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Obituaries

            In 2006 Hillis Layne was nothing more to me than a name in the Baseball Encyclopedia.  That following year, when the project of compiling information on former baseball players who served in the military became my desire, Hillis Layne was one of the many ex-athletes I queried for an interview.  He was the first man to respond to my query and thus the first former Major Leaguer I interviewed.  February 2007 was when Hillis Layne became more to me than a name in a book: he became an admirable man of character and class. 

            Although he didn’t have the Major League tenure of a DiMaggio or Feller, Mr. Layne was an asset to baseball.  He played third base briefly with the Washington Senators in the 1940s and had a lengthy and illustrious career in the minor leagues.  After his playing days, Hillis Layne served in various capacities, most notably as a scout for the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers.  A boy from the coalfields of Tennessee, Mr. Layne made baseball his profession and the profession made a name for Hillis Layne.  Late in life he was still remembered by people of his hometown in Chattanooga as the local boy who made good in the Major Leagues.

            Mr. Layne told me that his greatest thrill in baseball was hitting a homerun at Yankee stadium.  As a boy, and a devout follower of Babe Ruth, Hillis Layne promised his mother that he would make the Major Leagues and one day hit a homerun in Yankee Stadium, just like the numerous blasts his idol swatted in the baseball coliseum.  Not a man of power in the batter’s box, Mr. Layne was a man of unrivaled power where it counted—the heart.  When he made the Major Leagues, he was determined to fulfill the promise he made his mother when a child.  Wearing the uniform of the Washington Senators in Yankee Stadium, Hillis Layne drilled his only Major League homerun in the palace of his dreams; the House that Ruth Built.  While rounding the bases, Hillis Layne was so overcome by honoring his mother that he wept slightly, living up to the promise he made her so many years ago. 

            Men of character, like Hillis Layne, are like the .400 hitter: hard to find and worthy of praise when they are found.  In 2007, as a fresh writer with one book under my belt and trepidation regarding my first interview, I was blessed with Mr. Layne as my initial interview partner.  He was cordial, polite; the personification of the stuff that heroes are made of.  His cordiality made the question and answer process of the interview relaxing for this first-time interviewer.  He put me at ease with his stories of his baseball career: knowing Ted Williams, scouting with Bob Feller and taking a line drive off the bat of Joe DiMaggio to the naval.  The anxiety I started with withered thanks to the warmth and genial disposition that Mr. Layne showed me.  We may have visited for just an hour, but I knew I was speaking with a wonderful man.  To say that baseball has lost a great man in Hillis Layne would be an understatement.  Society has lost a true hero with the passing of Hillis Layne.

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The baseball fraternity has lost one of its shining stars.  Dominic DiMaggio, known as The Little Professor in his playing days, died Friday.  He was 92 years old.

Small and bespeckled, Dominic DiMaggio didn’t possess the classic appearance of a star athlete.  Frail looking and underweight, he looked more at home polishing professional athlete’s spikes rather than wearing the spikes of a star ballplayer.  But a star ballplayer Dominic DiMaggio was.  He was one of the finest center fielders of all-time.  The California native could hit for average as well as authority, he could play the field with grace and skill, and he could run with the fastest in the league.  His complete package was without many rivals.  But alas, he has gone unnoticed over the years – denied Hall of Fame residence – for what can only be one simple reason: his last name was DiMaggio.

Dominic DiMaggio played his entire career with the stigma of being Joe DiMaggio’s – the finest player of his time – kid brother.  No matter how brilliant Dominic was on the ball diamond, his star never quite shined as bright as the illustrious star owned by The Yankee Clipper.  The comparisons were natural.  They both had the same last name, so naturally Dominic was expected to be just like his older brother: Joe the legend.  It was a comparison that anyone would loathe to have.

But Dominic never wavered.  He made it to the highest level of baseball and flourished.  He teamed with Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky to give the Red Sox an enviable offensive nucleus in 1942.  The team seemed destined to unseat the Yankees as the American League’s top franchise, but then World War II was waged.  The Red Sox young nucleus was broken.  Williams and Pesky went to the Naval Air Force, while Dominic joined the Navy.  But Dominic DiMaggio showed great character and inner strength.  Denied by the military because of his poor eyesight, Mr. DiMaggio told this writer that he was forced to fight his way into the service.  He said, “I wasn’t about to play the war on the ball field.”

