all-time. That year, he finished fourth place in both the AL Cy Young and MVP voting. And it was on one of the Tigers’ trips to Milwaukee that season that his picture on this card was taken. That was teh same year the Tigers (more specifically Billy Martin) and the Brewers had a minor beef over a comment Martin had made while the Brewers were ahead of his Tigers in the standings. I wrote a short piece on that for my Brewers history blog, if anyone is interested.
The Summer of ’74 would not be as kind to the Tigers at ’73, and the club sputtered to a 72-80 mark, their worst finish since 1960. But Hiller remained sharp. Working exclusively out of the bullpen, he finished 52 of the 59 games he entered. Oddly enough, he actually registered more wins and losses than saves. He tallied a 17-14 mark (the most decisions ever for pitcher with zero starts) with only 13 saves – a testament more to the erratic play of this Tigers than his presence on the mound. Although he did not start, he was an highly-effective rubber arm in the ‘pen. He made nine appearances that season of more than three innings – including five games of five innings or more – each an act of blasphemy by today’s standards. He was also an all-star in ’74, but didn’t play in the game.
He remained one of the best bullpen arms in the AL for the next half-decade, but mostly on second-division Tiger clubs. He retired after the 1980 season as the Tigers all-time leaders in saves and the last of the ’68 World Series team still active.