Forty years ago today, Dave Hibner was on top of the world.
The date was June 7, 1977, and Hibner had just graduated from Howell High School. He was a baseball star – one of the best high school players in the country – and when Major League Baseball held its draft that day, Hibner was the ninth player taken in the first round.
Picking first overall, the Chicago White Sox selected Harold Baines, who went on to have an All-Star career as a designated hitter. Two picks later, the Milwaukee Brewers picked Paul Molitor, who is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
And picking ninth, the Texas Rangers selected a shortstop from Howell, Mich., named David Hibner.
There’s no understating just how huge a deal this was. In the annals of Livingston County sports history, this was one of the biggest days ever. Dave Hibner is the only player from Livingston County ever taken in the first round in any sport (although Brighton’s Drew Henson certainly would have been, too, if he had stuck with football).
Hibner is a Livingston County sports legend, right up there with Henson and Charlie Gehringer and very few others. Forty years after he roamed the fields and courts of Howell High School, people still talk about him as the greatest all-around athlete in school history.
And 40 years ago today – June 7, 1977 – was the biggest day of his sports life. Dave Hibner was a first-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft – the ninth player taken overall. He was taken ahead of Ozzie Smith and Tim Raines, both of whom went on to Hall of Fame careers. He was taken ahead of Bob Welch, Dave Henderson, Jesse Barfield and Tony Phillips, all of whom became Major League stars.
Forty years ago today, they were betting that Dave Hibner of Howell, Mich., was going to be better than all of them.
That never happened, of course. Dave Hibner might have gone on to have a great life, but it wasn’t the life that folks were predicting four decades ago.
So today, on the 40th anniversary of the 1977 Major League Baseball draft, it’s appropriate to take a look back.
This is the story of Dave Hibner, the best there ever was.
It’s a story that most of us can relate to, because nobody’s life ever turns out exactly the way they expect. Mine certainly didn’t. Dave Hibner’s certainly didn’t. Yours probably didn’t, either.
John Lennon put it best in his song, “Beautiful Boy.” He sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
So true. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
So sit back and enjoy. This is the story of the great Dave Hibner.
I worked for the Livingston County Press for nearly 26 years, but I only ever interviewed Dave Hibner once. In the summer of 1985, I drove out to Hillsdale, where he was living, and spent a wonderful afternoon hearing him tell his story.
Hibner’s tale begins at Howell High School, where his legend began to grow at a young age. He wasn’t very tall – maybe 5-10 at most – but he was extremely strong and extremely fast. He played football in the fall, and he was magical every time he touched the ball. He played basketball in the winter, and even though he was usually the shortest player on the court, he was also usually the best.
And then in the spring came baseball. And my, oh my. Was Dave Hibner ever a legend.
By the time he became a senior, Hibner’s baseball games were the biggest show in town. Dozens of pro scouts would come to Howell or Brighton or Milford or wherever he was playing that day, and they were blown away by what they saw.
Hibner had a rocket arm at shortstop, and fielded everything with ease. At the plate, he hit everything and he hit it hard.
That is, when they would pitch to him. In one game, the other team basically refused to pitch to Hibner, giving him what amounted to five intentional walks. That didn’t sit well with the dozens of scouts who came to see him hit the ball, not trot to first base. So after the game, one of the scouts pitched batting practice to Hibner, just so everyone could see him hit.
Hibner’s high school exploits are still legendary among anyone who grew up in Howell in the 1970s. Everybody seems to remember the three basketball games he played against Magic Johnson his senior year.
Magic and Hibner were both seniors in 1977, and as luck would have it, Hibner’s Howell team squared off against Magic’s Lansing Everett team three times that season. They met up twice during the regular season, and then they met up again in the state playoffs.
When I interviewed him in 1985, Hibner told me a great story about that final game. He said that Howell had an assistant coach by the name of Al Burnett (who later became the head coach at Brighton). Burnett’s job was to scout the opposition and come up with a winning game plan.
Well, even though Magic and Everett won the first two match-ups easily, Burnett believed he had found their weakness. He knew how Howell could beat Everett, and in the days leading up to the playoff game, he laid it all out for them.
“You can’t believe how great a scout Al Burnett was,” Hibner said. “He gave us this impassioned speech before the game and he really had us believing we could beat Everett.”
The Highlanders came storming out of the locker room believing they were going to kill them. Magic’s team had no chance!
The final score was Everett 93, Howell 33. Hibner chuckled when he got to that part of the story.
When baseball season rolled around, Hibner still wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go to college or the pros. He had a full-ride offer to play at Miami (Fla.), one of the top college programs in the country. But when the draft took place and he was the ninth player selected, that made the decision for him. He signed with Texas, and they sent him to their Gulf Coast League rookie team in Sarasota, Fla. The next season, in 1978, they sent him to their Class A team in Asheville, N.C.
The stats show that Hibner struggled in Asheville, where he spent the next three seasons, 1978 through 1980. He was stealing a lot of bases, but his batting average hovered in the .200 range.
He had a great spring training in 1981, but still couldn’t make it past the Class A level, so the Rangers cut him. He signed with the hometown Detroit Tigers, and they sent him to their Class A team in Lakeland, where he continued to struggle at the plate. He made it through the 1982 season, and then the Tigers cut him loose.
His career stats: Six seasons of pro ball and a career .194 batting average. He was 23 years old and needed to find something else to do with his life.
Hibner’s dream, of course, was to play pro baseball, and when that didn’t work out, he decided to pursue another dream – playing college football.
In the summer of 1982, Hibner put out some feelers that he was looking to play football, and he got a call from Bill McCartney, the new coach at Colorado. McCartney had been an assistant at Michigan, and he remembered Hibner from his days at Howell High. McCartney offered him a scholarship.
Before he accepted it, though, Hibner called an old friend named Jim Scoggin, who owned a sporting goods store in Howell called the Team Room. Scoggin had said that if Hibner ever wanted to try college football, he would try to set him up at Hillsdale College. Hibner wanted to look into that.
While he was looking into it, the Colorado scholarship went to another player. That made Hibner’s mind up for him. He was heading to Hillsdale. They offered him a job as an assistant coach on the baseball team, and that helped pay for his tuition.
In the fall of 1982, he enrolled at Hillsdale College as a 23-year-old freshman. This was in the days before the Internet, so most of the other players on the team probably had no idea that this new guy was once a first-round Major League Baseball draft pick. To them, he was probably just the old dude playing wide receiver.
Hibner spent four years at Hillsdale, getting a degree in accounting and living out his dream of playing college football.
In 1985, his senior year, Hibner’s Hillsdale team even won the NAIA national championship. One of Hibner’s teammates on that team was a freshman from Howell named Brent Earl (a well-known Howell icon both then and now). Even though he graduated from high school eight years after Hibner, Earl was able to team up with him for one season at Hillsdale. How cool was that? Hibner also coached Earl on the Hillsdale baseball team that season.
After graduation, the next chapter of Dave Hibner’s book was written. He got a job in Detroit as an accountant and enjoyed life as a dad. I hear that he’s even a grandfather now.
Forty years ago today – June 7, 1977 – was one of the biggest days in Livingston County sports history. Dave Hibner was the ninth name called in the Major League Baseball draft, and his life seemed set.
And then? Well, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.