St. Louis Cardinals Blast from the Past – Ted Wilks

photo: Ted Wilks

In this week’s St. Louis Cardinals Blast from the Past, we remember a pitcher who was a late bloomer, but after an arm injury ended his starting career, he turned into one of the best relief pitchers in the National League.

Theodore (Ted) Wilks was born on November 13, 1915 in Fulton, New York, the middle child of three born to Thomas and Rekla Wilks.  The Wilks were polish immigrants and made a living working in a local factory. Ted and his family lived in factory-owned housing and were of modest means.

Ted Wilks

Ted attended Fulton High School and pitched for his school’s baseball team.  When his parents became ill, Ted had to quit school after two years to help support the family.  Wilks didn’t quit baseball, however, and pitched for a local semipro team.  His coach was a former catcher from the New York Yankees 1926 team named Honey Barnes.  Barnes helped Ted learn to pitch with more speed and better control.

In 1937 Wilks went to a tryout camp for the Rochester Red Wings of the American Association, an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.  The Cardinals signed him, and he played for the Red Wings in the spring of 1938.  Wilks was 22 years old.

Wilks was assigned to the Houston Buffaloes mid-season in 1938.  He was primarily a relief pitcher at that time.  Ted pitched in Houston until 1942, and was known for consistency and remarkable control.

Wilks was promoted to the Columbus Red Wings in 1942 and posted the league’s second best ERA of 2.41 and won 12 games.  Ted was invited to St. Louis’ spring training camp in 1943 but was sent back to Columbus to start the season.

Ted was not invited to spring camp in 1944, but when the Cardinals lost several pitchers to the war, Wilks was called up as a replacement. He had been designated 4-F by the military as unfit for service because of chronic stomach ulcers.  He made his major league debut on April 25, 1944 at the age of 28 as a reliever in a 10-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.  Ted made his first start five days later, pitching a complete game in a 7-5 win over the Chicago Cubs in Sportsman’s Park.

Wilks pitched out of the bullpen for the next two months, but again got his chance to start when Red Munger was called for military service in July.  He made 18 starts, of which 15 were complete games, and won 14.  He posted an ERA of 2.67 in 167 innings.  On August 6, a line drive struck Wilks in the ear and bounced 40 feet in the air.  Teammate Whitey Kurowski caught the ball.  Ted spent the night in the hospital but was back for his next start.  He ended the 1944 season with a 17-4 record and a 2.64 ERA, tying Giants pitcher Bill Voiselle as the best rookie pitcher in the league.

Wilks’ second season started badly and ended worse. He developed elbow problems early and was effectively shut down midseason.  In the offseason, Ted had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

Wilks did not bounce back from surgery as he had hoped.  His first few starts were poor and he complained of discomfort.  At that point, new manager Eddie Dyer decided to convert Wilks to a reliever. In 1946, Ted posted an 8-0 record, the NL’s longest winning streak that season.  The Cardinals won the World Series – the second time in two years.  Wilks made only one appearance in the Series, in the Game Three loss to the Red Sox.

Ted pitched only 50 1/3 innings in 1947, as his elbow discomfort returned.  In the offseason, Wilks lost 40 pounds and reported to spring camp in the best shape of his life.  The lost weight, mostly in his upper half, put less pressure on his arm.  He posted a record of 6-6 with a career best ERA of 2.62 in 57 appearances in 1948.  His 1.91 ERA in the first half earned him an invitation to the All-Star Game.

In 1949, Ted led the league in saves with nine (saves was an unofficial stat at that time).  Catcher Joe Garagiola is credited with giving Wilks his nickname “The Cork”, a nod to all the rallies he stopped.  The Sporting News dubbed Ted “the best reliever in baseball” during a dominating stretch in the middle of 1949.  The season didn’t end as well, as he suffered bone spurs in his right heel, requiring offseason surgery, and a recurrence of elbow issues.

Another surgery for bone chips left Ted on the sidelines for most of the 1950 season.  Wilks began the 1951 season on a provisional contract with the Cardinals, and on June 15, was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates along with Garagiola, infielder Dick Cole, outfielder Bill Howerton, and pitcher Howie Pollet.  The Cardinals received pitcher Cliff Chambers and utility player Wally Westlake in return.

Wilks again topped the league in saves in 1951 with 13. He also made a league-leading 65 appearances and posted a 2.86 ERA.  In 1952, the Pirates were well on their way to one of the worst seasons in major league history (finishing with a record of 42-112 eventually) and Wilks was traded on August 18 to the Cleveland Indians.  Ted made only seven appearances with the Indians in 1952, and four in 1953.  He was placed on waivers in August 1953, two months short of qualifying for a full pension.  He was sent to the Indians’ Indianapolis farm team, where he finished the season.  Ted never made it back to the major leagues.

Wilks became a player-coach for Indianapolis in 1954 and 1955.  His pitching career ended in 1956 after a stint as player-coach for the Austin Senators of the Texas League.  He continued to coach with various clubs until 1961, when he retired from baseball.

Ted returned to his family, wife Sophie and two children, in Houston, where they had lived since the late 1940s.  He got a job with the Harris County Sheriff’s office and he retired again in 1978.  Wilks passed away on August 21, 1989 at the age of 73.

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