It was nine years ago that Robert Earl Wilson passed away at the age of 70. He died suddenly of a heart attack at his home in Detroit Michigan. He was known primarily as a member of the 1968 World Champion Detroit Tigers and that is as it should be, for it was with the Tigers that he had his best years and it was the city of Detroit where his huge heart found its home. However before he made his way to Detroit in 1966; that huge heart touched the heart of a little boy in Weymouth Massachusetts. A little boy who fell in love with Red Sox pitcher Earl Wilson, the pitcher who hit home runs!
He was signed on May 11, 1953 only the second black player to be employed by the Boston Red Sox organization. Originally a catcher, his rifle arm peaked immediate interest in converting him to the mound. By the end of 1954 and after two stops at the Class C level in the Arizona Texas League, and a short stint with the San Jose Red Sox in the California League, he settled in with the Class A Montgomery Rebels of the South Atlantic League. He was exclusively a pitcher and he was 20 years old.
From 1956 -1961 his minor league journey took him through; Albany NY, Minneapolis, Seattle and two stops with the Red Sox. When the Red Sox broke Spring Training from Scottsdale Arizona in April of 1962, Earl Wilson was in the major leagues to stay!
My earliest baseball memories are a mosaic of images; some more vivid than others. The first trip to Fenway where Dad pointed to left field and stated with reverence, “that’s left field and that’s where Ted Williams plays”. I still smell the cigar smoke wafting across the diamond. I rooted hard for the White Sox in the 1959 World Series because those dastardly Dodgers had abandoned the good people of Brooklyn. I was in the chair at Tom’s Barbershop while Bill Mazeroski rounded the bases in triumph after slaying the mighty Yankees with the homer that ended the 1960 World Series. Leaping with a scream of joy nearly cost me an ear.
As vivid as each of these are, they remain but snippets of a tapestry of yesterdays. My first memory of a complete nine innings of baseball involved, my Red Sox, my dad, my living room, my black and white TV and the mighty Robert Earl Wilson. The date was June 26, 1962. School had just ended and I was promoted to Mrs. Lenihan’s fifth grade classroom at the James Humphrey School. Summer had officially arrived and the confirmation of that was that the Red Sox were going to be on TV! This may seem like no big deal today, however, a televised night game during the week was a rarity and I was excited at the prospect. With school out it meant that I would get to stay up and watch the whole game. Make no mistake about it, Christmas had come in June!
A summer rain threatened to melt my early Christmas, but it only delayed the start by a half hour. I was shooting hoops on the makeshift basket on the telephone pole in front of my house when dad called me in, “game time” he said and I was gone! The sweet fragrance of that summer rain remains with me as I see myself bounding up the front stairs and into my living room.
The Sox were playing the Angels who were sending the flamboyant rookie lefthander Bo Belinsky to the hill. Belinsky had exploded on the scene six weeks earlier when he hurled a no hitter on May 5th against the Orioles! Belinsky entered the game with a 6-3 record while Wilson was 5-2. It had all the earmarks of a pitcher’s duel and a little over 14,000 fans showed up at Fenway to see it. One of the largest crowds of the year!
The first two innings went quick as each pitcher walked a man in the second. It was 0-0 with one out, in the bottom half of the third, when Earl Wilson strolled to the plate. He took a hardy cut at the first pitch and missed. The next fast ball he launched into the blackness of the night clear over the screen in left centerfield giving his team and himself a 1-0 lead. It was his second home run of the year and of his career but the true significance of that home run was six innings from being realized.
It was the only run that he would need as one Angel after another came up and went down. He walked two men in the fifth and one in the sixth. The Sox added an unearned run in the fifth on an RBI single by right fielder Carroll Hardy. Belinsky was nearly as formidable, striking out 10 and allowing only three hits before departing in the eighth for a pinch hitter. Following Wilson’s walk of Billy Moran with one out in the sixth, an Angel had not reached base and when the ninth inning arrived, Earl Wilson stood on the threshold of history.
