Billy Hitchcock: A Special Man In AU History

A report is featured on Billy Hitchcock, one of Auburn University's most influential sports figures.

Editor's Note: Mr. Billy Hitchcock, one of the most respected figures in Auburn University history, died on Sunday at the age of 89 in his hometown of Opelika. Funeral services are scheduled for Tuesday in Opelika. This article written by Guy Rhodes for the February 2003 edition of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine features the former Auburn athlete and Major League player and manager whose name is on the Auburn home baseball field as well as an Auburn golf tournament.

Nearly 70 years ago, the small Alabama town of Union Springs featured an impressive infield lineup.

At first base was Bully Hitchcock. The second baseman was Jimmy Hitchcock. Handling duties at shortstop was Billy Hitchcock and rounding out the infield at third base was Jake Hitchcock.

Those familiar with Auburn sports history recognize at least two of the brothers who led their semi-pro baseball team in "town" games against the likes of Tallassee, Abbeville, Eufaula and Troy.

The year was 1933. Jimmy had just completed an athletic career at Auburn during which he became the school's first All-American in football and baseball. He had recently signed a contract to play pro baseball. Bully had been a third baseman for Auburn and played pro baseball before an eye injury ended his professional athletic career. He would pursue the field of education as a high school principal in Demopolis and Thomaston.

Just out of high school, Billy would go on to Auburn and become a standout football and baseball player–eventually playing for nine years and managing three teams in Major League Baseball, including the Atlanta Braves. Jake never attended Auburn, but would serve many years as postmaster in Auburn.

Now 86, Billy Hitchcock is the lone survivor of eight siblings. They also included two non-athlete older brothers–Hubert and Davis–and two sisters–Louise and Sarah.

"Mr. Billy," as he is affectionally known, follows his beloved Auburn Tigers in all sports from his home in Opelika that he shares with his wife Betty Ann. He has made Opelika, located only minutes from the Auburn University campus, his residence since 1939. Slowed by a bad back for which he had surgery in May of 2001, "Mr. Billy" has been limited in attending Auburn sports events and hasn't been able to play golf in the past few months. But that doesn't mean he follows the Tigers any less–even if it's not always in person.

"When I go to Auburn events, I react just like other fans," says Hitchcock. "I love Auburn so much that I want Auburn to do well."

His nearly life-long love affair with Auburn is mutual. Billy Hitchcock represents the best of Auburn.

"When I think of Auburn men, I think of Billy Hitchcock," says Auburn Athletic Director David Housel. "He and people like Coach (Jeff) Beard, Coach (Ralph "Shug") Jordan and Coach (Lee) Hayley are those who have made Auburn the place that it is."

What makes Hitchcock so unique is that his love for Auburn is unconditional and he remains humble about his achievements. He has been referred to as the "Dignified War Eagle" and the "Conscience of Auburn." His story truly represents the best of "Americana" and his place in Auburn history is special. The same can be said for his years in the professional ranks and his service to community.

Auburn's baseball field–Hitchcock Field at Plainsman Park–was dedicated in 1997 in honor Billy and Jimmy Hitchcock. "I'm thankful that I've been blessed to the extent that I could be a part of that," Hitchcock states about the baseball field honoring the Hitchcocks. "It is special when I look up and see the sign because it's part of Auburn baseball. I never thought anything like that would ever happen. When I think about it, I can't help but think of all the people who have made it possible."

The Auburn connection began for Hitchcock when he was in high school in Union Springs in Bullock County, about an hour drive south of Auburn. His brother Jimmy was earning All-America football honors and had been elected team captain.

"The captain of the football team was in charge of handling the game programs," Hitchcock remembers. "Jake came back and handled the programs for Jimmy and I sold programs on Saturdays after we played games on Friday nights. That's when I first got involved with Auburn."

Billy Hitchcock arrived at Auburn following a year at Staunton Military Academy in Virginia. He played on a team that had several future Auburn players. The year at prep school was set up by Chet Wynne, who was Auburn's head coach when Jimmy Hitchcock played but had moved to Kentucky.

"It was a different situation back then," Hitchcock points out. "We were recruited but schools were allowed to hold tryouts. Coaches would bring you in, put you in uniform and you would go through workouts."

Hitchcock caught a break. "I always told people it's a good thing I didn't have to try out because I probably wouldn't have made it," he says. "I came because of my connection to my brother Jimmy. People told me I was making a mistake. They said I would never follow in my brother's footsteps. I told them they were right about one thing–I didn't fill his shoes. He was a better football player, but it certainly wasn't a mistake for me to go to Auburn."

