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Top 100 Indians: #86 Oral Hildebrand

Oral Clyde Hildebrand

Pitcher, 1931-1936

Acquired: Trade, 11-29-1930:

Traded by Indianapolis (American Association) to the Cleveland Indians for RHP Les Barnhart, 1B Zeke Bonura, and SS Ed Montague.

Left Via: Trade, 1-17-1937:

Traded by the Cleveland Indians with SS Bill Knickerbocker and OF Joe Vosmik to the St. Louis Browns for RHP Ivy Andrews, SS Lyn Larry, and OF Moose Solters

Oral Hildebrand was one of eight children born to Arnold Hildebrand, a tennant farmer in Ben Davis, Indiana. Oral was the youngest of the three boys, and while his older two brothers, Chester and Lawton, seemed destined to follow in their father's footsteps, he wanted something different for himself:

"Chet" said Oral one day, "I'm getting away from this kind of life. I'm going to high school over at Southport, somehow or other, and I'm closing the books on milk weeds and milch cows. I'm going to amount to something. This ain't the right kind of life."

-Sporting News, 1-11-1934

To this point Oral hadn't even heard about baseball, as farming was his life, but that changed once he started high school. He was the center fielder on the high school team, but wasn't much of a hitter. In his sophomore year he got his first shot at pitching, the position that would catapult him into the big leagues. Hildebrand graduated, the first of his family to do so, and at first went back to the farm, but eventually he decided to go to nearby Indianapolis to work and play baseball, and possibly attend college. He earned enough money working at the Stutz Motor Car Company in the summer of 1928 to attend Butler University, and enrolled that fall.

He played basketball and baseball for the Bulldogs in the 1928-1929 school year, but his collegiate career was cut short when it was discovered that he had signed an agreement with the minor-league Indianapolis Indians. He was declared ineligible to play baseball at Butler, so he dropped out of school and became a professional baseball player.

Hildebrand struggled at first, suffering from wildness, but the big right-hander profited from the coaching and he was spotted by Cleveland general manager Bill Evans, who took out an option on him after the 1930 season. He was invited to spring training in 1931, but the Indians sent him back to Indianapolis for most of the 1931 season. After the Indians had fell out of the race, they recalled Hildebrand, who had some good outings in September:

On September 19, he was asked to go the route against the Red Sox. And Hildebrand went in masterful manner. Cleveland lost the game, 2 to 1, but by no process of logic could the defeat be laid at the door of the young flinger. The run that beat him was helped around the pathways by an error....

The Sporting News (Ed Bang), 9-24-1931

HIldebrand would make the club for keeps in 1932, forming a formidable staff with Wes Ferrell, Mel Harder, Clint Brown, and Willis Hudlin also on the club. Hildebrand started the season out of the rotation, but worked his way into the rotation after the midpoint of the year. Despite finishing second place in ERA and third place in OPS, the Indians finished their season fourth in the standings with an 87-65 record, 19 games behind the New York Yankees. It was a very top-heavy league the season, with three clubs winning more than 60% of their games and three clubs losing more than 59% of their games.

Piecing things together from various accounts, it appears that Hildebrand was known a good fastball in addition to a curve and a "change of pace" that was taught to him by former major-league pitcher Bill Burwell, who has Hildebrand's teammate with Indianapolis . He had big hands with long fingers, and he speculated that the strength of his fingers and wrists could have had something to do with his success as a pitcher:

"Maybe milking did help me as a pitcher," admitted Oral, "but I'll never recommend it to anyone I like."

The pitching staff returned in 1933, and Hildebrand, now a full-time starter, had his best season. He led the league with 6 shutouts, which was quite an accomplishment in the offense-crazy 1930s. He also was named to the first-ever AL All-Star squad, and 1933 was the Tribe's first full season in new Cleveland Stadium, which was much more spacious than the cramped League Park, and that helped him tremendously; his ERA was almost two runs lower at home than on the road. Even more telling, he threw 65.2 more innings at home despite only making 4 more starts at home. Obviously there's no pitch FX data from that era, but Hildebrand appears to have been a fly ball pitcher, and the move to Cleveland Stadium, with its more-or-less symmetrical fences, was a welcome haven after having to pitch in front of League Park's short porch in right field.

The pitching staff that season ranked the best in the league, but they finished 23.5(!) games behind the Washington Senators mainly because their offense that season was awful (also due to the new spacious park); only two regulars (Earl Averill and Odell Hale) had a league-average or above OPS, and Averill would have his worst full season with the Indians. Wes Ferrell, who also started 26 games, played the outfield towards the end of the season because he was pitching poorly, and he was hitting better than most of the other outfielders the Indians were throwing out there.

