Obituary: Dave Wickersham (1935-2022)

RIP to Dave Wickersham, whose pitching career began and ended in Kansas City — for two different teams. He died in Overland Park, Kan., on June 19 at the age of 86. One of the news outlets that reported his death was Fox 4 News in Kansas City, where his daughter Carey is employed as a reporter. Wickersham pitched for the Kansas City Athletics (1960-63), Detroit Tigers (1964-67), Pittsburgh Pirates (1968) and Kansas City Royals (1969).

“My dad taught me so much. To stand up for what you believe in. To gently share your faith. To work hard. To love big and forgive easily. I’ve had a million big hugs from him. He’s prayed for me and my siblings and our children everyday for years,” Carey Wickersham wrote.

David Clifford Wickersham was born in Erie, Pa., on September 27, 1935. His sandlot baseball career and his time at West Springfield High were marked by four no-hitters. He graduated in 1953, and after a half-year at Taylor University, the 19-year-old righthander signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates and scouting supervisor George Sisler. Wickersham was assigned to Burlington-Graham — sometimes abbreviated as “Bur-Gra” in the box scores — of the Class-B Carolina League. In his offseasons, he enrolled at Ohio University.

Source: Deseret News and Bulletin, April 28, 1959.

Wickersham joined Bur-Gra in July of 1955 and pitched in 12 games, with 10 of them coming in relief. He had a 1-3 record and 4.50 ERA and was pretty wild — he walked 32 batters in 36 innings. He did a better job of harnessing his control in 1956 with the Grand Forks Chiefs of the Northern League. He walked an average of 3.3 batters per 9 innings, and the improvement in his command resulted in 13 wins, mainly as a starter. He won 17 games between Class-A Lincoln and Class-B Beaumont in 1957 and 16 more for Lincoln in 1958. Control became one of his strengths, and he struck out slightly more than 6 batters per 9 innings.

The Pirates brought Wickersham along slowly. He reached Triple-A in both 1958 and 1959, and when he wasn’t an immediate sensation, he was sent all the way back to Class-A teams. The Kansas City A’s did Wickersham a favor by claiming him in the 1959 minor-league draft. He was sent to the Shreveport Sports of the Southern Association for 1960 and became a workhorse pitcher. He made 11 starts and 58 relief appearances, compiling a 10-7 record and 2.65 ERA. That September, he was finally brought to the major leagues.

Wickersham allowed a run on 3 hits in a 2-inning appearance against Cleveland on September 18. That was the only run he allowed in 5 appearances with the A’s. In his second game, he threw 3-1/3 scoreless innings against Cleveland, picking up a save in the 5-4 win. Wickersham finished the season with just the 1 earned run in 8-1/3 innings, with 4 hits allowed and 3 strikeouts. He also recorded 2 saves.

Wickersham started the 1961 season with the Athletics. He picked up his first career win on April 29 against Chicago. The Sox ralled from a 4-run deficit to tie the score at 9, and Wickersham had allowed the final two runs to score on a single and double play. In the bottom half of the inning, Kansas City’s Haywood Sullivan belted a bases-loaded double off Sox reliever Frank Baumann. Wickersham then drove him home with a double of his own — he picked up his first major-league hit and win on the same day. That success aside, Wickersham had an ERA approaching 6 when he was demoted back to Shreveport in early June. He returned to the A’s in September and put together a string of strong performances, including 3 no-hit innings against Minnesota on September 10. He ended up with a 2-1 record and 2 saves with a 5.14 ERA.

The Athletics auditioned Wickersham as a starter in 1962. He started 9 times and was 6-2 with a 3.61 ERA and 3 complete games. He was alerted to his first start when A’s pitching coach Ed Lopat called him onto the field during batting practice. Wickersham was afraid that he was going to be told to back up the batting practice pitcher — a job pitchers hate — but Lopat told him to run instead; he was going to be getting a start against Boston. “It was hot, around 102 degrees, but I could’ve run the rest of the night,” Wickersham told Shreveport Times columnist Bill McIntyre.

Source: Detroit Free Press, July 22, 1965.

Wickersham worked 8 strong innings against the Red Sox for the 5-1 win and then threw complete games in his next two starts. He praised the work of Lopat, who helped Wickersham develop a screwball. After beating the Twins 10-6 on June 17, he had an 8-2 record and was among the AL leaders in winning percentage. There was talk of an All-Star selection, but Wickersham missed almost two months because of a bad back and a cracked rib. When he was healthy enough to pitch, he again worked in relief, aside from a couple of late-season starts. By the end of the year, he had a 11-4 record and 4.17 ERA, and the A’s made plans for him to be a part of the starting rotation in 1963.