While Hitchcock didn't make All-America like his older brother, he had an impact on the football and baseball fields. He played football for Coach Jack Meagher from 1935-37 on some successful teams known as "Meagher's Marauders."

The success was rather remarkable, all things considered. "In my three years, we only played two games in Auburn," Hitchcock recalls. "Cliff Hare Stadium wasn't built until 1939. We had about 4,000 bleacher seats on the field which is now the parking lot on the east side of the stadium. The only home games we played when I was at Auburn were against Oglethorpe and Loyola."

During his three years–freshmen weren't eligible then–Hitchcock played on Auburn teams that compiled 8-2, 7-2-2 and 6-2-3 records. He missed most of his senior year with a knee injury.

"We always opened on a Monday night against Birmingham Southern in Montgomery's Cramton Bowl," Hitchcock relates. "The second game was against Tulane in New Orleans. We played Tennessee the third game, twice in Birmingham and once in Knoxville, while I was in school. We played Georgia Tech in Atlanta and Georgia in Columbus (Georgia)."

Hitchcock relates several unusual situations during that successful and historic run in Auburn football. "LSU is the only team we didn't beat while I was at Auburn," he says. "We beat Georgia twice and tied once and had two wins and one loss against Tennessee. We played a tough schedule and all on the road. In 1937, we didn't score many points, but we didn't give up many. I like to tell the story about us getting rained out against Tulane on a Saturday. We played on Monday and had a scoreless tie. We went to Philadelphia the next Saturday and tied Villanova 0-0. In one week we hadn't given up a point, but we didn't score any, either."

That 1936 team played Auburn's first bowl game and Hitchcock etched his name in Tiger football history. The Tigers tied Villanova at the Bacardi Bowl in Havana, Cuba. Hitchcock scored the first touchdown in Auburn bowl history, a 40-yard run from the Tigers' "Notre Dame Box" formation. Hitchcock would line up at either wingback or halfback, depending on whether or not the backfield shifted.

Among Hitchcock's teammates were end Joel Eaves and center Walter Gilbert. Eaves eventually became Auburn's winningest basketball coach and later athletic director at the University of Georgia. Gilbert is Auburn's only three-time All-American in football and became vice president of Texaco's European Oil Operations. Billy Hitchcock was selected for the Walter Gilbert Award in 1990. The honor goes to the former Auburn athlete who has distinguished himself after graduation from Auburn.

The Bacardi Bowl, also referred to as the Rhumba Bowl or the Cigar Bowl, is the only bowl game to ever be played outside the United States. The bowl concluded an Auburn season that saw the Tigers travel nearly 11,000 miles. "Earlier in the season, we played Georgia in Columbus on Saturday," notes Hitchcock. "Then we got on a train to go to San Francisco to play Santa Clara." Hitchcock recalls the Tigers stopped for practices in Mobile, San Antonio, Tex., Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles. In addition to the California trip, Auburn played road games in Montgomery, New Orleans, Knoxville, Detroit, Columbus, Atlanta and Montgomery.

The Bacardi Bowl almost didn't happen. It took place during a Sports Festival conducted by Fulgencio Batista, the dictator who would be overthrown 22 years later by Fidel Castro. "Joe Louis was boxing, Jesse Owens ran against a horse and we were playing a bowl game," Hitchcock remembers. "Batista wasn't going to let us play because his picture wasn't on the program, but they had a quick printing job to handle that."

Elmer Salter, who died at age 95 earlier this year, had to travel to Cuba first to collect Auburn's share of its money before Coach Meagher would allow the team to finish its trip from Jacksonville to Cuba to play in the bowl, Hitchcock recalls.

A traveling team was comprised of between 31 to 34 players. "About 25 to 27 were on full scholarship," he says. "Most of the athletes lived in Graves Center. We ate at Cora Hardy's dining room. If someone cut the lights off while we were eating, potatoes would be flying through the air."

Hitchcock didn't get to play in the 1938 Orange Bowl when Auburn defeated Michigan State 6-0. "I hurt my knee and tried to play, but just couldn't go," says Hitchcock, who would miss the 1938 baseball season after leading the Tigers to the 1937 SEC championship.

"Auburn was a great place when I was a student," Hitchcock remembers. "There was a lot of spirit. War Eagle was a cry, but not as prevalent as today. Auburn was such a small school that you might not know people by name, but you knew their faces," Hitchcock explains.

