WILSON | 1934-2005: Former Tiger dies
Pitched for '68 champs, made mark off field, too
BY GEORGE SIPPLE
When Earl Wilson pitched for the Tigers, he helped young players like Willie Horton.
Years later, Wilson still was helping people in the game as president of the Baseball Assistance Team, which provides financial assistance to former major, minor and Negro leagues players, scouts and others.
"He taught me it's more important what you do outside the field than what you do on it," Horton said Monday.
Wilson, a starting pitcher and able hitter on the 1968 World Series-champion Tigers, died Saturday from a massive heart attack. He was 70.
"One of the great teammates that we had," Horton said. "And not only that, a great individual."
The Tigers held a moment of silence before Monday's game against Minnesota in Wilson's memory.
Wilson came to the Tigers in a trade from the Boston Red Sox in the summer of 1966 and remained with the team until 1970. He led American League pitchers with 22 victories in 1967 and was 13-12 with a 2.85 ERA in 1968. During the Tigers' run to the World Series that year, he hit seven of his 35 career home runs.
His career homers are tied for second all-time among pitchers, two behind Wes Ferrell, according to the Baseball Record Book.
Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell recalled how Wilson would occasionally pinch-hit.
"He was a great hitter," Harwell said. "He started out as a catcher, but they changed him in a hurry. He hit some good home runs at old Tiger Stadium."
Former Tigers catcher Bill Freehan said of Wilson's hitting: "He was probably better than a couple of other guys in the lineup."
After Wilson's career ended at San Diego, he returned to Detroit and eventually founded Autotek Sealants Inc., a Farmington Hills-based automotive supplier that produces sound-reduction products. He was chief executive officer of the company and a suite-holder at Comerica Park.
Horton said there were times he would be watching a game with Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and he would look over to Wilson's suite, and "when he would put his hands up, I'd go see him."
Horton said Wilson was looking forward to the All-Star Game at Comerica Park in July. He was planning to host some of baseball's senior officials.
Jim Martin, the Baseball Assistance Team executive director, said Wilson played a large part in the organization's success. Wilson ended two, two-year terms as BAT's president in January, then became chairman of its grant committee.
"Under his presidency, we went from paying out less than a million dollars in grants to about $1.5 million," Martin said.
In 1999, Wilson contributed a memory to the Free Press book "The Corner: A Century of Memories at Michigan and Trumbull."
Wilson, who was the first black pitcher on the Boston Red Sox, wrote: "Back home in Louisiana I had never seen black people who owned things. When I came to Detroit, I saw people own businesses. They had big homes. Just a lot of things I wasn't accustomed to. I just fell in love with the Tigers and knew this was the place I wanted to be."
Wilson, a native of Ponchatoula, La., went 121-109 with a 3.69 ERA in 11 seasons. He broke into the majors in 1959 with Boston, where he remained until the Red Sox traded him to Detroit. Wilson was 13-6 for the Tigers in 23 starts in 1966.
His best season was 1967, when he went 22-11. He struck out 184 and had a 3.27 ERA. In 1968, he started Game 3 of the World Series, a 7-3 Tigers loss.
Wilson was known for his fastball and slider, and some hitters thought he threw something else -- a spitball.
"He'd overthrow his slider, and it would back up and have a rotation like a spitball," said Freehan, who lives in Petoskey.
Sometimes batters would complain to Freehan, who didn't try to explain. "Why should I tell them the truth?" he said. "It was just really a backup slider, and the bottom fell out of it."
Funeral arrangements for Wilson were pending Monday. Survivors include his wife, Roslin; three sons, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
WILSON | 1934-2005:
Tigers mourn loss of 1968 teammate
Pitcher Earl Wilson helped cause with seven home runs in championship year.
DETROIT -- Another player from the 1968 world champions is gone. Earl Wilson has died.
"It happened Saturday," Willie Horton said. "Earl still lived here in Detroit. He was a very private man, but I'd talk to him a lot. I probably talked to him six times last week."
If you remember the 1967-68 Tigers' teams, you remember Earl Wilson, a starting pitcher who often helped his own cause with his hitting.
No pitcher since 1950 has hit more home runs in a season than the seven he hit for the Tigers in 1968.
"He was a strong man," Horton said. "People don't realize Earl was a catcher when he signed. He could hit them a long ways."
Wilson, who was 70, had great moments in his career. Born in Ponchatoula, La., he was the first black player ever signed by the Boston Red Sox -- not the first to play for them, infielder Pumpsie Green was the first to play for them, but the first to sign.
He threw a no-hitter against the Angels for the Red Sox at Fenway Park in 1962. He hit a home run in the same game off Bo Belinsky.
In 1967 when he won 22 games for the Tigers, his best season as a pitcher, he tied Boston's Jim Lonborg for the most victories in the American League.
After his playing career, Wilson remained involved with baseball. He was the longtime president of Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), an organization which helps indigent former players
"This was a shock," Al Kaline said. "The Duke was a good guy, a good teammate. He was a big guy in the community, did a lot of charity work. He did a wonderful job for BAT.
"I remember him as a pitcher who would very much protect his players when he was on the mound. He was very intense. That was his mentality. He'd give you that Bob Gibson impression that he was angry all the time."
Interviewed by MLB.com in 2003, Wilson spoke of the challenges he overcame in his career, including the Red Sox's first spring training in Winter Haven, Fla.
"When we got down there, we went to a restaurant and when I went in, they told me I couldn't come in and be served," Wilson said. "That was a real trip. I'll never forget (former Sox executive) 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 that May or June, they traded me to Detroit.
"When I first got to Detroit," Wilson told MLB.com, "it was the first time I had seen black folks with their own homes, own businesses, their own new cars.
"That was impressive to me. I said, 'I would like to live here.' I never did see that in Boston, but everything was wonderful in Detroit."
Wilson is the eighth player from the 1968 Tigers team to die. The others are: Bob Christian (1974), Ray Oyler (1981), Norm Cash (1986), Joe Sparma (1986), Don McMahon (1987), John Wyatt (1998) and Eddie Matthews (2001).
"I hate to lose anyone from the '68 family, for that matter from the Tiger family," Kaline said.