Thinking of Mr. Earl
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.