Once, when William Dillhoefer smashed a ball that rolled all the way the outfield wall, he hustled his way into third base with a triple. The ballplayer was so delighted at the reaction of the fans at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis that he walked toward the stands behind third base and waved his arms in triumph, joining the raucous crowd in cheer. As Dillhoefer beamed with pride and gazed at his admirers in the stands, the opposing third baseman tagged him with the ball. The umpire, having not called time, ruled Dillhoefer “OUT!”
Of course, no one called him William, and no one (as far as I can tell) ever called him Willie either. No, that enthusiastic ballplayer was affectionately known as “Pickles” between the white lines of a baseball field. And he was one of the most beloved characters to ever wear the uniform of the St. Louis Cardinals. His sudden death from disease in 1922 saddened the city known as “The Gateway to the West.”
When your parents give you a name like William Martin Dillhoefer, you hope to earn a nickname. That’s why the label “Pickles” was so eagerly welcome. The name was bestowed on Dillhoefer as a boy when he was growing up in Cleveland in the late 19th century. It was as a result of his last name and a play on the word “dill.” Apparently, “Pickles” loved pickles: he was known to pluck a cucumber out of brine now and again.
By 1910, Pickles was earning a reputation in Cleveland as a scrappy, energetic ballplayer. He played for a few local industrial teams and was finally recruited to play professionally in organized baseball for the Class D team in Portsmouth (Ohio) in 1914. A few years later he was catching for Milwaukee in the American Association, one of the top minor leagues in the country. He was a hit with fans in Suds City.
“I loved the fans,” Dillhoefer said in an interview later in his career after he made it to the big leagues. “I wasn’t a star or a game hero, but I showed the fans my real colors [and] they loved me for it.”
In the deadball era, catchers weren’t built like Johnny Bench, Lance Parrish, or J.T. Realmuto. They were scrawny, wiry fellas, like Johnny Kling and Ray Schalk, two catching stars who barely topped 150 pounds on the scales. Dillhoefer was like that, but full of sass. He played much taller than his 5’7 frame.
Dillhoefer’s defensive play caught the attention of a scout and he was signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1917. On Opening Day at Weegham Park in Chicago in 1917, Pickles got his first taste of major league ball when he was summoned as a pinch-hitter by manager Fred Mitchell in the eighth inning. He tapped a slow roller between third and the mound that was fielded by Lee Meadows, the St. Louis pitcher. Meadows fumbled the ball and little Dill scampered across the bag at first, safe. A moment later he scored his first run. Welcome to the big leagues, Pickles!
In December, Dillhoefer was tossed into a deal that shook baseball. The Phillies traded star hurler Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander, along with his catcher Bill Killefer, for pitcher Mike Prendergast, Dillhoefer, and $55,000. The deal remains one of the worst in Phillies’ history, for good reason. “Ol Pete” was 30 years old, but he had just completed his third consecutive season with at least 30 wins, and the future Hall of Famer would win more than 170 games after the Phils dumped him.
World Events Waylay Pickles Plans in Philly
How is that for a headline? It was never used but it could have been, because in 1918, Dillhoefer only got into eight games for his new team the Cubs before he entered the U.S. Army for service in the World War. Pickles enlisted before he could be drafted.
“I am happy to say I did not take a job in a munitions factory or a shipyard or something that would make me exempt. I want to do my bit and the sooner the better,” Dillhoefer said.
Dillhoefer was assigned to Camp Merritt in New Jersey but before he could be sent to Europe, the war ended in November of 1918.
Before the 1919 season, Dillhoefer was traded once again, this time to the Cardinals. It was in St. Louis where Pickles became a fan favorite. His eagerness and aggressive play caused a love affair between Dillhoefer and the folks who packed into the ballpark. Pickles played three seasons for the Cardinals, sharing catching duties with Bog Verne Clemons, a stocky farm boy from Iowa.
In those days, most teams did not have base coaches, so players would serve on the lines in that capacity. Dillhoefer filled that role with enthusiasm and theatrics, waving in runners or halting them with wild gesticulations. The fans in St. Louis loved it. Pickles also got into his share of scraps, earning a three-game suspension for a fight, and also taking on Frank “Pops” Snyder, the burly catcher of the Giants.
Pickles made St. Louis is home, another reason the local fans took to him so well. In 1921, before a game in July, the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce and other civic groups held a special ceremony for Dillhoefer. Among the gifts he received were a set of dishes, golf clubs, a cuckoo clock, and $50 in gold coins. Manager Branch Rickey started Pickles in the game that afternoon, and Dillhoefer rose to the occasion, collecting two hits and driving in a run in a St. Louis victory.
Dillhoefer met a school teacher while visiting teammate Milt Stock in Alabama in the fall of 1921. Within a few months they were smitten, and the two were married in Mobile in January of 1922. They honeymooned in New Orleans but when they returned to their home in St. Louis, Dillhoefer was ill. He had contracted typhoid fever. Rapidly, the disease spread to his gall bladder and lungs, and on February 23, 1922, he died in a hospital in St. Louis. He had been married less than six weeks.
The outpouring of grief from his teammates and fans in St. Louis was tremendous. Dillhoefer received a military funeral in Mobile at the home of his new bride, and back in St. Louis thousands of fans attended a memorial service at Sportsman’s Park, where a giant wreath was laid at his position behind home plate. Branch Rickey and Pickle’s good friend Milt Stock spoke at the service. A 21-gun salute was performed.
Pickles Dillhoefer was never a star and his name is more amusing than it is remembered nearly 100 years after his tragic death. But in St. Louis, for a brief time in the deadball era, he was a beloved member of the team, and a fine signal caller behind the plate.