Most people knew Hitchcock, not just because of his playing football and baseball. He was also cadet colonel, the highest ranking officer in the ROTC program, a member of ODK leadership honorary and one of 10 Auburn men selected to Spades, the highest honor given to an Auburn student.

Billy and his brother Jimmy both had offers to play in the National Football League, which was in its fledgling stages. Even after an All-America football career, Jimmy Hitchcock signed a pro baseball contract. He eventually played one season of ball in the big show with the Boston Braves of the National League. Jimmy became a successful politician, serving on Alabama's Public Service Commission before dying in 1959. Billy heard from Bert Bell of the Philadelphia Eagles of the new NFL when he was getting out of college, but baseball was in his future, too. Billy attended law school at Emory in Atlanta for a while after earning a degree in business from Auburn. However, when the New York Yankees showed interest, Hitchcock was ready to give pro baseball his best effort.

Thanks to an acquaintance of Jack Hughston, a classmate of Hitchcock's who was Auburn's team doctor for many years until the early 1990s, Hitchcock had knee surgery at the nationally-respected Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "I was fortunate to sign with the Yankees with the bad knee," Hitchcock says. Hitchcock was sent to the Yankees' Class AAA team in Kansas City where he would spend three years. When the Yankees called up Phil Rizzuto to play shortstop, Hitchcock's role with Kansas City switched from utility infielder/third baseman to shortstop. He was in Kansas City from 1939-41.

In 1939, Hitchcock witnessed one of the most historic moments in baseball history when his farm club was in Detroit to play an exhibition game following a Yankee visit to Detroit. "I saw Lou Gehrig in his final plate appearance," Hitchcock says. "He drew a base on balls, but could hardly make it to first base he was so crippled." Gehrig was suffering from ALS, a muscle disease that would become known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." Gehrig was removed for a pinch-runner. That appearance ended his long-standing and believed untouchable record of 2,130 consecutive games played in a row that was broken more than a half century later by Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles.

Hitchcock is shown playing baseball for the Detroit Tigers.

Before he got a chance to make a Major League appearance with the Yankees, Hitchcock was sold to Detroit. Only 26 at the time, Hitchcock had realized a dream of being a Major League player. He appeared in 85 games as the Tigers' shortstop in 1942 and was set to begin his big league career. But for Hitchcock–and for many others of his time–careers would be interrupted by World War II. From 1942-46, Hitchcock was in the Air Force, attaining the rank of major. Assigned to duty in Hawaii, Hitchcock and several other Major Leaguers, including Joe Dimaggio and Joe Gordon of the Yankees, played service ball for the entertainment of the troops.

It was 1946 before Hitchcock returned to the Tigers, missing four prime seasons between the ages 26 and 30. He eventually played nine years in the majors, including stints with the Tigers, Washington Senators, St. Louis Browns, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Athletics. His entire playing career was spent in the American League.

One of his teammates in Boston was Ted Williams. "He was the best hitter I ever saw," Hitchcock. "Bob Feller was the best pitcher I played against and Joe Dimaggio the best overall player." Hitchcock says Yogi Berra of the Yankees was one of the most memorable players he encountered in the majors. Hitchcock notes that Berra would talk with batters at the plate when catching. "Yogi talked all the time. He was dumb like a fox, trying to get you distracted. And when he was at the plate, he would swing at anything. I've seen him hit balls that bounced up to the plate."

Hitchcock's playing career ended in 1953. His best seasons came when he hit .306 in 1951 for the Athletics and a .298 season for the Red Sox in 1948. Hitchcock was mostly a utility man, playing a career high 119 games with Philadelphia in 1952 for the legendary owner/manager Connie Mack, who managed for a record 53 years. Hitchcock had a .243 career batting average in 703 games. "I always told people that Mr. Mack was forced to retire after he hit me fourth in the lineup one day," Hitchcock quips.

Major League Baseball was much different in Hitchcock's playing days. Teams traveled by train with St. Louis the western-most city before the Dodgers and Giants left New York for the West Coast in the late 1950s. He went through some turbulent times, including integration when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947. "I looked at it realistically," Hitchcock says. "He put the uniform on the same way I did and signed a contract just like I did. He had the privilege and right to play, just like I did."

All the time Hitchcock was in the majors, he was watching and learning with a career in coaching and managing in mind. "John McHale, general manager at Detroit, asked me to manage at Triple A Buffalo in 1954," he recalls. "Then I came back as third base coach for the Tigers for six years."

