A while ago a co-worker was telling me about an MLB Network show he’d seen about the 9 best seasons by a reliever. He said that one of the top seasons was by a Tigers reliever in the 1970’s, but he couldn’t remember the guy’s name. It took a little research to figure out he meant John Hiller, and the more I dug into his story, the more interested I got.
John Hiller is from Toronto, and made his Major League debut in September, 1965. He’d always primarily been a reliever, but also did his fair share of starts; in August 1967, he threw back-to-back shutouts. Over the course of that season, he had 5 times as many strikeouts as walks.
In 1968, he set a big league record when he struck out the first six batters in a game against the Indians, and a couple of weeks later he hurled a one-hit shutout against the White Sox. In another game that year, he pitched 9 shutout innings in relief. He wrapped up 1968 with two appearances in the World Series against the Cardinals.
On the last day of the 1970 season, he threw a two-hitter and struck out seven straight Indians.
…and this is where it really gets interesting…
On January 11, 1971, at the age of 28, Hiller suffered three heart attacks which kept him out of baseball for a year and a half. After the heart attacks he was told that his career was over, and based on that diagnosis the Tigers released him.
Hiller didn’t let others determine when his career would be over, and by the summer of 1972 he made his way back to the Tigers. As if coming back from a heart attack wasn’t impressive enough , he would win Game 4 of the 1972 ALCS against the A’s.
1973 would be a career year for Hiller. He set a Major League record (at the time) with 38 saves, won the AL Fireman Of The Year, the AL Comeback Player Of The Year, and finished 4th in MVP and Cy Young voting. He also got 10 wins and lead the A.L. with 65 appearances.
In 1974, he had 17 relief wins, 13 saves and was an All-Star.
In 1975, he had 15 saves before an injury ended his season.
In the following five seasons, he got 44 saves and 34 wins, and retired during the 1980 season.
Hiller was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.