Milt Wilcox is open about his belief that his career didn’t turn out the way he expected it would. Injuries played a huge role in limiting the right-hander for large parts of his career. That he also pitched extremely well when healthy only adds to Wilcox’s theory that he could have made more of his time on the mound.
Yet, the Hawaii native was able to turn the adverse situations with which he was faced into positives and spend 16 seasons in the big leagues, appearing in a pair of World Series while proving over the course of those two post-seasons that he truly was a big-game pitcher. Wilcox, 72, won 119 games, including reaching double digits in victories in seven consecutive seasons with the Tigers, ending that run with a career best 17 wins in 1984.
The Tigers won the World Series that year, easily dispatching of San Diego, but that Fall Classic proved to be the last big moment for Wilcox. The injury bug, which had bitten him so often, struck again and that, combined with some bad medical advice, brought his career to an abrupt end. He appeared in only 21 games after that World Series, closing out his career by going 0-8 with Seattle in 1986.
“When I was young I had a fastball that moved all over the place,” Wilcox said. “I was supposed to be a lot better than I was. But I hurt my arm when I was 22. How do you make the Hall of Fame? You don’t get hurt. You put in 18 good years where you average 12 or 13 wins a year and that gets you into the Hall of Fame.
“Most people like me, Don Gullett, Ross Grimsley, Wayne Simpson, who was going to be the next Bob Gibson, all got hurt. They rushed you to the big leagues and didn’t take care of you, not like now. They just gave you cortisone shots and sent you back out there. A lot of us old-time guys went through that.”
Wilcox went from highly sought after youngster to crafty veteran, bookending his career by playing for Hall-of-Fame manager Sparky Anderson. He was a baseball child of the 60s, emulating the great Yankee teams from the early part of the decade while growing up in Oklahoma, where he and his family moved to from Hawaii when he was very young.
It was there that Wilcox learned about baseball and became a star, one bright enough to allow him to pitch in the World Series as a 20-year-old.
THE OKIE WITH THE ARM
Wilcox, like much of the youth that followed baseball at the time, grew up a Yankees fan despite being 1,500 miles from New York. He admired Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard, Bobby Richardson, Clete Boyer and Company and would pretend he was part of that squad when pitching against Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax in his front yard.
“That was fun stuff,” Wilcox said. “I was a big Yankees fan in those days. We had a Triple-A team in Oklahoma City but we didn’t have any money so we couldn’t go to games. They had a big green fence at the ballpark [All Sports Stadium]. You know the stories of the kids looking through the knotholes in the fence to watch the games, that was kind of what we did.”
It wouldn’t be long, though, before it would be Wilcox that people would be clamoring to see. He began pitching for Crooked Oak High School and by the time he was a senior, his starts had become must-see games for the local baseball fans. Wilcox went 10-1 as a senior to earn All-State honors. There were several teams showing interest, including the Dodgers, but it was the Reds and Tony Robello, the scout who signed Johnny Bench, who selected Wilcox in the second round of the 1968 First-Year Player Draft.
“I knew that when I was pitching we had 15 or 20 scouts at the games,” Wilcox said. “And I thought I was going to get picked by the Dodgers because their scout would come up to my parents after every game. But I didn’t know that Tony Robello had been at every one of my games, too. He wanted Cincinnati to draft me number one but they drafted this other kid [Timothy Grant]. He pitched both games of a doubleheader in high school and hurt his arm. He never progressed in the Cincinnati organization [and was out of baseball by the end of 1971].”
“Everybody was toasted. People were streaking from left field to right field and it got worse and worse. In the ninth inning about a thousand people jumped the fence.”
The Reds sent Wilcox to Florida where he split his time between the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League and Tampa of the Class-A Florida State League. He combined to go 6-5 with a 1.24 ERA in 14 starts, finishing in the top-10 among the ERA leaders in both circuits. Wilcox fanned 81 batters in 80 innings, saying that “everything was pretty easy for me” that year.
