A 20-victory season has always been one of the hallmarks of success for a major league pitcher. It’s a nice round number that is of considerable value when arguing a new contract and looks good in the Baseball Encyclopedia when one’s playing days are over. However, practically speaking, there’s little qualitative difference between a 20-game winner and a 19-game winner. Just ask Jim Bunning, who racked up 19-win seasons in 1962, 1964, 1965, and 1966 with Detroit and Philadelphia and still made it into the Hall of Fame.
Dave Wickersham was never going to make it to Cooperstown, except as a paying customer, but he did have one solid shot at a 20-win season—an opportunity that was lost when an umpire impulsively decided to give the Detroit pitcher the heave-ho in a tightly contested game on the final Sunday of the 1964 schedule.
It was October 1, 1964. At 29, Wickersham seemed on the cusp of finally fulfilling the promise he’d shown as a member of the Kansas City Athletics, with whom he’d broken into the majors in 1960. In 1962, Wickersham had compiled an 11-4 mark and led American League hurlers in winning percentage; the following summer he went 12-15 for the Athletics. At season’s end he was traded to the Tigers in a multi-player deal that saw fan favorite Rocky Colavito leave Detroit.
Now the Tigers were in New York, playing the Yankees in the opener of a twin bill, and Wickersham was going for his 20th victory. The gangly righthander had won his 19th four days earlier, beating Boston, 3-2, with Don Demeter’s home run providing the margin of victory.
The score was tied at a run apiece in the seventh when errors by Norm Cash and Dick McAuliffe put runners on first and third with two out. The Yankees’ Phil Linz then laid down a slow-rolling bunt toward first base that Cash bobbled, then picked up as he stood on the bag. First base umpire Bill Valentine called Linz safe, a decision that literally had Cash hopping mad. The go-ahead run had scored, and as Cash followed Valentine down the right-field foul line, arguing the decision, the runner on first was sneaking his way around to third.
As Wickersham later recalled in the book, The Ballplayers: “I hollered, ‘Time out!’ Nothing happened to my request. Valentine and Cash were getting further down the right field line. The runner on second base kept going towards third base. I hollered, ‘Time Out’ again louder! Still nothing.
“So I start running down the field toward Cash and Valentine. I come up to Valentine from behind and tap him on his left shoulder and said, ‘Time Out, Bill!’ He turned to me and said, ‘You’re out of here.’
“I was shocked. I started walking towards our third base dugout. When I crossed an imaginary line behind the pitcher’s mound and home plate, John Stevens the home plate umpire said to me, ‘Where are you going?’ I told him through tears (I had never been kicked out of anything before in my life), ‘He kicked me out.’”
Fred Gladding came on to get the third out of the inning. In the ninth, the Tigers scored three runs to regain the lead, 4-2, and Mickey Lolich pitched the final two innings to get credit for his 18th victory. Even better for Detroit fans, the Tigers won the second game, the doubleheader sweep temporarily preventing the hated Yankees from clinching their third straight pennant.
Wickersham was more puzzled than bitter over his mugging in the Bronx. He never received notification of the automatic $50 fine for being ejected. He also never came close to a season like the one he had just enjoyed. He compiled a mediocre 21-22 record over his next three seasons in Detroit. He lost his spot in the starting rotation and by 1967, his final summer at Tiger Stadium, was used principally in relief. He wrapped up his 10-year major-league career in 1969 after stops in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.
Valentine, meanwhile, openly regretted his decision, an action he admitted was too impetuous, given the situation. Many years later, Wickersham wrote the now retired umpire a letter, saying that he was OK with what had happened. “I also told him I thought his safe call was the correct call,” Wickersham said.
The pitcher’s generosity of spirit owed much to his membership in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To this day the former big leaguer signs his autograph “Dave Wickersham Colossians 3:17,” a reference to the Bible verse that reads: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”