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.