Friday, July 10, 2009

Bill Lillard, baseball player (1918-2009)

Bill Lillard (left) poses at Seals Stadium in San Francisco with Ernie Raimondi (seated) and Dom DiMaggio (right).

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 10, 2009

Bill Lillard enchanted Toronto baseball fans with his derring-do on the bases and horrified them with his unpredictable fielding at shortstop.

Mr. Lillard hit just two home runs in two seasons with baseball’s Toronto Maple Leafs. One of those came in a game on May 20, 1941, when he smacked a two-run homer against the Rochester Red Wings at Maple Leaf Stadium. Later in the game, his older brother, Gene Lillard, matched the feat for the visitors with a two-run shot of his own.

Both brothers played in the major leagues, Bill with the Philadelphia Athletics and Gene with the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Bill Lillard was born on a California lemon and walnut ranch, the youngest of three sons. His father, the ranch foreman, later served as a county judge for a quarter-century.

The boy followed his older brother into professional baseball, making his debut with the Tucson (Ariz.) Cowboys in 1937. He was promoted to the San Francisco Seals, where his teammates included such notables as playing manager Lefty O’Doul and outfielder Dom DiMaggio (obituary, May 9).

In 1938, Mr. Lillard boasted a sterling .335 batting average in 278 at-bats for the Seals in what would be his finest season.

The Seals sold him to the Athletics that summer for $35,000.

He played in 80 games over two seasons with the parent club, recording a .244 average.

In 1939, he led the International League by starting 50 double plays while playing with the minor-league Baltimore Orioles.

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound infielder made a favourable early impression when assigned to Toronto in 1940.

“The new shortstopper shaped up very nicely,” the Toronto Star reported, “displaying much speed and making a hit with the fans by his rapid fire work on double plays.”
Later assessments would describe his fielding as “jittery.” Mr. Lillard committed an average of an error every other game, displaying the weakness that would prevent him from enjoying a lengthy career in the majors.

After the United States entered the Second World War, Mr. Lillard took a hiatus from baseball to work in an airplane manufacturing plant. He later served with the 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army in the Pacific Theatre, where he contracted hookworm, jaundice, malaria, and dengue fever.

“I was in reconnaissance and operated miles behind enemy lines most of the time for two years,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir. “Then I was wounded by a mortar shell and was in hospitals from April 9 to Dec. 23, 1945, when I finally got out of the service.”

He returned to baseball for three seasons at war’s end.

Mr. Lillard also played in the minors for the Baltimore Orioles, Hollywood Stars, San Diego Padres, Jersey City Giants, Minneapolis Millers, and Fort Worth (Tex.) Cats.

After leaving the game in the middle of the 1948 season, he worked in the postal service for 32 years until retiring in 1980.

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Athletic Round Table in 1973.

Mr. Lillard shared the given names but not the nickname of a prominent professional bowler, who was known as Bill (Mumbles) Lillard for his habit of talking to himself during a match.

Only the most ardent of fans knew baseball’s Mr. Lillard refused to wear his eyeglasses when on the diamond, an explanation perhaps for his many errors.

William Beverly Lillard was born on Jan. 10, 1918, at Goleta, Calif. He died on June 9 at San Luis Obispo, Calif. He was 91. He leaves his wife of 69 years, the former Sarah Marie Wright, known as Sally. He also leaves two daughters, four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by older brothers Lawrence and Gene, the latter whom died in 1991, aged 77.

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