December 2015

Thinking of Mr. Earl

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Earl Wilson and Pumpsie Green, 1959

(Courtesy of Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones collection)

One of the cool things about working here is that when you are assigned an office, the Sox send Chris Knight, the young guy who is the coordinator of office operations, to pay you a visit. He does not come empty-handed. Chris goes first to a storage area where the Sox keep all this amazing stuff–photos, banners, pennants and other memorabilia–that isn’t being used elsewhere in the park, and offers it for use in your office. Then he asks if you might have any special requests, and eventually arranges for a magician with an unerring eye, Brian Zink, to place the pictures as if they had organically grown in the spaces he chooses.

That’s how, when I come to work, I’m greeted by the beaming face of Pedro Martinez,  basking in the joy of his Hall of Fame induction; more than a dozen teen-agers hanging from a billboard outside Fenway during Game 1 of the ’67 Series; Ted Williams, saw in hand, posing with the workers constructing the new bullpens that were nicknamed “Williamsburg”; Mo Vaughn at the plate, with a Yankee catcher rising to his feet to watch the ball take flight; a signed photo by the great Stan Grossfeld of an upended Torii Hunter and the celebrating cop in the Sox bullpen; Bruce Springsteen, a personal favorite (which seems to run rampant among ballwriters of a certain age), playing in front of the Monster; and a panoramic shot of the 100th Opening Day at Fenway, which also hung in the office of my predecessor as Sox historian, Dick Bresciani.

 

Rounding out my personal space is a poster I brought from home of Winston Churchill, in bowtie and with pointed finger, accompanied by the motto, “Deserve Victory!,” stripped across the bottom; and a 1943 photo of a jaunty Ted Williams lighting a cigar for Babe Ruth prior to a wartime charities game at Braves Field.

But it is the photo that hangs above my desk, and you see at the top of this missive, that I call to your attention, especially in these days after the Red Sox made David Price the highest-paid player in the team’s history.

On the left is pitcher Earl Wilson. To his right is Pumpsie Green, the infielder who was the first African-American player to make it to the big leagues in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line. Green played his first game on July 21, 1959. A week later, Wilson pitched an inning of relief in a 5-2 loss to the Indians, becoming the first African-American pitcher in Sox history. Three years later, on June 26, 1962, in Fenway Park against the Los Angeles Angels, the right-hander became the first African-American in American League history to throw a no-hitter. It came in only his 23d big-league start. Owner Tom Yawkey gave him a $1,000 bonus, and was quoted as saying, “I am more excited now than I was during Mel Parnell’s no-hitter, as Wilson is just arriving at what could be a brilliant career.”

Since 1960, 150 pitchers have made 10 or more starts for the Red Sox. Five have been African-Americans: Tom Gordon, Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, Ferguson Jenkins, Lynn McGlothen and Wilson. David Price becomes the sixth. Jenkins was from Canada. The rest were sons of the deep South: Wilson and McGlothen from Louisiana, Boyd from Mississippi, Gordon from Florida. Price is from Murfreesboro, Tenn., the farthest point north excluding Chatham, Ontario, where Jenkins was born.

If you were empowered to choose each of these pitchers at their best, you’d have had the makings of quite a staff. Jenkins, of course, is in the Hall of Fame, a 20-game winner seven times, including six consecutive seasons. In 1971, when he won 24 games for the Cubs and posted a 2.77 ERA, he threw 30 complete games. The average big-league team in 2015 had three complete games; Cleveland led the majors with 11.

Gordon went 17-9 with a 3.64 ERA in 1989 for the Royals and finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. McGlothen was an All-Star for the Cardinals in 1974, when he went 16-12 with a 2.69 ERA. The Can was at his best in ’86, when he went 16-9 with a 3.78 ERA and walked just 45 batters in 214 1/3 innings.

Wilson? His best years came after he was traded by the Sox in 1966 for outfielder Don Demeter, who was hitting a scant .212 at the time of the deal and would be out of baseball a year later. Traded in mid-June, Wilson reeled off a 13-6 record and career-best 2.59 in 23 starts for the Tigers the rest of that season, then won 22 games for the Tigers in 1967, tying Jim Lonborg of the Sox and Mike McCormick of the Giants for the major-league lead. And he was one of the great hitting pitchers in big-league history, blasting 35 home runs in just 740 at-bats. That’s only three home runs off the record for a pitcher, and Wes Ferrell hit his 38 in 1,176 at-bats.

It’s one of the great what-if questions in Sox history. Had the Sox held onto Wilson, would he have paired with Lonborg to form a combination that even the Cardinals and the great Bob Gibson would not have beaten in the ’67 Series?

But Wilson, in one of those racially charged episodes that too often defined the course charted by the Sox, had been denied service in a nightspot during spring training in 1966, the first spring the Sox spent in Winter Haven, Fla., after training in Scottsdale, Ariz. The club, according to Wilson, asked him to remain quiet about the episode.

