- April 20, 1950
- 6' 2"
- 185 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 9-05-1970 with CIN
Milt Wilcox knew the exhilaration of World Series victory and the frustration of missing immortality by one pitch. As a freckle-faced 20-year-old, he won the deciding game of the 1970 NLCS. He did not develop as expected at Cleveland, got little chance with the Cubs, and was in the minors when purchased by the Tigers in 1976. Becoming a skilled pitcher, rather than just a thrower, he went on to win 97 games for Detroit, 17 in 1984, despite recurring shoulder problems. Shoulder surgery in 1985 proved a blow from which he could not recover. On April 15, 1983 Wilcox was one out from a perfect game when pinch-hitter Jerry Hariston singled to end the bid.
Milton Edward Wilcox (born April 20, 1950 in Honolulu, Hawaii) was a pitcher who had a sixteen-year career from 1970 to 1975, 1977–1986. He played for the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs of the National League and the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners of the American League. He won a World Series title with the Tigers in 1984.
Milt Wilcox's father was a track star in Hawaii and tried to get his sons to follow suit. When Milt opted for baseball instead, his father purchased lots of baseball books to try to teach him the game.
1968-1971: The early years with the Reds and their farm clubs
The younger Wilcox was taken in the second round of the 1968 amateur draft by the Cincinnati Reds and he split the year between the GCL Reds (1-2, 4.15) and the Tampa Tarpons (3-3, 1.34, 28 H, 48 K in 47 IP). Returning to Tampa, he was only 4-1 with one save and a 5.48 ERA in '69. In 1970, the 20-year-old hurler had a 12-10, 2.84 line for the Indianapolis Indians. He led the American Association with five shutouts, was second to Cisco Carlos in wins and second to Ross Grimsley in ERA. He and Vida Blue were the All-Star pitchers in the AA that year and he won the Allie Reynolds Award. Called up to the Reds, he went 3-1, 2.84, won a game in the 1970 NLCS, then lost one in the 1970 World Series. Through 2005, he holds the record for the youngest pitcher ever to win a postseason game, a few months ahead of Francisco Rodriguez. In the NLCS win, he struck out Matty Alou, Freddie Patek, Roberto Clemente (on three fastballs on the outside corner) and Willie Stargell in order.
Wilcox had another fine year for the 1971 Reds (2-2, Sv, 3.32) and for the 1970 Indianapolis Indians (8-5, 2.20, 22 BB in 102 IP). He tied two other pitchers for the American Association shutout lead (3) and joined J.R. Richard as the league's All-Star hurlers. In Cincinnati, Milt ran into conflict with Johnny Bench and Sparky Anderson after repeatedly shaking off their signals - "For some reason both Bench and Anderson thought they knew more about pitching than a twenty-year-old rookie."
1972-1974: Cleveland, trying to learn the spitball, injuries
Milt was dealt to the Cleveland Indians for Ted Uhlaender in December of 1971. With Cleveland, he benefited from the tutelage of Gaylord Perry. Wilcox tried to learn the spitball from Perry, but had little success - "[t]hrowing it was easy. Throwing it near home plate was the tough part." Batters around the American League knew Wilcox was trying to learn the spitball, but did not know of his failure to do so. As a result, he was able to play mind games with hitters. He went 7-14 his first year in Cleveland, but his 3.40 ERA was about average for an AL starter.
For the 1973 Indians, Wilcox fell to 8-10, 5.83. He got his first arm trouble that year. Perry gave him some balm to help but it made it worse and he allowed four runs and let the bases get loaded with none out in his next outing. He lost some velocity, essential for a guy who relied heavily on his fastball. The Indians tried converting him to the bullpen and he was a bit better in '74 (2-2, 4 Sv, 4.67).
1975-1976: Back to the farm
Wilcox was dealt to the Chicago Cubs for Dave LaRoche and Brock Davis. Used primarily as a mop-up man, manager Jim Marshall shipped him to the Evansville Triplets, promising him a call-up if he got in shape after six weeks. He went 4-3 with a 4.31 ERA for Evansville. When he was not called up, he called the general manager, who said he was unaware of the deal and brought him back after a talk with Marshall. Overall, Milt had a 5.63 ERA and went 0-1 in 25 outings for the Cubs that year.
Milt did well in spring training but was sent down to the Wichita Aeros to begin '76 as the long reliever and 5th starter in a 4-man rotation. The Detroit Tigers acquired Wilcox on a loan as their Evansville club needed help with an upcoming string of doubleheaders. Evansville eventually purchased Wilcox for some old uniforms and he finished the year 6-7, 3.81 between the two stops.
1977-1984: Big years in Detroit
Wilcox started 1977 well in Evansville (9-4, 2.44) and was called up to Detroit, where he was put in the regular rotation in the majors for the first time since his arm injury four years earlier. He went 6-2 with a 3.64 ERA for Detroit to finish the season with 15 wins between the majors and minors. Having been a thrower before, Wilcox says he learned to pitch in Detroit.
Milt had a 13-12, 3.76 year for the 1978 Tigers, starting a run of years of solid starting. He was 7th in the 1978 AL with 16 complete games. He followed with seasons of 12-10, 4.35 in '79, 13-11, 4.38 in '80 and 12-9, 3.03 in 1981, when his 125 ERA+ was the best of his career. He was 7th in the 1981 AL in victories.
In 1982, Wilcox had a 12-10, 3.63 year, again an above-average starter. In 1983, he had a 11-10, 3.97 season.
On April 15, 1983, Milt Wilcox nearly joined one of baseball's most exclusive clubs. That night in Comiskey Park, he came within one pitch of tossing a perfect game.
