April 15, 2008

25 Years Later: Milt Wilcox’s Near-Perfect Game

WilcoxIndians.jpgI remember it clearly: April 15, 1983.

It was a freezing cold day in Detroit just like it was at Comiskey Park. Making matters worse, the Tigers and White Sox were playing at night. (Imagine last Friday night’s game in Chicago — only colder and without the precipitation.)

The Tigers’ Milt Wilcox pitched the game of his life against the White Sox’s pot-smoking and eventual Cy Young Award-winning LaMar Hoyt (or according to Baseball-Reference.com, “La Marr Hoyt”). And to this day, it was the most meticulously pitched game I’ve ever seen … though Mike Mussina‘s near-perfecto against Boston in 2001 was darned close.

Twenty six Chicago batters up, 26 down. More on that in a moment.

According to Retrosheet.org, here is Detroit’s lineup from that night:

  1. Lou Whitaker 2b
  2. Howard Johnson 3b
  3. Larry Herndon lf
  4. Lance Parrish c
  5. John Grubb dh
  6. Glenn Wilson rf
  7. Chet Lemon cf
  8. Rick Leach 1b
  9. Alan Trammell ss
  10. Wilcox p

And, the White Sox’s:

  1. Rudy Law cf
  2. Tony Bernazard 2b
  3. Harold Baines rf
  4. Greg Luzinski dh
  5. Ron Kittle lf
  6. Greg Walker 1b
  7. Carlton Fisk c
  8. Vance Law 3b
  9. Jerry Dybzinski ss
  10. LaMar Hoyt p

For me, there are many fascinating things about the Tigers’ lineup that night — Howard Johnson batting second and playing third base, Glenn Wilson in right, Rick Leach at first — but none more fascinating than Alan Trammell hitting ninth.

True, he often hit in the nine-hole early in his career. But 1983 was a particularly interesting year for Trammell, who batted primarily ninth during the first half of the season, though occasionally Sparky slotted him at number-two or, less frequently, leadoff. But from Aug. 20 on, Tram never hit below the number-two spot.

The story on this night 25 years ago was Milt Wilcox.

Wilcox’s Road to the Majors

The Honolulu native was drafted by Cincinnati in the second round of the 1968 amateur draft. He debuted with the Sparky Anderson-managed Reds in 1970 at the age of 20, posting a 3-1 record and a 2.42 ERA.

Sparky would earn a reputation for having little tolerance for youngsters on his team. Apparently he didn’t feel that way in 1970 because he pitched Wilcox in the NLCS and World Series that year. He struck out five in just three innings of the LCS against the Pirates allowing only one hit.

The Orioles fared a tad better against Wilcox in the World Series. In two appearances (just two innings pitched), he allowed three hits, two earned runs, two walks and a pair of strikeouts.

After the 1971 season, Wilcox was traded from the Reds to Cleveland for outfielder Ted Uhlaender. After three mostly forgettable seasons with the Indians, he was dealt to the Cubs for pitcher Dave LaRoche and outfielder Brock Davis. Wilcox appeared in only 25 games for the Cubs in 1975 and spent the Bicentennial Year in the bushes.

Welcome to Detroit

On June 10, 1976, the Tigers purchased his contract from the Cubs and his career began to stabilize. From 1977-84, Wilcox was a mainstay in the Tigers’ rotation, averaging 22 starts and nearly eight complete games a year.
WilcoxTigers.jpg

But none of his 72 other complete games could compare to the frigid night on the South Side.

26 Down…

Wilcox, wearing number 39, cruised through the first 26 batters with only a couple minor scares — a Tony Bernazard dribbler up the middle in the first that Trammell turned into an out and then a Harold Baines low liner to Herndon in the bottom of the seventh.

In the bottom of the ninth, Carlton Fisk flied out to left on the first pitch. Then Mike Squires, a Western Michigan University product, pinch-hit for Vance Law and promptly grounded out to Leach at first.

Chicago manager Tony LaRussa replaced Jerry Dybzynski with another Jerry, Jerry Hairston

On Wilcox’s first pitch, Hairston grounded a single to center for Chicago’s only baserunner of the night. (And I can still hear George Kell crying out: “Wouldya believe it!“)

The next hitter, Rudy Law, bounced out to Leach to end the game. The Tigers won 6-0, but Wilcox lost a chance at the Hall of Fame.

Here’s what Wilcox told the Free Press‘s Mike Downey:

“I was nervous the whole game,” Wilcox said later. “Pitching a perfect game puts you in the Hall of Fame. That’s the only way I’m going to get there.”

Here’s the final pitching line that night:

Wilcox: 9 IP – 1 H – 0 R – 0 ER – 0 BB – 8 SO – 0 HR

Less than a year later, in the same park and in similar conditions, Jack Morris would throw his no-hitter; perhaps using the leftover karma from Wilcox’s gem.

Though officially it was Hairston’s single that broke up the perfect game, perhaps there was some friendly fire jinxing going on in the Tigers dugout.