The ’63 Royals finished in eighth place with a 73-89 record, and only one regular starter finished with a winning percentage over .500. (David Segui was 9-6.) Wickersham was 12-15 and led the staff with 237-2/3 innings pitched. One of those wins was a 5-0 shutout against the Yankees, and he dedicated it to a former roommate, Charley Poor, a polio patient who was undergoing surgery in Houston. “I prayed for Charley before the game. He was on my mind all the way,” the pitcher said. “After the game was over and I had won, I dedicated it to Charley. You can’t dedicate something before it happens. Supposing I had lost?”

In November of 1963, Kansas City traded Wickersham, pitcher Ed Rakow and second baseman Jerry Lumpe to the Detroit Tigers for slugger Rocky Colavito, pitcher Bob Anderson and cash. Wickersham went from being the A’s workhorse pitcher to the same role with the Tigers in 1964. It was his best season, with 19 wins against 12 defeats. He had 11 complete games, a 3.44 ERA and a career-high 164 strikeouts. When asked about the secret to his sudden success, Wickersham alternately credited his bullpen — especially ace reliever Lerry Sherry — or his notebook full of data on AL batters. His wife Carol Sue listened to or watched all of his starts and recorded the pitch-by-pitch results of every at-bat.

Dave Wickersham celebrates with Willie Horton after Horton’s 2-run home run helped Wickersham break a long winless streak. Source: Battle Creek Enquirer, July 21, 1965.

Wickersham was an early leader in wins in the American League, and he had racked up 12 of them by July 9. His 13th win came almost a month later, on August 4. His roommate, Don Demeter, hit a 3-run homer after Wickersham had been taken out of the game for a pinch-hitter, making the score 4-3. “Don circled the bases, ran through the durout and right into the shower room and shook my hand. He went out to the outfield in wet clothes the next inning,” Wickersham recalled.

Wickersham beat Boston on September 25 for his 19th win and had one chance for 20 wins. It was on October 1 at Yankee Stadium. It had special significance for him, because Wickersham was a leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. If he could win 20 games, Wickersham would have a greater platform and more opportunities to talk about his faith. “I do not seek publicity for myself, but for Him,” he said.

The game was tied 1-1 going into the seventh inning. Joe Pepitone reached on an error by Detroit first baseman Norm Cash but was forced by Tom Tresh. An error by shortstop Dick McAuliffe put two runners on, and a force play off the bat of pitcher Mel Stottlemyre left Tresh on third base with two outs. Phil Linz then bunted down the first base line and raced Cash to the bag. Umpire Bill Valentine called Linz safe, putting the Yankees up by a run. Cash exploded at the umpire, getting right in Valentine’s face. As the umpire moved down the right field line, Cash kept arguing, with the ball still in play in his glove. Wickersham noticed Stottlemyre edging off second base and tried to end the play.

“I called time out three times and I guess he [Valentine] didn’t hear me,” Wickersham told the Tampa Tribune. “So after the third time I ran down the right field line and touched the umpire on the shoulder and said, ‘Time out,’ and he kicked me out.” Wickersham left the field with tears in his eyes. Players are typically ejected for cursing or shoving an umpire, and he was afraid that perception would be that he had done something out-of-character to merit the ejection. He was afraid that the ejection would damage his testimony. Fortunately, Detroit ralled to get the win, and the story of Wickersham’s lost opportunity garnered him plenty of positive notice.

Wickersham never reached double-digits in wins again. He went 9-14 for Detroit in 1965, with a 3.78 ERA. He won his first start of the season against Minnesota on April 15, but he didn’t pick up win No. 2 until July 20, when a 2-run homer by Willie Horton was all the offence he needed in a 2-0 victory over Washington. During that 97-day dry spell, he lost 8 games and had several training sessions with manager Charlie Dressen and pitching coach Bob Swift about his slider. Wickersham was a much-improved pitcher over the second half of the season (1-8 record, 4.98 ERA before July 20, and 8-6, 2.66 after it), but the season put his role with the Tigers in question. He spent all of 1966 bouncing between the bullpen and rotation. The Tigers had just 3 regular starters — Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich and Earl Wilson. Wickersham, Johnny Podres, Hank Aguirre, Bill Monbouquette and Joe Sparma all worked as swingmen, making spot starts as needed. Wickersham won 8 of 11 decisions in 14 starts and 24 relief outings. His 3.20 ERA was the best among the five swingmen, as was his 93 strikeouts, but he never started consistently in the majors again.

