Baseball legend Rickey Hill talks exclusively to Senior Planet about The Hill, a film about his life, his faith, and his career as a major league baseball player despite a degenerative spinal disease.
From the first moment Dennis Quaid learned about Rickey Hill – who wore leg braces for a degenerative spinal disease yet overcame the odds to become a major league baseball player – he was committed to bring this heartwarming story to the big screen, starring as Hill’s preacher father in biopic, The Hill.
Growing up impoverished in small-town Texas, Hill was determined to not let his physical limitations define him. Now 67, he tells Senior Planet about his extraordinary life:
Q: What first drew you to baseball?
RICKEY: I guess it was free. It doesn’t cost anything to hit a rock with a stick. And during that time, our family had absolutely nothing. My dad was a preacher but they never took care of him financially, the way they take care of preachers today – as far as even food on the table. So I picked up a rock and hit it with a stick all day long, sometimes hundreds of times a day. Up until I was nine years old, I’d never even owned a ball.
Q: But things changed then?
RICKEY: Yes, I just decided to take my leg braces off. I was done with those things. That was my big opening up for a career in baseball, because at nine years old I was just powering them over the fence. And that’s unheard of! Because the fences were not short when I was just knocking them out of the park at nine years old.
Q: Ten years later, you hit the big leagues, signing with the Montreal Expos in 1975?
RICKEY: I played two years in Montreal, and then they found out about my spine and, the second you let them know you have this particular injury, they’re gonna get rid of you. That’s just the way it is. That’s baseball. That’s any sport. If you’ve got an injury, you’re done. They’re gonna get rid of you.
Q: But that wasn’t the end of your career?
RICKEY: I played a grand total of six years – which was a miracle because the doctors told me I wouldn’t play any. After Montreal, I actually kept on playing around the world – in Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Mexico. I never even quit. I think I played 360 days out of the year. But I also had this disease in my spine that wasn’t gonna let me go on any further and they let me know when I was 17 that I would collapse on the ball field if I kept playing. And they were right. I did.
Q: What did you do then?
RICKEY: I had to take a break because I couldn’t walk so then I had my first spine surgery and went through many years where I didn’t think I would even walk. I was 25 years old and walking on a cane like I was a 90-year-old man. Fortunately Montreal had already paid for my college, so I went to TWC (Texas Wesleyan College) and got into financial planning which I still do today in Dallas. I just kept on going.
Q: Why did it take so long for your remarkable life story to make it to the big screen?
RICKEY: My brother wrote a 56-page story which was intended to be just for the family, but a guy at church read it and took it to Hollywood in the 1970s. But then my parents both became sick at the same time and who wants to do a movie when your parents are sick? So I kind of blew it all off – and it was during when I was still playing baseball until I collapsed on the field in ’81. So I waited a long time and then finally agreed to do a movie about 15 years ago once we found the right people to make it with.
Q: The Hill also features your first love, Gracie?
RICKEY: I was about seven or eight when we first met. She lived next door to us growing up. And when we met up a little later in life, we wound up getting married on the home plate. But it was very hard for her being married to a baseball player. We had three wonderful daughters but we’re no longer together. I can’t say I blame her. It was tough for her.
Q: Did you play baseball with your girls?
RICKEY: No, but my grandkids are all baseball nuts. They’re little mini-me’s. And they’re very good, very talented.
Q: You’re obviously a religious man and your life has been filled with miracles, What was the biggest miracle?
RICKEY: Just being able to try out. When [legendary former MLB coach] Red Murff let me come in and try out – it changed my life from an amateur to professional player, pretty fast. That was the miracle moment, without a doubt.
Q: What’s your secret to aging with attitude?
RICKEY: Kickboxing, believe it or not! I regularly do kickboxing at a gym which most people find hard to believe. My faith has also kept me going. Of course I had a preacher father that pushed me with it but I’ve never wavered. I’ve always shared the love of Christ, and I still do.
Q: Was it emotional for you meeting Dennis Quaid, given how he plays your dad in The Hill?
RICKEY: Yeah, he did a very good job of playing my dad. I just told him a few things and he just knew exactly what to say. Like he knew my dad or something. It’s just really strange to me how well he picked up on everything about my dad, and then we came to find out that we both had grandmothers that lived in the same Texas town at the same time back in the 60s.
Want a sneak peek? Here’s the trailer.
Q: How is your physical health these days?
RICKEY: My last surgery was a big success. I’ve now got nine screws in my spine, six cages and a 14 inch rod in my spine holding me together. So I take a lot of health product like curcumin, vitamin D and zinc. I take everything – at one time I was up to 90 pills a day until I realized that’s way too many!
Q: What do you do for fun?
RICKEY: I like to hit golf balls but I quit watching TV – every time I turn it on, it’s just discouraging. Look at this mess we’re in today in this world? So I just hit golf balls. I’m involved in Men’s Bible study and of course I go to church every Sunday when I’m in town.
The Hill is playing in theaters and at home On Demand. Get more information here.
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Gill Pringle began her career as a rock columnist for popular British newspapers, traveling the world with Madonna, U2 and Michael Jackson. Moving to Los Angeles 27 years ago, she interviews film and TV personalities for prestigious UK outlets, The Independent, The i-paper and The Sunday Times – and, of course, Senior Planet. A member of Critics Choice Association, BAFTA and AWFJ, she wrote the screenplay for 2016 Netflix family film, The 3 Tails Movie: A Mermaid Adventure. An award-winning writer, in 2021 she was honored by the Los Angeles Press Club with 1st prize at the NAEJ Awards.
Photo: Colin Ford (left) stars as Rickey Hill and Dennis Quaid (right) as Pastor James Hill in THE HILL, a Briarcliff Entertainment release.
Photo Credit: Briarcliff Entertainment / ©2023 Briarcliff Entertainment