Imagine being a teenager in 1940s Detroit and taking the street car to Michigan and Trumbull to watch the Tigers play at what was then called Briggs Stadium. Then imagine one day you get a phone call telling you to come down to the stadium, put on a uniform and take the field with your heroes. This happened to Dan Dillman in 1948. Dillman worked as a batboy in the visitors dugout and clubhouse at Briggs Stadium. From 1948 to 1950 he rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest legends in baseball, getting a less glamorous look at them behind the scenes, but never losing his sense of awe at his proximity to baseball greatness. Dillman wrote about his experiences and his captivating book, Hey Kid, A Tiger Batboy Remembers. He shared some of his fondest memories from his front row seat at Tiger games.
This is Part One. Look for Part Two next month. Listen to the full interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Your Tigers career begins in the winter of 1948 with an essay contest the team holds in order to find a new batboy. You submitted an essay and you followed up with the team—you weren’t content after you didn’t hear anything that you would get the job or had been given a fair chance. How good was your essay and how important was your follow-up in landing the job?
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It seemed odd to me that they would ask for an essay considering the responsibilities of a batboy or clubhouse boy. I was a good student and English was one of my favorite subjects, and so I wrote, I thought, a pretty good letter, but there were certainly probably hundreds of kids writing their own letters to be batboy. And so at that time, Billy Evans was the general manager of the Tigers. Billy Evans had been an umpire, and when he retired from that, he got into administrative work with various teams. But at that time he was with the Tigers as general manager. And so being a good drawer, I drew his picture from a photograph in the newspaper, and that seemed to get me an interview. And when I went down for the interview, the fellow said, “If you’re going to draw this well, why would you want to be a batboy?” And I said, “Well, it’s obvious this is what everybody wants to be at my age.”
Once you got the job, one of the first people you met in the visiting clubhouse was a man that you and everyone called Fat Frank. Who was Fat Frank, and what was your relationship like with him?
He ran a tight ship and encouraged you to follow along and take pride in your work. And the purpose of that, he said, was to provide the best visiting clubhouse atmosphere in the American League. I read that and I wondered, sometimes teams don’t want to give the greatest comfort to their opponents. They don’t want them to be comfortable as they take the field, and there’s some gamesmanship about that. But I take it there was never anything like that with Frank’s approach to the visitor’s clubhouse at Briggs Stadium.
No. At the University of Michigan [Editor’s note: actually the University of Iowa] the visitor’s clubhouse for football teams that came to play in Ann Arbor, I believe that that visitor’s clubhouse was small, uncomfortable and painted pink, so that’s an example of what you were referring to. But we took great pride in being the very best visitor’s clubhouse because we wanted the ballplayers to enjoy coming there and to know that we would do everything that we could to make their stay comfortable. And that we would run errands and do other things for them that would make their stay a pleasant one. So that was always the mantra: This is the best visitor’s clubhouse in the American League. And often ballplayers would tell us that [it was].
Including Ted Williams: you have a great story that I’m not going to spoil for readers about a rather unusual errand for an unmentionable item he had you run and he told you outright, “Yeah, this is the best clubhouse.” Did you get a lot of explicit affirmation or appreciation from players?
Yes. It was usually the players who were what we would call the star players. They were the ones that gave the boys working there either as batboys or clubhouse boys, they would give the best tips and show appreciation for things that were done for the players. With the one exception–I have a part of Chapter Two, I think, dedicated to this–Jerry Coleman of the New York Yankees. I spent an entire evening washing his sanitary socks from a three -week road trip and folded them, put them in his locker and he never acknowledged that I’d done that. But I think you have to expect it. You know, that’s part of a kid’s growing up and learning that not everyone’s going to be pleasant and polite for things that you do for them.
Give us a sense, in addition to these errands that came up, of your daily routine. You’d have to leave school by I believe noon for a three o’clock game. What were some of the regular parts of your day?