Because of the deepening depression and the drop in attendance, the Indians broke their lease of Cleveland Stadium with the city, and moved back to League Park in 1934. And while that did wonders for their offense (Averill and young Hal Trosky had fantastic seasons), returning to League Park had the opposite effect on Hildebrand, though an early-season knee-twisting also had to have an effect. He finished the '34 campaign with an 100 ERA+ and only one shutout.

An off-season column that winter hinted that Hildebrand was unhappy with Indians manager Walter Johnson, with whom he had had an run-in with Johnson during the 1933 season, and perhaps there continued to be bad blood between the two. But he wasn't traded that winter, and Hildebrand would bounce back in the first half before struggling down the stretch with some type of stomach ailment that was causing insomnia*. He would be moved to the bullpen for the last couple months of the season.

Oral was talked about as trade bait that winter as well given his health problems late in the season, but he remained with the team in 1936, but had a sub-par season, and by September was moved out of the rotation into bullpen duties thanks in part to the arrival of young phenom Bob Feller.

That winter Hildebrand was finally dealt in a six-player deal to the St. Louis Browns. He, outfielder Joe Vosmik, and shortstop Bill Knickerbocker were dealt to the Browns for outfielder Moose Solters, shortstop Lyn Larry, and pitcher Larry Andrews. The deal appeared to just be three players swapped for three other players at their position, kind of a challenge trade with three positions rather than one.

Hildebrand pitched poorly for the Browns in 1937 and 1938, though he remained a starter. He was dealt to the Yankees after the 1938 season, and served as a swingman for the World Series champs. He seemed to pitch well again the first couple months of 1940, but the Yankees shipped him out to Kansas City of the American Association in July; mentions were made of Oral being "in poor health," but I couldn't find anything more specific. HIldebrand refused to report, and so he sat out the rest of the season. He pitched with St. Paul the following season and ended his professional career where it began - Indianapolis - in 1942.

* From the same article that talked about Hildebrand's ailment, this gem:

(Monte) Pearson officially went on the casualty list July 22, when his broad shoulders became so sore that he could not comfortably don his uniform....

...It all started in Philadelphia, July 19th, when Pearson, oppressed by the intense heat, went to the roof of the hotel. While there he decided in favor of a sun bath. Three days later he was almost unable to move.

Indians Career Statistics

Year Age Tm Lg W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB Awards
1931 24 CLE AL 2 1 .667 4.39 5 2 1 2 0 26.2 25 16 13 0 13 6 106 8.4 0.0 4.4 2.0 0.46
1932 25 CLE AL 8 6 .571 3.69 27 15 8 7 0 129.1 124 69 53 7 62 49 130 8.6 0.5 4.3 3.4 0.79
1933 26 CLE AL 16 11 .593 3.76 36 31 2 15 6 220.1 205 110 92 8 88 90 120 8.4 0.3 3.6 3.7 1.02 AS
1934 27 CLE AL 11 9 .550 4.50 33 28 4 10 1 198.0 225 112 99 14 99 72 100 10.2 0.6 4.5 3.3 0.73
1935 28 CLE AL 9 8 .529 3.94 34 20 9 8 0 171.1 171 85 75 12 63 49 114 9.0 0.6 3.3 2.6 0.78
1936 29 CLE AL 10 11 .476 4.90 36 21 12 9 0 174.2 197 107 95 10 83 65 105 10.2 0.5 4.3 3.3 0.78
CLE (6 yrs) 56 46 .549 4.18 171 117 36 51 7 920.1 947 499 427 51 408 331 112 9.3 0.5 4.0 3.2 0.81
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/30/2012.

Selected Awards/Leaders

Cleveland Indians Career Leader

  • 40th Wins (56)
  • 43rd Innings Pitched (920.1)
  • 44th Games Started (117)
  • 34th Complete Games (51)
  • t-40th Shutouts (7)
  • 28th Walks (408)
  • 40th Batters Faced (4071)
  • 29th Adjusted ERA+ (112)

Cleveland Indians Season Leader

  • t-11th Shutouts (6)

AL All-Star: 1933

AL Earned Run Average: 10th, 1933

AL Wins: 4th, 1933

AL Shutouts: 1st, 1933

AL Adjusted ERA+: 10th, 1933