This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf
Ted Wilks burst on the national scene as a 28-year-old rookie pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1944 by winning a league-best 11 games in a row en route to a 17-4 record and helping lead the Redbirds to their second World Series title in three years. When the hard-throwing right-hander developed career-threatening chronic elbow miseries the following spring, he transformed himself into one of the National League’s finest relievers, twice leading the league in appearances and saves (an unofficial statistic at the time). “Never worry,” said the level-headed Wilks when asked about pitching philosophy. “If they beat you today, you’ll get ’em tomorrow.”i
Theodore Wilks was born on November 13, 1915, in Fulton, New York, about 20 miles northwest of Syracuse. His parents, Thomas and Rekla, were Polish immigrants who arrived in the US as youngsters at the turn of the century and found jobs at the local American Woolen Mills. Along with his older sister, Helen, and younger brother, Raymond, Ted grew up with modest means in factory-owned housing. Ted attended Fulton High School, where he “did a little pitching” for the school’s baseball team; he quit school after his second year when his parents were ill, and he began working to help support the family.ii Around the same time Wilks began pitching for a local semipro team, the Fulton Athletic Club in the Post-Standard League. “I had a strong arm and I could get a lot of stuff on the ball,” he told The Sporting News.iii But like many youngsters he was wild and struggled with control. The team was coached by Honey Barnes, a former minor-league catcher who played one game with the New York Yankees in 1926. Wilks credited Barnes with helping him to harness his speed and learn how to pitch. A “headline semipro” in the area, the short (5-feet-9) and stocky (about 200 pounds) right-hander participated in a tryout camp in the fall of 1937 conducted by the St. Louis Cardinals in Rochester, the site of their affiliate in the American Association.iv The Cardinals signed him and placed him with the Rochester Red Wings the following spring.
Before Wilks began his professional baseball career, he married Fulton resident Sophie Bok in 1936. They had two daughters, Diane and Jeanine. Ted worked at the Oswego Falls power plant in Fulton in the offseason. The Wilkses stayed close to their roots until the late 1940s when they moved to Houston, where Wilks had played for three seasons a few years earlier.
Already 22 years old when he pitched in his first professional game for Rochester, Wilks spent six long years in the minors before he made his big-league debut in 1944. The Cardinals had an extensive farm system during the 1930s with more than 20 affiliated teams (peaking with 31 in 1940) and stockpiled pitchers. It was common for hurlers to spend five, six, or even seven years waiting for an opportunity on the big-league club. Used primarily in relief with the Red Wings in 1938, Wilks was reassigned in midseason to the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League.
Between 1939 and 1941 the Buffaloes were widely considered to be among the best teams in Texas League history, winning 97, 105, and 103 games respectively. Led by manager Eddie Dyer, the teams boasted such future Cardinals standouts as Al Brazle, Harry Brecheen, Murry Dickson, Howie Krist, Fred Martin, Howie Pollet, and Ernie White. Wilks responded to Dyer’s nurturing and developed into a durable starter capable of intermittent relief appearances. Never the ace of the Buffaloes’ staff, Wilks was remarkably consistent, posting successive records of 14-15, 13-10, and 20-10 while averaging 227 innings and notching an earned-run average of between 2.50 and 2.60 in all three years. Wilks distinguished himself with his uncanny control, walking just 41 batters in 248 innings in 1941.
Promoted along with Dyer to the Columbus Red Birds in the American Association in 1942, Wilks played second fiddle to Brecheen and Red Munger. Versatile, he won 12 times, started 20 of 32 games, and posted the league’s second best ERA (2.41). He concluded the season by winning the title-clinching game, 4-2, over the Syracuse Chiefs in the Junior World Series.
In 1943 Wilks was invited to the Cardinals spring training, held in Cairo, Illinois, due to wartime travel restrictions. Though St. Louis had recently lost general manager Branch Rickey to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team was fresh off a franchise-record 106 wins and a World Series triumph, and boasted an excellent pitching staff that had established a major-league record for the lowest team ERA (2.55) the previous year. Wilks was reassigned to Columbus, where he developed into a staff ace for the first time. He won a team-high 16 games, posted a 2.66 ERA, and logged 240 innings (second-most in the league), and led the Red Birds to their third consecutive Junior World Series championship (under their third different skipper) by hurling a six-hit shutout against Syracuse in the opening game.
