On April 15, 1983, Milt Wilcox had everything working on the mound. Using his fastball, changeup, and his patented palm ball, the right-hander set down the first 26 White Sox batters he faced. He was one out away from securing a rarity — a perfect game. Chicago manager Tony Larussa sent up pinch-hitter extraordinaire Jerry Hairston. A switch-hitter, Hairston batted from the left side against Wilcox, who showed little sign of emotion or nervousness on the mound. Wilcox fired his first pitch to Hairston — a waist-high fastball — and Hairston promptly smacked it to center field for a solid, line drive single. Perfect game ruined. Wilcox hung his head in despair, but he proceeded to get Rudy Law for the final out, settling for a one-hit shutout.
Wilcox wasn’t usually that exciting when he pitched. He was a journeyman righty with pretty good stuff when he was young: a better than average fastball and good action on his other pitches. He was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the second round of the 1968 amateur draft and two years later the 20-year old was pitching for Sparky Anderson. He appeared in the playoffs and the World Series that year as a reliever for the Big Red Machine. But he was never able to crack†the starting rotation with the Reds and they traded Wilcox to Cleveland after the 1971 campaign. The Indians gave Wilcox a chance as a starter but he didn’t impress and he wound up with the Cubs where he pitched again out of the pen before suffering an arm injury that caused him to miss much of the 1975 season. He was toiling in the minors in 1976 when the Detroit Tigers, desperate for arms, purchased him.
Wilcox had his best seasons with Detroit, where he received careful attention from the pitching coaches in the organization, who worked with him to shorten his delivery. He also proved to be healthy, and in late August, early September of 1977, manager Ralph Houk finally put the right-hander in the rotation, after he;d been bounced between the bullpen and starting all season. In ’78, Houk had Wilcox in his rotation, where he overused him, having him toss 16 complete games as he went 13-12. It was the first of seven straight seasons in which†Milt would win at least 11 games for Detroit.
Sparky Anderson arrived in Detroit in 1979 and Wilcox flourished under the man who had been his first big league manager. Sparky recognized Wilcox for what he was: a solid, middle of the rotation guy who could give the team 6-8 innings on average. In his first year under Anderson, Wilcox was used more sensibly, completing just seven games, winning 12. His most effective season came in the ’81 strike year when Wilcox won 12 games in 24 starts and had a 3.03 ERA. By that time he was teamed with ace Jack Morris†and Dan Petry to form the Big Three in Sparky’s rotation.
By 1984, Wilcox’s arm was starting to die. He’d pitched 180+ innings in five of the six previous season and he was 34 years old. But that season he knew the team had a great chance to go all the way, so Wilcox sacrificed his future in the game by pitching with a sore arm all year. He would get a cortisone shot before games and in-between starts so he couldn’t feel the constant pain in his shoulder. Gutting it out, Wilcox won a career-high 17 games for the 1984 World Series champions, adding two more in the post-season. The next year he couldn’t get through June with the sore arm and he tossed his appeared in his†game for Sparky and the Tigers on June 3, unable to get through the fifth inning.
After his playing career, which included 119 victories, Wilcox became the leading figure in a sport called “dog jumping,” where canines run on platforms and jump into pools of water, the longest leap winning. Wilcox’s dog was named after his favorite manager, “Sparky.”