|Duane Pillette - 1954 Topps / Baseball-Almanac.com|
Pillette was the son of former major league pitcher Herman Pillette, who spent four of his 26 professional seasons in the major leagues with the Reds and Tigers. The elder Pillette pitched until he was 48 in the Pacific Coast League.
Despite his father’s long career in baseball, the patriarch did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. In a 2009 interview that I conducted with Pillette from his home in San Jose, he discussed how his father wanted him to stay far away from baseball.
“My father never talked much about baseball except he didn't want me to play," Pillette recalled. "He fought me tooth and nail when I was a kid. Even though he didn't make much money in the Coast League, he sent me to Parochial schools. He never got past the sixth grade."
His father stressed the importance of getting an education ahead of playing baseball. As a youngster enthralled with the game, he was determined to move forward with the sport.
“He said, ‘I don't give a damn about baseball, you aren't going to make any money. I want you to get a good job and the only way is to get a good education,’” Pillette remembered.
He pleaded his case to his father. His father relented with one caveat, he had to be his de facto agent when scouts approached.
“I said, ‘You don't have any money and I don't have any money. I have to play baseball to get a scholarship.’ He said, ‘I'll let you play in high school, but if you have a scout come around, he has to talk to me.’”
Pillette did in fact get that scholarship, heading to the University of Santa Clara largely due to the involvement of an important Yankee scout.
“One Yankee scout, Joe Devine got me a scholarship at the University of Santa Clara," he said. "I pitched well in high school because I had a helluva ballclub. I don't think San Diego High ever lost a game in the three years I was there.”
Pillette signed with the Yankees in 1946 and immediately debuted with their top minor league ballclub, AAA Newark of the International League. While Pillette found himself playing with upstarts Yogi Berra and Bobby Brown, it was one of his opponents that made everyone take notice, Jackie Robinson. Robinson was playing for Montreal that season, on the verge of breaking the color line in the major leagues. Pillette was impressed with how Robinson handled the pressures of that season.
“A lot of guys were trying to nick him and scare him," he said. "He handled himself very well. I didn't have much trouble getting him out. He hit a lot of ground balls off of me amazingly enough. I'm not saying he took 0-4's against me, that's for sure. Jackie wore us out the first few games against us, he must have hit .600. He would bunt with nobody on with two outs, steal second base and [George] Selkirk would blow his lid.”
Pillette battled a groin injury he suffered late in the 1946 season through his next few campaigns in the minors. He played for Newark the following season and then was sent to the Portland Beavers of the PCL to work on his curveball with Tommy Bridges. He developed it well and posted a 14-11 record in 1948, which earned him a spring training invite with the Yankees in February of 1949. He was off to a great start in Florida and earned the confidence of manager Casey Stengel.
“I had a good spring and Casey had told the guys the last day before we broke camp that I was going to be the fifth starter and a long reliever,” he said.
Unfortunately for Pillette, General Manager George Weiss thought otherwise. Very quickly the tides turned for the young pitcher.
"George Weiss had other ideas. He said, ‘He needs to go back to Newark and learn some other things.’”
Pillette found himself in the familiar confines of Newark, but not for long. By mid-season, he was in the major leagues.
“I stayed there about a good month and a half, maybe more than that,” Pillette said. "I was in Syracuse when they called me over. I joined them in Cleveland at six-o'clock in the morning.”
Little did Pillette know that he would be summoned to pitch the first day he was with the team.
“I didn't figure I was going to do anything and Casey came out and gave the sinkerball sign," he recalled, "so I came in the ballgame. We scored a run on our half and went one run ahead. The very first hitter I pitched to hit a line drive at Cliff Mapes. He took a couple steps in and the ball went over his head for a triple and they tied up the ballgame. I ended up losing the ballgame, so I didn't scare anybody.”
Pillette was right; he didn’t scare off his coaching staff, as they had him start four days later.
