He Never Made The Majors But He Sure Came Close

Friday, September 18, 2020
Growing up in the Purman community south of Doniphan during the 1930s, John Stilwell never played Little League or high school baseball. “Growing up we never had any cars or money,” he recalled to a P-N reporter in 1990. “I spent a lot of time playing with a homemade ball. I was nearly 17 years old before I got into any kind of game.” On a ball field at the old Hovey School between Currentview and Success, Ark., Stilwell showed up one day and asked to play. Since one team didn’t have a catcher, Stilwell was told to get behind the plate. He never left a squatting position as he gunned out the first runner who tried to steal second base. Soon, he was getting paid $3.50 per game to pitch on Sunday afternoons for a team at Datto, Ark., run by businessman Don James. After graduating from Doniphan High School in 1941, Stilwell moved to St. Louis and found work as a machinist and a position on the company’s Industrial League baseball team. After pitching a no-hitter, a scout from the New York Giants invited him to a tryout at Sportsman’s Park. He was offered a contract with Jersey City, N.J., of the International League. “The war was going on and there was a two-year freeze on changing jobs, so I couldn’t report for two years,” he recalled. “That settled any ambitions for me to play big league baseball. I never took it serious after that.” In 1945 with the war over, Stilwell reported to Jersey City but played just one season when manager Gabby Hartnett decided to make him a relief pitcher. Stilwell went back to work and in the summer re-joined a semi-pro team in Pocahontas, Ark., that included many of his old teammates from Datto. The following summer he signed a professional contract with the Dodgers organization at Danville, Ill., and compiled a 16-8 record with 22 complete games to lead the team. Over the next two years he enjoyed success in the Dodgers’ minor league system and earned an invitation to spring training at Vero Beach, Fla. He never made the big club, but Stilwell came back to St. Louis and began working as a tool and die maker at McDonnell Douglas and returned to the Industrial League, where he pitched three no-hitters during a 15-year career. Occasionally he would find time to play semi-pro baseball in Northeast Arkansas. In 1951, he played for a Piggott team against a barnstorming group of Major Leaguers at Caraway, Ark. Facing hall of fame pitcher Johnny Sain, Stilwell collected two hits. He also enjoyed teaching the game that he loved to youngsters in the St. Louis youth baseball programs. “Kids coming up through the sports programs become your better neighbors and better citizens in the community,” he said. After 28 years with McDonnell Douglas, Stilwell retired and returned to Doniphan. About 10 days before his 64th birthday, Stilwell claimed what he called his proudest sports accomplish when he became the first golfer at Current River Country Club to record a double eagle. In 1990, more attention came his way when he was selected for induction into the prestigious St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame. On March 2, 2008, John Stilwell passed away in Doniphan, just five days after the death of his wife for 66 years, Maudie.

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