Milt Wilcox and I Get a Hair Cut

J Ellet LambieCorrespondent IMay 29, 2009

Thursday afternoon I walked into the Berkley Chop Shop, a barbershop in my hometown opened by an old high school friend a few years back. I was overdue for a clean up and had an hour to kill so it seemed the appropriate thing to do.
All five barbers were busy so I took a seat in the corner and waited my turn. Sitting across from me was a very familiar looking man, mid 50’s, about six foot two...I knew that I knew him from somewhere but just couldn’t place the face. Then one of the barbers wandered over and said to him “Milt, I’ll be with you in a bit.”
Turns out it was former Detroit Tiger Milt Wilcox.

When I got in my car to head out for a haircut, I wasn’t planning on writing about the experience, but when you keep a Detroit Tigers blog and you happen to run into Milt Wilcox at the barber shop, you kinda have to write about it—I think it’s a rule.


I told him I didn’t recognize him at first without the signature mustache, which he has shaved off. We struck up a conversation and passed the time for a good 15 minutes until both he and I were called to our respective barbers.

I met Milt on a few occasions in my youth, at baseball card shows and autograph signings—two passions from my childhood. Somewhere in a box I have a polaroid picture of he and the nine year old me from such an autograph show; I can still see it, now if only I could find it.

Alas, while I’m now a grown man and write about the game of baseball and the Detroit Tigers I still had that bit of nervous energy the nine year old version of me likely had when we first met.

After a few minutes of conversation though it was as if he was an old friend, easy to talk to, funny and genuine—the way I imagine and hope all of my childhood favorites are these days.

Milt Wilcox pitched for the Tigers from 1977 through early in 1985. His road to Detroit ran through Evansville, IN. The Triplets were a Tigers farm club at the time that originally acquired him on loan to get through a stretch of double headers.

As the story goes, at least according to baseball-reference, Sparky Anderson urged the Tigers to take a chance on Milt and the team traded away some old uniforms to get him.

Talk about a humbling trade—especially for a guy who picked up the win in the deciding game of the 1970 ALCS while with the Cincinnati Reds. He struck out five in three innings of relief, including Hall Of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. Not bad for a 20-year-old kid, not bad at all.

Most Tigers fans will remember Milt and his time in the Old English D for two things—his near perfect game in 1983 and his victories in the 1984 ALCS and World Series.

On Apr. 15 of 1983 Wilcox faced LaMar Hoyt (who went on to win the 1983 AL Cy Young) and the Chicago White Sox. He retired the first 26 batters he faced, only to lose out on a perfect game when pinch-hitter Jerry Hairston singled up the middle with two outs in the ninth inning.

He retired the next batter for a one hit shutout. Only three times in MLB history has a perfect game been broken up with two outs in the ninth inning.

He won the clinching game in a League Championship Series for the second time in his career by beating the Kansas City Royals 1-0 with eight shutout innings on Oct. 6, 1984.

He went on to beat the San Diego Padres in game three of the World Series with six innings of one run ball in the first World Series Game at Tiger Stadium since 1968.

In total, Milt allowed one run over 14 innings in the 1984 postseason, when it mattered most. While Morris and Petry may get the lions share of the credit for winning it all that year, the Tigers couldn’t have done it without Milt Wilcox.

I remember Milt as a big, friendly guy who fought to stay in baseball as long as he could, battling injuries, bouncing from team to team—but mostly I remember that magical 1984 season when Milt won 17 games and along with Jack Morris and Dan Petry anchored the staff of a championship team.

He looks good. It’s hard to learn everything about a guy you spend 15 minutes with in a barber chop, but he seemed happy, healthy, busy and generally content with the world around him. We talked about tattoos, trucks, of course baseball, and about his dogs. Milt loves his dogs.

For years now, he and his dogs, including Sparky (named for Sparky Anderson) have been competing in various dog jumping events across the country. He’s a busy guy. He told me about events in St. Louis, Richmond (VA), Traverse City, Columbus (GA), and Asheville, NC.

I told him it sounds like he travels more now than in his former profession. He told me it feels that way some times. He is the Founder and President of Ultimate Air Dogs, one of the premier dock jumping organizations in the country.

You can check out the web site through the link above, it’s fascinating stuff and sounds like a fun way to spend a day at the lake.

He’s still around the game of baseball. He’s been an instructor at Tigers fantasy camps, works with local high school players from time to time and has worked with some pro pitchers, under the radar, to help get them to the next level.

He told me that he reached out to the agent for Dontrelle Willis in the offseason, volunteering to work with him on his delivery and mechanics. Sadly Milt was called to his chair before we were able to get into the specifics of that adventure.

When his name first came up Milt talked about how Dontrelle needed to shorten up his delivery from last year, become more compact. He told me how difficult it is for a pitcher with so many moving parts to remain consistent, a theory I’ve subscribed to for years.

I asked him if he still talked to any of the guys from his time with the Tigers. He sees Dave Rozema and Dan Petry around town here and there, is still close with Lance Parrish who now lives in the Nashville, TN area and runs into Johnny Grubb when he travels to Virginia.

I told Milt that Johnny Grubb had one of the prettiest swings I ever saw, I don’t understand how he wasn’t a .320 hitter.

We talked about strategy, this years club, Jim Leyland and a lot more. It was one of the better conversations I’ve run into in a while. I find it funny that it happened in a barber shop of all places, where you would expect a ballplayer now in his 50s to sit and tell stories.

I hope I run into him again someday, he’s good conversation.

Be Well Milt.



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