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Hill's Midwest League stay shrouded in mystery02/27/2007 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill
Following the 1969 season, the Minnesota Twins signed a 22-year-old outfielder named Elmore "Moe" Hill.
At the time, Hill was grateful for the opportunity. The Baltimore Orioles had recently released the one-time prospect, who missed the previous season with a stomach ailment. Prior to that, he had played four largely mediocre seasons in the lower levels of the Orioles' Minor League system.
Hill was determined to show the baseball world that he wasn't washed up, and the Minnesota organization afforded him that opportunity.
While the Twins' interest in Hill may have seemed like a godsend, it was, in fact, the beginning of a maddening and seemingly endless debacle.
"When I signed with the Twins, well, that's when disaster set in," Hill said from his home in Gastonia, North Carolina. "I'm not sure that what ended up happening would have occurred within any other organization."
Indeed, it's hard to believe it would have. Hill, for reasons that will always be at least partially shrouded in mystery, spent almost the entire decade of the 1970s playing for the Wisconsin Rapids Twins of the Class A Midwest League, despite the fact that, year after year, he demonstrated he was capable of playing at a higher level.
The numbers Hill put up in Wisconsin Rapids are nothing less than staggering. Over 862 games spanning eight seasons, he hit .283 with 194 home runs and 669 RBIs. From 1974-77, he led the Midwest League in homers, and in three of those campaigns, he also led the circuit in RBIs. In 1974, he batted a career-best .339 to go with 32 home runs and 113 RBIs, becoming the first player in Midwest League history to win the Triple Crown.
The obvious question, of course, is why didn't Hill receive a promotion? Why, in the prime of his career, was he allowed to stagnate at a relatively low level? What could the Twins have been thinking?
Hill has a few thoughts.
"It's sad to say, but I think that being a black man in baseball played a big part," said Hill, who had broken the color line by becoming the first black player in the North Carolina American Legion. "That's not to say that there weren't white players who were treated unfairly, just that I think it may have been easier for the Twins to ignore me because I was black.
"But, regardless of race, the guys who had gotten big bonuses when they signed were gonna move up and a lot of the other guys weren't. That's just the way it was."
Some who played with and against Hill have advanced the theory that he was kept in Wisconsin Rapids, a middle-class town with a small black population, as a sort of promotional tool. The thinking goes that Hill's formidable production and reputation as an exemplary citizen helped pave the way for future black players.
"Moe was a black man that white people could admire, and I've wondered whether that had something to do with why he played so long in Wisconsin Rapids," said Kevin Cooney, a former teammate of Hill's who coaches the baseball team at Florida Atlantic University.
"He was just a great guy, a quality human being who was loved all around the league. But he also had a reputation for struggling to hit a breaking ball, so maybe that factored into the Twins' thinking. Either way, he should at least have been given the opportunity to succeed or fail on his own merit."
Hill believes that his Midwest League purgatory was largely the work of one man: George Brophy, who served as the Twins farm director from 1970-85.
"Whatever Brophy said was etched in stone, and if you tried to challenge him, he would just blow up," Hill recalled. "He wasn't going to let anyone get the last word in, he would just get louder and louder and louder."
"He'd tell me I was still in Cedar Rapids so I could help the younger players. So the idea of me managing the club came up, and Brophy said that he would strongly consider it. Later on, though, he denied that he had ever said that. To me, it was like, 'Don't tell me one thing and then do another.'"
It may have been racism that kept Hill hostage in the Midwest League. It may have been his perceived inability to handle the breaking ball. It may have been due solely to the inscrutable whims of a mercurial farm director. Regardless, it is ironic that all of this occurred within the Twins organization, which in recent years has become known as having one of the most well-run farm systems in the Major Leagues.
General manager Terry Ryan tops this respected chain of command. In 1973, however, he was a middling prospect in the Minnesota system and a teammate of Hill's.
"Moe was just scary. The whole league was afraid of him," recalled Ryan. "I wish I had some insight into why he never got moved up, but at that point I was oblivious to just about everything going on around me. When you're a young player, all you're really thinking about is your own career.
"He was a good player and a good teammate, one of those guys who would take you under his wing. Really, what I remember most about Moe was him hitting balls over the fence and helping us win. He was a hell of a player on the field and a hell of a guy off of it."