Dominic DiMaggio wrote a letter to military administrators, pleading for his acceptance into the Navy.  Admired for his patriotism, the Navy accepted The Little Professor and assigned him to shore patrol in his native California.  Already a budding star at the Major League level, DiMaggio was just 26 years old and would miss the next three years keeping our shores safe from enemy invasion.  Most players reach their peak at the age of 26, and Dominic was no different, but rather than enjoy his finest seasons on the ball diamond, Dominic played out his greatest years in the Navy.

Dominic DiMaggio returned to the Red Sox in 1946 and promptly led them to an American League pennant.  He was 29 years old and missed three years to military service, but his skills remained intact and he gave Boston all he had.  The Red Sox lost the World Series to the Cardinals and that would prove to be Dominic’s only Fall Classic appearance.  Although the Red Sox never again played on the grandest of all stages, Dominic still produced for the BoSox.  He once led the league in triples and stolen bases and was atop the leader board in runs scored twice. 

I had the great fortune of speaking with Dominic DiMaggio over a year ago, compiling research for a project.  The week prior, I had interviewed former Washington Senator Hillis Layne by telephone – my first ever telephone interview – and was thus filled with anxiety.  Having one telephone interview under my belt, the next interview I had lined up was with Dominic DiMaggio.  When I dialed his number, my fingers trembled in anticipation.  On the other end of the line waited a baseball legend: one of the game’s finest.  Greatness tends to get to a person’s head and change their mindset.  A tendency to see others as inferior is commonplace, but such wasn’t the case with Mr. DiMaggio.  He had just returned home from a game of bridge with friends and we spoke for some minutes about his time in the military: of which he was extremely proud.  He told me about his fight to get in the Navy and his work as a shore patrolman in his native California.  I was marvelled at the class the man exuded, but even more marvelled at his generosity.  Here I was, a writer just embarking on a career, and Dominic DiMaggio, a true baseball legend, offered me his time.  Before hanging up, I thanked Mr. DiMaggio for his time and told him my hope that someday he’ll make his way to the Hall of Fame.  Even if Dominic DiMaggio never makes the baseball Hall of Fame, he is in my Hall of Fame.  The Hall of Fame was made with greatness in mind: great ballplayers and great men.  Dominic DiMaggio was both.

Last fall, former Washington Senator Sid Hudson passed away.  He lived a long and healthy life – passed 90 years – that was predominantly spent in baseball.  He pitched for the Senators in the 1940s and on into the 1950s before getting dealt to the Red Sox in 1952.  After his playing days, he was a highly respected pitching coach (any pitching coach who worked beside  Ted Williams had to be), coaching the Senators and Texas Rangers.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Hudson two years ago, conducting interviews for a book idea.  He was a cordial man, eager to answer any question I presented to him.  My questions centered around his experiences during The Second World War.  Mr. Hudson served with the United States Army Air Force in Waco, Texas and played service ball under Birdie Tebbetts – a Major League catcher but superior Army pitch man.  Mr. Hudson joined Birdie, as well as Major Leaguers Hoot Evers and Bruce Campbell, at the Waco Army Airfield.  They had a tremendous team – won an astounding percentage of their games – but the team was dismantled when Mr. Hudson was shipped overseas.

In the Army Air Force, Sid Hudson was sent to the Pacific Theater of operations – stationed on Saipan.  When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Mr. Hudson told me that the pilots who dropped the bomb flew by his position and “tipped their wings to us.”

A two-time American League All-Star, Sid Hudson had arm trouble when he was released from military duty but he adopted a sidearm pitching motion that saved his career.

Speaking with Mr. Hudson via telephone two years ago, he happily relayed his favorite baseball experience.  In 1947, Mr. Hudson shutout the New Yankees on Babe Ruth Day, scoring the winning run in a 1-0 contest.

When Sid Hudson passed away, I heard nothing about his death via the media outlets.  He didn’t pitch for a championship club.  He never once saw World Series action.  But he’s playing the big game – on the grandest of all stages – flinging his wicked side-arm breaking ball passed the sluggers of a bygone era.  So long, Mr. Hudson.  You will be missed.

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