Marshall: Remembering a Special Auburn Man

Phillip Marshall writes about former Auburn star Billy Hitchcock.

The newspaper photograph had faded with age, but it occupied a place of honor in the treasure trove of memories that was the room in Billy Hitchcock's basement. The caption read: "The Four Horsemen of Auburn."

The photograph was taken in 1936. It showed four young men--Hitchcock, Jimmy Fenton, Wilton Kilgore and Sidney Scarborough--in the prime of their lives. They formed the backfield that led Auburn to a 7-2-2 record that season.

Hitchcock made a name for himself as a Major League baseball player and manager, but always when baseball season was done he returned to the place that had won his heart when he came from Union Springs as a wide-eyed freshman in 1934.

The visit to Mr. Billy's basement room on that November day in 2002 is one of my favorite memories. The room included baseballs signed by every team with which he was involved in more than 40 years as a Major League player, coach and manager. There were bats and gloves used by some of the game's all-time greats and 70 years worth of photographs and newspaper articles.

Billy Hitchcock is shown at the dedication ceremonies when Plainsman Park's field was named Hitchcock Field.

Hitchcock was frustrated that day. Back surgery a year earlier kept him off the golf course and from being a regular at the Auburn football games and baseball games he loved. He never got to do those things again.

Early Sunday morning, at the age of 89, Mr. Billy took his last breath. He'd been sick for a long time.

His and his family's impact on Auburn University will be felt forever. The field at Plainsman Park, Auburn's baseball stadium, is named for him and his brother, Jimmy, who was the Tigers' first football All-American. Auburn's golf team plays an annual tournament that bears his name.

Even when he could no longer get out, Mr. Billy followed Auburn closely from the home he bought on Collinwood Circle back in 1958.

And now he's gone.

Mr. Billy was a supreme athlete. He scored Auburn's only touchdown in the first bowl game in school history. He led the way to the first conference baseball championship in school history. He was loyal in his support for his school.

But those things aren't what those who knew Mr. Billy best will remember most. They will remember a man so kind and so wise that he made an impact on every life he touched.

Hal Baird, who during his days as Auburn baseball coach became fast friends with Mr. Billy, remembered him fondly Sunday afternoon. Even before that, Baird, who rose to Triple-A as left-handed pitcher with nasty stuff, knew Mr. Billy and what he stood for.

Never once, Baird said, had he ever heard a negative word about Mr. Billy. For years, Mr. Billy would call Baird on Monday after every Southeastern Conference series.

"He would always call," Baird said. "He knew so much baseball. If he wanted to make a point, he made it, but he did with such grace and such class."

Grace. Class. Dignity. Those are words you hear frequently when people talk about the life of Billy Hitchcock.

To talk to him was to hear stories that would stay with you for a lifetime.

Football was a far different game when Mr. Billy arrived at Auburn, leaving folks back home in Union Springs wondering why he would try to follow his brother's ample footsteps. Games were played at Drake Field, which is now a parking lot on the east side of Jordan-Hare Stadium. Helmets were made of leather and shoulder pads were small and flimsy. If 4,000 showed up for a game, it was a good crowd.

In 1935, Hitchcock broke his nose against Duke. He didn't come out of the game, but the next week, line coach Wilbur Hutsell, who would earn fame as Auburn's track coach, designed a facemask for his helmet.

On the day we visited at his home, Hitchcock remembered the excitement when what is now Jordan-Hare Stadium was built, complete with 7,000 seats. Today, it seats more than 87,000.

"I just marvel every time I walk in that place," Hitchcock said. "It's unbelievable. I've seen it grow over the years. To see 87,000 people in Auburn, Ala., I never would have believed that."

Today's Auburn football teams travel in style on airplanes. In Hitchcock's days, road games were adventures to be cherished.

In 1936, Auburn traveled by train to San Francisco to play Santa Clara.

"We played Georgia on a Saturday afternoon in Columbus and left after the game," Hitchcock said. "We stopped and worked out on the way out there. We'd work out on a high school field or something and get back on the train. We were gone two weeks. We stopped off in Mexico to do some sightseeing on the way back."

Points were to be cherished in those days. Auburn was 21-6-7 in Hitchcock's football career under coach Jack Meagher and scored more than 30 points just four times.

"We played great defense," Hitchcock said. "In 1937, we got rained out at Tulane on Saturday and played on Sunday. It was a 0-0 tie. We went from there to Philadelphia and played Villanova that Saturday. It was a 0-0 tie. We played two games in a week and nobody has scored yet."

When football seasons were over, Hitchcock turned his attention to baseball. It was the game that would dominate his life.

"We didn't have a fence or anything on the baseball field," Hitchcock said. "There was a gully that ran all the way around it. There were briars on the other side of the gully. Dale Morgan was our coach and he would always say, ‘Play deep and cut across.' If it got past that gully, it was going to a home run."

Billy Hitchcock is shown making a play for the Detroit Tigers.

Hitchcock sat out his senior baseball season after having knee surgery to correct a football injury and signed with the New York Yankees in 1938. He played in the Major Leagues until 1953 with the Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Washington Senators, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Athletics. He took time out for World War II, receiving the bronze star for his service in the Pacific.

He later managed the Tigers, Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. He was president of the Southern League from 1971-1980.

A man couldn't become wealthy playing baseball in Hitchcock's day. In the early years of his Major League career, he'd return home to help coach the Opelika High School football team and work at his father-in-law's hardware store when the seasons were over.

"All the money has spoiled the game," Mr. Billy said. "You have no dedication now. The money they are throwing around now, you'd have to take it. You can't blame the players. The owners got themselves in a corner. Now they are trying to get themselves out of it and they can't do it."

Mr. Billy played with Ted Williams during his days with the Red Sox. Joe DiMaggio was a Yankee teammate.

"Ted was a great hitter," Mr. Billy said. "He made himself a great hitter. He had quick wrists and great eyes and he worked at it. I always say Ted was the best hitter. I thought DiMaggio was the best all-around player."

Mr. Billy's wisdom, knowledge and just downright decency will be missed by all of us who knew him. But we were blessed he touched our lives.

He'll be laid to rest Tuesday. It'll be a day for sadness, but more than that, it'll be a day to celebrate a life well-lived.

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