During his three-year stint as a pitcher with the Indians, lefty Tom Hilgendorf had his share of good moments and bad. The photo at the top of this post captured Hilgendorf at a bad moment indeed, perhaps the low point of the Indians franchise. Sadly, Hilgendorf is probably best remembered by Indians fans today for this incident, in which he was hit in the head and shoulder by a folding chair thrown from the stands by a fan who took full advantage of the infamous Ten Cent Beer Night promotion of June 4, 1974.
Hilgendorf, who had not appeared in the game against the Texas Rangers that night, was one of several Indians and Rangers players who had come to the defense of Rangers right fielder Jeff Burroughs, who had been attacked by a wave of drunken Indians fans in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 5-5. Rightly disgusted by the conduct of the fans throughout the evening, the umpires declared the game a forfeit win for the Rangers.
Despite the incident, Hilgendorf was used in relief in the next game, and retired all six batters he faced in the eighth and ninth innings, as the Indians beat the Rangers 9-3. It’s safe to assume that he still had some soreness and pain, though, as he didn’t appear in another game until eleven days later, on June 16.
Hilgendorf’s was an unusual major league career. Born in 1941, Hilgendorf was signed as an amateur free agent by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1960. He played for seven different minor league teams, all affiliated with the Cardinals, from 1960 through 1965. While playing winter ball in Nicaragua after the 1965 season, Hilgendorf contracted hepatitis, which sidelined him for the entire 1966 and 1967 seasons. He pitched for the Tulsa Oilers in 1968 and 1969 before finally getting the call-up to The Show in August of 1969 at the age of 27. Hilgendorf appeared in 29 games for the Cards in 1969 and 1970, and was traded to the Kansas City Royals in December of 1970. He spent the entire 1971 season with the AAA Omaha Royals, and began the 1972 season there as well, before being traded to the Indians on July 10, 1972.
Hilgendorf’s first appearance as an Indian was on July 12 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in a game against the Chicago White Sox. He entered the game with one out in the ninth, the score tied, and a runner on second. Hilgendorf gave up a single to the first batter he faced, bringing in the go-ahead run, and the Indians went on to lose, 5-4.
His next two appearances were also in relief. Hilgendorf got his first start as an Indian in the second game of a doubleheader on Sunday, July 30. Facing the Milwaukee Brewers at the Stadium, Hilgendorf had his best game with the Tribe, allowing only one run over nine innings, as the Indians beat the Brewers 6-1. Hilgendorf drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, his only RBI with the Indians. Indians manager Ken Aspromonte, impressed with the outing, gave Hilgendorf four more starts over the next three weeks, then never allowed Hilgendorf another start. Hilgendorf finished the season with an ERA of 2.68 over 47 innings, the fourth-best ERA on the staff that year among pitchers with more than 12 innings of work.
Used exclusively in relief in 1973, Hilgendorf had a decent year, appearing in 48 games with an ERA of 3.14, and lowering his WHIP from 1.53 in 1972 to 1.3. His performance in 1974, though, was decidedly worse. He got off to a disastrous start, giving up 9 earned runs in 4 2/3 innings in his first three appearances. He ended the season with an ERA of 4.84 and a WHIP of 1.56.
An interesting sidenote to the 1974 season: On Saturday, July 6, after a day game with the Angels in Anaheim, Hilgendorf, according to a Plain Dealer account, “dived fully clothed into a motel swimming pool . . . when he saw [13-year-old Jerry Zaradte of San Francisco] lying on the bottom.” Apparently the young Zaradte suffered from leg cramps while swimming. Hilgendorf was credited with saving the youth’s life.
Throughout his last two seasons with the Indians, Hilgendorf was, at times, not shy about expressing his displeasure with the way that Indians manager Ken Aspromonte used his pitching staff, and especially with the way that he, Hilgendorf, was being used. He always considered himself a starter and was frustrated that he wasn’t given more opportunities to start. When the Indians brought Frank Robinson to the team late in the 1974 season, it was widely rumored that Robinson would manage the team in 1975, which of course is exactly what happened. But before Aspromonte’s firing was official, Hilgendorf was quoted in the Plain Dealer: “Robinson has got to be better than that man (gesturing toward Aspromonte’s office), and I hope he uses his pitchers better.”
Hilgendorf never got to find out first-hand about Robinson’s managerial abilities, as he was traded in March of 1975 to the Philadelphia Phillies. Hilgendorf was excited about the trade, believing that he’d be given the opportunity to start. Although he had a good year with the team, going 7-3 with a 2.14 ERA, he was used exclusively in relief. The Phillies released him during spring training in 1976. He was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but retired after appearing in two games with the Pirates’ AAA affiliate in Charleston, Illinois. The career of Tom Hilgendorf had finally come to an end.
My account of Hilgendorf’s career would not be complete without mentioning this anecdote, as reported by Terry Pluto in the Plain Dealer of September 6, 1981: “Hilgendorf was playing in South America one winter when a monkey bit his child. Hilgendorf caught the animal and knocked its head off with a baseball bat.” It’s not every man who can claim to have been hit by a thrown chair, to have saved a drowning youth, and to have dispatched a monkey with one swing of a bat.