Jim Hickman – You Just Gotta be Yourself; You Can’t Be Somebody Else!

The complete story of how I came up with the idea for this project … well, it’s in the book; I’ve got to save a few stories, right! Let’s just say I read something, and the cynic in me completely disagreed with the statement and, in turn, stuck this idea in my head. So, for the next couple of weeks, I looked to find a book on the subject, and since I was unable to find the book I wanted, I decided, “why not me?”

Now that I’ve decided to give this book idea a go, I had to put a plan together; it didn’t matter that I knew no one in the literary or professional sports world. But then I got to thinking …. My wife reads 3 to 4 books a week, and I’ve got a pretty good collection of baseball cards lying around, heck … that’s enough inside information for me. So I put my plan together and began to prepare for this little project to start and end within a year or two … yeah, right!

Driving a lot for work can be a terrible thing, heck, it got me into this little endeavor. For twelve years I had driven up and down Hwy 51 in Tennessee six or seven times each year, and I’ll never forget the first time I passed by the small town of Henning, I looked to my left, and on the water tower, plain as day, it had written, “Henning TN.” and below, “Alex Haley and Jim Hickman.” We all know who Alex Haley is, author of Roots, but if you don’t know who Jim Hickman is, he played in the Major Leagues from 1962 through 1974. It was a “forest for the trees” situation that I was not smart enough to understand, but luckily I stepped right into my first opportunity soon after beginning Just Like Me (JLM). I had a sawmill customer in Henning that I visited a couple of times a year, and during the Fall of 2009, I’m walking around the sawmill with the owner when out of the blue, the owner asked me if I knew who Jim Hickman was? I said, “I sure do; he had some great seasons with the Chicago Cubs.” The owner’s next comment is a top 3 moment in getting this project done; “That’s his son; he’s my maintenance supervisor.” The light blub in my head exploded … I asked if Mr. Hickman still lived in Henning: he did, and I immediately asked the question, “Would he be willing to sit down with me for an interview?” I got the answer I hoped for and off to the races was I.

I met with Mr. Hickman twice. The first time was in his barn, and as I asked him questions, I took a lot of notes. The mistake I made was not recording our interview. After the meeting, I stopped at a local restaurant and wrote a chapter of the stories he told me, and this was when I realized I wasn’t a writer, and if I wanted to do this book, I better find a better way. I changed the objective to let the players tell the stories, not me, so I immediately went and bought a digital recorder, and Mr. Hickman was gracious to allow me to meet with him again, this time in his home and record our interview. The stories from his childhood are great. Mr. Hickman is a great storyteller, and off the record, he told me several humorous stories of his days as a minor league hitting instructor for the Cincinnati Reds while working for Marge Schott. Between the advice his Mom gave him, to the guidance from his high school baseball coach, to his time working in a tobacco warehouse getting ready for college, Mr. Hickman had some great stories I know you’ll enjoy reading. If you know someone who is thinking about starting to chew tobacco, you must tell them what happened to Mr. Hickman when he decided to chew tobacco in a game for the first … and last time. For the older fans, you probably remember the 1970 All-star game when Pete Rose collided with Ray Fosse to score the winning run … Well, it was Mr. Hickman that got the game-winning hit that scored Rose. You will not believe the day he had before the game; he was just lucky to be there.

For those of you who are not familiar with Mr. Hickman, he was a great person that was so accommodating, and I will always appreciate his willingness to speak with me. Mr. Hickman was signed by the Cardinals in 1956, selected by the Mets in their expansion draft, spent an unhappy year in LA before being traded to the Cubs, where he had his most successful seasons in the Majors. Mr. Hickman holds several Mets franchise first: first to hit for the cycle, to hit 3 home runs in a game, and hitting the last home run in the old Polo Grounds. His best year was in 1970, and he was awarded the Comeback Player of the Year for his play. In 1996 he was elected into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.  Mr. Hickman had the opportunity to play for three greats from the early days of baseball; Manager Casey Stengel and his hitting instructor, Rogers Hornsby, with the Mets and Manager Leo Durocher with the Chicago Cubs.

As I was flying back home from a trip and catching up on the news, I came across Mr. Hickman’s obituary. Jim Hickman passed away on June 25, 2016. I felt and still feel regret that I was unable to finish this project before his death; I would have liked for him to see what he had a hand in creating.