Monday, April 6, 2015

Harley Hisner, 88, gave up DiMaggio's last regular season hit

The thought of facing Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle in the same lineup would make any pitcher restless, but for Harley Hisner, the uneasiness he felt on September 30, 1951 was for a much different reason. He wasn’t shaken by their feared bats, but by the 35,000 fans that would be in attendance when he made his major league debut in a Boston Red Sox uniform at Yankee Stadium.

“I was awake a few times worrying about the game, pitching in front of all of them people,” Hisner said during a 2008 phone interview.

Hisner passed away in Fort Wayne, Indiana on March 20, 2015 at the age of 88. The World War II veteran only had one major league appearance, but his name is forever associated with those Yankees legends from the game he pitched on the last day of the 1951 season.

Harley Hisner / Author's Collection
The first batter he faced in his debut was a 19-year-old Mickey Mantle. The “Commerce Comet,” was in finishing his first major league season, one in which he spent time shuttling between New York and their Triple-A farm club in Kansas City. While pitching for Louisville earlier in the season, Hisner faced Mantle on multiple occasions. Undaunted by the presence of the young upstart, he promptly struck out Mantle to start his big league career.

After giving up a single to Phil Rizzuto and inducing Hank Bauer to hit in to a force out, the great Joe DiMaggio strolled to the plate. Closing the chapter on an illustrious Hall of Fame career, DiMaggio was on display for the Yankee fans one last time. The Red Sox manager Steve O’Neill gave the rookie advice on how to approach the Yankee Clipper.

“He said, ‘Joe − pitch him in on the fists, he can’t hit the good fastball anymore,’” Hisner recalled in a 2013 interview with Wane.com.

The rookie dutifully followed his manager’s instructions, fearlessly going at DiMaggio with his first pitch. Hisner battled the great center fielder, but in the end DiMaggio won out, scratching out a single for what would be the last of his 2,214 major league hits.

“First pitch I threw him, he hit the damn thing in the upper deck left field, foul,” he said during the Wane.com interview. “I said, ‘Uh oh,’ but I came right back with a fastball and I got it where I wanted it. He hit it on the fists; he hit it down between third and short, the shortstop fielded it, but he couldn’t throw him out. That was Joe’s last hit.”

Hisner pitched six innings against the eventual World Series champs (including another strike out of Mantle), surrendering three runs on seven hits. The Red Sox couldn’t muster even one run in support of his efforts, despite Hisner contributing at the plate with a fifth inning single of his own.

“I batted off of Spec Shea and got a hit,” he said during the 2008 interview. “It looks like a line drive in the paper, but it was a dying quail over Johnny Mize’s head into right field. They thought it was a line drive somewhere!”

Hisner was the only rookie pitcher that was called up in September to get a start for the Red Sox. His fortunes banked on the team locking down their place in the division before the end of the season. O’Neill wasn’t going to chance a potential bonus to a rookie’s nervous arm.

“Allie Reynolds threw a no-hitter against us on Saturday before the season ended,” he said. “That was when we had fourth place sewn up. Steve O’Neill told me when I got there two weeks before, ‘Whenever we get a place sewed up, you’re pitching the next day.’ Well, we didn’t get a place sewed up until the next to last day of the season. After Reynolds threw a no-hitter against us, he said, ‘You’re pitching tomorrow.’ No other pitcher that was called up got to pitch.”

Despite his promising start, Hisner would never reach the major leagues again. He was invited to spring training the following season, but with O’Neill out and Lou Boudreau in as the Red Sox new manager, Hisner lost his champion at the helm. They sent him back to Louisville to work on becoming a reliever. When an opportunity came mid-season for Hisner to return to Boston, he was passed over in favor of Al Benton.

“In 1952, they were making a relief pitcher out of me,” he said. “In the first week in July, Boston needed a relief pitcher. San Diego had one. Boston always had a verbal agreement with them. They traded me and Al Richter to San Diego for Al Benton.”

Hisner finished the season with San Diego in the Pacific Coast League and spent one more year with Wichita Falls in the Big State League in 1953. With his hopes deflated from his demotion, Hisner called it quits after his time in Wichita Falls.

"I didn't want him to give it up," his wife Anna said to the Decatur Daily Democrat in 2011. "I never did. But he was getting tired of moving around."

His love for the game couldn’t keep him away from the diamond. He played semi-pro ball in Fort Wayne until he was 37. One of his semi-pro highlights came at the 1957 National Baseball Congress tournament, where he led Fort Wayne to the finals after pitching 38 innings in 11 days, almost tying Satchel Paige’s 1935 record for most wins in the tournament.

“In 1957, we came in second place out in Wichita," he said in 2008, "Texas beat us in the finals. Clint Hartung hit a home run off me in the 10th inning and I only had one day rest off of it. I pitched a nine inning game against Arizona and had one day rest; then I went 10 innings until Hartung hit that home run off me. I can still see that ball in flight! It went over the center field lights. Satchel Paige won five games for South Dakota in 1935 and I came near to tying it. I won the first four games and lost the last game. I threw 38 innings out there in 1957 in 11 days.”

Hisner worked with the Rea Magnet Wire Company until his retirement in 1987. Despite his singular appearance in a major league box score, Hisner remained popular with baseball fans who sought the autograph of the man who stood tall against the mighty New York Yankees.

“I got requests more this year than any other year,” he said in 2008. “I probably got 75-85 this year.”


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