Catching Up With: Dee Pillette
Each week in the Toy Department, veteran Sun sports writer Mike Klingaman will track down a former local sports figure and let you know what's going on in his/her life in a segment called "Catching Up With ..." Let him know who you'd like him to find, and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ..."
The man who pitched the modern-day Orioles to their first big league victory lives quietly in a San Jose, Calif., trailer park. At 86, Duane (Dee) Pillette spends his days in relative anonymity, puttering around the neighborhood and helping folks with home repairs – a clogged sink here, a blown circuit there.
As he works, Pillette shrugs off the arthritis in his left hip, as he once did the nagging bone spurs in his elbow that ended his baseball career.
But not before he made history for the fledgling Orioles exactly 45 years ago.
On April 14, 1954, Pillette – a lithe, graying right-hander with a nasty sinker – stopped the Tigers, 3-2 on six hits before a ho-hum crowd of 5,000 in Detroit.
In Baltimore, though, folks went nuts over Pillette’s complete-game road victory, which hyped the celebration the following day when the Orioles arrived for their home opener.
The pre-game parade the city gave the club "was among my most exciting times in baseball." Pillette recalled. "I never had a large ego, but as we rode in convertibles to the ballpark past all of those people, my heart and body kind of puffed up and I thought, ‘Dammit, we’re pretty good.’
"Of course, that feeling didn’t last."
The Orioles finished the season in seventh place (of eight) with a record of 54-100. And Pillette? The man who’d led the new club to its initial win that chilly April day won 10 of 24 decisions and pitched to a team-leading earned run average of 3.12.
Pillette would never win another major-league game. However, nearly one-half century later, he is still sought by autograph hounds for that historic victory, the highlight of an otherwise unremarkable career.
Pillette still has both his glove and a ball from that game in Detroit. Long gone is the bruise he got when he slid into second base after hitting a double.
"That’s what I remember most," he said of the wound. "The ground was hard as concrete and it gave me a strawberry that went several layers of skin deep. There were seven rings to that sucker if there was one; my right rump looked like a target all season.
"Yeah, I enjoyed getting the double – but not the strawberry."
All summer, Pillette kept up a running feud with his catcher, Clint Courtney, the Orioles’ myopic backstop who taunted him mercilessly about putting more oomph on his pitches.
"Scrap Iron (Courtney) liked guys who threw hard, while I liked to change speeds on my sinker," Pillette said. "He would walk out halfway to the mound, fire the ball back to me and yell, loud enough for everyone in the box seats to hear, ‘Hey -----, throw it hard enough for me to catch!’ "
On occasion, when Courtney did this, Pillette would step aside and let the ball skip into center field. Incensed, Courtney stubbornly started calling for nothing but fastballs from Pillette, who’d shake him off, time and again.
"Finally I said, ‘Dammit, Scrap Iron, stop being so hard-headed or I’m just going to stand out there and stare at you forever,’ " Pillette said.
As the losses piled up, he said, Orioles fans seemed to take them in stride.
"Baltimore loved us. People would do anything for the players," Pillette said. "Keep in mind, I dug ditches in the offseason, and here were restaurants offering us free meals. The city was heaven.
"I remember when we bought an Oldsmobile, our first convertible. My wife liked the one on the showroom floor except that it was green and yellow, an atrocious color.
" ‘Repaint it for us and we’ll buy it,’ she told the dealer. He did – and then sold it to us wholesale. Yes, I have fond memories of Baltimore."