Wilcox appeared in 15 games [six starts] for Tampa in 1969, going 4-1 with a 5.43 ERA before pitching to a 2.01 ERA in 67 Instructional League games. The Sporting News noted his age  and called him “the baby of the roster” in January of 1970. His age, however, didn’t prevent him from getting an invite to big league camp in February. Following a strong spring training showing, Wilcox was sent to Indianapolis of the Triple-A American Association, where he picked up his first victory in April 21 against Omaha.
He would pick up 11 more victories and pitch to a 2.83 ERA in 28 games [26 starts] en route to winning American Association Pitcher of the Year honors. Wilcox credits Indianapolis manager Vern Rapp for helping him develop a slider that season and it was a pitch that made all the difference.
“I dealt with Triple-A the same way I dealt with everything else, I just went out and pitched,” Wilcox said. “Vern Rapp knew his pitchers well and he worked with me on the slider. Once I learned the slider I was pitcher of the year and Vida Blue was in that league. It was a good year in the American Association.”
Casual portrait of Cincinnati Reds Johnny Bench (5). Milt Wilcox (43), Clay Carroll (36), and teammates on field before game vs Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium. Pittsburgh, PA 5/27/1971 (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
THE MAJOR LEAGUES AND A WORLD SERIES
Wilcox’s good year would continue well into that fall. He was called up to Cincinnati, which was running away with the National League’s West Division, ultimately finishing 14.5 games ahead of the Dodgers. The thought of pitching in the Major Leagues as a 20-year-old didn’t phase Wilcox, though. He appeared five games [two starts], one of which was a complete game, going 3-1 with a 2.42 ERA in 22 1/3 innings.
He picked up his first victory in his debut when he went five innings and allowed two runs against San Diego on Sept. 5. The highlight of the month, however, was his second start four days later at Dodger Stadium when he pitched a five-hit, complete-game shutout.
“I’m pretty sure my first game was at home and my mom and dad were there but I don’t remember,” Wilcox said. “The one I remember was when I started in LA. The Dodgers had Maury Wills, Wes Parker, all those guys. Claude Osteen was pitching for them and I had a complete-game shutout. It was so long ago; I don’t remember everything.”
Wilcox picked up his third win on Sept. 22, a two-inning relief stint against Houston and closed out the month with his first career save on Sept. 27 against the Dodgers. Then it was on to the playoffs where Wilcox won the clincher against Pittsburgh in the NLCS, a scoreless three-inning stint in which he allowed one hit and struck out five, to complete a sweep. He then made a pair of appearances in the World Series against Baltimore, losing Game Two in relief before pitching 1 2/3 scoreless innings in Game Five.
“Sparky had Gullett and me warming up in the bullpen in the second game and Boog Powell [the American League MVP] was coming up,” Wilcox said. “I see Sparky walk out there and I figure he’s going to bring in [the left-handed] Gullett. But he points for the right-hander and I was shocked. I threw a couple of more warmup pitches and came in to face Powell [with one out and runners on first and second]. That was a scary thing and they hit me around a little.”
Wilcox gave up two more hits and two more runs before he was lifted for Clay Carroll. Though he got roughed up, he said the outing gave him a great deal of confidence. That belief in himself was buoyed by the fact that the Reds were considering starting him in Game 5.
Cool down; Lloyd: Lloyd Moseby had to be restrained yesterday after he tried to get at Detroit pitcher Milt Wilcox in the sixth inning. He thought Wilcox had thrown a little too close for comfort. Plate umpire Tim McClelland has Moseby under wraps. Nothing major developed. Moseby did exchange words with Wilcox in the same inning when Wilcox picked him off first. (Photo by Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
“Larry Shepard, who was the pitching coach, came up to me after Game 4 and said you’re going to start tomorrow,” Wilcox said. “Jim Merritt’s elbow had been bothering him but when we got to the game, Sparky decided to start Merritt and he got shelled. I came in in relief and pitched pretty well.
