Earl Wilson didn’t just pitch for the Detroit Tigers. His right arm was important to the team in the late 1960s, but his bat came in pretty handy sometimes too. Earl Wilson also hit home runs for the Detroit Tigers.
Before MLB’s experimental usage of the universal DH in 2020’s shortened season, you may recall seeing #PitchersWhoRake trending on social media whenever a moundsman did something remarkable at the plate. The Diamondbacks’ Madison Bumgarner, who leads all active pitchers with 19 home runs, often inspired use of the hashtag. Perhaps most famously, it blew up after Bartolo Colon, a portly 42-year old Mets pitcher, hit the only homer of his career in 2016. The universal DH won’t return in 2021, and so the hashtag may be poised for a comeback. Had social media been around when Earl Wilson pitched and hit for the Detroit Tigers, he would’ve been one of the fans’ favorite #PitchersWhoRake.
Wilson began showing aptitude as a hitter early on in his career. Debuting in 1959 as the first Black pitcher in Red Sox history, he had two hits (including a double) and three RBI in the game in which he picked up his first big league win. He hit the first home run of his career off the Tigers’ Frank Lary on June 7, 1962 at Fenway Park. Not much later, on June 26, Wilson became just the third of four pitchers who hit a home run and threw a no-hitter in the same game. In his era, Wilson was a big man (6’3″, 215) who could swing a big stick.
By the time the Red Sox traded Wilson to the Tigers in June 1966, he had 17 home runs to his name. His first of the ’66 season came at the expense of Detroit’s Bill Monbouquette. Wilson made his Tigers debut as a pinch-hitter on June 15. Batting for fellow pitcher Fred Gladding in a 7-7 ninth-inning tie against the Red Sox, of all teams, Wilson grounded out to lead off the inning. Two days later, he pitched for the first time in a Detroit uniform.
On July 15, the Tigers and visiting Orioles were tangled in a 5-5 tie. In the bottom of the 13th inning, Jim Northrup singled off Stu Miller, who was in his fourth inning of relief work for Baltimore. Willie Horton’s sacrifice bunt sent Northrup to second. Bill Freehan was intentionally walked. Ray Oyler flew out to shallow center. Monbouquette, who’d come out of the Detroit bullpen to throw four straight 1-2-3 innings, was due up. Manager Frank Skaff wanted a pinch-hitter. Backup catcher Orlando McFarlane was his last available position player. Instead, the skipper called on Wilson, who had pitched seven solid innings in a win the day before.
Skaff didn’t know that Wilson had beaten the Orioles with an extra-inning homer earlier in the season, when he was still playing for Boston. It was about to happen again. The right-handed hitting Wilson crushed a pitch from Miller that landed in the upper deck in left field. Wilson’s first home run as a Tiger was a three-run, walk-off bomb. George Cantor of the Detroit Free Press wrote that it was a “spine-tingling” 8-5 victory. The Friday night game had drawn a crowd of 43,467 to Tiger Stadium, and Wilson’s heroics sent fans home happy. It was Skaff’s second game as the Tigers’ interim manager, and he also relished the moment. His hunch paid off, sort of. The joyful Skaff explained,
“I flashed Wilson the single sign, and he crossed me up. But I don’t think I’ll fine him. In fact, I’ll probably buy him a steak.
I remember him hitting a couple homers against us, and when a pitcher hits 18 home runs in his career, that’s no fluke.”
Wilson told reporters that in terms of importance, this one was the biggest home run of the bunch. It was also his first in a pinch-hitting role. Meanwhile, in the Orioles clubhouse, a dejected Miller couldn’t help but admire what Wilson did. He said,
“It was a good pitch I threw him. At least I thought it was. A changeup knee-high, but to him, it evidently looked like a cantaloupe…All I know is he’s a good hitter with two out in the thirteenth.”
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-August, Wilson pitched at Fenway Park as a visitor for the first time. Northrup’s home run gave the Tigers a 1-0 lead in the second inning. Wilson drew a leadoff walk in the third and scored the first of Detroit’s three runs that inning. He singled in the fourth. On the mound, he kept Boston off the board until the sixth. With one out, Wilson walked Joe Foy, who took third on future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski’s single. Tony Conigliaro and Foy then perfectly executed a suicide squeeze. Wilson fielded Conigilario’s bunt and tagged him out as the run scored. He also let his former teammate know that he didn’t appreciate the play. Afterward, Wilson told reporters that it was “a horsefeathers play” in that situation.