In 1961, the Braves hired Hitchcock to manage Vancouver, another AAA team. A youngster sent to that team was a prize Braves' bonus baby out of the city of Auburn, Arnold Umbach Jr., son of the late legendary Auburn University wrestling coach Swede Umbach. "Umbach was a good-looking kid," Hitchcock remembers of the youngster who had signed for an almost unheard of $100,000 at the time. Umbach pitched briefly in the majors before going to college. He's a now a lawyer who serves as city attorney for Auburn.

It was with Detroit in 1960 that Hitchcock had his first Major League opportunity to manage–albeit a brief one. "I should have quit after one game," Hitchcock jokes. "We were playing in Yankee Stadium and Jimmy Dykes is the manager for Detroit. Dykes got into an argument in the Friday night game and he was ejected. The next day, Dykes takes the lineup to the umpire before the game. He gets into another argument and is put out of the game before it ever started. I was credited with managing a 12-1 win over the Yankees in the last game of the season."

After his stint in Vancouver, Hitchcock was summoned by his old friend, Lee McPhail, to manage the Baltimore Orioles. He guided Baltimore to records of 77-85 and 86-76 in 1962 and 1963 before being replaced by Hank Bauer. He coached Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson at third base and Luis Aparicio at shortstop, two of the greatest fielders in the history of baseball. "Brooks Robinson was the best I've ever seen at third base and Aparicio was a great fielding shortstop," Hitchcock says.

Robinson was good despite some shortcomings. He hit into more double plays than anyone in the history of baseball. "He was slow, but would get a great jump on the ball," Hitchcock notes. "Brooks also didn't have a strong arm, but could get rid of the ball quickly."

In 1965, Hitchcock accepted a job as supervisor of scouting in the Southeast for the Milwaukee Braves, who were already scheduled to move to Atlanta for the 1966 season. "The Braves had moved most of the administration to Atlanta at the time," Hitchcock remembers. "About the only thing they were still doing in Milwaukee was playing games." Late in the 1966 season, Hitchcock replaced fired Bobby Bragan as the Braves' manager. "It was a dream come true for me–to manage the Braves in Atlanta," Hitchcock says.

He led the Braves to a 33-18 record to close out the 1966 season. But the enthusiasm wouldn't last as Hitchcock was fired as Braves' manager with three games remaining in the 1967 season. The Braves were 77-82 at the time. Paul Richards had come in as general manager and made the move. "It was the most disappointing experience I've had in sports," Hitchcock admits. "I didn't care for how it was done." A sportswriter was dispatched to Hitchcock's hotel to tell him the news.

While manager of the Braves, all-time home run king Hank Aaron, Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews, Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro and current Giants manager Felipe Alou played for Hitchcock. "Aaron was one of those guys who went about his work in a quiet and methodical way," Hitchcock recalls. "He was no trouble, just write his name in the lineup every day. We didn't have a personal relationship, but a professional relationship. I moved Niekro from a reliever to a starter. He had a 1-0 shutout in his first start. Mathews was a hard-liver who was all business when it was game time. He later managed the Braves."

Hitchcock's Major League managing career of four seasons–plus the one game in Detroit–was on the positive side of the ledger with a 274-261 record. Few managers finish professional careers with winning records.

Hitchcock had maintained his ties in Opelika and Lee County through the years, owning Opelika Hardware since 1950. "Few players or managers made enough when I was in the game to not have off-season work," says Hitchcock whose top salary as a player was $17,500 a year and $35,000 a year as a manager.

He also had a business opportunity that proved financially rewarding. Former Auburn football All-American Fob James, later a two-term governor of Alabama, was in the process of developing Diversified Products Corporation. The company became a success in the sporting goods industry. Hitchcock became one of the 13 original stockholders as he and James would often display products at trade shows to get the business off the ground.

From 1971-80, Hitchcock was president of the Southern League, a Class AA league that included two teams near Opelika. "I had an agreement that I could work out of my home and catch teams when they played in Columbus and Montgomery," Hitchcock points out.

That home in Opelika contains a basement that is a mini baseball museum. The stairwell is lined with bats from Hitchcock's career and he has caps from every team he managed or for which he played. There are baseballs, pictures and awards. When he retired in 1980, Hitchcock was crowned "King of Baseball" at baseball's winter meetings, a sign of the respect Hitchcock holds in the baseball community.

He has seen many changes in the game. "Obviously, there is a lot more money involved–and many more prima donnas," Hitchcock says. "Some things are better, but it's hard to pull for a team because the rosters change so much."

Billy Hitchcock is shown during dedication day for Hitchcock Field at Plainsman Park.

