Pitcher Eric Wilkins was only 22 when he earned a spot in Cleveland’s starting rotation in 1979. The hard-throwing right-hander injured his elbow that summer, however, and never made it back to the majors.
Eric Lamoine Wilkins was born on December 9, 1956, in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents, Perry Lamoine Wilkins and the former Ruby Selma Johnson, had married that summer. After Eric, their daughter Susan would follow. Perry, a U.S. Army infantryman during the Korean War, was a schoolteacher who later helped to produce a weekly radio broadcast to inspire students as part of an administrative job. In 1969, he became the principal of a middle school in Seattle and moved his family 2,000 miles northwest.1 Perry spent three decades working for Seattle Public Schools and participating in the Pacific Northwest Football Officials Association.
Eric, with coaching from his father, discovered baseball while in St. Louis. His grandfather worked as an usher at Busch Stadium, where his dad would take him to see his favorite players: Cardinals stars Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Curt Flood. In the Evergreen State, Eric really recognized his passion for the game and developed his skills with the Montlake Mavericks of the Central Area Youth Association.2
At Garfield High School, Eric earned varsity letters in football and wrestling in addition to baseball. His record was 0-6 as a sophomore pitcher, but he kept improving and hurled Garfield to a playoff victory as a senior.3 When no professional sport drafted him after his 1974 graduation and he wasn’t offered any scholarships, he enrolled at Washington State University to major in public relations and advertising.4 Wilkins expected to quarterback the football team, but the Cougars had the “Throwin’ Samoan” –fellow freshman Jack Thompson– a future first-round draft pick who’d go on to a six-year NFL career. “That’s when I figured I had a better chance in baseball.”5
Wilkins made three straight all-conference teams at Washington State. After pitching mostly in relief as a freshman, he broke through as a starter in the summer of 1975 with the Stoen Brothers Babe Ruth League club. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of that circuit’s World Series, and, as of 2021, his 43 strikeouts remain a series record for the age 16-to-18 division.6 His second year at WSU included a no-hitter to beat Oregon State on May 7, 1976.7 The sixth-ranked Cougars advanced to the College World Series for the first time in more than a decade (and last time as of 2020).8 In the loss to Maine that eliminated Washington State, Wilkins struck out 12 and finished his season with a record of 10-4.9
During summers, he honed his skills with semipro teams like the Grand Junction Eagles in Colorado and the Fairbanks Goldpanners in Alaska. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder also worked as a store clerk-detective and car wash attendant.10After Wilkins led WSU to a third straight Pac-8 Conference championship as a junior, the Cleveland Indians selected him in the sixth round of the June 1977 amateur draft. Three years after no team had wanted him out of high school, he was going to the pros. “I was really lucky,” Wilkins reflected two years later. “Bob MacDonald was the [WSU] pitching coach. If it wasn’t for him, I would probably still be learning some of the fundamentals, the right pitching motion.”11
Wilkins agreed to terms with Cleveland scout Bob Quinn over the phone and reported to the Waterloo (IA) Indians in the Single-A Midwest League.12 On August 5, he tossed a 14-strikeout, 2-hit shutout against the Appleton Foxes.13 After splitting his first two decisions, he won eight straight and finished the year with a 2.76 ERA. “My greatest thrill would have to be having a 9-1 record after the first year of my professional season,” he wrote a few months later. “I didn’t know if I would do that good.”14