“I ran into [Baltimore manager] Earl Weaver 25 years later and he told me I was the only pitcher on the Reds that his team didn’t want to face. They had mentioned before that they were going to start me and when Sparky took me out for Merritt, Earl said his whole team relaxed and took it easy.”
Despite his solid effort in the post-season, Wilcox found himself back in Indianapolis in June, July and August the following season after starting out with the parent club. He made 14 appearances [two starts] and had a 4.02 ERA over 31 1/3 innings with the Reds before getting sent down the first week of July. He went 8-5 with a 2.21 ERA in 16 games [15 starts] for Indy before returning to the Reds in September.
Wilcox went 0-1 with a save in four appearances, posting a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings. It was what happened following the Sept. 18 game at the Astrodome, where he picked up the save, that may have changed Wilcox’s career trajectory.
“We got to Houston and played the game and a lot of the guys, Bench, [Pete] Rose, Carroll, [Wayne] Granger were going out and they said we’re going to take you to this bar in Houston called Gillies,” Wilcox said. “That’s where they ride the [mechanical] bull so we all went there. We stayed there rather late and when we got back I asked my roommate Ed Sprague if there was a room check for rookies yet, he said he didn’t know because he just got in himself.
“The next day when I got to the park, the pitching coach said Sparky wants to see you. He asked me what time I got in last night. I told him I was late and that I was out with friends and he wanted to know who I was out with and where we went. I told him I wasn’t going to tell him. You can’t rat on Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. He said okay, if that’s the way you want to do it then get out of here. From then on he never liked me and I think that’s one of the reasons they traded me in ’71.”
(Photo by Jim Wilkes/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
HEADING UPSTATE TO CLEVELAND
Whether Wilcox’s desire to not fess up to Anderson led to his trade will never be known. Still, on Dec. 6, 1971, the Red sent Wilcox upstate, trading him to Cleveland for outfielder Ted Uhlaender, a journeyman outfielder who played one year [73 games] in Cincinnati and then retired. While the move remains perplexing more than 50 years later it did give Wilcox the chance for which he was looking. He was going to get to pitch in the Major Leagues albeit for a team that would finish 12 games under .500 and in fifth place while the Reds went back to the World Series.
“Cleveland really wasn’t going anywhere,” Wilcox said. “The trade didn’t bother me, though. When you are young, nothing bothers you. I just wanted to pitch and I went to a club where I could.”
Things started off well enough for Wilcox in Cleveland. He was 4-2 with a 0.94 ERA and two shutouts through six starts, four of which were complete games. Wilcox, however, got strep throat in the middle of May and missed two weeks. He returned to the club on May 26 and took a loss at Baltimore despite only allowing two runs in seven innings. He was 6-8 with a 2.70 ERA at the end of June.
“We had a really good staff but I got sick and they didn’t give me time to get my arm back into shape,” Wilcox said. “That’s when I [originally] hurt my arm there in ’72. Back in those days they rushed you back. Nobody knows what it did. I probably had a torn rotator cuff. I had problems in my shoulder after that but that was before they knew what a rotator cuff was. I had tenderness in my shoulder and they just gave me cortisone shots. Nothing helped.”
Wilcox bounced between the rotation and the bullpen for the final three months of the season, during which he went 1-6 while his ERA inched up to a still respectable 3.40. He finished with a 7-14 record.
ALCS Playoffs, Detroit Tigers Milt Wilcox (39) in action, pitching vs Kansas City Royals, Game 3, Detroit, MI 10/5/1984 (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
The one plus to his season was the fact that he got to pitch on the same staff as Gaylord Perry, whom Cleveland had also acquired the previous winter. The veteran spitballer won 24 games and a Cy Young for the Indians and would then win 40 games over the next two seasons. Wilcox was like a sponge, absorbing everything Perry had to offer.