Since he left professional baseball in 1980, Hitchcock has been a pillar in the community and for Auburn University. Among his honors are induction into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Opelika Jaycees and a Paul Harris fellow by the Rotary Club. He was honorary chairman of the 1994 Alabama Dixie Youth State Tournament held in Opelika. Hitchcock still attends the Opelika Kiwanis Club where he has been a member for more than 50 years. He is a member of Opelika's Trinity Presbyterian Church for which he played softball into his mid-70s.

The Billy Hitchcock Intercollegiate Golf Tournament is a home event for Auburn University each spring. Through the years, Hitchcock has been a regular at Auburn sporting events. He has seen some outstanding talent go through Auburn in baseball, including two-time (1993-94) American League Most Valuable Player Frank Thomas, American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year (1989) Gregg Olson and Tim Hudson of the Oakland A's, runnerup for the Cy Young Award in the American League two years ago.

"Frank was the most disciplined college hitter I've ever seen, Gregg Olson had the great stuff and Hudson was a sleeper who had the stuff and mental makeup to make it," Hitchcock says in a brief scouting report of the former Auburn All-Americans.

Hitchcock was particularly close to former Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird, who directed the Tigers' for 16 years until 2000. A former player in the Kansas City Royals organization, Baird is now Senior Associate Athletic Director at Auburn. "I enjoy talking to Hal because he's such a student of the game," Hitchcock says. "I also talk with Steve (Renfroe, current Auburn coach). I like to see what Steve thinks about the kids. It looks like Steve has some pretty good arms with the pitchers and some pretty good bats with this year's team."

Baird's respect for Hitchcock is mutual. Baird presented Hitchcock a Southern League ball signed by the Auburn team when Hitchcock Field was dedicated in 1997. "I saved the ball from when I pitched for Jacksonville in 1972," Baird says. "The ball had Billy's signature on it. He didn't notice what ball it was at first, but when I pointed it out, he appreciated it even more.

"I learned to appreciate the unbelievable resource we had at our games with Bill," Baird says. "Most of our players probably didn't know much about him when they first came to Auburn because of the era he is from, but they learned from being around him."

Baird would pick Hitchcock's brain. "On Mondays after SEC series, we would talk and I would get his insight. He would see the game like no one else in the stadium. Two things first and foremost about Billy Hitchcock. First, he is one of the few people I've known who I have never heard a negative comment about. He is so universally liked. That's very unusual in baseball because it's such a dog-eat-dog, competitive world. I have never met anyone in baseball so universally respected."

"Secondly, he was such a resource for me at games for Auburn as far as individuals and the team were concerned. It was fun talking to Billy about such things as pitch selection because I called the pitches or how we set out defense against a team like Tennessee. Most of the time he validated what we were doing. On occasions when he suggested a change, he was very tactful, saying something like how do you think something would work or might improve on something?"

Billy Hitchcock (right) represented Auburn at a ceremony in Atlanta celebrating the centennial season of Auburn and Georgia football, the first SEC teams to play the sport. From left to right are former Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley, former Auburn coach Pat Dye, former Georgia coach Ray Goff and Hitchcock.

Baird also appreciates the support he received from Hitchcock. "Things weren't going well in 1996. We had won the SEC in 1995 and been to Omaha for the College World Series in 1994. Billy told me he liked me sticking with the players in 1996. In 1997, we went back to Omaha. He had so much of a stabilizing effect when I was coaching," Baird stresses.

Housel understands what others see in Hitchcock. "Billy Hitchcock is an example of class, integrity, competitiveness, compassion and humanity," the athletic director says. "All of those elements define a great Auburn man. He is a great competitor, but a man of great appreciation and understanding of the people he's competing against. He is one who has desire and knows winning is the name of the game, but Mr. Billy wants to win the right way.

"Billy Hitchcock is one of my role models of what an Auburn person ought to be," Housel adds. "That's not only true of me, but of all Auburn people of my generation."

There have been many honors bestowed upon Hitchcock in his lifetime, but one stands above all. "The best thing that has ever happened to me is that Auburn allowed me to go to school for four years," he says. "It was a real privilege I could attend Auburn.

"You know, from high school, to college, to professional sports, it's a big jump to any of those," Hitchcock notes. "People have so much to do with it. To me, Auburn is people oriented. Going to Auburn allowed me to be with fine athletes who were good men and be with outstanding leaders like Joel Eaves and Walter Gilbert. That's what Auburn has meant to me."

Add Billy Hitchcock to the list, and the honor roll of good Auburn men and leaders is more complete.

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