Moran led off and down he went, Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner flied out to Yastrzemski in left field and only Lee Thomas stood between Wilson and immortality. Thomas lofted a fly ball to centerfield and as that ball nestled into the glove of Gary Geiger, the 14,002 members of the Fenway faithful erupted. So did the living room at 57 Endicott Street, for Earl Wilson had fired a no hitter!
Wilson was the 12th Red Sox pitcher to throw a no hitter. He was only the second pitcher in Major League history (Wes Ferrell 1931) to throw a no hitter and hit a home run in the same game. And he was the first black pitcher in American League history to pitch a no hitter. All of that was unknown to the nine year old boy in the living room. All he knew is that Earl Wilson was AWESOME!!!!
It was a half century ago that Wilson spun his magic in the Fenway night yet the significance of that night, his career and indeed his life has grown in stature with each passing year, unveiled by history and embolden by his character.
His impact upon the game of baseball went far beyond his no hitter. In 1965 he hired Bob Woolf, a Boston attorney, to represent him in contract negotiations with the Red Sox. He was the first professional athlete to hire “an agent” both changing the face of professional sports and launching Woolf on a career which made him the most sought after agent throughout the decade of the 1970s.
Wilson endured the prejudice, discrimination and hatred ever present throughout his journey through the minor leagues in the 1950s. An incident which occurred in the spring of 1966 would stretch his tolerance to the limit and take him to his ultimate destiny. Following a spring training game in Lakeland Florida, Wilson along with teammates Dave Moorhead and Dennis Bennett entered the local Elks Club for a beer. The trio was immediately informed by the bar tender that “we don’t serve niggers in here”. The three of them left the premises and when the Boston press got word and wrote of the incident, Wilson was told by Red Sox GM Dick O’Connell to not “make an issue of it”. A man of dignity and pride, Wilson was not happy that the Red Sox did not come to his aid and defense. He expressed that disappointment and before the June 15 trade deadline he was on his way to Detroit, exchanged for outfielder Don Demeter and pitcher Julio Navarro.
The Tigers and Wilson were a perfect match. Wilson fell in love with the city and the city and the Tigers fell in love with him; and why not? From the time he arrived until his arm failed him in 1970; Wilson was 64-45 with Detroit including a league leading 22 wins in 1967. He was a mainstay on the staff which won the 1968 World Series and he continued to hit. He finished his career with 35 home runs. Warren Spahn is the only pitcher who hit more. Oh, and as for Demeter and Navarro? Wilson hit more home runs for the Tigers than Demeter did for the Red Sox and Navarro never threw a pitch in a Boston uniform.
After baseball he founded a very successful auto parts distributorship in Detroit. The humanity that was Earl Wilson would manifest itself long after his playing days ended when he served four years as president of the Baseball Assistance Team. BAT is an organization which aids former players who have fallen upon hard financial times. During his tenure as BAT’s president he raised over $4,000,000 to assist his comrades. Beyond that he was a constant force in countless charities and charitable events throughout Michigan and beyond.
On April 23, 2005 Earl Wilson was at his home in Michigan when a heart attack struck him down. That huge heart had simply had enough and in a matter of an instant, he was gone. His passing brought accolades from the many who knew him. Willie Horton said “one of the great teammates I had…and a greater individual.”
Earl’s resume speaks for itself. However nowhere on that resume will it tell about the 12 year old boy who approached him at a “Sports Night” at East Junior High School in Weymouth Massachusetts. Looking up at the elegant “Duke of Earl” clad in a “shiny” gray suit with a powder blue shirt and a gray tie; the page of his 1965 Red Sox Yearbook opened to Wilson’s picture, He asked, “Mr. Wilson could I please have your autograph?” “You sure can” he said as he signed, creating a moment and a memory which, like Wilson, grows in stature with the passage of time into that unrelenting veil of history.