He did not play collegiate baseball.
He did, however, play on the same team and against some of the best to ever put on a Major League Baseball uniform.
The 92-year-old Hillman, now a Kingsport resident, is the oldest living member of the 1962 New York Mets expansion team.
Hillman played in the major leagues for eight years with four teams: the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Red Sox, the Cincinnati Reds and the Mets.
“I worked hard and stayed with it,” Hillman said. “I really enjoyed it and I worked hard to try and stay good at it.”
LONG ROAD TO THE DIAMOND
Hillman did not start playing organized baseball until after he graduated from high school and served a stint in the Air Force.
He attended high school at Dungannon in Scott County during the World War II era.
“During the war we didn’t really have an athletic program in school at Dungannon where we played other schools or anything,” Hillman recalled. “We just went to the ballpark after school and picked teams and played ball.”
Baseball was Hillman’s sport of choice, although he tried his hand at basketball.
“I ran up and down the court some, but I didn’t do a whole lot more,” he said. “I could throw a baseball and that was about it.”
After graduating from high school in 1945 and joining the Air Force, Hillman could still throw a baseball when he returned to Scott County three years later.
The economy was tough then and Hillman struggled to find a job. He could, however, find an outlet for his baseball talents.
“I joined up with a bunch of guys like me that were coming back from the military and formed a baseball team in Dungannon and competed in the Tri-County League,” Hillman said.
The players referred to their group as the “52-20 league” because they were paid $52 to play 20 games in a month.
“We played against teams from Clinchco, Grundy, Dorchester, Norton, St. Paul, Dante and some other places like that,” Hillman said. “There were some good ballplayers back then and we played some good games.”
The following year, Hillman played for a team in Coeburn that was made up primarily of college graduates from Milligan. It was then that Hillman’s life changed forever.
“We played a game in St. Paul and a scout happened to hear about it and was in the crowd,” Hillman said. “After the game, he talked to me and wanted to sign me to a contract.”
The scout was Tim Murchison, who scouted the region for the Cubs.
Hillman inked a deal and played for the organization’s minor league teams from 1950-55.
In 1955, he got his first call-up to the big leagues.
After pitching in Des Moines, Iowa; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Beaumont, Texas, among other clubs, Hillman found himself in Chicago and throwing for the Cubs and their manager, Stan Hack.
“He fell in love with me for some reason,” Hillman said. “He said at least I could get the ball over the plate and that was worth something.”
Hillman primarily came out of the bullpen for the Cubs. He threw 57 2/3 innings and didn’t get a decision in his first major league season.
He began both the 1956 and 57 seasons in the Cubs’ farm system but was called up to the big leagues both years. Hillman started 14 of 32 games he appeared in for the Cubs in 1957, posting a 6-11 record with one save and a 4.35 ERA in 103 1/3 innings.
He never returned to the minors.
In two more full seasons with the Cubs, Hillman played alongside the man who became known as “Mr. Cub” — Baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.
Hillman threw a combined 316 2/3 innings in 1958 and ’59, going 4-8 in ’58 and 8-11 in ’59. He had a combined 153 strikeouts in his final two seasons in Chicago.
ON TO THE NEXT ONE
In 1960, Hillman joined the Red Sox in Boston, where the legendary Ted Williams was finishing up his historic career.
“He was quite the player,” said Hillman, also a teammate of fellow pitcher Tracy Stallard.
Stallard, a Coeburn native, earned major league notoriety late in the 1961 season when he gave up a then-record 61st home run to New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris.
“Tracy and I got along well,” Hillman said. “We were just a couple of Southwest Virginia boys.”
Hillman worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen for the Red Sox, throwing 114 2/3 innings in 44 games.
In 1962, he went to Cincinnati, but the Reds early in the season traded him to a new club in New York known as the Mets.
Casey Stengel, who went on to become a legend managing the Yankees, was the Mets’ manager.
That year Hillman also had several Mets teammates who went on to managerial careers, including Roger Craig, Gil Hodges and Don Zimmer.
Hillman, who was 34 at the time, appeared in 13 games for the Mets, making one start. He threw 15 2/3 innings without getting a win or a loss.
That was his final season.
“They wanted me to go to Hawaii (in the minors) the next year and I didn’t want to go,” Hillman recalled. “I was done. So I came back home again.”
Hillman relocated in Kingsport and began working for his uncle at a local department store.
“I had a good career there and enjoyed it,” he said.
In his eight-year major league career, Hillman pitched 624 innings over 188 games, compiled a 21-37 record and had a 3.87 ERA.
Nowadays, he said, memories are sometimes harder to come, but he treasures each one he has.
“It was a good run,” Hillman said.