Cleveland invited the 21-year-old to major league camp in 1978. “I was really pressing to show them something in spring training,” Wilkins confessed later. “I messed myself up.”15 He spent the season with the Triple-A Portland Beavers in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, where the overall ERA was 5.03. By the end of June, Wilkins had a 6-3 record, but his ERA was 6.15 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was only 59:56. “My control wasn’t too good,” he admitted. “I was giving the PCL hitters too much credit.”16
On July 3, however, Wilkins carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning before allowing a bloop double to Tacoma’s Tommy Cruz.17 Starting with his 11-strikeout, 3-walk victory that night, he finished the season on a 9-2, 2.92 ERA run including a 67:29 strikeout-to-walk ratio. “I’ve slowed down my motion and started concentrating on each batter,” he explained. “I’ve listened to a lot of hitters talk about the pitches that are hard for them to hit. Most hitters say that if a pitcher throws everything at the same speed and nothing breaks down, then it’s just a matter of looking inside or outside.”18
His 15-5 record gave him more victories than any other Triple-A pitcher in 1978. “Wilkins is one of the best young pitching prospects in our organization,” said Cleveland GM Phil Seghi. “We never suspected that he would make such rapid progress.”19 With the Indians buried in sixth place, Wilkins hoped to be called up for a taste of the big leagues in September. “I really don’t see how a major league team can let a pitcher who is leading the PCL in wins remain in the minors,” he said. “But then this is only my second year of pro ball and maybe they don’t want to start my options yet.”20 The call did not come. Wilkins announced his intention to resume his studies at WSU over the off-season rather than pitch in winter ball. “I don’t want to burn myself out,” he explained. “I’ve proved myself.”21 The education-oriented right-hander had already made his career choice. “At one time I wanted to be a broadcaster,” he said. “Not anymore. Now I’d rather be a pitcher.”22
Though he had only pitched a season and a half as a pro, Wilkins believed his Washington State experience should count, too. “I think Division I baseball is as good a preparation for big league baseball as AA, A or rookie teams in any organization,” he insisted. “I learned almost enough in college to get me to the big leagues.”23 Wilkins featured a fastball that was clocked at 94 mph.24 He also threw a sharp-breaking slider that he gripped on top of the ball rather than the side.25 “The curve is my strikeout pitch,” he added.26 “Eric is an outstanding talent,” Indians manager Jeff Torborg acknowledged. “If he is ready to step into the regular rotation this season, he has a job. But he is too valuable a commodity to stay with us as a reliever or spot starter.”27
A month after the Angels had traded for Rod Carew, winner of six of the last seven AL batting titles, Wilkins found himself starting a spring training contest against California. “It was the greatest and scariest feeling that I had experienced to date, and I was grateful for the opportunity,” he said. “Somehow and some way I got Carew to chase a pitch and strike out. I couldn’t say that made me ready for the majors, but I was on Cloud 9 at the time.”28 Wilkins walked Don Baylor next, but picked him off, and proceeded to strike out Joe Rudi.29 He came back down to earth the next time he faced Carew, however. “He hit a laser between my legs into center field, and as he rounded first base, he looked at me and winked! That’s when I realized that these are the big boys in the big leagues!”30
When spring training started, Rick Wise, Mike Paxton and Rick Waits were Cleveland’s top three starters, with holdover David Clyde and trade acquisition Len Barker the leading contenders for the remaining spots. “I’m not going to press to make the team,” Wilkins said. “If I don’t now, I’ll be with them soon. But my confidence is at its best now, and they should take advantage of it.”31 As it happened, Clyde began the season on the disabled list, Barker opened in the bullpen, and Wilkins and right-hander Wayne Garland, coming off rotator cuff surgery, won the rotation jobs.
