January 20 – Happy Birthday Jesse Hill
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about authoring this blog is finding out some incredible things about Yankees that I didn’t know much about. Take today’s birthday celebrant for example. Before becoming a Yankee, Jesse “Jess” Hill was a three-sport starter at USC. Think about that for just a second. This native of Yates, Missouri, was such an exceptional athletic talent that he was able to become a national champion broad jumper on the school’s track squad, a running back on a Rose Bowl-winning football team who averaged 8.3 yards per carry and an outfielder on the Trojans’ baseball team. After graduating in 1929, he signed a contract to play baseball with the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, where he averaged .356 in 1930 and .318 in 1931.
Those batting averages got the attention of the Yankees, who purchased Hill’s contract in 1932. He spent the next three years tearing up minor league pitching on Yankee farm teams in Newark and St. Paul. Meanwhile, the 1934 season would be a year of transition for the Yankee outfield. Thirty-nine-year-old Babe Ruth had hoped to become Yankee manager but when Jacob Rupert refused his request, the Bambino asked for and received his unconditional release. The great Yankee center-fielder Earl Combs had run into one too many outfield walls during his outstanding career and he became a part-time outfielder during that 1934 season. That left two Hall-of-Fame-sized holes in New York’s outfield and Jess Hill was invited to the team’s 1935 spring training camp and given the opportunity to try and fill one of them.
He performed well enough to make the team, but with Combs still on the roster, Ben Chapman starting in center and George Selkirk replacing Ruth in right, Hill began the year battling for playing time with fellow outfielders Myril Hoag and Dixie Walker. His turning point came in the Yankees ninth game of the season versus Boston. Combs had gotten off to a horrible start that year with his bat, which was probably one of the reasons Manager Joe McCarthy penciled Hill’s name in on the Yankee lineup card to lead off and play left field. The 28-year-old rookie responded with three hits, his first big league home run, four RBIs and two runs scored. From that point, for the rest of the season, Hill started in the Yankee outfield more often than not and hit a very respectable .293 with 14 stolen bases. Ordinarily, a first year-performance at that level would pretty much assure a welcome-back for a sophomore season with the same ball club, especially since Combs announced that he would not be returning in 1936. That wasn’t the case for Hill however. There was this youngster named Joe DiMaggio joining the Yankees that year who scouts were raving about. The Yankee front-office decided to convert their sudden surplus of outfielders into more depth in their pitching staff and that January, Hill was traded to the Senators for a veteran right-handed hurler named Bump Hadley.
Hill played decently in DC, averaging .305 in 87 games as the Senators’s fourth outfielder in 1936. But after he got off to a slow start at the plate the following season, he was traded to the Philadelphia A’s, where he duplicated his rookie year batting average of .293. That wasn’t good enough to stick with the A’s so he was forced back to the PCL which turned out to be a huge break for Hill.
Back in LA, he started coaching high school sports teams during the offseason. He then joined the Navy during WWII and served with a guy who just happened to be athletic director at Hill’s Alma Mater. After the war ended, the AD hired Hill to coach the Trojans’ freshmen teams in football and track. His next assignment was head coach of USC’s varsity track team. He led them to two consecutive national titles in 1949 and ’50. He became USC’s varsity football coach in 1951 and during his five years in that job, his teams went 45-17-1. His most celebrated player was frank Gifford. In 1957 he accepted an offer to become USC’s Athletic Director and he served in that job for the next fifteen years. During his tenure as AD, USC teams won 29 national titles.
What an incredible athlete and leader Jess Hill must have been, He passed away in 1993 at the age of 86. Hill shares his birthday with this one-time Yankee phee-nom.
RIP Stan Musial and Earl Weaver.