In 1961, his first full season, broke in with a three-hit shutout in which he fanned 14. He went on to lead the Sally League with 23 complete games, 230 innings pitched, 161 strikeouts and an earned run average of 1.80. In 1962, pitching for Omaha, he led the league with 32 starts, 19 complete games, 243 innings and 18 wins. Moving to Spokane in 1963, he was called up in mid-season after pitching six straight wins, three of them shutouts, and gave up only six runs over his final 31 innings while striking out 38.
With the Dodgers he opened with a five-hit shutout on June 16 over the Cubs, winning 2-0. He then lost a tough, 2-1 decision to the Cardinals and beat the Reds 3-1, helping the Dodgers to the 1963 National League pennant. He did not pitch in the World Series sweep of the Yankees.
In 1964 he pitched most of the season at Albuquerque, then went 2-4 with a 3.71 ERA in Los Angeles. Late in the year he was sold to Washington. He was repurchased by the Dodgers in May of 1965 and, tuning up at Spokane, pitched a one-hit shutout over Oklahoma City. When relief ace Jim Brewer was injured, he rejoined the Dodgers and in his first start he combined with Ron Perranoski to shut out the Phillies.
He pitched in Spokane most of the 1966 season and worked in six games for the Dodgers. After the season he was again traded, this time to the Angels, who then traded him during the 1967 season to the New York Mets. He was out of baseball by age 26, with an overall record of 6-12 and a 4.55 earned-run average.
With all this remarkable talent, you might wonder why his numbers in the Major League were so ordinary and why he was finished at 26.
Dave Anderson, writing in the New York Times, answers that question.
"I was in two other World Series with the Dodgers, but I don't hardly remember them," Nick Willhite told Anderson. "When you're half-loaded, you don't know if you'll be able to perform.
"For 30 years he drank too much. After three divorces, he was without a job, almost without a family. His six children were scattered. His grandchildren shied away from him."
Willhite told him that in October of 1989 he was living in a "filthy little hole" in Salt Lake City. He was 48 years old and realized the opportunity he has thrown away.
"I hadn't made up my mind to commit suicide, but that's how I was thinking," he said. "I had no money, no car, no nothing. I went to my son Monte's office to call some people, figuring I'd never see them again."
He tried to phone his parents but got no answer. The next number was that of Stan Williams, once his Dodger teammate. Williams answered the phone. As they talked, he realized Willhite's desperation and asked him if he had thought about treatment.
Willhite agreed that he needed it.
Williams called BAT, Baseball Assistance Team, and Frank Slocum immediately called Hillhite.
Two days later, Willhite was on his way to entering an alcohol-abuse rehabilitation center in Fort Collins, Colo.
"I literally owe my life to BAT," Willhite told Anderson.
Based in the baseball commissioner's office in New York, BAT is the other side of baseball's big money. If a former ballplayer, a ballplayer's widow or anybody in the baseball family is down on their luck or really wants help dealing with alcohol or drug problems, BAT is there to provide it.
Almost all those helped by BAT have preferred anonymity. But hoping to help others, Willhite told his story, which began in 1959 when he had his first beer at age 18 upon returning from his first season in the Dodger farm system.
"As a boy, I had a learning disability; I couldn't decode the teacher's language," he recalled. "On the ball field natural instinct took over. But that first beer gave me a feeling I never had before. My fear and frustration were over. After that, I drank to get that feeling."
Despite his drinking, Willhite made the Dodgers at age 22, a left-hander with a slinky motion that baffled left-handed hitters.
"If he had Bill White to pitch to all the time," White, the current National League president, recalled, "he'd have never lost a game."
"The worst swing I ever took at a pitch was against Nick Willhite," remembered Rusty Staub, then with the Houston Astros.
After the 1964 season the Dodgers traded him to the Washington Senators, then reacquired him in 1965. After finishing with the Angels and the Mets, he had a reputation for late hours and late arrivals at the ball park, a reputation that followed him as a minor league pitching instructor.
"I blew jobs; I'm not blaming anybody but myself," he said. "I bottomed out after my last divorce."
Shortly after Willhite returned to Salt Lake City following his 30-day rehabilitation, another familiar baseball name, Herman Franks, once the manager of the Giants and Cubs, helped him find his own place.
"I even got my 1963 World Series ring back," Willhite said. "I'd hocked it to a friend of mine when I needed $1,100 to get my car fixed. When Don Newcombe told Peter O'Malley of the Dodgers about how I'd hocked my ring, Peter paid my friend what I owed him."
Nick Willhite also has his family back. His six kids from his three marriages, and his six grandchildren.
Nick Willhite's Dodger record year w-l era gm gs sv in h bb so whip 1963 2-3 3.79 8 8 0 38 44 10 28 1.42 1964 2-4 3.25 10 7 0 44 43 13 24 1.28 1965 2-2 5.36 15 6 1 42 47 22 28 1.64 1966 0-0 2.08 6 0 0 4 3 5 4 1.85 Total 6-9 4.23 39 21 1 128 137 50 84 1.55