Who is this Gene Lillard who keeps hitting all these home runs?
Unfortunately, I don’t know much more about him than what we can learn from baseball-reference.com. There’s no SABR biography on him (yet), and the Internet offers little else on him. It’s odd, because he certainly had a fascinating minor league career; much more has been written on many players who did much less.
Born in Santa Barbara, Lillard first appeared with his sort-of hometown team, the Angels, in 1932. He was a mere lad of 18, and although he hit .312 in 141 at-bats, the Angels apparently thought he wasn’t quite ready for the P.C.L., so he spent most of the summer with Wichita, where he hit 46 doubles and 19 home runs, batting .283. Wichita was Class-A, only one level down from the P.C.L., so it was clear the kid was not far from being ready to play regularly at the highest minor league level.
He was given the Angels’ starting third base job the following year, 1933, and responded by by hitting 43 home runs and batting .307. Sure, it was Wrigley Field, but 43 home runs is rather prodigious production for a 19-year-old, regardless of the park’s effect. The next two highest home run totals on the club were 20 (Jim Oglesby) and 19 (Tuck Stainback), so Lillard actually out-homered the next two guys combined; and both of them played more than Lillard. Very few players do what Lillard did at such a young age without getting a major league shot soon after.
But that shot didn’t come in 1934, and it didn’t come in 1935, either. In 1934 Lillard had what might be termed an “off” year, although in his case an off-year still looked pretty good: 27 homers and a .289 average. That was the year the Angels made a mockery of the league, going 137-50; Lillard wasn’t their best player that year (Frank Demaree hit 45 HR and batted .383), but he probably was their second-best player. In 1935 Demaree was gone, and the 21-year-old Lillard was ready for the spotlight, hitting 31 doubles, 56 homers, and batting .361. The 56 homers is still tied for the second-most in P.C.L. history.
That got the Angels’ parent club’s attention, and Lillard spent 1936 in a Cubs uniform. Unfortunately, he also spent nearly the entire season on the bench, picking up a mere 34 at-bats. The Cubs were chock-full of P.C.L. alumni that summer, including Demaree (who hit .350), Stan Hack, Augie Galan, Larry French, Curt Davis, and Charlie Root. They brought up Lillard and his Angels’ teammate Tuck Stainback (who got 75 at-bats, more than twice as many as Lillard) even though they clearly had no intention of letting them play. The practice of sitting young players on a major league bench all year rather than letting them stay in the minors where they could continue to develop was a much more common practice in those days, but it’s hard to see the purpose of it.
What happened next is even harder to fathom. Somebody decided to make Gene Lillard a pitcher. After hitting 126 home runs in three years at the highest minor league level (between the ages of 19 and 21, no less), someone decided Lillard would be more useful on the mound.
Trying to unravel the logic of that is hard enough, but adding to the confusion is the question of who actually made the wacky decision. Was it the Cubs, or the San Francisco Seals, who acquired Lillard from Chicago in December 1936? Since Lillard’s first minor league pitching stats come in 1937, his first year with the Seals, at first blush it would appear it was the Seals’ idea. The problem with that conclusion is this: Lillard was back with Angels a year later, and back with the Cubs a year after that. Considering the Seals sent Joe Marty, who had hit .359 and slugged .573 for them in 1936, to the Cubs in exchange for Lillard (and cash), it seems strange for them to have given up on Lillard after one year. The Seals were certainly aware of what Lillard could do with a bat in his hands; wouldn’t it seem more likely that they would switch him back to third base, rather than just letting him go? The fact that he spent 1937 and 1938 pitching in the minors—in the same league in which he had hit 56 home runs just two years earlier—suggests someone else was calling the shots. My guess is that the Cubs still controlled Lillard’s contract for those two years and mandated that the Seals and Angels use him exclusively as a pitcher.
So if it was the Cubs who authored this mind-numbingly illogical switcheroo, the decision becomes all the more bizarre when you remember this wasn’t the Stupid Cubs of the 50’s and 60’s. The Cubs at this time were still one of baseball’s elite teams; they won pennants in 1935 and 1938 and finished over .500 every year between 1926 and 1939. Maybe Make-Lillard-a-Pitcher was the primordial soup from which Stupid Cubs evolved.
Just 23 years old in 1937 when “whoever” pointed him in the direction of the mound, Lillard went 14-10 with a 4.42 ERA for the Seals, and improved on that the following year, going 16-10 with a 3.50 ERA with the Angels. This earned him a trip back to the majors in 1939, where the Cubs called on him to throw a whopping 55 innings. He was pretty awful (6.55 ERA), so they dealt him to the Cardinals for the 1940 season. He threw just 4.2 innings in 1940 (13.50 ERA) and thus concluded his major league career with an unsightly 7.09 ERA in 59.2 IP. Despite his eye-popping minor league hitting statistics, he was allowed just 44 at-bats at the major league level.
He apparently remained property of the Cardinals for a few years after that, and while he would occasionally still take the mound when the mood struck, the idea of making him a full-time pitcher was old news by 1941. He spent that year with the Cardinals’ Rochester (AA) affiliate, switching between shortstop, third base, and the outfield, and trying to remember how to hit. He was okay (12 HR, .262 in 340 AB), but he sure wasn’t the Lillard of 1933-1935.
He wasn’t finished, however. He missed the 1943-1945 seasons (military service, I presume), and returned to hit 22 home runs for Sacramento in 1946. In 1947 he was with Oakland. The Oaks were managed by Casey Stengel, who would soon use his success with the Oaks as a springboard back to the major leagues. Casey didn’t let Lillard pitch, but he apparently didn’t think much of his infield or outfield play either, so at the age of 33, Gene Lillard made another head-scratching switch—to catcher.
Casey wasn’t starting him much, and he wasn’t hitting much when he did get a chance to play, and by 1948 his career in the high minors was over, but he kept playing, tearing up the the Class-C Arizona-Texas League and Class-C California League for a few years, playing catcher, second base, first base, outfield, pitching a few innings here and there, and managing. He managed Ventura to a pennant in 1950, helping himself out by hitting .327 with 23 homers. His playing career and managerial career ended simultaneously a few years later, in 1954; he was 40 years old.
He lived another 37 years after that, dying in 1991. With 345 home runs and a .303 batting average in the minors, one wonders what he could have accomplished at the major league level if the Cubs had given him a chance to play regularly in the infield or outfield at some point in the mid-to-late 1930s.