New Tigers manager Mayo Smith made Wickersham almost exclusively a reliever in 1967. He appeared in 36 games, but just 4 were starts. Along with a 4-5 record, he also recorded 5 saves, with 4 of them being multiple-inning saves. He fared better when he pitched regularly, but he acknowledged that Smith had four starters (Wilson, McLain, Sparma, Lolich) who threw harder than he did. “Really I throw just as hard as anybody. It just takes my pitches longer to get to the plate,” he said.

The Tigers traded Wickersham to Pittsburgh that November for reliever Dennis Ribant. The Pirates had a pretty established pitching staff with the offseason addition of veteran Jim Bunning, so Wickersham was assigned to the bullpen from the start. He picked up the win in his first Pirates appearance, throwing a scoreless inning against Philadelphia on May 5. He also earned a rare five-inning save against Chicago on May 22. Pittsburgh won the game 13-6, rallying after the Cubs knocked starter Bunning out of the game in the third inning. Wickersham allowed just an unearned run on 3 hits and 3 walks in the performance. After 11 appearances, his ERA was a solid 3.48. But he developed a sore elbow, and Pittsburgh elected to bring up rookie Dock Ellis in mid-June. Wickersham was sent to Triple-A Columbus for the remainder of the season.

Pittsburgh sold Wickersham’s contract in late October to Omaha, the Triple-A affiliate of the brand-new Kansas City Royals. He appeared in the first Royals game on April 8 and threw 5 scoreless innings in relief. He picked up saves in each of his next two outings, and through the end of July, Wickersham had recorded 5 saves in 34 appearances. He had a 2-3 record and 3.96 ERA, and he was well aware of his place on an expansion team.

“I realize that this club is building for four or five years from now, and if it can find somebody younger who can do the job, older fellows like Moe [Drabowsky], [Jerry] Adair and myself will go,” said the 33-year-old Wickersham. “I think I can stick around until then.”

The end came sooner than that. On July 26, Detroit scored 3 unearned runs off Wickersham in an inning’s worth of work, as part of a 12-2 win over the Royals. Four days later, the Royals sent him to Omaha and called up Chris Zachary, a 25-year-old pitcher who previously had spent parts of five seasons with Houston. Wickersham finished off the season in fine form with Omaha and was acquired by the Atlanta Braves in the offseason. Rather than report to spring training in 1970, Wickersham elected to remain at home in Overland Park with his wife and two children.

“It was a tough decision to make. I’ve had many happy moments in the majors,” Wickersham said upon his retirement. “I want the young people to know that playing professional baseball, both in the majors and minors, was an excellent way in which to make a livelihood.”

Over 10 seasons, Wickersham had a 68-57 record in 293 games, including 124 starts. He threw 29 complete games, including 5 shutouts, and he saved 19 others. He had a 3.66 ERA and struck out 638 batters. His WHIP was 1.296, and his ERA+ was 101. He is one of just four ballplayers who played for both the Kansas City Athletics and Royals. The others are Aurelio Monteagle, Moe Drabowsky and Ken Sanders.

Wickersham remained an active participant in the FCA, speaking to athletes across every sport. He worked as a finaicial advisot at Axis/Equitable until a near-death eperience in 2001. He contracted ehrlichiosis, a tick-spread disease, and was hours away from dying from multiple organ failure until an infectious disease specialist correctly identified Wickersham’s illness. The illness left him with some long-lasting health effects, necessitating his retirement. He didn’t lose his faith or his appreciation for life.

“I guess God wasn’t done with me,” Wickersham told the Kansas City Star in 2004. “The near-death experience has made me more aware of making things right with other people.”

One of those people was Bill Valentine, the umpire who had ejected Wickersham back in 1964. Valentine had gone on to become the general manager for the Arkansas Travelers. In an interview, he said that he didn’t realize that Wickersham was trying for his 20th win until after he’d ejected the pitcher. “Once I heard it, that’s the one decision that had always been in my mind. That’s the only thing I’ve regretted from my career,” he said. “He was a good pitcher and one of the nicest guys in baseball.”

After reading that quote, Wickersham wrote Valentine a letter absolving him of any blame. “You kicked me out of a ballgame in Yankee Stadium for asking time out,” he wrote, as noted in the Detroit Free Press in 2003. “Twice I hollered about as loud as I could, but with Norm Cash yelling in your ear, I’m sure you never heard me. You called the play correctly as I saw it.”

“Almost dying two years ago, I just wanted to make sure everything with right with Bill,” Wickersham explained. “By writing the letter, I wanted to make sure he didn’t feel badly toward me. I’m a Christian and my sins have been forgiven. I want to make sure that others know I don’t have any ill feelings toward them.”

Dave and Carol Sue Wickersham were married for 48 years before her death in 2012. He is survived by his four children, Carey, Davey, Mandy and Matthew.

For more information: Kansas City Star

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