Well, I would eat my lunch on the streetcar on the way down to Briggs Stadium. At that time, in my first year, the Tigers were only then getting lights for night games. And so usually games were played in the afternoon and usually started at about three o’clock or at the very latest, 3:30. The work that had to be done before the game was then done the night before. In other words, by the time I got down to the ballpark, all of the work such as shining shoes and sweeping floors and mopping floors and putting new and dry uniforms into the lockers had already been taken care of the night before. So that after a game, which would end at about five-thirty or six, we would get to work as soon as the ballplayers were leaving the clubhouse–we would start sweeping the floors, mopping the floors, putting all of their wet uniforms into the dryer. We would shine all of their baseball shoes for the next day, and we always hated for them to be playing in the rain because that meant that the shoes would be muddy, and it just took so much longer. But all of that work, cleaning the toilets, for example, cleaning the showers, all of that work had to be done when we showed up for work the next day. That was true for batboys, it was true for the boys who worked just in the clubhouse and didn’t wear a uniform for the game. So that meant that I got home at night after a day game, probably about 10:30 or 11:00, and I was riding the streetcar from Michigan and Trumbull back to where I lived on West Grand Boulevard.
So you’re working long hours doing these kind of grunt jobs, a lot of drudgery–the mopping the floors, the scrubbing the toilets. At times did you say, Why am I here doing this drudgery? And did you have to snap yourself back and say, I am in the Briggs Stadium clubhouse where just a select few get to go?
Yes, I did. And we always thought, we’re going to make this the best place in the American League. Even though we worked hard and long hours. And I still didn’t have my homework done by the time I got home, so I tried to do that on the streetcar on the way back.
Yeah, I thought this must be taking a toll on your schoolwork. If you’re leaving school early, having your school day cut short to get to a day game. Then working long hours and having to do homework at the end of all that.
Yes. I left at usually around 11:30 to noon. I started classes anywhere between 7:30 and eight. And so the people were, it was a large high school in terms of enrollment, probably 3,000 or so, but everyone knew that, because some of them could see me from the windows as I left. Everyone knew who I was, even if I didn’t know them, they knew that somebody from their school, and then they eventually found out my name, that I was getting out of school early because school was still three hours more in session. But I was given a schedule without any, what they called at that time homeroom, or breaks for you to do your homework. I just went straight through from, say, 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, if I had four classes. So there wasn’t much rest.
Were your teachers more forgiving given the nature of your job?
This was such a unique opportunity for you to get up close with some of these living legends. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, you mentioned so many names in the book of people that you had such an immediacy to. I’m wondering if seeing them come out of the shower, out of the bathroom, you saw them, in a sense, in their most diminished states, or their most humble states. Did that diminish their status or did that sort of knock them off a pedestal at all for you, or were you just enthralled by being up close and personal with them?
I came to realize, I would think fairly early on during that first year, that these guys are just like everybody else. They have a special talent. Some of them are nice, some of them are not very pleasant. And so I would say very early on I realized that my heroes were not so heroic, but that didn’t diminish my love for the game or the fact that I had favorite players. And because they perhaps didn’t act as you might think they would, it didn’t make a lot of difference. I soon began to accept that, that here, they’re just like other people and they’ll have their oddities in behavior, and in fact that was helpful in learning how to better serve them. Because, well, let’s take this as an example. When you’re a batboy, every player will have certain bats that they like to use and you have to know what those bats are, and you have to make sure that those have been put in the bat rack for the player. And you can only do that by talking to them and showing them that you will do what they want done and that they have confidence in you to get it done. You will remember in the book, I was kneeling in the on-deck circle and Dom Dimaggio was at the plate and Johnny Pesky was the number two hitter for the Red Sox usually. And I was kneeling there with his bat and he came up and he was very pleased that he didn’t have to carry his own bats, that I had them up there for him and I had a bath towel so that when he kneels down, he wouldn’t get his uniform soiled. And he made a comment to me in a way that indicated that he was really very satisfied with the way that we were able to do this thing, to know which bats will be used and to be up there and waiting in the on deck circle for the hitter. If you want to know what he said to me, you have to go back to the book, it’s a little bit profane.
You write that one of the most intimidating duties you had to do was to retrieve the warmup jacket from the incoming relief pitcher. And thousands of fans saw you do this and thought nothing of it. But this was a harrowing and terrifying task for you. Why was that?
