Dave Hillman, in many ways, personified the Cubs of the 1950s.
Signed in 1950, he had several good years in the Cubs system but somehow wasn’t called to the big club until 1955, when he was 27. Then he posted reasonable numbers in 1958 and 1959, which were the team’s two best years of that decade, and Ernie Banks’ two MVP seasons.
All that got him was traded, to the Red Sox in the 1959-60 offseason, and there’s a story behind that. I’ll get to that shortly.
Hillman passed away Sunday in Kingsport, Tennessee, aged 95. Per his SABR biography, he’d been living there since his baseball career ended in 1962 as a member of the expansin New York Mets.
Hillman was traded, along with Jim Marshall (yes, the former Cubs manager, and he’s still living too, aged 91), to the Red Sox November 21, 1959 for Dick Gernert. Gernert was a typical Cubs acquisition of the time — a guy past 30, who had been good three or four years earlier, but was just about done. Gernert played in only 52 games for the Cubs in 1960 before being sold to the Tigers, so the trade chain ends there.
Here’s the reason this deal was noteworthy. In that era more than 60 years ago, the National and American Leagues were still somewhat separate entities. And for decades, the leagues required waivers to make trades between them. The reason for this was to prevent a bad team in one league from dumping any good players it had to contenders in the other league.
In December 1958 major league owners agreed to the first interleague trading period. Prior to this, teams could trade with clubs in the other league only if the players involved first cleared waivers in their own league, a non-starter for dealing any front-line talent. For all practical purposes, prior to 1959 a big league GM only had only seven teams he could trade with.
One of the instigators of the new rule was Frank “Trader” Lane, GM of the Cleveland Indians and famous for swapping players, often just for the thrill of the deal. The AL approved the new rule 7-1, the NL by a narrower 5-3 vote.
In a trade today, which league a player is moving to or from barely registers, but at the time it was revolutionary enough that the new trading window would only be open for a very short interval, November 21 to December 15.
And so it was that on November 21, 1959, the Cubs and Red Sox made the very first offseason interleague trade without waivers, as described above.
As it turns out, the day I report to you on the death of Dave Hillman is also the 63rd anniversary of that deal. So we’ve got a bit of history here as well as the passing of a former Cubs player. I know there are a few BCB readers who watched the Cubs play in the 1950s; perhaps you have memories of Dave Hillman’s 129 games pitched as a Chicago Cub. Overall he posted a 3.78 ERA and 1.306 WHIP and 5.0 bWAR as a Cub.
Sincere condolences to Hillman’s family and friends.