He may have still been fuming when he came to the plate in the top of the seventh. Wilson was the Tigers’ seventh hitter of the inning. They’d already scored a pair of runs on Don Wert’s double, and now the bases were loaded with one out for Wilson. Reliever Dan Osinski had intentionally walked McFarlane to get to Wilson. If the Red Sox were hoping that their former pitcher would hit into an inning-ending double play, they really should’ve known better. Wilson wasn’t going to miss out on a golden opportunity to do some heavy damage.
The pitch that soared over the netting atop the Green Monster for a grand slam was, according to Wilson, “a low inside fastball, the first one I ever hit in the majors”. It was quite a moment, but he had hit well there when it was his home ballpark. With the Red Sox, Wilson was 39-for-163 (.239) and hit eight home runs at Fenway. From Bob Sales’ Boston Globe coverage:
Wilson circled the bases deadpan as the crowd gave him a standing ovation and cruised into the dugout without tipping his cap.
“Did I do that?” he asked afterward. “Well, I didn’t intend not to. Maybe I was in another world. The people of Boston have been great to me. I was never booed here.”
It was Wilson’s only big league grand slam. His fourth homer of the season (and second as a Tiger) was the culmination of a six-run rally. Wilson returned to the mound in the bottom of the seventh and shut Boston down 1-2-3. The Tigers added another run in the eighth, and they weren’t done. McFarlane doubled to lead off the ninth, and Wilson singled him in. It was the pitcher’s third hit and fifth RBI of the game. After Dick McAuliffe doubled him to third, Dick Tracewski drove Wilson in. “The Duke of Earl”, as he was affectionately known, scored the team’s 13th run of the game and picked up his 13th win of the season as the Tigers carved up the Red Sox 13-1. The date was August 13.
On the list of all-time leaders in homers hit by pitchers, which can be found in Baseball-Reference.com’s BR Bullpen, “pitcher” is clearly defined as “a player who pitches in at least three games in the given year” and is “in a game as their team’s current pitcher when hitting the home run”. Wilson’s dramatic pinch-hit blast against the Orioles didn’t count toward the list. The rocket that he launched against the Red Sox did. It was his 18th as a pitcher (20th overall). That tied him with Hall of Famer Cy Young on the all-time leaderboard.
The next pitcher that Wilson tied on that list was former Tiger Dizzy Trout. In 14 years with Detroit, Trout hit 19 and added one more with Boston. Wilson’s 20th home run as a pitcher (21st overall) was a solo shot at Tiger Stadium on August 21. It was the result of what a Detroit Free Press photo caption described as a “mighty, but off-balance swing”. The ball landed over the 415-foot mark in deep right-center. Wilson also tied a season high with 11 strikeouts in his complete game performance on the mound. The Tigers beat the Orioles 9-4.
Wilson hit two more home runs in 1966. Both were two-run jobs. One broke a tie in the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium on August 27. (New York rallied for three ninth-inning runs against reliever Hank Aguirre to claim a 6-5 win.) One was part of an 8-1 thumping of the Indians in Cleveland on September 3.
In 74 plate appearances with the Tigers, Wilson hit five home runs, which was as many as outfielder Don Demeter had hit before he was peddled to Boston for Wilson in June. Wilson outhomered four teammates in Detroit who had racked up many more plate appearances there than he did. Adding in his numbers before the trade, Wilson finished with a career high seven home runs and 22 RBI.
Wilson’s first home run in 1967 was a pinch-hit, two-run jack that flew over the right-field fence into the Red Sox bullpen at Fenway Park on May 13. It was also part of a six-run, ninth-inning Detroit rally that led to a 10-8 victory. The visiting Tigers feasted on Kansas City A’s pitching in the first game of a doubleheader on June 6, and Wilson chipped in with a solo homer. In the Free Press , Cantor described it as “a monumental blow that landed on the ledge of the center-field scoreboard…about 450 feet from the plate”. The A’s didn’t score until there were two outs in the ninth. It was a pretty easy 11-1 conquest for the Tigers, and Wilson struck out 11 along the way.
On July 9, the Tigers beat the Red Sox 10-4 in a doubleheader opener at home, and Wilson picked up his 10th win of the season. His solo home run triggered a four-run, fourth-inning rally. It was his 23rd as a pitcher (25th overall). That tied him with Hall of Famer Walter Johnson on the pitchers’ all-time home run leaderboard.
