Note: Some of the information in this story comes from an interview conducted with Dillard a few years ago.
For a young man from South Carolina, just making it to the highest level of professional baseball was an “awesome” experience.
Don Dillard, who was born in Greenville, S.C., made his debut on April 24, 1959, with the Cleveland Indians. He finished his Major League career with 14 home runs and 47 runs batted in.
“I started out playing high school baseball at Taylors,” Dillard says. From there, he played Greer American Legion baseball and then signed to play Textile League baseball with Victor Mill in Greenville.
“I signed with pro ball when I finished high school in 1955,” he recalls. Following high school and textile league baseball, Dillard played in the Cleveland minor league system. In 1958, he hit .319 with 21 home runs and 78 RBI to lead to a promotion to AAA and, additionally, to the major league level in 1959.
Dillard was typically used as a fourth or fifth outfielder, but found his niche in the game as a pinch hitter.
“I didn’t start too many games, but I did a lot of pinch hitting,” he said. “I did some spot-starting. I was always a starter in the minors.”
Dillard said it was tough for a player to make it to the Major League level.
“I played back when they had two leagues of eight teams,” he said. Counting B, C and D ball and the minor leagues, Major League teams could have up to 15 affiliates during that time period. Today, teams have five or six.
“It was a little tougher to get a starting spot,” Dillard said. “Half as many guys were playing in the Majors then as there are now and there was no designated hitter then. That extends the career of a lot of guys.”
For a baseball player breaking into the Majors, everything can be a new experience. One of those experiences that sticks out in Dillard’s mind is his first home run.
“I hit it off of Early Winn, a 300-game winner,” he recalls. “I was tickled with that.” Wynn is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Following his career in baseball, Dillard helped with baseball camps for children. He would share with them the importance of practicing.
“There’s a lot of people that had more ability and more talent that didn’t make it to the big leagues,” he told the group of children at the camp in Greenwood. “It was because they didn’t try. It was because they didn’t practice. It was because they weren’t serious about trying to make something out of themselves.
“You’re not going to be any better that what you try to be. If you’ve got all the ability in the world, but you don’t try to do what’s right, you are going to have a tough life ahead of you.”
Baseball skills and a love for the game developed for Dillard at a young age. Dillard and his friends would gather at a field near their houses and play the game all day long. He told the children about how they would take a ball that had lost its cover and wrap it with tape, just to keep playing.
“My mother would holler for me to come eat lunch,” he said. “I’d tell her I didn’t want to eat lunch. I wanted to play baseball.”
He also sees some reasons why young people today aren’t in to sports the way they used to be.
“Sometimes I think it’s a shame that there’s TV, VCRs and video games because people don’t play sports the way they used to,” he says. “Now, they sit in front of the TV and don’t get much exercise.”
Baseball wasn’t about money at the time he played, Dillard said.
“Back then we played more because we loved the game,” he recalls. “We didn’t make any money compared to what guys today make. We were very fortunate to be able to make our living in a game we truly loved.”
“The guys playing now drive a Mercedes Benz and have two more at home in the garage. We drove 10-year-old Chevrolets when we played,” he says.
At the time he retired from the game, a Major League player had to have put in five full years of service to receive a pension from baseball. Dillard had finished 17 days short of four years of total service. Baseball changed the rules later to allow pensions for players with four years of service and Dillard found himself much closer. Over the years, he tried to find a way to get the 17 days of service and to receive his pension.
“I am short,” he said. “I would love to get it, but I am not sure I would want to leave home to do it.”
Over the years, he wrote letters to teams and made requests. Most of them were to no avail. His closest shot at fulfilling the service came when Chuck Tanner, a former Cleveland teammate, was managing the Atlanta Braves.
“He was going to let me come up and take the place of a pitcher who was going to have surgery,” Dillard said. “Bobby Cox was the general manager at that time and Bobby decided he was going to replace the guy and do it with someone within the organization.”
There is a stark difference between Dillard and the other players of his time and the players today when it comes to getting a pension. Players coming up with a Major League team today automatically get the pension money, Dillard said.
He has had chances at other opportunities involving former teammates in Milwaukee and Cleveland.
“I played with Eddie Mathews and Sparky Anderson and they both managed off and on,” Dillard said. “I just got tired of writing letters and making phone calls.”
Following his career in baseball, Dillard moved to Waterloo, S.C., to manage property at Dillard’s Landing.