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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: December 5, 2022 10:18 am PDT
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Moe Hill deserved better in regard to his baseball career.

His star shone brightly in the Midwest League for nearly all of the 1970s, making him one of the Class-A circuit’s most popular and productive players. Hill, who was one of the decade’s most-feared sluggers, was so dominant that Baseball America tabbed him as the greatest player in Midwest League [MWL] history.

The problem, however, was that Hill’s star was stuck in a galaxy that was the Midwest League and was never given a true opportunity to shine anywhere else. He spent eight seasons [nine overall] in the league that decade, winning the first Triple Crown in the circuit’s history [1974]. He hit 201 of his 263 career homers in the MWL, but the Twins, for whom Wisconsin Rapids was an affiliate, never showed any inclination to promote him and for many, including Hill, it remains a mystery.

Hill, 75, who lives in Gastonia, North Carolina, was angry at times during those years and even came close to quitting baseball once. His love of the game, however, and his desire to prove people wrong kept Hill playing and helped make him a beloved figure in Wisconsin Rapids, a town of nearly 20,000 that is situated in the middle of the state.

He did play 56 games at the Double-A level, most of which came at the end of his career, before retiring at 33 to embark on a lengthy stint as a coach and roving hitting instructor. He has also been feted in many ways since his playing days ended, including having his own bobblehead night in 2017 in Wisconsin Rapids to honor his Triple Crown season.

“I stayed [in the MWL] because for one thing I just loved playing baseball,” Hill said. “It was for the love of the game I guess you could say. I just wanted to play year after year. They wouldn’t let me go and I just kept playing. I thought they might have a change of heart, but that never happened.  They said they wanted me to stay there and help the younger guys but the purpose of me signing a contract in professional ball wasn’t to help the younger guys.

“Yes, I was angry and I was going to quit baseball but one of my friends [and teammate] Dan Graham talked me out of it. He said that’s what they want you to do. I didn’t really buy the story about helping younger kids, not really. I didn’t know [former Twins owner] Calvin Griffith but I don’t think he was fond of Afro-American people. There was racism throughout the organization and back then there was racism throughout the whole of baseball and in some sense it’s still going on. You notice Rod Carew left the Twins and every other black person that came through didn’t stay with the Twins, they always moved on somewhere else. Griffith wasn’t very well liked by a lot of players and a lot of people.”

Hill, however, was more than liked. He was beloved by the fans and his teammates. He overcame a devastating injury early in his career and went on to write one of baseball’s more remarkable stories of the 70s.

A PREP STAR AND A DEVASTATING INJURY

Hill was a star for the Highland High School baseball team in the early 60s. He also broke barriers in 1964 when he became the first black player on the American Legion Post 23 team in Gastonia. Additionally, he played football at Highland, starring as a wide receiver and a kicker. While he said he thought that he was a “pretty decent” football player, baseball was always his passion.

“I was the first black to play American Legion ball in North Carolina and if you look at the time I played, back in the 60s, they had just started integrating schools,” Hill said. “I graduated from an all-black school but my brothers under me were part of the integration and they’ll tell you it wasn’t easy at all. It wasn’t easy for me to be the first black player in the American Legion. I know what Jackie Robinson and those guys after him went through because I went through it in Gastonia. There were four [white] guys on the club, two of whom I still go to dinner with, and they stuck with me no matter what. They’d pick me up for games and take me home every night.

“One of them, his dad was the coach and he got me on the legion team. He chose me to play legion ball. My baseball stadium was in an all-black neighborhood and he came there, pointed me out and said he wanted to talk. I assume he had seen me play somewhere and he chose me to play. I didn’t hesitate because I thought I would get more exposure and I did. I couldn’t tell you who some of the guys on the team were because they wouldn’t talk to me.”

Hill was 16 when he graduated high school and had several teams interested in signing him, including Cincinnati, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. Ultimately, he signed with Baltimore, though, as the summer drew to a close in 1964.

“I was just following my brother [Robert],” Hill said. “He played football for four years and baseball. I went out for the football team my junior and senior year but I was just a baseball player. Robert was a catcher and I thought he was a good hitter. He was a year ahead of me and we played on the same high school team but we also played sandlot baseball together. My dad managed the sandlot team and we played against old men and held our own.

“I thought about college, but I just wanted to play. I watched Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam and Duke Snider. I was a Dodger fan and I thought all these guys that are playing look like they are having fun. I told people one of these days I’m going to get the chance to play and that’s what I’m going to do. I call it positive dreaming.”

