Dave Wickersham, whose 1964 ejection cost him shot at 20-win season for Tigers, dies at 86

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Dave Wickersham, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers in the 1960s whose bid to become a 20-game winner was cut short in his last start of 1964 by a late-game ejection that left him in tears, has died.

Wickersham died June 18 in Overland Park, Kansas, according to his obituary. He was 86.

A 6-foot-3, 188-pound right-hander, Wickersham pitched 10 seasons in the major leagues, starting with the Kansas City Athletics and ending with the Kansas City Royals, appearing in the Royals' first game.

Dave Wickersham pitched four seasons for the Detroit Tigers in the 1960s.

In between, Wickersham pitched for Detroit from 1964-67, going 40-34 with a 3.40 ERA.

The Tigers acquired him from the A's in November 1963, in a big trade that brought second baseman Jerry Lumpe and right-hander Ed Rakow to Detroit for popular slugger Rocky Colavito, who in the previous four seasons for the Tigers had hit 139 home runs to go with 430 RBIs.

In Wickersham's first season with the Tigers, he was 19-12 with a 3.44 ERA, even earning MVP votes.

He could've been a 20-game winner, though.

On Sept. 25, 1964, Wickershman beat the Red Sox for his 19th win, and took the ball Oct. 1 in New York, needing to beat the Yankees for No. 20. The game was tied at 1 in the bottom of the seventh inning when the Yankees put two runners on base because of errors. Then, New York batter Phil Linz laid down a bunt down the first-base line, where Norm Cash bobbled it before stepping on first.

An out would've ended the inning, but first-base umpire Bill Valentine called Linz safe, sending Cash into a tirade that took him and the ump down the first-base line. During the argument, one Yankees runner scored, and the other was rounding the bases — triggering Wickersham to start yelling, "Time out!" He eventually raced to Valentine and tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention; Valentine then ejected him.

“I was shocked," Wickersham recalled years later in the book, "The Ballplayers." "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.’”

The Yankees took the 2-1 lead that inning, but the Tigers eventually came back to win, 4-2. Mickey Lolich finished the game for the Tigers.

The Tigers hadn't had a 20-game winner since Frank Lary (23-9) in 1961, and wouldn't have another until Denny McLain (20-14) in 1966.

Valentine, an American League umpire from 1963 until 1968 when he was fired when he tried to form an umpires' union, didn't realize Wickersham was going for win No. 20.

He told the Kansas City Star in 2004 that if he had known, he wouldn't have ejected him.

“Once I heard it, that’s the one decision that had always been in my mind," Valentine, who died in 2015 at the age of 82, told the Star. "That’s the only thing I’ve regretted from my career. He was a good pitcher and one of the nicest guys in baseball.”

According to the Star, in 2004, Wickersham wrote a letter to Valentine saying he had gotten the call right, and that he forgave him for ejecting him.

Wickersham appeared in 40 games in 1964, starting 36 of them and completing 11.

Over the next three seasons with Detroit, Wickersham was 21-22 with a  3.38 ERA in 108 appearances, eventually transitioning to a relief role.

After the 1967 season, the Tigers traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for right-hander Dennis Ribant, who had a 2.22 ERA in 14 appearances out of the bullpen in 1968 for the eventual World Series champs.

Wickersham played one season in Pittsburgh and finished his career in Kansas City in 1969. He was one of three players to play for both the Kansas City A's and the Kansas City Royals. On April 8, 1969, he tossed five innings of scoreless relief in the Royals' inaugural game, a 4-3, 11-inning win over the Minnesota Twins.

For his career, Wickersham was 67-57 with a 3.67 ERA.

He attended West Springfield High School in Pennsylvania, where he's in the state's athletics Hall of Fame. He attended Ohio University before he was signed by the Pirates in 1955 and acquired by the A's in 1959.

After baseball, Wickersham was involved in a variety of faith-based initiatives, and coached youth baseball, according to his obituary. He was married to wife Carol Sue before her death in 2012. The couple had four children, Davey, Carey, Mandy and Matthew.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984