WHERE ARE THEY NOW: BOB DILLINGER : St. Louis Brown Hit the Big Time and Ran With It
He was never Public Enemy No. 1, and if this Dillinger was wanted in his day, it was for his ability to hit a baseball.
Meet Bob (Duke) Dillinger, one of the best players most fans probably never heard of.
Duke could hit .300 in his sleep. While teams tried to find sluggers in the mold of Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg after World War II, the slap-hitting Dillinger could run like few others in the American League.
He played in the 1949 All-Star game at Ebbets Field. Many of the All-Stars that year--Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella--were destined for Cooperstown. Dillinger’s career flashed in an instant, over in six seasons despite a lifetime .306 batting average, mostly spent in obscurity with the lowly St. Louis Browns.
He ended up in Sacramento, winning a Pacific Coast League batting title before quitting baseball returning to Glendale, where he grew up. He lived in Sylmar until 1983, when he and his wife, Eleanor, moved to their present home in Canyon Country.
Dillinger, 75, is retired and healthy, having worked 22 years for the City of Los Angeles as a construction inspector.
Few remember his name--certainly not in the same mention with Williams and DiMaggio. His team no longer exists. Like the St. Louis Browns, Dillinger, a Glendale High graduate, lives on in the mist of time and the record books.
But there he is in the Baseball Encyclopedia, ranking among the greats in several categories from the time he reached the big leagues in 1946.
By 1947 Dillinger was the Browns’ third baseman and he stole a career-high 34 bases, beginning a string of three consecutive seasons as the American League leader.
In 1948 he led the league with 207 hits, batting .321 with 34 doubles, 10 triples and 28 steals.
In 1949, Dillinger batted .324 with 13 triples and 20 steals.
“I was no home run hitter. I hit the ball between ‘em and run,” Dillinger said. “I could always run.”
Former major league manager Preston Gomez recalled recently, “He was a pretty good player. Ran like hell.”
Longtime major league manager Gene Mauch, who played against Dillinger in the Pacific Coast League, remembered a player who was, perhaps, too carefree.
“He was as good as he wanted to be,” Mauch said. “He wasn’t driven like some guys.”
If Dillinger’s stolen base totals seem relatively low, remember that it was a different era. There was no artificial turf, parks were generally small and tailored to a power game, and baseball etiquette in those days called for players to run only in certain situations. During the 1930s it was common for a league leader to have fewer than 20 steals and from 1930-50 only three players had more than 50.
“You just didn’t run like they do now,” Dillinger said. “Nobody in your friggin’ life stole 80 bases. Nobody ran two runs ahead or two runs behind--at that time it was (considered) showing somebody up. And if a catcher dropped the ball it was an error and you didn’t get credit for a stolen base. Now it doesn’t matter when you run.”
Dillinger’s reward for hitting .324 was a trade to the Philadelphia Athletics before the 1950 season, the start of a two-year Rand-McNally tour.
Dillinger batted .309 in 84 games with the Athletics but was dealt to Pittsburgh in midseason, hitting .288 with the Pirates.
Twelve games into 1951, Dillinger was traded from Pittsburgh to the White Sox, for whom he hit .301 in 89 games. But that was the end of Dillinger’s major league career. The next year, Dillinger was tearing up the PCL at age 34.
Why the four-team shuttle and sudden exit? “He was a great guy but he never took anything too serious,” Mauch suggested.
But Dillinger says his abrupt departure wasn’t such a mystery: He was a third baseman who developed an aversion to throwing.
Today, that would mean a visit with the team psychologist. In 1951 it meant unemployment.
“I became a bad third baseman,” he says simply. “I was scared to throw the ball. We didn’t have head shrinkers in those days. Geez, later I seen (Steve) Sax with the Dodgers, he couldn’t hit first base for two years but they stuck with him.
“I couldn’t handle it but in my opinion I could have played another three, four years and hit .300 if I played left field or first base, but nobody wanted to give me a job. The White Sox dumped me and Joe Gordon, who later managed in the majors, took me with him to Sacramento. He was one of the nicer people I ever played for. I was always sorry I didn’t hit more for him.”
As for the impression he didn’t do all he could, Dillinger said, “I didn’t have a long (career) but I did what I could do. A lot of people said I could do more but. . . . I really thought I could hit .300 another three or four years. Third base was a problem. The throwing really was a problem.”
Things never really worked out the way Dillinger planned, but he has no complaints. Born and raised in Glendale, Dillinger met Eleanor in a junior high tennis class. He was a star in several sports at Glendale High, and the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Dillinger went to the University of Idaho to play football.
But two broken collarbones later, Dillinger signed with the Browns in 1940. After playing for triple-A Toledo (Ohio) in 1942, he spent three years in the service before making the majors in 1946, a 27-year-old rookie.
However, Dillinger said playing service ball may have helped him reach the big leagues, even if it cost him (and most of the players of the World War II era) three years. Many of the majors’ biggest stars played exhibition games for entertainment-starved soldiers.
“My three years in the service, I played with DiMaggio and all those guys,” he said. “I’m sure that helped me get to the majors.”
While playing for the Browns, Dillinger worked winters in the Southland--"Not like now,” he noted--and after leaving the PCL in 1955 he found permanent work with the City of L.A.
He coached a Babe Ruth League team that included future major league catcher Jack Hiatt, but Dillinger his involvement in baseball has been minimal since he retired.
However, Dillinger and his wife enjoy following the career of granddaughter Stephanie Keeler, a catcher on the University of Hawaii softball team.
“She can really hit,” he said proudly, adding that when the Rainbows play at a Big West school the grandparents drive to the site in their motor home.
Dillinger said he doesn’t keep up as closely with baseball, agreeing with many of his contemporaries that the game may be glitzier now, but isn’t necessarily better.
“I don’t go to many games, I don’t really follow baseball. My wife’s a big Angels fan,” he said. “Personally, it’s, I think, kind of gross, the money they make. It’s a different game. It’s entertainment now. They’re not athletes anymore, they’re entertainers.
“I hate to see ‘em building all these new parks that all look the same. I hope they never replace Fenway (in Boston). Detroit was a great park. It’s a different game. All those fights now--if someone hit a home run in front of me I expected to be knocked down. Not brushed back--flattened. To me it was more of a sport. But everything changes.”
Dillinger doesn’t say that bitterly. “It was a good life. I got no problem,” he said.