“I’ve dreamed about this and imagined more stadium scenes and more people, but I don’t think it will be much more difficult,” Wilkins predicted. Asked to describe the biggest adjustment in jumping to the majors, he replied, “Level of concentration, because of the fact there are so many more guys who can hurt you. In the minors, you can breeze by some batters.” Pressure was nothing new, or unexpected. “I’ve faced it before now, and I know it’ll be there down the line,” he said.32
On April 11, 1979, Wilkins made his major league debut against the Texas Rangers at Arlington Stadium. Al Oliver was his first strikeout victim. Wilkins allowed only two earned runs in four-plus innings but lost when the Indians were shut out on one hit. He pitched into the seventh inning in his next three starts but remained winless at the end of April despite striking out a career-high nine Brewers on the last night of the month. Against that same Milwaukee club on a hot, humid day at County Stadium, Wilkins notched his first win on May 10 with five innings of four-hit work before departing with a cramp in his right leg.33 Reliever Don Hood hurled four scoreless frames to preserve Cleveland’s 8-1 victory. Wilkins mailed the game ball to his father. “It’s his to keep. Dad put me through college, gave me an education and an opportunity to play ball and get drafted by the Indians,” he explained. “I expect to keep improving as the season goes on. I’m getting to know the hitters and what I can do. I’m very enthusiastic about my future.”34
In Toronto on May 20, he made his first relief appearance and earned his second victory, but it was costly. “I wasn’t used to getting warmed up so quickly. In relief, you have to be able to throw good pitches immediately. The next three times I pitched I would feel a twinge.”35 One of those outings was his strongest in the majors: a seven-inning, four-hit effort in Oakland in which the bullpen blew a save in the bottom of the ninth to cost him a win. On June 22 at Yankee Stadium, he allowed New York only one unearned run in the first three innings, but his elbow was too sore to continue after a rain delay.36 After a 17-day rest, Wilkins started against the Royals but failed to get through three frames. He worked out of the bullpen in Kansas City 10 days later, leading up to what proved to be his final big league outing on July 23. Wilkins held the Brewers hitless for three innings at Cleveland Stadium, but his elbow stiffened up and he was unable to return to the mound for the fourth. He was placed on the disabled list the next day.
He did not pitch again in 1979, diagnosed with inflammation of the ulnar nerve.37 Wilkins finished his rookie year 2-4 with a 4.39 ERA in 16 games (14 starts). “I was disappointed in my record, but I learned a lot,” he said. “My locker was between [Andre] Thornton, Bobby] Bonds and Waits. You sit between those guys and you learn.”38 A visit to Dr. Frank Jobe in Los Angeles resulted in the decision that surgery was not necessary. “Right now, the arm feels fine,” Wilkins said that fall. “It is a matter of rest and then slowly building up my arm. I’m confident that I’ll be 100 percent when spring training rolls around.”39
In spring training 1980, Cleveland pitching coach Dave Duncan said, “There’s no doubt that, barring further injury, [Wilkins] still has the ability to pitch in the major leagues. If he does this year, it’ll be because he earned the job.”40 Returning to the Indians’ rotation would be even tougher because of the club’s off-season trades for John Denny and Bob Owchinko. “I don’t care if I start or come out of the bullpen. There are a lot of new faces around here looking for jobs,” remarked Wilkins. “After being hurt most of last season, I feel like a new person myself.”41 Sent back to the PCL to pitch for the Tacoma (WA) Tigers, in 17 starts he was 7-4 with a 3.92 ERA before he went back on the disabled list with elbow pain and tendonitis in mid-July. In the Florida Instructional League that fall, he was reportedly “impressive.”42
In 1981, the Charleston (WV) Charlies of the International League were Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate. Wilkins started the season with them but lost all three of his decisions with a 7.84 ERA in 10 games (8 starts). In 31 innings, he walked 26, allowed six home runs, uncorked six wild pitches and hit four batters. The Indians sent him to the Double-A Chattanooga (TN) Lookouts in June, where he hurled six innings in a single Southern League start before being disabled again. In December, Peter Gammons reported that Wilkins had been operated on by Dr. Larry Pedagana, the Seattle Mariners’ team physician. The injury that had originally been diagnosed as tendonitis was, in fact, a stress fracture of the elbow that Wilkins had been pitching with all year.43 He missed the entire 1982 season and retired from professional baseball. In addition to his 2-4 record in 16 major league outings, he posted a 31-13 mark in the minors.
Wilkins went to work with IBM in Seattle and remained there for a decade. Over the next 20 years, he worked for a handful of consulting and technology companies in Washington and divorced twice. As of 2021, he is married to Pam (Richards) and lives in Everett, where he is a Provider Services Team Leader for Premera Blue Cross.
Last revised: February 11, 2021
Special thanks to Eric Wilkins (E-mail correspondence with Malcolm Allen on January 6, 2021 and telephone follow up).