The Tigers had spent some time in first place in the American League in April, May, and June. Although they couldn’t climb back to the top in July or August, they remained in the thick of the pennant race, along with the Twins, Red Sox, and White Sox. When play began on September 6, the fourth-place Tigers were only 1.5 games out of first. The A’s were in Detroit for a doubleheader that day. After an 8-5 opening win for the home team, Wilson started the nightcap. Lenny Green, a backup veteran outfielder who had previously been Wilson’s teammate and roommate in Boston, homered in the fifth inning. That tied the game 2-2. (It was the only home run that Green, a Detroit native, hit as a Tiger.)
The game was still deadlocked when Wilson came to bat in the bottom of the seventh. He’d outlasted Kansas City starter Roberto Rodriguez, and the A’s had a new pitcher, Paul Lindblad, on the mound. Lindblad gave up a leadoff single to Bill Freehan, who was forced at second by Don Wert. That’s where Wilson came in. He lined a pitch into the lower deck in left field. His fourth homer of the year put the Tigers up 4-2. Wilson came up for one last at-bat in the eighth and was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd of 17,363. He struck out to end the inning. The A’s picked up a harmless run in the ninth, and the Tigers won 6-3. The biggest individual winner of the night was Wilson, who became the first pitcher in the AL to reach the 20-win mark. He commented,
“The only time I ever won 20 games was when I was in the service. [Note: Wilson missed the 1957 and 1958 seasons while serving in the Marines.] I hit a breaking pitch for the homer, but I don’t care about the homer or the 20 games as much as the pennant.”
Sweeping the doubleheader was huge for the Tigers. The Red Sox were idle that day, but the Twins lost 3-2 at home to the Indians, and the White Sox beat the Angels 3-2 in 13 innings in Anaheim. That left all four contenders in a virtual tie for first place. Chicago and Minnesota had identical 78-61 (.561) records; Detroit and Boston had identical 79-62 (.560) records. Sadly, it was Wilson’s former team, the Red Sox, that went on to win the AL pennant on the final day of the season. He and the rest of the Tigers would have to settle for a second-place finish, one measly game out of first.
Wilson’s first home run in 1968 happened very early in the season, and considering all that had happened in the few days prior to that moment, it may have been a pretty cathartic home run trot.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on Thursday, April 4. Throughout baseball, the death of the civil rights leader resonated deeply with its Black players. The next day, two of them, Wilson and Bob Gibson, were the starting pitchers in a spring training game between the Tigers and Cardinals in St. Petersburg. For the Detroit hurler, it was his last tune-up before Opening Day. Manager Mayo Smith had already announced that Wilson would start the opener. It was a nice reward for his solid ’67 season. With something larger than baseball likely weighing heavily on Wilson’s mind that afternoon, though, he proceeded to have his worst outing of the Grapefruit League season.
The Tigers were originally scheduled to open the regular season at home on Tuesday, April 9 against the Red Sox. Dr. King’s funeral service took place that morning in Atlanta, however, and Major League Baseball postponed all of its Opening Day games until the next day. Mourners throughout the nation paused their daily activities to watch the solemn proceedings that were being televised live. In Detroit, none of the Tigers were among those viewers. Nearly 30 years later, George Cantor authored the book The Tigers of ’68: Baseball’s Last Real Champions. The former Free Press beat reporter wrote,
…Although the opener had been [postponed], the ball club scheduled a team practice that morning. Wilson was furious. He showed up for the mandatory practice session, but merely went through the motions. Afterward, he angrily berated team management for what he said was a blatant disregard of the mood of its Black players…
Once it was time to play ball on April 10, Wilson looked like he was ready to settle into an early groove. He struck out the first two Red Sox hitters he faced and got Yastrzemski to pop out to short to end the inning. Wilson got into a jam in the second inning. After giving up a single and a walk, the Tigers righty was tagged for two runs on Rico Petrocelli’s double. Boston added a run in the third. Down 3-0 on the scoreboard, Wilson struck when he finally got his chance at the plate. From Jim Hough’s Lansing State Journal coverage:
(Wilson) brought Tiger fans to their feet in the third inning when he blasted a 450-foot homer in the left field second deck. Before the game, Wilson told us he intended to to get out his “line drive bat because the wind is strong from left field”. As he talked, Earl poked several long blasts from the batting cage to the left-field seats. Ray Oyler, weak-hitting shortstop, stood beside me with his mouth open. Now and then, he would say, “Look at that one.”
