Obit: Nick Willhite, 1941-2008
Nick Willhite, a left-handed pitcher from the 1960s, died of cancer two weeks ago today at the age of 67. He made an impact on me as a member of the 1963 and 1965 Dodgers World Series championship teams when my Dad was covering the club for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
In a brief career that spanned parts of only five seasons, Willhite's biggest achievement was tossing a five-hit, complete-game shutout against the Chicago Cubs in his major-league debut on June 16, 1963.
Here is the article as it appeared in the P-T after Willhite's debut.
Willhite Dazzles Cubs, Dodgers in SF Tonight
Willhite earned a spot in the rotation with that sparkling performance and was 2-2 with a 1.93 ERA after his first five starts. However, the young southpaw got hit hard in his next three outings and was sent back down to Spokane. He didn't pitch another inning for the Dodgers that season, yet earned a World Series paycheck and ring for his contributions in June and July.
Unfortunately, Willhite's career never got back on track. He was sold to the Washington Senators after the 1964 season and repurchased by the Dodgers in May 1965. Willhite flirted with success for a brief moment when he combined with Ron Perranoski for a shutout of the Phillies in his second start with Los Angeles on June 19 (which just so happened to be Dad's 37th birthday). He started four more games but pitched mostly out of the bullpen the rest of the way, picking up a "save" in the final game of the regular season.
The adjoining photo of Willhite (left) and Jim Brewer is from Dad's archives and was taken after the Dodgers clinched the 1965 National League pennant on the second-to-last day of the year. Like Willhite, Brewer died a young man, one day before his 50th birthday in 1987. (In the department of it's a small world, Dad passed away in 1978 at the age of 50.)
Willhite only pitched six more games for the Dodgers after that, finishing up his big-league career in 1967 with the Angels and Mets. His last appearance in the majors was exactly four years and a week after he threw a shutout in his first game. Sadly, he was washed up at 26, perhaps due to a drinking problem that led to three divorces and life on the streets of Salt Lake City as a drug and alcohol addict.
When Willhite was 48 and with "no money, no car, no nothing," he reached out to his former teammate Stan Williams, who put him in touch with the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which helps former baseball players in need. As New York Times columnist Dave Anderson tells the story, "Two days later, Willhite was on his way to entering an alcohol-abuse rehabilitation center in Fort Collins, Colo."
Willhite became a drug-addiction counselor and reunited with his six children and six grandchildren. He died at one of his son's homes in Alpine, Utah. Willhite was buried at the Alpine City Cemetery in Pleasant Grove, Utah.