“He was my mentor,” Wilcox said. “He was such a hard worker. I loved the way he challenged hitters. He was 10 or 11 years older than me but I got a chance to study under a Hall-of-Fame pitcher. I kind of tried to style myself after him. Gaylord was such a competitor, even if he didn’t have his best stuff. One time [manager] Ken Aspromonte came out to take him out of the game and Gaylord refused. He said who are you going to put in that’s better than me? So, Aspromonte turned around and went back to the dugout.
“I tried but I couldn’t learn the spitter. He taught me how but I couldn’t throw it. It’s a pitch that you have to be able to control and you have to be able to pitch within yourself and I couldn’t do it. It was like watermelon seed coming out of my hand; I had no idea where it was going.”
Wilcox spent the next two seasons bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation, combining to go 10-12 with four saves and a 5.42 ERA. The Indians traded him to the Cubs during Spring Training in ’75.
“They [the Indians] really didn’t have a spot for me in ‘74,” Wilcox said. “I wasn’t starting and then for about three weeks they made me a short reliever. Then they made the trade [with the Yankees] for [Tom] Buskey and put him in as the closer and I didn’t have a job. I was kind of happy that I went to a place that I thought I would have a chance but I never had a chance in Chicago. I wasted two or three years because of that.”
Wilcox appeared in 25 games and pitched to a 5.63 ERA for Chicago in 1975 and didn’t really have a role there, either. He was sent down to Wichita of the American Association, where he made eight starts and was 4-3 with a 4.31 ERA. He eventually returned to Chicago but was back in Wichita to begin the 1976 season and that’s when things got bizarre.
Milt Wilcox of the Detroit Tigers poses for a portrait before a game against the New York Yankees at the Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York during the 1970 season.(Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images)
ON TO THE MOTOR CITY
The Cubs ultimately “loaned” Wilcox to Detroit’s Evansville team, which had a string of upcoming doubleheaders and needed pitchers, allegedly. The official line was that Detroit purchased his contract in June of 1976. It turns out that Wilcox was actually traded for a bunch of old minor league uniforms and other equipment.
“I got traded for used uniforms,” Wilcox said. “When I got traded and went to Evansville, I didn’t hear about it until a month later. The first few games I pitched really well in relief and the then when we went back to Evansville, we had a bunch of doubleheaders coming up. The manager [Fred Hatfield] tells me ‘We’re not going to pitch you for the next three weeks.”
“He said that the trade they made with the Cubs for me was for a bunch of uniforms and balls and bats and that if I pitched better, the Tigers had to throw in players and the Tigers didn’t want to throw anyone in. So, I didn’t pitch for two or three weeks until after the deadline. That was the story.”
Wilcox began the 1977 season back in Evansville but after a strong start [9-4, 2.44 ERA in 14 starts] he was called up to Detroit where he would spend the better part of the next decade. He went 6-2 with a 3.64 ERA in 20 games [13 starts] before winning 13 games in 1978, kicking off a stretch of seven consecutive double-digit win seasons.
That 1978 season saw him post career highs in complete games , innings pitched [215 1/3] and strikeouts . He assumed a big role in the starting rotation when 1976 Rookie of the Year Mark Fidrych saw the beginning of the end of his career after suffering an arm injury.
Wilcox also got to see the kind of impact Fidrych had on the game first hand in 1978 when the Tigers were hosting the White Sox on April 17. Fidrych started and went four innings before Wilcox came in to relieve him. It was The Bird’s last Major League appearance of the season. He would pitch in only 13 more games before retiring.
“Fidrych was unbelievable,” Wilcox said. “He started a game and of course there were 55,000 people there because Mark was going to pitch. I was in the pen and I was scheduled to come in and relieve him. I came out of the dugout and walked to the mound and 50,000 people booed. It was the first time I was ever booed going into a game. They wanted to see Fidrych pitch. Too bad Mark got hurt, he was amazing.”
Wilcox also got reunited with Anderson, who took over as Detroit manager in 1979 following his nine years as the Reds skipper. There was still some friction between the two upon their reunion.