Despite Wilks’s success, he was not invited to the Cardinals’ spring training in 1944 for fear that he would soon be drafted. After he was classified 4-F (physically unfit for the military) because of chronic stomach ulcers, he reported to St. Louis one day after the season began to shore up a staff that had lost Brazle, Dickson, Krist, and White to the service. Wilks debuted on April 25 in mop-up duty against the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field, pitching a scoreless final inning in a 10-3 loss. Five days later he made his first big-league start and won it, 7-5, pitching a complete game and yielding 11 hits to the Chicago Cubs at Sportsman’s Park.
After pitching primarily out of the bullpen in May and June, Wilks got his chance when Red Munger, arguably the NL’s hottest pitcher at the time, was called to the military in July. In the last three months of the season, Wilks had the best stretch in his pitching career. He made 18 starts, relieved in five games, won 14 of 17 decisions, had 15 complete games, and posted a 2.67 ERA in 167 innings. As the Cardinals won 26 of 33 in July to take a commanding lead in the pennant race, Wilks won all six of his starts; all were complete games. On July 8 he blanked the Boston Braves on four hits for his first career shutout. Two starts later he pitched 11 innings to defeat the New York Giants.
Wilks got the scare of his life on August 6 in Cincinnati when Steve Mesner’s liner struck him above the right ear and bounced an estimated 40 feet in the air. As Wilks fell unconscious to the mound, third baseman (and roommate) Whitey Kurowski caught the ball. Wilks spent the night in a hospital for observation but was ready for his next start. (It happened again three years later. In Brooklyn, when rookie pitcher Harry Taylor smashed a liner that hit Wilks in the jaw and knocked him out.) Wilks was apparently unfazed by the incident in Cincinnati and returned to win five consecutive decisions, including two three-hitters in a row. The second, a shutout against the Reds at Sportsman’s Park, was Wilks’s 11th consecutive victory, the season’s longest NL winning streak. In leading the Cardinals to their third consecutive NL pennant, Wilks finished the season with a 17-4 record and a 2.64 ERA. Along with 21-game winner Bill Voiselle of the Giants, Wilks was hailed as the best rookie pitcher in the league.
Wilks’s success was attributed to his ability to throw from different angles and deliveries, making his pitches seem faster and bewildering. He used primarily an overhand-to-three-quarters delivery, but dropped to a sidearm and occasionally a submarine delivery to right-handers. “He’s a lot faster than you think,” said manager Billy Southworth. “[He] has a sneaky fast one and he throws both a side-arm and overhand curve.”v Wilks had a deceptive changeup and used a sinkerball to lefties.vi As he progressed in his career, he relied more on his sinker and good control than his fastball.
Wilks drew the starting assignment in Game Three of the 1944 “Trolley World Series” against the St. Louis Browns. In his worst start of the season, he lasted just 2⅔ innings, surrendered five hits, issued four walks, and gave up four runs in a 6-2 loss. He had his revenge in Game Six. In relief of a tiring Max Lanier with runners on second and third base and one out in the sixth inning in a 3-1 game, Wilks retired 11 consecutive batters and struck out pinch-hitter Mike Chartak for the final, Series-clinching out.
Wilks’s second season with St. Louis started out bad and got worse. He had been embroiled in a contract dispute with the Cardinals’ notoriously penny-pinching owner, Sam Breadon, in the offseason, then had elbow problems at the beginning of the season. He tossed a shutout in his second start, but needed six or seven days between appearances to recuperate. Shut down after an ineffective start on July 15, Wilks pitched just twice more and finished his sophomore campaign with a disappointing 4-7 record in 98⅓ innings. His stellar 2.93 ERA suggested his potential, but his future was in jeopardy. In the offseason, the team physician, Dr. Robert Hyland, operated on Wilks’s elbow to remove bone chips.
Wilks had good reason to believe he could recover from elbow surgery. Cardinals star right-hander Mort Cooper had the same operation in 1941 and developed into one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. But Wilks labored in his first three starts of the 1946 season and complained of discomfort. His mentor, Eddie Dyer, had been named the Cardinals’ new pilot and converted Wilks into a reliever. Wilks prospered in his new role, posting a 2.44 ERA compared with a 7.64 ERA in 17⅔ innings as a starter. His 8-0 record gave him the NL’s longest winning streak for the second time in three years (tied with Kirby Higbe). All eight victories were in relief, and Wilks made just three more starts among 291 appearances in his last seven years in the majors. For the second time in two years, Wilks and the Cardinals won the World Series. In his only appearance in the Series, Wilks pitched the final frame of the loss to the Boston Red Sox in Game Three, surrendering two hits and being charged with an unearned run.