“That was a real trip,” Wilson told MLB.com much later. “I’ll never forget (GM) Dick O’Connell told me not to do anything or say anything that would hurt me. Of course, me being me, I opened my big mouth and started talking about it. It was probably the best thing I ever did, because…they traded me to Detroit.”

Detroit, he discovered, was a place in which he could feel at home. “When I first got to Detroit,” he said, “it was the first time I had seen black folks with their own homes, own businesses, their own cars.”

After finishing his big-league career in San Diego, Wilson returned to Detroit, which became his permanent home. He may have been a pioneer in Boston, but he was a figure who commanded respect in Detroit. His final years before his death at age 70 were spent as president of the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which provides financial assistance to former players, scouts and other baseball figures.

“He taught me it’s more important what you do outside the field than what you do on it,” former Tiger star Willie Horton told the Detroit Free Press at the time of Wilson’s death.

Fifty-six years after Earl Lawrence Wilson made it to the Sox, David Price arrives, as a fully formed ace, heralded as a great teammate, rewarded with the largest contract in team history. Circumstances, surely, that Wilson and his contemporaries could never have conjured in their wildest imagination.  The respect is built-in, the love almost surely to follow. This is a town primed to celebrate David Price and embrace him as one of its own.

But for the man who took the first steps of this journey, there should always be a place. For me, it’s a space on an office wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sensitivity to a number

 

Dwight Evans Waves to Crowd

Dwight Evans, No. 24  (Courtesy of the Boston Red Sox)

 

On Friday afternoon in the Royal Rooters Club at Fenway Park, Red Sox owners John W. Henry and Tom Werner flanked David Price as they presented the ace with his new uniform, bearing the number 24. Throughout his career, Price had always worn the No. 14, first with Tampa Bay and subsequently with Detroit and Toronto, but that number, of course, adorns the facade of the right-field grandstand in Fenway Park, having been retired after being worn by Hall of Famer Jim Rice.

Earlier in the week, Sox president Sam Kennedy placed a phone call to Dwight Evans, who had worn No. 24 from his first full season in the big leagues with the Sox, 1973, until his retirement from baseball at age 39 in 1991, after his only season with the Baltimore Orioles.

Evans is regarded as one of the greatest right-fielders in Red Sox history, and among the best in the history of the game, but unlike Rice, his Hall of Fame candidacy on the writers’ ballot evaporated quickly. He was dropped from the ballot after drawing just 3.6 percent of the vote in 1999, his third year of eligibility.

The Sox did not give out his number until 1996, when they assigned it to outfielder Kevin Mitchell. Outfielder Shane Mack wore it the following season, and Mike Stanley claimed it from 1998-2000 before Manny Ramirez arrived from Cleveland and wore it from 2001 until he was dealt to the Dodgers at the July 31 trading deadline in 2008. The last player to wear No. 24 for the Sox was relief pitcher Takashi Saito in 2009. After that, the number was taken out of circulation.

There remains a sliver’s chance of future Hall consideration for Evans, who hit more home runs in the ’80s than any player in the American League (256), is one of 13 outfielders all-time to win eight or more Gold Gloves (Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente had 12 apiece) and had a career OPS+ of 127 equal to Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and higher than 73 other Hall of Famers, including Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Ron Santo, George Sisler, Kirby Puckett, Craig Biggio and Robin Yount.

But Evans has not appeared on the ballots for voting by the Expansion Era committee, which in 2014 elected three managers–Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre–while passing on players Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Dave Parker, Dan Quisenberry, and Ted Simmons–and which will not vote again until 2017.

It’s likely that Ramirez, who retired from Major League Baseball in 2011 and whose first year of Hall eligibility is 2017, will receive more support for his Hall candidacy than Evans did. Ramirez’s connection to PEDs is likely to prove as great a detriment to his chances for election as it has been for Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens, unless there is a quantum shift in how voters perceive players who used, or are suspected of using, PEDs.

Still, given what Evans has meant to the Red Sox, Kennedy felt it was only right to give Evans a call and let him know that the club had granted Price’s wish to wear his old number. Evans accepted the news graciously, Kennedy said, though it was not an easy call to make.

“Dwight is one of our most beloved alums,” Kennedy said, “and we wanted to be sure he was OK with David’s request for No. 24.  He could not have been more gracious.  He appreciated the call and said:  ‘Be sure David knows he needs to put on that No. 24 and go out and win us a World Series!”

Dewey Evans played at a time when he was overshadowed by illustrious teammates–Yaz and Rice and Clemens, Fred Lynn and Wade Boggs–but his body of work over two decades is something that will long be cherished by Sox fans, even if his number does not look down upon the field on which he excelled for so long.