“I never thought of hitting home runs. To me, hitting home runs were a mistake. I still think they’re mistakes. You get 500 at-bats and you get what, 30 homers. Something is missing if you don’t get base hits and drive in runs and I did both.”

Hill took that positive dreaming with him to Spring Training in 1965. He was 17 when the season began and was slated to start the year at Bluefield of the Rookie-Level Appalachian League. When someone got hurt at Fox Cities [in Appleton, Wis.] of the Midwest League, though, Hill was there, beginning an odyssey on the circuit that would last for 13 years.

He hit .275 with seven homers and 51 RBIs in 396 at-bats for a team that finished 25 games out of first place. There were only two players who reached the Major Leagues from that squad – outfielder Curt Motton played parts of eight seasons in the big leagues while pitcher Paul Gilliford made two appearances – so Hill stood out.

Hill led the team in hits [109] and was two behind the team leader in RBIs. He then went to the Florida Instructional League, where he hit .345 with 26 RBIs in 40 games.

“They gave me a chance to play and I thought I did pretty well,” he said. “The next year I struggled, though, and I moved around a lot. I was with Miami [of the Class-A Florida State League] and left there and went to Batavia [N.Y. of the Rookie-Level New York-Penn League]. I played well there so they sent me to Stockton [of the Class-A California League] but the player that was hurt was ready to play by the time I got there. They weren’t going to play me ahead of the guy who had played in the league before you.

“I played here and there and they told me they wanted me to play every day so they sent me back to the New York-Penn League. There was a big airline strike in ’66 so they put me on a train for three days. My first game back I played three innings and then got hurt. I got hit in the face with a baseball while breaking up a double play. I was hit in the eye at close range. I got a broken nose, a skull fracture and a jaw fracture. I was done with one shot. The doctors told me I was lucky to be alive.”

Hill had struggled in limited playing time with Miami and Stockton but had thrived in the Batavia lineup, hitting .367 in 79 at-bats. It mattered little, though, because his season was over. He spent the next three months at Johns Hopkins. He recovered enough to go back to Instructs but didn’t fare well, hitting .204 in 93 at-bats.

“It was very scary,” Hill said. “I was worried. Right now, I am blind in my right eye where I got hit. That came on about a year ago and I’ve had surgery a couple of times. I had surgery on my right eye and my sight came back. Then I had a stroke in my right eye and the doctors said it was all from the injury. I have a lot of wires and plastic in my face now.

“I never worried about it [getting hit again], though. That’s just the way I looked at it. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen. I just went out and played.”

Hill returned to the field fulltime in 1967 and spent two seasons with Miami in the Florida State League. While he struggled a bit in ’68, his improved health and his knowledge of the league led to him hitting .261 with 10 homers in 1968. Hill tied for the league lead with 13 triples, was second on the circuit with 23 doubles and third with 65 RBIs.

He turned 21 that season and seemed to be on his way. Fate, however, intervened yet again in 1969.

“I went to the Florida State League and I did okay,” Hill said. “The first year was not the year I wanted to have but the second year was a pretty good year and the Florida State League was a tough league to hit in. I just wanted to become a better hitter and help the team win.

“I never thought of hitting home runs. To me, hitting home runs were a mistake. I still think they’re mistakes. You get 500 at-bats and you get what, 30 homers. Something is missing if you don’t get base hits and drive in runs and I did both.”

SIGNING WITH MINNESOTA AND HEADING TO WISCONSIN

Hill, however, missed all of 1969 with what he termed “stomach issues”. He lost 20 pounds and was released following the season. He then signed with Minnesota. The Twins sent him back to the Florida State League in 1970 and he had a fine season, hitting .274 with a league-leading 22 homers, which was a club record, a league-leading 230 total bases and 84 RBIs [second in the league]. Hill was lauded in The Sporting News on June 13, 1970, after hitting four homers in a three-game series with Ft. Lauderdale.

“I didn’t play to set records but it had to be a nice thing when I hit two home runs in one game to establish a new club record,” Hill was quoted in the Oct. 9, 1970, edition of The Gastonia Gazette. “And you’ve got to feel flattered about being named the most popular player on the team.”

