Detroit Tigers: Remembering Earl Wilson

In honor of Black History month, Motor City Bengals remember influential African-American players who have worn the old English D for the Detroit Tigers. Today, we look at Earl Wilson, the former twenty game-winner and a key part of the 1968 Tigers rotation.

Growing up in the 1990s, the internet was still in its infancy. So I did what anyone else did and went to the library and get books. I would pick up anything that was baseball-related in addition to my baseball cards. But as the internet got faster and sites like Baseball-Reference and various blogs came up, I started reading at a rapid speed of all baseball-related history subjects.  I say this because I never watched Earl Wilson pitch a game for the Tigers as the 1984 & 1987 Tigers squads were the ones I rooted for (ok, more games at six years old for the 1987 squad but you get the idea)

The history of Earl Wilson is fasciating because he made his debut in the majors a week after Elijah “Pumpsie” Green did for the Boston Red Sox, becoming the team’s first African-American pitcher and would make his debut on July 29, 1959. Both Wilson and Green were the first two African-American players signed by Boston in 1956.  His athletic ability and hitting prowess is what got the Red Sox’s attention when they signed him originally as a catcher. Before his call up from Triple-A Minneapolis, he hit .356/.388/.611 with an OPS of 1.010 in 51 plate appearances in addition to his 10-2 record with an ERA of 3.82.

Earl Wilson was one of the first professional athletes to have an agent represent him. Bob Woolf his agent, would go on to represent a wide variety of clients and entertainers ranging from Larry Bird, Joe Montana, Tom Glavine to New Kids on the Block, met by a chance encounter. Due to a minor accident in 1964, Woolf was referred to Wilson. Wilson would go on and ask Woolf to represent him for appearances and endorsement contracts.  Bob Woolf became the first lawyer to represent an athlete in contract negotiations with Earl Wilson in 1966.

Detroit, his permanent home.

In the middle of the 1966 season, Wilson and outfielder Joe Christopher were traded to Detroit for Don Demeter and Julio Navarro. After struggling to find his footing in Boston, Wilson quickly found a home with the Tigers. He spoke highly of Tiger Stadium when he came over from Boston. 

“Just the whole atmosphere around the park was special,” . “I came into a winning situation, as opposed to when I was in Boston, where it was just playing the game and getting out. But, oh, I remember too, that old stadium could be cold even in July.”

 

Thanks to Johnny Sain, the Tigers pitching coach, who is created for the success of the 1968 Tigers rotation and his pitching tool he used called the “Sain Spinner”, Wilson blossomed under his wing. (I highly recommend reading “The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age” that talks about Sain’s influence on that rotation)

Wilson was an absolute stud for the 1967 Tigers team, leading the team and the AL  in wins with 22, games started with 38, innings pitched with 264 and strikeouts with 184.  He pitched clutch down the stretch in a season that the pennant race ended on the final weekend of the regular season. He went 12-4 after the All-Star break including going 4-1 in September to keep the Tigers in contention.  He was a strong 3rd man in the rotation for the Tigers in 1968, going 13-12 with an ERA of 2.85.  He would finish with 35 career home runs and after his trade to San Diego at the end of the 1969 season in which he would retire after the 1970 season, he came back and made Detroit his home.

He would be a successful businessman, started a business called Autotek Sealants, an automotive supplier that makes sound-reduction products.  His work with Baseball Assistance Team or BAT was his way to give back to the game. BAT provides financial assistance to former major, minor and Negro league players.  Under his presidency at BAT, they were able to increase to the number of payouts from less than a million dollars in grants to about $1.5 million.

Earl Wilson’s time in Detroit was short but he leaves a legacy of not only being a great teammate but a strong leader with the business community.

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