Cardinals manager Dyer had the reputation of sticking with his former players through tough times and it was no different with Wilks. After a promising season in 1946, Wilks suffered through a pain-filled 1947, logging just 50⅓ innings in 37 relief appearances. A handful of dreadful outings bloated his ERA to 5.01. Still, he posted his second consecutive undefeated season (4-0) and ran his personal winning streak to 12 games.
Throughout his professional career, Wilks battled his weight and was often described as chunky or husky. He reported to spring training in 1948 in the best shape of his life, having shed a reported 40 pounds, much of it from his chest and shoulders to improve his flexibility and put less pressure on his arm.vii Wilks credited his physical transformation to refereeing basketball games in Houston after moving with his family in the offseason.
Wilks enjoyed the reputation of a “game-saving relief ace” and one of baseball’s highest-paid relief specialists in 1948 and 1949.viii He had the perfect temperament for a reliever. Durable and strong in the heat of the St. Louis summer, he possessed a rubber arm and could warm up quickly and pitch effectively on consecutive days. “I made up my mind,” said Wilks, “that if I couldn’t be a starting pitcher, I’d be the best relief pitcher anybody ever saw.”ix Wilks was fearless on the mound and was not deterred by an occasional poor outing. Possessing excellent control of all four of his pitches (fastball, changeup, curve, and sinker), he had as his motto “get the ball over” and let the fielders do their job.x “He just poured the ball over the plate, making sure he had plenty on the ball,” Stan Musial wrote of Wilks, adding, “I don’t know of a better pitching philosophy for a short-order man coming in from the bullpen.”xi
Teammates began calling Wilks “The Cork,” in reference to all of the opponents’ rallies he stopped. Catcher Joe Garagiola supposedly gave him the well-suited nickname. His 1.91 ERA for the first half of the 1948 earned him a bid to the All-Star Game as the batting practice pitcher (the practice of selecting relievers to the All-Star Game was not yet de rigueur). In a two-week stretch after the All-Star Game Wilks made eight appearances and logged 28⅔ innings, prompting Dyer to comment, “Without Ted, we’d be battling now to hold fifth or sixth place.”xii For the second-place Cardinals, Wilks had arguably his best season, making 57 appearances (second most in the league), logging 130⅔ innings and saving 13 games (still an unofficial statistic at the time). He posted a career-best 2.62 ERA and his 156 ERA+ (a metric that compares a pitcher’s ERA to the league’s ERA and adjusts for ballpark factors) was also a career-high.
The Sporting News described Wilks as the “best relief pitcher in baseball” during a dominating stretch in midsummer (26 games, 51? innings, and a 1.75 ERA) as the Cardinals overcame a poor start to the 1949 season to take the lead in the pennant race.xiii But the Cardinals cooled off and lost the pennant to the Dodgers in the last week of the season. Dyer leaned heavily on Wilks throughout September, but the stocky right-hander struggled, posting a 7.29 ERA over his final 12 appearances. Suffering from bone spurs in his right heel requiring offseason surgery and a reoccurrence of elbow tenderness, Wilks literally limped to a 10-3 record, made a league-high (and Cardinals record) 59 appearances, led the league with nine saves, and logged 118 innings.xiv
Wilks was sidelined for most of the 1950 season with his second elbow operation to remove bone chips and logged only 24⅓ innings for the Redbirds. The club’s fifth-place finish was its worst since 1938, and Dyer was fired. In the offseason, Wilks and fellow Houston residents Red Munger and Howie Pollet engaged in a heated holdout. Wilks balked at the Cardinals’ offer of a “provisional $1 contract” under which his salary would be determined by his effectiveness in spring training.xv With no leverage and no alternatives, Wilks ultimately signed the provisional contract and had a productive spring, thus securing a salary commensurate with that of the previous season. With the ascent of rubber-armed Al Brazle as the primary reliever in new skipper Marty Marion’s bullpen, Wilks was expendable. On June 15 at the trading deadline, the Cardinals sent Wilks along with infielder Dick Cole, catcher Joe Garagiola, outfielder Bill Howerton, and pitcher Howie Pollet to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Cliff Chambers and utilityman Wally Westlake.
