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
By GEORGE LEDERER
Memo to Bo Belinsky:
You don't know what you're missing by refusing to go to Hawaii. Nick Willhite says he found some sharp curves on the Islands without visiting the beach at Waikiki.
Willhite, a 22-year-old left-hander, is the Dodgers' lastest pitching discovery and a good bet to remain in the starting rotation after breaking in Sunday with a five-hit shutout.
To the delight of 54,108 Father's Day patrons, including 45,239 paid, Willhite salvaged a split for the Dodgers by taming the Cubs 2-0 after Johnny Podres was routed in the first inning of the opener and lost 8-3.
As the Dodgers take off to start a nine-game trip in San Francisco, they are one game behind the Giants with a chance to take the league lead tonight. Sandy Koufax (9-3) will be facing Billy O'Dell (9-2) in the first of three televised games.
What promises to be the most challenging journey of the season also includes three games with the second-place Cardinals and three with the fourth-place Reds.
Off Sunday's performance, Willhite will be given serious consideration to start the St. Louis series Friday in place of Podres, who has a sore elbow. Podres retired only two Cubs and was given an injection of hydro-cortisone after leaving a 5-0 deficit to the bullpen mop-up crew.
"I was thrilled by the kid's performance," said pitching coach Joe Becker in evaluating Willhite's dominating debut. "He showed us so much improvement in his fast curve that it was hard to believe. He's certainly changed since spring training."
Willhite said he discovered the secret of throwing the fast curve "one night in Hawaii. It was in the third inning and from then on, I knew what I was doing." For proof, he went on to win his next six decisions to warrant his purchase from Spokane last Wednesday.
"I couldn't believe it when I was called up," said Willhite, "and I still can't believe that I won a shutout. No, the big crowd didn't bother me particularly. I was a little nervous, yes, but I was thinking mostly about the folks back home."
Back home is Denver, where Willhite was signed in the summer of 1959 by part-time Dodger scout Manuel Boody, who also signed Stan Williams. Coincidentally, Willhite is the first Dodger to pitch a shutout in his first start since Williams blanked the Cubs 1-0, June 1, 1958.
Boody is a sports writer for the Rocky Mountain News, which also must prove something in behalf of baseball writers.
Willhite only faced 32 Cubs, registered five of his six strikeouts in the first three innings, walked one and finished his work in one hour and 54 minutes.
"I always work fast," reported Willhite. "Last year I pitched a nine-inning game in an hour and a half. Doug (catcher Camilli) told me to slow down after the first five innings. He was afraid I might run out of steam."
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.