It once again seemed like Hill was on his way. He had a rough 1971, though, making stops in the Midwest and Class-A Carolina Leagues as well as in the Double-A Dixie Association. He combined to hit .214, with 15 homers and 46 RBIs in 107 games, 20 of which came with Wisconsin Rapids Twins.

Hill would spend the next seven seasons in Wisconsin during which he became one of the league’s most popular players. He had a habit of playing with a toothpick in mouth and put golf spikes on his cleats in an effort to get better footing. His unusual habits, along with his prowess at the plate, were part of his unique tale.

“The fans used to ask me about the toothpicks and it was just something I picked up along the way,” Hill said. “When I was in junior high I had a teacher who would tell me to throw it out and I’d have another one in my mouth before I got back to my seat. It was something that relaxed me. I had a different color one for every day. When I first signed Billy DeMars was my first manager and we were training in Thomasville, Georgia and he was always yelling at me to get that darn toothpick out of my mouth and I would throw it away. After a while he stopped. After I stopped playing, I stopped putting the toothpick in my mouth.

“The golf cleats were for better traction. Someone from Waterloo told the umpires one time to check my shoes and they made me change.”

Hill’s first full year with Wisconsin was 1972 and he had a rather pedestrian season, hitting .245 with 20 homers and 69 RBIs. He followed that up by hitting .271 with seven homers and 76 RBIs in ’73. Hill was a popular player, though, and had built close relationships with Major Leaguers and future Hall-of-Famers like Carew and Tony Oliva. The pair spoke with him at length about hitting and the result was his record-setting 1974 season.

“I had guys that helped me with hitting,” Hill said. “Rod Carew and Tony Oliva were good friends and they would sit and talk to me. They told me to look for pitches and get used to hitting pitches and use the whole field. I was strictly a pull hitter. They said to be successful you had to use the whole field and when you get good pitches to hit, don’t miss them. Those two guys were the best hitters I’ve ever been around.”

THE TRIPLE CROWN AND DISILLUSIONMENT

Hill proved to be one of the best hitters in the minor leagues in 1974. He was hot from the outset and never let up, leading or being near the lead in the Triple Crown categories for the entire season. He also earned a spot in the Midwest League All-Star Game and added to his resume by picking up the game-winning hit, a bases-loaded single in the 13th inning.

He finished the season with 32 homers, breaking the league record of 31 set by Danville’s Gorman Thomas in 1971. There was some doubt as to whether Hill would break the record because he suffered a cracked rib late in the season but that didn’t slow him. He led the league in four other offensive categories – RBIs [113], batting average [.339], hits [150] and total bases [275]. Hill was named to the All Class-A All-Star Team that November and presented with a Silver Slugger Award for winning the batting title.

By that time, though, Hill was 27 and the window on a possible Major League call-up was closing fast if it wasn’t already shut. Douglas Clarey was a 20-year-old infielder in his third and final season in the Twins organization in 1974 and was a teammate of Hill’s in the MWL. He was a sixth-round pick in 1972 and would get selected by the Cardinals in the 1974 Minor League Draft. He recalls being a bit perplexed the first time he met Hill.

“I remember the first time I met him I thought he was a coach because he looked old compared to everyone else,” said Clarey, who would appear in nine games for St. Louis in 1976. “Everyone else was a year or two out of high school or in their very early 20s. One thing I remember about Moe, though, was that he was very efficient. When you have young people, they are all over the place, they can’t control themselves. They are not poised. Something Moe had was poise and control over his body. There was not a wasted muscle movement to him on or off the field.

“To me, being a very young player, he had a look that that was the way he looked at life. I never had any long conversations with the man but he had a security, a confidence he exuded and nothing was going to fluster him. He just went about his business and was not going to let any negative energy or the influence of other people have any effect on him. I thought that was pretty cool. He was not disturbed by outside influences.”

Clarey, however, said that he and his teammates often wondered why Hill remained in the Midwest League. He was an accomplished hitter and was, as Clarey explained, extremely poised. Yet there was that nagging question.

“It seemed funny,” Clarey said. “It was something we all talked about. We were naïve, though. That was my second full season and we just wondered how you could have these great banner years and not move up. After that season I got drafted by the Cardinals and I lost contact with a lot of my teammates. I think heard through the grapevine that he was back in Wisconsin and I thought how can that be? You have that season with no opportunity to advance. We all talked about it, just not to him.

