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Sunday, October 27, 2019

Pickles Dillhoefer: A Baseball Life

Have you ever heard of Pickles Dillhoefer? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t. He was a hustling catcher a century ago, who did little with his bat or his glove, yet managed to become one of the most popular players in the game. His untimely death at the age of 28 shocked the baseball world at the time, yet has gone largely forgotten with each passing year. This is his story. 

Born William Martin Dillhoefer in 1893 in Cleveland, he was orphaned by the time he was 14, but with his two brothers, was taken in by an aunt. He found himself in baseball, starring as a schoolboy player and later on industrial teams. He was a versatile player but stood out the most behind the plate.

He made his professional debut in 1914 at the age of 20 for the Portsmouth Cobblers of the Ohio State League. Making his mark as a consummate team player instead of standing out in the traditional aspects of the game, he progressed through the minor leagues steadily until being acquired by the Chicago Cubs in 1917.

Chicago President Charles Weeghman called his new acquisition a “coming star” and compared him to the young Ray Schalk, a catcher for the White Sox who went on to be a Hall of Famer.

Although he acquitted himself just fine with his glove, Dillhoefer struggled mightily on offense. Appearing in 42 games, he mustered just 12 hits and eight RBIs in 95 at-bats (a .126 batting average). Even by Deadball Era standards, that was not nearly enough to earn him more playing time.

Still just 24, something happened that offseason that wound up becoming the defining moment of his career. He, along with once-dependable pitcher Mike Prendergast and $55,000  were sent to the Philadelphia Phillies for star pitcher Grover Alexander and catcher Bill Killefer. Alexander went on to win 128 games for the Cubs, while Killefer was a regular for four seasons. Dillhoefer had a lone single in 11 at-bats for Philadelphia, while Prendergast won a total of 13 games—making it one of the most lopsided traded in history.

Part of the reason Dillhoefer had such limited playing time with the Phillies was that he was notified he was about to be drafted into service in 1918 for the United States’ efforts in World War I. Instead of waiting to be drafted, which he though indicated he was unwilling to serve, he chose to enlist. He explained, “I am happy to say I did not take a job in a munitions factory or a shipyard or something that would make me exempt. I want to do my bit and the sooner the better.” He eventually achieved the rank of sergeant before the conflict ended and he was able to resume his baseball career.

Dilhoefer was involved in yet another trade in 1919. He, pitcher Dixie Davis and infielder Milt Stock  were sent to the St. Louis Cardinals, which was a second-division team, but had an exciting 22-year-old infielder named Rogers Hornsby.

The deal ended up being a positive move for Dillhoefer’s, career. He settled in as the backup for catcher Verne Clemons. While he produced modest numbers (batting averages of .213 in 1919; .263 in 1920; .241 in 1921), he set himself apart by all the other things he brought to the team. In particular, he was an outspoken cheerleader, who grew popular with fans because of his constant pep. An article that appeared in the July 8, 1920 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a headline that blared, “Dilhoefer [sic] Usurping Hornsby’s Place as Cardinal Fans’ Idol.”

Referred to affectionately as “Pickles” and “Dill,” Dillhoefer loved to coach the bases and was even known to jump out of the dugout to give advice to his teammates on how to position themselves against certain hitters. He also shouted a steady stream of encouragement during games. The one the crowd loved the most was when St. Louis was down, and things weren’t looking good. “Only two down, Stockie give it a ride,” the backstop would bellow.

It looked like 1922 was going to be the year for Dillhoefer. The Cardinals had won 87 games the previous year and he started the new year in fine shape, marrying his sweetheart, teacher Massie Slocum in Mobile, Alabama on January 14th. The newlyweds immediately returned to St. Louis, where he fell ill on the 19th—to the point that he was taken to St. John’s Hospital suffering from typhoid fever. From there, he contracted pneumonia, which infected his gall bladder. Surgery proved futile and he deteriorated rapidly; finally succumbing on February 22nd. He was 28.

The news of Dillhoefer’s passing understandably hit his teammates hard. Team general manager Branch Rickey lamented, “I can hardly believe Dilly is gone. Of course, I knew he was very sick when I left St. Louis, but it is a shock to learn of his death.”

Massie, Dillhoefer’s bride of less than six weeks, never remarried and lived until 1985.The catcher was buried in Mobile with military honors, with pall bearers than includes Stock (his roommate and best friend), Clemons and Rickey.

In 247 career major league games, Dillhoefer batted a combined .223 with 48 RBIs and 12 stolen bases. He threw out 43 percent of would-be base stealers and was a quintessential backup catcher. Although his statistical footprint on the game is small, he has one of the more unique stories and better nicknames in baseball history.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) on topics of baseball that are available on Amazon.

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