This biography was reviewed by Eric Vickrey and Norman Machr and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.
1 “Perry Lamoine Wilkins,” https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/seattletimes/obituary.aspx?n=perry-lamoine-wilkins&pid=193162490&fhid=19676 (last accessed December 17, 2020).
2 Eric Wilkins, Publicity Questionnaire for William J. Weiss, January 7, 1978.
3 Jack McLavey, “Quaker, Pup Hurlers Starve Metro Batters,” Seattle Daily Times, April 3, 1973: 50.
4 “Tribe’s Eric Wilkins Thinks Time Spent in College Was Useful,” Tribune (Coshocton, Ohio) March 28, 1979: 7
5 “Wilkins Believes He Hast it Made,” Call and Post (Cleveland, Ohio), March 4, 1979: 17B.
6 “Individual World Series Records,” https://www.baberuthleague.org/world-series-history/individual-ws-records.aspx (last accessed December 17, 2020).
7 “No-Hit Job by Wilkins,” Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), May 9, 1976: 13.
8 Division I Baseball Records: 39, http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/stats/baseball_RB/2010/D1.pdf (last accessed December 17, 2020).
9 “As Maine Goes…?” Ithaca (New York) Journal, June 15, 1976: 18.
10 Wilkins, Publicity Questionnaire.
11 “Tribe’s Eric Wilkins Thinks Time Spent in College Was Useful.”
12 Wilkins, Publicity Questionnaire.
13 “Class A Leagues,” The Sporting News, August 27, 1977: 42.
14 Wilkins, Publicity Questionnaire.
15 Bob Sudyk, “Rookie Eric Wilkins Aims for Spot on Indians Staff,” The Sporting News, March 17, 1979: 53.
16 Ron Forbes, “Wilkins Withers PCL’s Stickmen,” The Sporting News, September 16, 1978: 32.
17 “Front-Office Turmoil,” The Sporting News, July 29, 1978: 37
18 Forbes, “Wilkins Withers PCL’s Stickmen.”
21 “Wilkins Wins Again,” The Sporting News, September 16, 1978: 34
22 “Wilkins Believes He Hast it Made.”
23 “Tribe’s Eric Wilkins Thinks Time Spent in College Was Useful.”
24 Hank Kozloski, “Wilkins Has to Earn Spot with Indians,” News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), March 15, 1980: 11.
25 Forbes, “Wilkins Withers PCL’s Stickmen.”
26 “Wilkins Believes He Hast it Made.”
27 Sudyk, “Rookie Eric Wilkins Aims for Spot on Indians Staff.”
28 Eric Wilkins, E-mail correspondence with Malcolm Allen, January 6, 2021.
29 “Tribe’s Eric Wilkins Thinks Time Spent in College Was Useful.”
30 Wilkins-Allen E-mail.
31 Sudyk, “Rookie Eric Wilkins Aims for Spot on Indians Staff.”
32 Bob Sherwin, “Wilkins May Save the Tribe from ‘Seventh Cavalry’,” Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), April 4, 1979: 7.
33 “Reggie Backs Down,” The Sporting News, May 26, 1979: 32.
34 Bob Sudyk, “Indians Need More Than New Winners,” The Sporting News, June 2, 1979: 13.
35 Kozloski, “Wilkins Has to Earn Spot with Indians.”
37 Bob Sudyk, “Wilkins May Be Indians’ Best Comeback Candidate,” The Sporting News, November 17, 1979: 64.
38 Kozloski, “Wilkins Has to Earn Spot with Indians.”
39 Sudyk, “Wilkins May Be Indians’ Best Comeback Candidate.”
40 Kozloski, “Wilkins Has to Earn Spot with Indians.”
42 Bob Sudyk, Tribe Ponders Puny Pitching, The Sporting News, November 8, 1980: 53.
43 Peter Gammons, “Reds’ Hopes for Cedeno Awfully High,” Boston Globe, December 27, 1982: 1.