The distance from Clinton, Iowa, to St. Louis is 285 miles, but it took Tom Hilgendorf a decade to complete the trek.
A left-handed pitcher who was born and raised in Clinton, Hilgendorf was 18 when he signed with the Cardinals in 1960. He was 27 when he finally got to pitch for them in the big leagues in 1969.
Hilgendorf’s route to the majors was filled with detours, including illness and a career change, but he persevered.
In six big-league seasons with the Cardinals, Indians and Phillies, Hilgendorf was 19-14 with 14 saves. His most important save occurred off the field while on a road trip with the Indians when he rescued a youth from drowning.
Hilgendorf was 79 when he died on March 25, 2021.
Hilgendorf’s baseball talent was evident early. According to The Sporting News, he pitched for the St. Mary’s High School varsity team when he was 13.
After signing with the Cardinals when he graduated from high school, Hilgendorf began an odyssey through their farm system.
While with Winnipeg in 1961, he played outfield on some days he didn’t pitch. Hilgendorf told the Philadelphia Daily News that farm director Walter Shannon and outfielder Stan Musial scouted him on a Cardinals off-day during the season.
“Musial came to Winnipeg to see me hit,” Hilgendorf said. “He had tagged me as just the kind of hitter he was when he quit pitching in the minors. The next week I was back to pitching. They were overloaded with outfielders and short on arms.”
After the 1965 season, Hilgendorf went to Nicarauga to play winter baseball.
“I was sitting in the dugout and (teammate) Mel Queen said, ‘Hey, your eyes are yellow,’ ” Hilgendorf told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I went and looked in a mirror and he was right. Then I noticed my arms were yellow, too.”
Hilgendorf had hepatitis. He returned to Iowa and said he spent a week in a hospital and four months in bed at home.
The Cardinals put Hilgendorf on the restricted list and he sat out the 1966 season. According to the Post-Dispatch, “he lost 45 pounds and started to think about a different future.”
He informed the Cardinals he wouldn’t play in 1967 either. “I went to work for DuPont’s cellophane plant in Clinton,” Hilgendorf told the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal.
“The hours were great and the money good,” said Hilgendorf, who operated a slicer, “but I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a machine all my life, never seeing the sun until I get off work.”
Hilgendorf returned to the Cardinals’ farm system in 1968. He began the season at Arkansas before moving to Class AAA Tulsa, managed by Warren Spahn.
Back with Tulsa in 1969, Hilgendorf didn’t appear prominent in the plans of the Cardinals, whose bullpen ace was another left-hander from Iowa, Joe Hoerner.
“My mother and father would ask me why the Cardinals wouldn’t trade me to some team that would use me, or they’d say, ‘Why don’t you find yourself a nice job?,’ ” Hilgendorf said to the Wilmington News Journal.
In August 1969, Hilgendorf finally got the call from the Cardinals.
With prominent sideburns and a beefy physique, Hilgendorf “looks like a guy who just wheeled an 8-axle semi rig up to a truck stop somewhere on Route 66 and said to Marge the Waitress, ‘How’s tricks, Sweetie? Rustle me up a cheeseburger and black coffee,’ ” Bill Conlin wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News.
Hilgendorf made his major-league debut with an inning of scoreless relief against the Braves. Boxscore
In six appearances covering 6.1 innings for the 1969 Cardinals, Hilgendorf had a 1.42 ERA.
After the 1969 season, the Cardinals dealt Joe Hoerner to the Phillies. Hilgendorf became “the prime candidate” to replace Hoerner as the top left-handed reliever, The Sporting News declared.
Hilgendorf opened the 1970 season with the Cardinals, but it didn’t work out. He was 0-4 with three saves for them and spent part of the season back at Tulsa, pitching for Spahn.
On Dec. 2, 1970, the Cardinals traded Hilgendorf to the Royals for pitcher Ike Brookens.
Fork it over
The Royals assigned Hilgendorf to the minors and left him there. In July 1972, they traded him to the Indians. The deal reunited Hilgendorf, 30, with Spahn, the Indians’ pitching coach.
“He’s got a good arm,” Spahn told The Sporting News. “He throws strikes, keeps the ball low.”
Facing a stretch with multiple doubleheaders, the Indians gave Hilgendorf his first start in the big leagues versus the Brewers. He pitched a six-hitter for his his first major-league win. Boxscore
Hilgendorf was 3-1 with a 2.68 ERA in 19 appearances for the 1972 Indians. In five starts for them, he was 2-1 with a 2.72 ERA.
The next year, Hilgendorf was 5-3 and led the Indians in games pitched (48), ERA (3.14) and saves (six). Hilgendorf credited a forkball, a pitch described by The Sporting News as “a no-spin pitch with a sharp drop,” with helping him get established in the majors.
Hilgendorf was 4-3 with three saves for the 1974 Indians. The highlight came on July 6 when the Indians were in Anaheim to play the Angels.
Hilgendorf was returning from dinner at 11:20 p.m. when he noticed a boy at the bottom of the motel swimming pool, the Long Beach Independent reported.
According to the newspaper, 13-year-old Jerry Zaradte of San Francisco was playing in the pool when he was overcome with cramps and sank to the bottom. Hilgendorf dived fully clothed into the pool to rescue him.
“I got him up once, but he slipped back,” Hilgendorf told the Long Beach Independent. “The second time, I made it. He’s a lucky kid. Normally, I wouldn’t have passed by the pool, but I decided to take a shortcut because it was getting late.”
Hilgendorf “was credited with saving the life” of the youth, The Sporting News reported.
In March 1975, the Indians traded Hilgendorf to the Phillies.
“I’ve been after Hilgendorf for two years,” Phillies general manager Paul Owens told The Sporting News. “He can pitch.”
In joining the Phillies, Hilgendorf crossed paths again with former Cardinals teammate Joe Hoerner. With Tug McGraw sidelined because of a back ailment, Hoerner and Hilgendorf were the left-handers in the Phillies’ bullpen.
Hilgendorf was 7-3 with a 2.14 ERA in 53 appearances for the Phillies. In seven games versus the Cardinals, he was 1-1 with a 1.76 ERA.
The Phillies released Hilgendorf, 34, just before the start of the 1976 season. The Pirates signed him, but he never returned to the majors.
After his playing career, Hilgendorf was a self-employed carpenter in Iowa.