“He was kind of there almost as a fatherly figure. We figured one of the reasons he was there was to have a steadying effect on the kids coming up. We had Gary Ward and Al Woods, some future Major League players and I guess he was there more or less to help those guys and what he produced on the field was gravy. He had every right to take offense [at the situation].”

It wasn’t just his teammates who marveled at Hill or found his presence in the Midwest League perplexing. Rick Wolff was a 22-year-old infielder playing for Clinton [Iowa] that season. Wolff, whose father is legendary Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Bob Wolff, has been around the game his entire life as a player, coach and sports psychologist. It’s been nearly 50 years since he played against Hill but he still wonders why such a talented player was never moved up Minnesota’s organizational chain.

“It is one of the great never-answered questions, why is Moe Hill, this old guy, playing ball A-ball against kids from high school, JUCO and college?” said Wolf, who was a 33rd-round pick by the Tigers in 1972. “Someone had said he had been there for years. It was just bizarre. But he played like a man against boys, that’s how good he was.

“Moe Hill was the real deal, clearly in my mind. You hoped when Moe came to bat that he didn’t hit it out of the ballpark. I wondered why this guy in isn’t the big leagues. Clearly he can master this league. But when you’re a kid, you don’t ask questions like that because you don’t know who is listening.”

NOT HAPPY ABOUT STAYING PUT

Adding to Hill’s dissatisfaction was the fact that he learned the Dodgers had tried to trade for him in the spring of ‘74 only to be rebuffed.

“I was proud of it [the Triple Crown] but it didn’t get me a promotion,” Hill said. “It got me a $100 raise. That’s just the way it worked. They always tell you we can’t give you a raise because we lost money this year. I don’t know how you can run a multi-billion company, lose money every year and keep your job.

“In Spring Training in 1974 I had a friend who was managing the Clinton [Iowa] Dodgers who told me the Dodgers were trying to make a trade for me. I always hit well against them so I thought he was kidding. I never took him seriously. But one game I was at the batting cage trying to get ready for the game and he pulled me over and said the Dodgers were trying to deal for me. I go to Spring training the next year and their [the Dodgers] minor league director told me they were trying to make a deal but George Brophy [the Twins minor league director] wouldn’t let me go.”

It was at that point in 1975 that Hill was ready to leave baseball altogether. He was disappointed disillusioned and angry. Teammate and friend Dan Graham, however, talked him out of leaving.

“When I found that out I was going to pack my bags and come home,” Hill said. “But Dan Graham told me don’t quit, that’s what they want you to do. Whatever you do, don’t quit.”

Hill did not quit. He went on to lead the Midwest League in homers in 1975 [31], 1976 [30] and 1977, when he broke his own record by hitting 41 homers to go along with 112 RBIs. He also interviewed for a managerial job in the organization during that stretch but did not get the position.

“They said they wanted me to help the younger kids so why don’t you make me a manager so I could help the younger kids,” Hill said. “They wanted me to help the younger black kids but we only had one or two. I didn’t go there to babysit, I wanted to play baseball.”

Hill closed out his Midwest League run in 1978 by hitting .279 with 25 homers and 94 RBIs. Overall, he appeared in 969 MWL games, hitting .283 with 201 homers and 720 RBIs. Cedar Rapids’ Jeff Jones would eclipse his single-season home run mark in 1982 [42]. By all accounts, he is the Midwest League’s all-time home run leader.

Minnesota wound up selling Hill’s contract to the Royals following the 1978 season, a fact about which he says the Twins never informed him. The first he heard about it was when Kansas City’s Vice President of Player Personnel John Schuerholz called Hill to tell him of the deal.

“John called me and told me they [the Twins] wouldn’t give him my number,” Hill said.

The Royals sent the 32-year-old Hill to Jacksonville of the Double-A Southern League in 1980 but by then he was past his prime. He hit .181 with eight homers in 45 games. He appeared in 18 Florida State League games the following season before calling it quits.

Hill took a position coaching for Kansas City’s Gulf Coast League affiliate and was also a minor league hitting instructor for several years before taking a similar position with Seattle. Then it was onto the Cubs and Orioles before retiring from the game in 2011.

He is still a well-known and popular figure in Gastonia, though, and his spirit remains alive in the Midwest Leagues cities in which he played.

“I want people to just remember that I was a very good baseball player and a good hitter who enjoyed the game,” Hill said. “That’s how it is here. A lot of people in Gastonia followed my career and can tell you as much about my career as I can tell them because they followed me.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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