"You hear about athletes getting into 'the zone'," Wilcox said in a 2006 interview. "About the fifth inning I locked into it. I sould see what I was going to do before I did it. I was making my pitches in my mind first, and then doing it."
Wilcox mowed down the potent White Sox lineup inning-after-inning. In the bottom of the ninth, staked to a 6-0 lead, Wilcox got Carlton Fisk to fly out to left, and retired pinch-hitter Mike Squires on a grounder to first. At that point, Chicago manager Tony LaRussa called on another pinch-batter, and something unusual happened that interrupted Wilcox's concentration.
"As they were announcing the pinch-hitter, I couldn't even tell you who they were announcing, but I stepped off the mound and I realized the Chicago fans were giving me a standing ovation. Fans in Chicago don't do that for players from Detroit," Wilcox remembered.
Seemingly unlocked from "the zone," Wilcox tried to sneak an inside fastball past Jerry Hairston. The left-handed batter flicked his bat and lined a single to center field just out of the reach of Lou Whitaker.
"I threw the same pitch to the next batter [Rudy Law] and he grounded out. I had a one-hitter." Milt did get credit for a one-hit shutout however but "felt rotten." He did not even go to bed that night, roaming the streets of Chicago instead. It was the third time in Major League history that a perfect game had been broken up with one out to go.
Wilcox had missed becoming the 13th pitcher to toss a perfect game. In his next start, he threw a second straight shutout, five-hitting the Mariners.
In 1984, he became the first pitcher to spend an entire season in a team's starting rotation without recording a complete game. This is odd as Wilcox had pitched at least 8 complete games each year in the majors to that point. He did however set career-highs in starts (33) and wins (17), and he won one game in both the ALCS and World Series. Pitching through a severely sore arm much of the season, Wilcox gutted it out and received great run support as he formed a solid trio along with Jack Morris and Dan Petry.
He had a 1-0 lead after 8 against the Kansas City Royals in the clincher and Sparky Anderson was willing to leave him in, but Wilcox opted to let Willie Hernandez finish up, which he did. 14 years after he had clinched the NL pennant for Cincinnati, he clinched it for Detroit. He said he was looking forward to October 5, 1998.
1985-1986: Injuries again
Wilcox hurt his arm early in 1985 and needed surgery, ending his season early at 1-3, 4.85. He even contemplated learning the knuckleball. Detroit released him after 9 years together and he was picked up by the Seattle Mariners, but only had a 0-8, 5.50 record for them in 1986, signalling his career was over.
1989-1990: Senior sensation
In 1989, he went 12-3 with a 3.19 ERA for the St. Petersburg Pelicans of the Senior Professional Baseball Association. Wilcox led the league in wins. In 1990, he again played for the Pelicans and pitched in 5 games and was 3-1 with a 4.50 ERA when the league folded.
Wilcox had gone 119-113 in the majors with a 4.07 ERA and was 3-1 in the postseason. In the minors, he had been a two-time All-Star at AAA and had been 47-44.
Milt claimed not to be superstitious - it was only a coincidence he ate blueberry pancakes on the day he was to pitch, he never stepped on the foul line because of a habit, threw the same eight pitches in his warm-up as a routine, etc.
In 2005, Wilcox competed with his dog "Sparky" (named for Sparky Anderson) at diving dog competitions (sort of a canine long-jump) and placed 5th in the national finals. He now owns Ultimate Air Dogs, a national dock jumping organization that sponsors dock jumping events.
Milt coaches at Tiger Fantasy Camp in Lakeland, FL as of 2007.
The Pitches He Threw
In the 1980 off-season, while playing in a charity basketball game, Wilcox injured his right index finger and underwent surgery to repair it. The result was a somewhat crooked digit which left a wide gap between his index and middle fingers. As a consequence, he was able to grip the split-fingered fastball, a pitch he had been unable to throw before the freak injury. He had his best season in 1981.
Wilcox twice won the pennant-winning game for Sparky Anderson, in 1970 for Cincinnati, and in 1984 for Detroit.
In April of 1983, Wilcox tossed back-to-back shutouts and put up 20 1/3 consecutive shutout innings.
Because he wasn't afraid to pitch inside, Wilcox earned a reputation as a head-hunter. In 1979, he plunked 11 batters.
Injuries and Explanation for Missed Playing Time
With the Indians in the 1970s, Wilcox suffered an arm injury, most likely a partially torn rotator cuff. He pitched with that injury the rest of his career, often getting cortisone shots to mask the pain. Amazingly, in 1984, he received at least eight cortisone shots during the season, and still won 17 games. He got his last shot just two days before his start in the 1984 League Championship Series, and was given another shot to mask the pain from the cortisone shot. He pitched in the playoffs and World Series with a numb arm that he couldn't lift to brush his teeth. For years, he had been told he had a bad AC joint in his right shoulder, but it was a torn rotator.
June 7, 1968: Drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2nd round of the 1968 amateur draft. Player signed June 16, 1968.
December 6, 1971: Traded by the Cincinnati Reds to the Cleveland Indians for Ted Uhlaender.
February 25, 1975: Traded by the Cleveland Indians to the Chicago Cubs for Dave LaRoche and Brock Davis.
June 10, 1976: Purchased by the Detroit Tigers from the Chicago Cubs.
November 7, 1983: Granted Free Agency.
December 29, 1983: Signed as a Free Agent with the Detroit Tigers.
December 20, 1985: Released by the Detroit Tigers.
February 5, 1986: Signed as a Free Agent with the Seattle Mariners.
June 14, 1986: Released by the Seattle Mariners.
Sources: 1969-1972 and 1976-1978 Baseball Guides, The Fall of the Roman Umpire by Ron Luciano
BR Bullpen, Wikipedia, Baseball Library
- Milt Wilcox