25 Years Later: Milt Wilcox’s Near-Perfect Game
Posted on April 15, 2008
I 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:
- Lou Whitaker 2b
- Howard Johnson 3b
- Larry Herndon lf
- Lance Parrish c
- John Grubb dh
- Glenn Wilson rf
- Chet Lemon cf
- Rick Leach 1b
- Alan Trammell ss
And, the White Sox’s:
- Rudy Law cf
- Tony Bernazard 2b
- Harold Baines rf
- Greg Luzinski dh
- Ron Kittle lf
- Greg Walker 1b
- Carlton Fisk c
- Vance Law 3b
- Jerry Dybzinski ss
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.
But none of his 72 other complete games could compare to the frigid night on the South Side.
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.