By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Former Montreal Expos hitting coach Billy DeMars passed away on Thursday in Clearwater, Fla., at the age of 95.
DeMars was the popular hitting coach of the Expos from 1982 to 1984. He also served as the club’s third base coach in 1982 and 1983.
Born in Brooklyn in 1925, DeMars was signed by his hometown Dodgers in 1943, but after parts of two seasons in their organization, he was selected by the Philadelphia A’s in the Rule 5 draft. The 5-foot-10, 160-pound infielder made his big league debut with the A’s on May 18, 1948 and proceeded to go 5-for-29 (.172 batting average) in 18 major league games that season.
After suiting up for the triple-A Buffalo Bisons the next season, DeMars was dealt to the St. Louis Browns on December 13, 1949. He’d bat a combined .247 in 62 games with the Browns in 1950 and 1951, before spending the following four seasons with the triple-A Toronto Maple Leafs, owned by Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Jack Kent Cooke.
DeMars enjoyed some of his finest professional seasons with the Leafs. In 1952, he batted .282 and collected a career-high 148 hits while dividing his time between second base, third base and shortstop. The following year he returned to Toronto and hit .261 in a career-high 545 at bats.
“Jack Kent Cooke was a tremendous owner in Toronto,” DeMars told Canadian Baseball Network writer Danny Gallagher in a 2017 interview. “It was very, very good in Toronto. The ballpark was first-class and when we travelled, it was first-class. I dearly loved Toronto and the fans loved me. I almost moved to Toronto after the fourth season but I couldn’t get a visa.”
DeMars continued to compete in triple-A for the next three seasons. In 1958, he made a brief stop with the Vancouver Mounties, and while he only played one game for the club, it was on Canada’s West Coast that he’d change the focus of his career.
According to DeMars’ SABR bio written by Bill Nowlin, the veteran infielder met with the Mounties’ brass in May 1958 and they suggested he consider a coaching career. The Mounties were an Orioles’ affiliate and DeMars was soon offered the opportunity to become the player/manager of the O’s class-C Northern League affiliate in Aberdeen, South Dakota. He accepted and that began an 11-season managerial and coaching career in the O’s organization. He managed their triple-A club in Rochester in 1968 before he was added to the Philadelphia Phillies’ big league coaching staff in 1969.
DeMars soon garnered a reputation as one of the league’s top hitting coaches, drawing praise from students and big league stars like Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose. DeMars was the hitting coach of the 1980 Phillies squad that won the World Series.
Following the 1981 season, however, DeMars was looking for a new challenge. And though the Expos had made their first postseason appearance in 1981, they had hit a collective .246. So DeMars was persuaded to join the Expos as the club’s hitting coach.
For a March 1, 1982 Montreal Gazette article, DeMars told reporter Tim Burke that he was excited to work with the Expos hitters and that his hitting drills were aimed at developing “faster hands” and short, compact swings.
“I want a batter to hit the ball hard seven out of 10 times,” DeMars told Burke. “If he can do that, he can almost be sure that three of them are going to be hits.”
To DeMars’ credit, the team’s batting average improved to .262 in 1982.
In 1984, the Expos signed Pete Rose who had regularly lauded DeMars as the best hitting coach he had ever worked with. So when the Expos traded Rose back to the Cincinnati Reds on August 16, 1984, Rose became a player-manager and he convinced DeMars to join his staff the next season.
DeMars worked as the Reds’ hitting coach from 1985 to 1987 then returned to the Phillies organization to serve as a roving minor league hitting instructor.
In recent years, DeMars, who lived in Clearwater, Fla., could still often be spotted at the Phillies’ spring training facility sharing his wisdom.
“This morning, we learned of the passing of Billy DeMars, the hitting coach for the 1980 World Champions who at 95 years of age was the oldest living former Phillie,” reads a statement released by the Phillies on Thursday. “Mr. DeMars worked for 13 years (1969-81) on the Phillies coaching staff, mentoring some of the greatest hitters in Phillies history, including Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. Following his retirement from full-time coaching, he frequently visited the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater, Fla., to continue his tutelage of young Phillies hitters. Mr. DeMars’ passion for baseball – and, in particular, the art of hitting – was very evident to those who knew him. The Phillies organization sends its condolences to the entire DeMars family.”
Larry Bowa also shared his condolences on Twitter.
“This is one of my toughest days yet,” Bowa wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “We lost another Phillies family member, Billy DeMars. Besides my dad, he was the most influential coach in my baseball career. Without Billy’s help, I don’t think I would have made it to the big leagues. Rest easy my friend.”
DeMars is predeceased by his wife Catherine, who died in 2017 and is survived by son, William; daughter, Judith, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.