“The difference between Sparky in 1970 and with Detroit is that in Cincinnati, Rose and Bench kind of ran the team,” Wilcox said. “Remember Sparky was a rookie that year, too, and those guys could basically do what they wanted. He [Sparky] was hard on rookies in those days. When he came to Detroit, he benched me and Jack Billingham and both of us pitched for him in Cincinnati. I had a good year in ’78 and he took me out of the rotation [before the All-Star break] and put me on the bench and he traded Billingham to Boston [in 1980].
“One day I went to his office and said pitch me or trade me. If I can’t pitch for you, I can pitch for someone else. I walked out of his office and told one of the reporters that that I wanted to start or get traded right now and he wrote a big article the next day saying Wilcox says pitch me or trade me. The next day Sparky called me into his office and shuts the door and starts screaming. He said fine, you’ll start the first game after the All-Star game against the White Sox. They had hit me hard twice that year [nine earned runs in 4 2/3 innings] and he was just putting me in there so they could beat me up and I would shut up. But I shut them out 1-0 and started for Sparky the next six years.”
Former Detroit Tigers pitchers Jack Morris, Milt Wilcox, and Dave Rozema look on and smile during the ceremony to honor the 25th anniversary of the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers before the game against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park on September 28, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. The game was postponed due to rain. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Wilcox became a fixture in the Detroit rotation as the club rebuilt and slowly began to climb its climb in the American League East. By the early 1980s they had become a competitive team again with Wilcox providing veteran leadership despite the fact that his shoulder remained an issue. He missed time because of the injuries but was effective when he was on the mound.
That was never more the case than on April 15, 1983 when he retired the first 26 hitters only to lose his perfect game on Jerry Hairston pinch-hit single. Wilcox went 11-10 in 26 starts that season as the Tigers finished in second place in the American League, six games back of Baltimore.
“All those years I never had a lot of games because my shoulder bothered me,” Wilcox said. “In ’83 we lost getting in by a few games and I missed 15 days and four starts because I was on the DL because of my shoulder. I thought if I had those four games and I win at least two of them we probably would have been in in ’83. That’s when I decided I was not going to miss any games in 1984.”
Wilcox made 33 starts in 1984 as the Tigers roared to the AL East crown, the American League Championship and the World Series title. He set a since-broken record for most starts in a season without pitching a complete game. Wilcox won a career-high 17 games and also pitched eight shutout innings in the ALCS clincher over Kansas City. He then picked up a Game Three victory in the World Series as Detroit defeated San Diego in five games.
It all came at a cost, though. Wilcox’s determination not miss any time meant that he would take far too many cortisone shots that season, including one before the game against the Royals. His already damaged shoulder suffered even more because of the shots and while the result was a magical season and a World Series title, Wilcox was never the same again.
“I told my wife and the team doctor I wasn’t going to miss any games,” Wilcox said. “I didn’t care how many shots I had to take. I had seven cortisone shots in ’84 and I didn’t miss any starts. That helped us get to the playoffs and the World Series but it screwed the rest of my career up.”
Wilcox’s 14 years between post-season wins was also a record, according to Baseball Reference, that lasted until New York’s Bartolo Colon picked up a post-season victory in 2015, giving him the mark at 14 years and 12 days. Baseball Reference also cites that the 14-year span was also a record for a player/manager combination for longest stretch between first and last World Series appearances.
“I helped earned that one in ’84 because I grew with the team,” Wilcox said. “In Cincinnati, I was just an added part when they made me eligible. I took Jim Maloney’s place and I was just an added piece for that team. 1984 was more of an accomplishment. We built things up from 76, 77 and 78 and then with Sparky coming over. That was more gratifying though I wished I could have done it with Cincinnati. I wished I had never gotten traded. That team [the Reds] had an amazing run and I probably could have helped that team, too, if they gave me a chance.
“Detroit was great, though. I loved going to the park. It is a blue-collar city and they want you to put in the effort and then they will back you. That was nice. I’m also a basketball and hockey fan and the Pistons were good and the Red Wings were good so when I wasn’t playing ball I could go to those games. The whole sports fan base there was geeked and it was a fun time.”