Again from Downey’s column:

“I heard them talking about it on the radio,” Wilcox said, and “(Kirk) Gibson said something to me in the fifth inning. I wasn’t worrying about being jinxed. I was worried about finishing the game.”

So much for Gibson following tradition.

Winding Down a Career

Wilcox would finish the 1983 season with a 11-10 record and a 3.97 ERA. His highest win total would come the next year when he finished at 17-8, 4.00 ERA.

His last season in Detroit was an abbreviated one. Arm trouble caused him to shutdown with a 1-3 record and a 4.85 ERA in 1985. The Tigers released him on Dec. 20 that year.

The Mariners signed Wilcox on Feb. 5, 1986. He appeared in 13 games for Seattle that season before being released on June 14 with a 0-8 record and a 5.50 ERA.

In 1984, Wilcox won a game in the ALCS and the World Series (I attended both games). But for most Tigers fans, his defining moment will be his flirtation with a perfect game a quarter-century ago.

12 Comment(s)

  1. A. Dubbin | Apr 15, 2008 | Reply

    Well done. I enjoyed that article. Funny that Gibby was busy jinxing the pitcher, and he wasn’t even in the starting lineup!

  2. Slashpyne | Apr 17, 2008 | Reply

    I remember that game well. I was in high school and out on a date with my girlfriend. I turned on the radio around the 6th inning, heard Milt had a no-hitter going, raced to her house in Frankfort,Mi and watched the rest of the game. I was crushed when Hairston ruined the perfect game. Milt was one of my favorites…

  3. Ti m D | Apr 18, 2008 | Reply

    I watched that entire game with a Sox fan who was very unhappy. You will recall that the Sox were pretty good then, and they usually beat the Tigers. Anyway Milt pitched one of the great games I ever saw. The pitch he threw to Hairston seemed like the only ball he threw down the middle all night. You could just see it kind of hang out over the middle of the plate, a good pitch to hit. He had been painting the black all night and it was really noticeable that he had made a bad pitch even before Hairtson swung. I saw an interview with Verlander where he said he had to take a few seconds to compose himself before the last batter in his no-hitter. He had to stop and focus himself on the hitter and how to get him out. I would imagine if Milt had it to do over again he would have thrown that first pitch to Hairston low and outside.

    A great game, by a pitcher who was very consistent and obtained for nothing off the scrapheap at the recommendation of Sparky Anderson.

  4. Donna Aikin | Jul 10, 2009 | Reply

    I was just telling my grandson about that special game because Hairston’s son plays for his favorite team, the Devil Rays. I will never forget that game. I heard it on the radio and when Milt’s perfect game was lost, I cried my eyes out. I later heard Milt say that he thought the fans felt even worse than he did. I know I did.

  5. Jeff H | Jul 23, 2009 | Reply

    “Twenty-six batters in a row and Jerry Hairston will come on to bat…
    “…and a base hit up the middle!…
    “Twenty six batters in a row and he hit it on a line!”

    George Kell
    Verbatim. I can still hear him.
    GK was the best ever.

  6. DAVE SIMMS | Jul 24, 2009 | Reply

    MILT AND I GREW UP TOGETHER IN DEL CITY, OKLAHOMA..I WAS TRAVELING TO MY IN-LAWS IN ARKANSAS WHEN THE GAME WAS ON…..WHEN I ARRIVED IN HOT SPRINGS MY FATHER-IN-LAW SAID TO ME,” MILT CAME WITHIN ONE PITCH OF THE HALL OF FAME”………

  7. DAVE SIMMS | Jul 24, 2009 | Reply

    MILT AND I GREW UP TOGETHER IN DEL CITY, OKLAHOMA..I WAS TRAVELING TO MY IN-LAWS IN ARKANSAS WHILE THE GAME WAS ON…..WHEN I ARRIVED IN HOT SPRINGS MY FATHER-IN-LAW SAID TO ME,” MILT CAME WITHIN ONE PITCH OF THE HALL OF FAME”………

  8. RoadDog | Aug 1, 2009 | Reply

    I was at that game. Even though I was a Sox fan I was pulling for Wilcox at the end.

    I even almost got into a verbal fight with two Sox fans behing me who cheered when Hairston got the hit. Imagine seeing a perfect game!! And we missed it by one lousy out.

    We didn’t even get a no-hitter.

  9. Bob | Oct 16, 2009 | Reply

    I was at that game. Aside from almost witnessing a piece of history, what I remember most is that when the Sox changed pitchers, a car from a local dealership would drive along the warning track. Every time the car was showered with beer. Classic.

  10. uwastedtimereadingmyname | May 9, 2010 | Reply

    I remember watching that game on T.V. That’s gotta suck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Brian W. | Jul 15, 2011 | Reply

    I was at that game and am I life long Sox fan. I was rooting for Wilcox and we did give him a big hand afterward. One of the few times I was not happy for a Sox hit.

  12. Bill | Nov 26, 2011 | Reply

    Why did LaRussa put in a pinch hitter with 2 outs in the 9th trailing 6-0?

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