Rick Wolff, who played second base with the Midwest League's Clinton Pilots in 1974, remembers playing against Hill and Wisconsin Rapids.
"Wisconsin, back then, had an outfield that consisted of Hill and [future Major Leaguers] Alvis Woods and Gary Ward," said Wolff, now an author who specializes in youth sports and sports psychology. "And Moe was the best of the bunch. He was the best player on the best team in the league.
"We'd always ask ourselves, 'Why is this old guy still here?' And the general consensus was that he was a former prospect who was now used as an organizational player-coach. We had heard that he couldn't hit a curveball, but really the guy would hit everything. All the tools were there."
Wolff, in fact, touched on the subject of Moe Hill in his first book, a Minor League memoir entitled, "What's A Nice Harvard Boy Like You Doing in the Bushes?" In it, Wolff called Hill the "Hank Aaron of Class A ball," and summed up the puzzle that was Hill's career:
"The eternal question is, 'Why is Moe Hill still in Class A ball?' And the eternal answer is 'Nobody Knows.'"
Although his well-deserved Midwest League fame may have been bittersweet, Hill quickly became a legend in Wisconsin Rapids.
"I was very popular," said Hill. "The town was full of good baseball people and they had a lot of great spots to golf and go fishing. I would walk through the town and everybody knew who I was. It was like, 'There goes Moe Hill, the greatest baseball player who ever lived.' It was great, but to get that sort of reception in the big leagues would have been pretty great, too. I mean, that's what you play the game for."
Further cementing Hill's iconic status within the league was his predilection for toothpicks, of all things.
"I remember that, later on, U.L. Washington became known for always playing with a toothpick in his mouth. But U.L. had nothing on Moe Hill," Cooney recalled. "One time, Moe got hit in the head by a pitch and went down. We ran out of the dugout to go check on him, and rolled him on to his back. Someone tried to take the toothpick out of his mouth, but Moe said, 'Don't touch it!'"
"No matter what, I just loved playing," said Hill. "I gave it 100 percent when I put the uniform on and played the game the way it was supposed to be played. There was a satisfaction in going out and producing like I did year after year, although seeing other guys pass me by after doing less would leave a bad taste in my mouth."
Of course, in today's game, that bad taste would have been at least partially alleviated by player-friendly developments such as the six-year Minor League free agency rule. Additionally, the near-ubiquitous presence of agents, who serve as fierce advocates for the athletes they represent, has helped insure that players always have someone in their corner. In the 1970s, however, a player's fate was determined solely by the organization for which he played. Hill's choice was simply to accept the hand he had been dealt or quit.
"I could have taken a more militant stance with the organization, but that wouldn't have done any good. I'd just end up getting trapped again," he said. "I decided that if I was going to quit, then I would walk away and never look back. If you take that stance, then nobody can touch you. I did consider leaving the game after 1973, but instead I came back and won the Triple Crown."
In 1979, in a classic example of "too little, too late," the Twins finally promoted the 32-year-old Hill to Double-A Jacksonville. He hit just .182 during his stint there and was released. After signing with the Royals for the 1980 season, he played briefly for Class A Advanced Fort Myers before being released.
Hill's involvement in professional baseball continued unabated, however.
"I was back in the game the day after I was released," he said. "I called [former Royals and current Braves general manager] Jon Schuerholz and told him I planned on making it to the big leagues as a coach. He got me a job coaching in the Gulf Coast League."
Since then, Hill has had scouting and coaching positions with the Cubs, Rangers and Orioles organizations, although he has yet to receive a Major League post. He's currently the bench coach for the Bowie Baysox, the Double-A affiliate of the Orioles.
Although Hill is glad to see that today's players have been afforded more rights, he also has grown frustrated with certain aspects of the game.
"If a player doesn't like the way things are going, he'll call his agent," he said. "The agent will call the farm director and then the farm director will call you. It's like, 'Am I hear to baby-sit?' But that's the way it is. I just try to be as positive as I can and do everything I can to help. The way I look at it, everyone's a prospect."
In the offseason, the seemingly indefatigable Hill keeps busy by cutting and selling firewood. He also gives private hitting lessons at a local gym. And, more than 40 years after his pro baseball career began, he still dreams of getting a shot at the Major Leagues.
"Hopefully, the Baltimore organization will be my last stop," he said. "This is where I started and I hope it can be where I finish."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.