The high that Wilcox and the Tigers experienced in 1984 faded in 1985. Detroit finished 15 games out of first place and Wilcox was done by mid-season. His shoulder finally gave out after he went 1-3 with a 4.85 ERA in eight starts. He picked up his last career victory on May 14 against Texas, a five-inning stint in which he allowed an unearned run.
The organization forced Wilcox into getting unnecessary rotator cuff surgery, a fact Wilcox says he confirmed at The Mayo Clinic several months after the surgery. He still wanted to pitch, though the Tigers were no longer interested. So, he signed with Seattle and went 0-8 with 5.50 ERA in 13 games [10 starts]. His final appearance was June 12, 1986, against the White Sox.
GOING TO THE DOGS
While many players opted to go into coaching or stay involved in the game, Wilcox did not, though he did pitch for the Senior Professional Baseball Association in 1989-90, leading the St. Petersburg Pelicans to a title. Wilcox led the league with 12 victories [12-3] while posting a 3.19 ERA. He was 3-1 with a 4.50 ERA the following season when the league folded.
“I didn’t want to coach,” Wilcox said. “I’m a player; I like to play, not coach. Even though I like coaching I didn’t want to coach major Leaguers because the majority of them don’t listen to you anyway. Once in a while you get someone like Roger Craig, who helped me learn a curveball. But the majority of pitching coaches don’t do much for you. That’s what I learned and I didn’t want to be that guy.”
What Wilcox did ultimately want to do was work with dogs and has spent two decades putting on shows around the country with his company Ultimate Air Dogs.
“I lived on a lake in Michigan and I had a black lab,” Wilcox said. “The lab would run and jump off the dock. I was looking for something to do and one Saturday morning I’m watching ESPN and I see all the black labs running and seeing how far they can jump and I thought my dog can do that. So, I started going around the country right at the beginning of the dock jumping sport.
“I started doing it and realized that it was something I wanted to get involved in. So, I went to the guy that owned the company and asked if I could buy my own equipment and I started my own company and have been doing it for 20 years. I have a pool set up in my yard and give lessons. I do about 90 shows a year.”
Wilcox was headed to California in the middle of February where his dogs are scheduled to compete in another competition. To date, Ultimate Air Dogs pups have won dozens of titles in competitions around the country.
He said that he doesn’t miss baseball just the guys who were with him in the game. Wilcox added that he gets to see many of his former teammates like Johnny Grubb, Juan Berenger and Dave Rozema when he travels around the country with his pooches.
HE’S SEEN IT ALL
Wilcox may not have pitched the way he wanted at times throughout his career nor had the success it appeared he would have at the outset but he’s the first to admit that his career was colorful. He was part of two of the most infamous nights in baseball during the 70s – 10-cent Beer Night in Cleveland and Disco Demolition Night in Chicago.
The 10-cent Beer Night took place on June 4, 1974 in Cleveland, a week after the Indians and Rangers had a bench-clearing brawl in Texas. Wilcox was in the middle of that affair, tangling with Lenny Randle after fielding a grounder and sparking the brawl. Tensions were already high between the two teams heading into Beer Night.
“It was weird; we just had a big fight with the Rangers in Texas and I pitched in that game,” said Wilcox, who was also in the building for Disco Demolition Night on July 12, 1979, though he didn’t pitch. “The next trip, Texas comes to Cleveland and it’s 10-cent beer night and we have 40,000 people there. The colleges had let out and there weren’t baseball fans there, it was college kids looking to get drunk buying six beers at a time.
“Everybody was toasted. People were streaking from left field to right field and it got worse and worse. In the ninth inning about a thousand people jumped the fence. Jeff Burroughs [who won the AL MVP that year] was in right field and they surrounded him. So [Texas manager] Billy Martin and the team ran out with helmets on and bats and there was a wild melee.”
It was just another interesting night in a career marked by interesting events.
“A lot of shit happened in my career,” Wilcox said.