Wilks’s season and a half with the Pirates combined personal success and disappointing team failure. New general manager Branch Rickey desperately needed relief help, which Wilks immediately provided for manager Billy Meyer. Wilks worked in 48 of the team’s 99 games after the trade (a pace that would have established a record for pitching appearances) and finished the season with a league-high 65 appearances and a 2.86 ERA, and led the league in saves again with 13. In the second game of a doubleheader against the Cubs on Labor Day, Wilks got a rare starting assignment, his last in the majors. He pitched a complete game to earn the win, 4-3, in a game called after seven innings because of darkness. The following season, the Pirates were on their way to one of the worst seasons in big-league history (ultimately finishing at 42-112) when Wilks was dealt with utilityman George Strickland to the Cleveland Indians in a waiver wire transaction on August 18, 1952, for utilityman Johnny Berardino and $50,000.
Wilks’s brief tenure with the Indians was a bitter lesson in patience and frustration. Skipper Al Lopez relied heavily on his starting quartet (Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn, and Bob Feller), and anticipated that “The Cork” would be the effective fireman the team needed during the pennant race with the Yankees. Wilks made five appearances in his first ten days with the club, but pitched only twice in September as the starters completed 17 of the team’s first 22 games of the month.
After making just four appearances for the Indians in 1953, Wilks was unceremoniously placed on waivers in August, two months shy of completing his tenth year in the big leagues and qualifying for a full pension. Al Lopez claimed that he had kept Wilks on the roster as long as possible; however, when Ray Narleski, a relief pitcher for Indianapolis, Cleveland’s farm team in the American Association, landed on the disabled list, Wilks was needed as his replacement.xvi Understandably angry, Wilks initially refused to report to Indianapolis, but then realized that he might be able to parlay success in the American Association into a two-month stint on a major-league roster and thereby secure a full pension. But he never made it back to the major leagues. He had a lifetime record of 59-30, made 385 appearances, and posted a 3.26 ERA.
With the market for a 38-year-old reliever limited, Wilks transitioned into coaching. He was a player-coach for Indianapolis Indians in 1954 and 1955 and was widely credited with helping Herb Score develop into a star. Wilks’s active pitching career ended in May 1956 after a brief stint as player-coach for the Austin Senators in the Double-A Texas League.
After three years in the Milwaukee Braves organization as pitching coach for the Wichita Braves and Louisville Colonels of the American Association, Wilks’s return to the big leagues as pitching coach of the Cleveland Indians was marred by an ugly incident with pitcher Mudcat Grant. Wilks and Grant got into an altercation on September 16 during the singing of the national anthem.xvii Wilks objected to the way Grant altered the song, making reference to lack of freedoms for African Americans. In the ensuing argument, Wilks uttered a racial slur after which Grant left the park without permission and was subsequently suspended. After serving as pitching coach for the Kansas City Athletics in 1961, Wilks retired from baseball.
With his wife, Sophie, and their two children, Wilks returned to his adopted hometown of Houston in retirement. An avid fisherman and hunter, Wilks gradually drifted away from baseball, though he participated in occasional reunions with the Cardinals and the Houston Buffaloes. In 1978 Wilks retired from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. After a short illness, he died on August 21, 1989, in Houston at the age of 73. He was buried in Forest Park East Cemetery in Webster, Texas.
New York Times
The Sporting News
Ted Wilks player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York
i The Sporting News, April 5, 1950, 37.
ii The Sporting News, September 7, 1944, 5.
iv “Ted Wilksof Fulton is New Backbone Hurler of Great Houston Mound Staff,” Syracuse Herald-American, May 25, 1941, 3.
v Tim Cohane, “Wilks Hurls in Series,” undated article in Ted Wilks player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.
vi Clifford Bloodgood, “Ted Wilks Goes on Relief,” Baseball Magazine, October 1949, 371.
vii The Sporting News, August 25, 1948, 11.
viii The Sporting News, August 11, 1948, 6.
ix The Sporting News, August 25, 1948, 11.
x The Sporting News, April 5, 1950, 32.
xi Quoted from Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches (New York: Fireside, 2004), 425.
xii The Sporting News, August 25, 1948, 11.
xiii The Sporting News, August 3, 1949, 3.
xiv The Sporting News, November 23, 1949, 9.
xv The Sporting News, February 14, 1951, 17.
xvi The Sporting News, August 19, 1953, 21.
xvii The Sporting News, September 28, 1960, 28.