I worked for him for two years, and marveled that he even bothered with baseball. Billy Hitchcock, president of the Southern League, was Mr. Alabama…24 hours of a day!
People tell me they love hearing “war stories” from the 7-plus years I spent as a minor league umpire, and the older I get the more I enjoy them myself.
I’ve shared prior on these pages about the night I made a horrible call in Chattanooga against a former Troy Legion teammate, Terry Tyson (from West Milton)…and ended up ejecting the entire Chattanooga team.
And, last year I told the story of how a mishap in Memphis one night with Ft. Loramie native Randy Schafer cost me a broken arm, but gained me a life-long friend…and the fun of reminding him (Schafer) of it.
But April the 9th will also remind me of one of the “most unforgettable characters” in my minor league days, the kind you used to read about in Reader’s Digest. People the likes of which you’d never met previously…and people you’re not likely to ever meet again.
Billy Hitchcock died on April 9, in 2010, and no, you’ve never heard of him. But let me share how I knew him, and why I’ll never forget him.
He was an icon in the state of Alabama at the time I was working in the Southern League during the 1977 and ’78 baseball seasons. Hitchcock was a native son, a baseball and football star at Auburn University during the 30’s, a Bronze Medal winner in the United States Air Force during World War II, and a nine-year veteran of major league baseball after the war, playing for the Detroit Tigers, the Boston Red Sox, the St. Louis Browns, and the Philadelphia Athletics.
After his days as an active player he worked for years as a scout for a number of organizations, and managed…in Cleveland, Baltimore, and Atlanta.
From 1971 to 1980 he served as president of the Southern League (AA), and lived in his comfortable “estate” in Opelika, Alabama. He was known to have strong political ties in the state, with then governor George Wallace and members of the United States House and Senate, and was influential with just about any administrative agency you could name. Outside of Wallace at that time, he came as close to being “Mr. Alabama” as one could imagine.
He was a soft-spoken man with the most exaggerated Southern drawl of anyone I’d ever met. When he said “It’s nice to meet you” he enunciated ‘you’ like a three-syllable word.
He loved baseball, of course, and was a regular attendee of games close to his home in Opelika…principally Montgomery, Alabama, where Detroit kept its Double-A franchise, the Montgomery Rebels. He usually sat right above the first base dugout in a special box when he came to the games, and on nights when the governor showed up they could be seen sitting together, chatting, oblivious to whatever was happening on the field.
But as an “unforgettable” character I particularly remember Billy Hitchcock for two reasons.
One was a scheduled off day I was looking forward to in May of 1978. Those were rare in the Southern League because of all the rain-outs we had. Rain-outs meant makeup games, whenever, wherever. But there was this one particular date when there was no makeup games and I was heading to Montgomery for a day off and a three-game series beginning the following day. I got a phone call from Hitchcock the night before as I was leaving Nashville.
“Sun-n-n-ay…awh won’t you tuh doo me uh fa-a-vuh,” said Hitchcock by phone in that slow Alabama drawl of his.
“Own thuh way tuh Montgomery tuhmahr-ruh, ah won’t you tuh stop bah Op-uh-locka (Opelika) an’ wuhk an intruh-squa-a-a-d game fuh Awhburn Univussity h’yere. Thuh Astros ah’ sendin’ Vunn Rool up h’yere tuh git in sum’ wuhk in front of thuh frunt awfus, an’ theh don’ won’t no local amatuh umpire behin’ thuh plate. Ah promus’ you, son, you only have tuh wuhk while Rool is a pitchin’. When he’s dun, you’uh dun. Ah’ll meck it up to you, sum-how. Don’ know how, but ah we-e-el.”
I wanted to say, “Oh ha-a-a-il” back to him, but how do you say no to your boss when he holds your baseball future in his hands?
“Ah’ll see you theh abowt noon,” he finished, and hung up. Such ended my hopes for a perfectly good day of fishing, all for the sake of five innings of balls and strikes for Vern Ruhle, whom the Astros called up to the big leagues three days afterwards.
My other unforgettable experience with Hitchcock centered around an overnight car trip between Orlando, Florida and Memphis, twelve hard hours of driving across Florida, Georgia, Alabama and into Tennessee with a temporary guy filling in for my regular partner who had quit two days before. By the way, what this guy lacked in umpiring skills (and for the life of me I can’t remember his name) he more than made up for in his capacity for beer.
Before we pulled out of Orlando following a ten-inning game we stopped by a 7-Eleven to get some road supplies. I got whatever I got to munch on. He got a 12-pack of Schlitz. We swung onto the interstate in my ’73 Ford Gran Torino with me driving, through Florida and well into Georgia. After about four hours I was ready for a break.
“Let me drive for a while,” he said. “I’m fine.” Fine, despite a few empty cans on the backseat.
Nonetheless, he took the wheel while I curled up against the passenger door as a pillow and went to sleep. The next think I knew I heard banging on the door…and a voice.
“Let me see your license and registration,” the voice demanded.
Suddenly I was wide awake, and aware that we’d been stopped by a highway patrolman, red lights flashing in the rear window.
“Let me see yours first,” my partner shot back, and the next thing I knew we were both standing at the front fender of the car.
My first thought was…we’re going to jail. Cool Hand Luke. This is a failure to communicate!
“Who are you guys?” he officer snapped. He did not look like Jackie Gleason in Smoky And The Bandit.
Fully awake now, I explained that we were Southern League umpires, that we were traveling between cities, that I had been sleeping while my partner had been driving…and apparently in excess of 90 miles per hour.
“Get in the car,” the officer demanded, and minutes later he pulled into his headquarters office where there was a phone. I had asked if I could call Hitchcock, although it 4:30 am, and tell him of our situation.
He sleepily answered the phone and started in with that drawl.
“You say whut-t-t-t? I heard when I told him what was going on. “Lemme’ talk to thuh offusuh,” Hitchcock said. And for what seemed like the next five minutes I could tell that he was working him, that we were his employees, we had an important series to work the next afternoon in Memphis…no, those “cans” shouldn’t have been in the car, but he’d appreciate it if he would let us go with me doing the driving. The officer kept saying, “Uh-huh…uh-huh…uh-huh.” Finally he said “thank you” and hung up the phone.
“You’re free to go,” he offered, shaking his head, pointing at me. “With an escort…but you (meaning me) are doing the driving.”
Sure enough, the patrolman who stopped us followed until we got almost to the Tennessee state line. The next day the “Schlitz man” was gone and I had a new, permanent partner.
No one in the world, or at least Alabama, could have pulled that off except Billy Hitchcock. And much later I had the nerve to bring it up and ask how could have had that kind of influence in the face of such incriminating evidence.
“That boy that stopped you’ns yoost to play football fuh Awhburn,” he said, unruffled, but unforgiving for the incident and the embarrassment of dealing with the state patrol at 5 am. “Awhburn people will do yah a fa-a-vuh,” he added with a tone of pride.
He lived until the ripe old age of 94, dying on April 9, 2010. For that one night alone, I’ll never forget Billy Hitchcock. I can still see those flashing lights.
I can still hear that drawl.
Ah owe him ah fa-a-vuh!