“Jim Turner liked me a lot and Casey liked me so he started me four days later in Detroit," he said. "I pitched a day before my birthday in July. They scored two runs in the first inning and we lost the game 2-1. Then he started me in Yankee stadium against the White Sox, we went 0-0 for nine innings and Luke Appling hit a home run with a man on first base in the tenth inning and we came back in our half."
Luck, however, was not on his side. Despite his best efforts on the mound, the Yankees couldn't turn the tide to victory.
“[Joe] DiMaggio hit a line drive to right center and he very seldom got thrown out taking the extra base," Pillette said. "They threw him out at second trying to make a double and the ballgame was over. They scored two runs in the first inning off me, then they didn't score two runs until the 10th inning [the next game] and I pitched 17 consecutive innings without allowing a run and I'm 0-3. I'm the worst goddamn pitcher in the world!”
Pillette ended up 2-4 in 12 games that season and did not appear in the World Series for the Yankees in the postseason. He would pitch briefly with the Yankees again in 1950, and then was traded to the St. Louis Browns in a six-player deal. Even though he went from the top team in the American League to the worst, the trade gave him an opportunity to pitch full time. Pillette would be a key cog in the Browns rotation, pitching in 120 games from 1950-1953.
It was there in St. Louis where he would befriend another baseball immortal, Satchel Paige. 'Ol Satch pitched with the Browns from 1951-1953, giving Pillette plenty of time to get to know the ageless hurler.
“I enjoyed the guy. I admired him from all the things I heard about him," he said. "As far as I was concerned, when I saw him pitch and the things he'd do, this guy was absolutely amazing. He had the worst looking legs and everybody would tell you if you want to be a pitcher, you have to have a pair of legs. This guy had some spindles and I don't know how the hell he did what he did, but he was great."
They shared a special connection, as Paige was fond of his father from their battles barnstorming on the West Coast.
“My dad pitched against Satch in Los Angeles," he noted. "I know because Satch told me that he pitched against my father. Satch happened to play against my father in Los Angeles when he was in the winter leagues. My dad picked up extra money playing in the winter leagues. They became pretty good friends because they both had been around awhile. He said he was a fine man. He told me, ‘He didn't pitch like anybody I ever saw. He threw more soft stuff than you could believe but he had a pretty good fastball. You get two strikes on you and you might look for it. He said he never wasted any energy and probably about as smart of a pitcher as you ever saw.’ That’s probably why I got along with Satch so well, he liked my father a lot.”
After an arm injury ended Pillette’s career in 1960, he found success in the mobile home business.
“After I quit baseball, I got in the mobile home business for 32 years," he said. "I helped to build and manage this park. I've got a nice 1,800 square foot mobile home. If you came on the inside, you wouldn't think it was a mobile home. They don't make them like this anymore."
Pillette continued to stay active late in his life, gaining notoriety for his dancing. The notoriety wasn’t so much for his skills, but that he was one half of the oldest couple on the dance floor.
“On Friday and Saturday I dance with a lovely young lady that's 85, and I'm 86," he said. "We even got our picture in the paper because we are the only two whiteheads on the dance floor and they were curious. The people from the paper came in to the hotel for a party of people who were retiring. We get out there and do a little bit of a dance and this outfit took some pictures.
“The gal [Bev] who I take out was the bridesmaid at my wedding. About 10 years after her husband passed away, she called me one day and said that she wasn't sending anymore Christmas cards and she wanted to warn me. So we got to become good friends and she was a marvelous dancer. They got a hold of Bev and asked her some questions. They interviewed us at her home the next day. They showed the top part of us that we were dancing. A little story was written about it. We found a photo of Beverly in her album from my wedding and they put that in there too.”
Pillette returned to New York last summer as one of the seven living members from the 1950 World Series team. He was thrilled about his appearance at the new stadium.
"It was just wonderful being there surrounded by all of these greats," he said. "There aren't too many of us from that team left."
Even though Pillette fell below the .500 mark for his career, he was an All-Star to the fans, generously signing autographs through the mail and speaking to researchers and historians with such candor about his career. Somewhere in heaven, Pillette is having a meeting on the mound with his Paige and his father, conspiring how to retire the next batter.