- May 8, 1943
- 6' 1"
- 185 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 9-06-1965 with DET
- Allstar Selections:
- 1973 HA
Hiller nearly died when he suffered a massive stroke in 1971, but after a miraculous recovery he was pitching again for the Tigers by the end of 1972. He posted 38 saves in 1973 to set a ML record and win Comeback Player of the Year and Fireman of the Year honors. He was also 10-5 with a 1.44 ERA and led the AL with 65 appearances.
After a moderately successful career as a reliever and occasional starter (he tied a since-broken ML record for consecutive strikeouts from the start of a game with six on August 6, 1968) Hiller missed all of 1971 after being stricken. He came back as a batting-practice pitcher in June 1972 and returned to action a month later, helping Detroit to the division title and winning Game Four of the LCS. Hiller set some more relief marks in 1974, the year after his save record, when his 17-14 record (13 saves) tied both the AL mark for relief wins and the ML standard for relief losses. The Canadian had several more seasons as the ace of the Tigers' bullpen and retired with a club-record 125 saves.
John Frederick Hiller (born April 8, 1943 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada) is a former left-handed relief pitcher in Major League Baseball who played his entire career for the Detroit Tigers. After suffering a heart attack in 1971, he returned to the team and recorded 38 saves in 1973 – a major league record until 1983, and a team record until 2000. He also set an American League record by winning 17 games in relief in 1974. His 125 career saves ranked fourth in AL history and were the seventh most among all left-handers when he retired, and stood as a team record until 1993. His 545 career games pitched ranked ninth among AL left-handers at the end of his career, and remain the franchise record.
Hiller grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, and after signing with the Tigers in 1962, he broke in with the team in 1965, but didn't see substantial play until 1967 when he appeared in 23 games. He pitched in 39 games for the 1968 pennant winners, posting a 9-6 record with 2 saves and a 2.39 earned run average. He had two unsuccessful relief appearances in the 1968 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, pitching the last two innings in the 7-3 Game 3 loss and facing five batters without recording an out in Game 4, a 10-1 loss. He allowed six hits and three walks, posting a 13.50 ERA, but the Tigers recovered to win the Series in seven games.
After his January 11, 1971 heart attack, he had a lengthy recovery and was invited to 1972 spring training, but was left off the roster and designated as a coach when the year began, starting the season as a batting practice pitcher. He rejoined the team in July, and had a 2.03 ERA in 24 games with 3 saves; his sole win came in a pivotal start, beating the Milwaukee Brewers 5-1 in the last weekend as the Tigers drove to the Eastern Division title. He pitched in three games in the 1972 American League Championship Series against the Oakland Athletics, winning Game 4 when Detroit scored three times in the bottom of the 10th inning to win 4-3.
1973 marked a full return, as Hiller posted a 1.44 ERA and an Adjusted ERA+ of 285—the highest in Detroit Tigers history and one of the highest in baseball history. (See Detroit Tigers award winners and league leaders) Hiller also broke Clay Carroll's record of 37 saves, set the previous year with the Cincinnati Reds; he also led the league with 65 appearances. Hiller became the first Tiger to lead the AL in saves since Al Benton in 1940, and the first to lead the league in games since Harry Coveleski in 1915. His saves record would stand for ten years until Dan Quisenberry saved 45 games with the 1983 Kansas City Royals; Dave Righetti would be the first left-hander to top his total, with 46 in 1986 for the New York Yankees, and Todd Jones broke his club record with 42 in 2000. He won baseball's Hutch Award – given for fighting spirit and competitive desire – in 1973 after having recovered from his heart attack, as well as the AL Fireman of the Year Award and Comeback Player of the Year Award. Hiller was also the last man to throw a pitch in the "original" Yankee Stadium, getting New York Yankee Mike Hegan to fly out to center field in an 8-5 Detroit win.
In 1974, Hiller set an AL record with 17 relief wins, topping Dick Radatz' total of 16 with the 1964 Boston Red Sox; Bill Campbell tied the record with the 1976 Minnesota Twins, though it has not been broken. Hiller also made the AL All-Star team for the only time in 1974, and early in the year broke Terry Fox' team record of 55 career saves.
In 1979, Hiller passed Mickey Lolich to become Detroit's top left-hander with 509 career games. He retired from baseball after appearing in 11 games in 1980 and breaking Hooks Dauss' franchise record of 538 games pitched. He ended his career with a record of 87-76, a 2.83 ERA and 1036 strikeouts in 1242 innings pitched. His saves total then ranked behind only Sparky Lyle (231), Hoyt Wilhelm (154) and Rollie Fingers (136) in AL history. His Tigers record of 125 career saves was broken by Mike Henneman in 1993.
Hiller went into the insurance business and owned his own pet store for a year in Duluth, Minnesota after leaving baseball. He currently lives in Northern Michigan with his wife Lynette and dog Ollie. He was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985, and into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.
During the 1977 season, Hiller was pitching for the Tigers in a game against the Seattle Mariners, who at the time were a first-year expansion team playing their home games in the Seattle Kingdome. The Kingdome had huge speakers hanging from its roof, in which a batted ball could very easily hit. Hiller gave up what appeared to be a game-winning home run to former teammate Willie Horton, but the ball hit one of the speakers and bounded back onto the field. In his post-game interview, Hiller was quoted as saying, "If a ball hits one of those (speakers) and saves a game for a pitcher, he ought to go to church the next day. I guess you know where I'll be tomorrow!"
- John Hiller