Well for one thing, the Tigers had their batboy, and in fact they had several batboys who were famous for running from the dugout steps out to second base and getting the jacket from the relief pitcher. The bullpen was in center field, 440 feet away from home plate. And the Tiger bat boy would rush out there, grab that jacket without stopping, and he would arrive at second base just as the relief pitcher did. And then he would turn around and run back to the dugout. Well, when the visiting batboy had to go out and get the jacket for the relief pitcher for the visiting team, the pressure’s on to do this, if not as fast as the Tiger batboy, at least do it well and have the timing down so that you arrived at second base at the same time that the pitcher did, and without stopping grab the jacket and go back. You know, we practiced this, it wasn’t just a spur-of-the-moment thing, but before the game started, I would practice running from the dugout to second base and running back again. And if it was raining or muddy, you’re always careful about slipping and falling because, you know, there goes your applause when you slip and fall on your face. But when people watch a ballgame, I’m sure many people don’t understand what goes on before the game starts. And one of the, I would call [it] an event in practice is that the batboys also practice as well as the ballplayers do. And very little is left to chance, because we wanted to be the best visiting clubhouse in the American League.
So did you ever slip and fall or did you have a perfect record?
Nope, I didn’t, I never slipped. I would say I was lucky because there were times when it could have happened, but it didn’t. And what I did was just slow down a bit and adjust my timing so that I could get to second base at the time the relief pitcher was coming in.
One of the great contributions of your book that I really enjoyed was this diagram that you made of the visitors clubhouse, down to every sink and toilet and the dryer. And you mark the spot where Ted Williams would practice his swings in the clubhouse. Now every description I’ve heard of the visiting clubhouse is that it was cramped. So my question is, did that ever cause any issues? Did he ever practice full speed swings in that location? And was that ever dangerous?
It’s amazing to think what his numbers would have been like had he been a Tiger with Briggs Stadium or with Yankee Stadium–there were rumors of maybe a Williams-DiMaggio trade, and those home parks would have better matched those hitters.
And I need to say that Williams was extremely annoyed that DiMaggio got the first hundred-thousand-dollar contract. He thought he should have received it. He did obviously eventually get his money. So there was a little bit of friction between the two. None that I witnessed, but I read about it, he did not say anything about it in the clubhouse. Usually he talked about baseball and hitting. And that was one of the things that I remembered, that I was able to sit on a trunk in the middle of the clubhouse and listen to Williams talk about hitting. And then when I was out on the field, talked to some of the players who were good fielders. So I learned from the best.
Absolutely. That was a Ph.D in baseball with that experience.
It was. I didn’t know it at the time, but I remembered back, later on I thought, Yeah, that was awesome. One thing I I’d like to mention is that Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau and a number of other players had asked me to help them when baseballs came into the clubhouse. There used to be a dozen in a box for the players to sign and then these baseballs would be sent to orphanages, to hospitals, and for public relations events. And when Feller and Boudreau found out that I could do their signatures, they often had me sign their baseballs, so people out there on Ebay that have a Bob Feller baseball, or Boudreau, it could be mine. But that shouldn’t annoy people because that sort of thing goes on and has gone on for long time. The players are very busy getting ready for a game usually, and they don’t want to be distracted by this sort of thing of signing baseballs or autographing different things.
I was going to say, fans and collectors should be under no illusions. But I’m curious if you’ve ever seen an item at a memorabilia show or in a museum and wondered if that was actually your autograph.
Well, I would know mine because it was not perfect. I don’t mean to suggest that, but it was good enough for these guys. And when Boudreau asks me to do it, I asked him, I said, You know, I could also make out the lineup if you wish! That was the year they won the pennant, 1948. That was another good experience because the Yankees were not winning it and the Cleveland Indians were, and they had some kind of team.
We watch a game today and we see a ballboy or ballgirl positioned on the outfield line to catch a foul ball before a fan can lean over and get themselves in trouble by reaching too far. And I was surprised in reading your book, you said that you were given that job, and you auditioned for it.
I think I was the first one in baseball, in the major leagues, because that was in 1948. And it happened because so many inebriated fans would jump over the low wall and try to get foul balls. And so they told me to sit out there in right field, and I did and that seemed to stop it. But I do believe, unless someone else can prove with a picture or other evidence that they were out there before 1948. I’m going to take credit, anyway.