After his round-tripper, Wilson bore down and pitched two shutout innings, but Petrocelli knocked him out of the game with an RBI single in the sixth. Boston went on to spoil Detroit’s Opening Day festivities with a 7-3 win. It was the first time the Red Sox were able to beat their former pitcher after trading him to the Tigers. His home run wasn’t a consolation prize. A Boston Globe reporter heard Wilson tell someone that he’d have rather gone 0-for-4 and won.
The next day, thanks to a pinch-hit, walk-off home run from Gates Brown, the Tigers began a nine-game winning streak. Wilson pitched two complete games during the streak, a 9-2 revenge win over Boston on April 16 and a 4-1 triumph in Chicago on April 21. In his two appearances, Wilson contributed four hits, three RBI, and two runs to the Tigers offense. Detroit spent six days in second place in early May before taking over the AL lead on May 10. By mid-June, the Tigers had a grip on first place and never let go. The season hadn’t progressed quite as smoothly for Wilson, though.
On June 14 at Comiskey Park, he took the mound for the first time since a bruised heel forced him out of a game on May 24. There was a little bit of ring rust to shake off early on. The White Sox jumped out to a quick lead on Tommy McCraw’s three-run homer in the first and added a run in the second. Wilson bounced back with two scoreless innings. Detroit rallied against Chicago’s Gary Peters in the top of the fifth. Oyler’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly put the Tigers on the board. That left two on for Wilson, who tied the game 4-4 with a three-run bomb of his own. Things were still even when he departed after the seventh inning. Each team scored a run in the 13th inning. Don Wert’s homer in the 14th gave the comeback Tigers a 6-5 victory.
The Yankees were in town on July 30. Four days earlier, a strained knee took Wilson out of a game prematurely. The knee brace that he wore this time out helped him gut it out until the ninth inning. Smith pulled Wilson after Mickey Mantle drew a leadoff walk in the final frame. Back in the third inning, Wilson gave himself all the run support he’d need. He cracked a leadoff homer, deep to right field, off Mel Stottlemyre. Dick McAuliffe followed with a dinger of his own, for good measure. Rookie reliever Daryl Patterson retired all three hitters he faced after taking over for Wilson in the ninth. It was nice a 5-0 shutout for the Tigers. For Wilson, it was the 100th win of his career.
Stottlemyre and Stan Bahnsen, both righties, were the Yankees’ two best starters in 1968. After getting Stottlemyre in Detroit, Wilson got Bahnsen in New York on August 23. The veteran Tiger took the rookie deep to left in the third inning of a doubleheader opener. Dana Mozley of the New York Daily News wrote that it was “the hardest hit ball of the first game”. It was Wilson’s 30th career home run. That cut the Tigers’ deficit to 2-1. Tom Tresh, the Detroit native and Central Michigan University alumnus who finished his career with the Tigers the following season, tagged Wilson for a two-run homer back in the second. The 2-1 score held up as the final. Wilson left the game in the sixth after being nailed in the right shoulder by Joe Pepitone’s line drive. The second game of the double dip ended in a 3-3 tie after 19 innings.
One week later, the second-place Orioles came to Tiger Stadium for a three-game weekend series. Detroit’s lead in the AL was six games coming into play. Baltimore stumbled to a losing record in 1967, but swept the World Series in ’66. With the core of that championship team still largely intact and feisty new manager Earl Weaver at the helm, the Orioles were dangerous. This was a key series for the Tigers, and fans knew it. They were all behind their baseball team. The largest crowd of the season (53,575) showed up for the Friday night opener.
Wilson cruised through the first two innings. He set the Orioles down in order each time, racking up four strikeouts in the process. In the bottom of the second, Wilson stepped up to the plate with two on and two outs. He cranked a 2-2 pitch from Tom Phoebus into the lower deck in left field. It was a huge hit that prompted a standing ovation for the Tigers’ slugging pitcher. Ten years later, prior to a 1968 team reunion that was being held at Tiger Stadium, Wilson recalled the moment. He said,
“I guess they told him to throw me nothing but fastballs, so he threw me about eight or nine fastballs, all in a row. I was fouling ’em back, fouling ’em back, and then all of a sudden he threw me a curveball, and I hit the home run. I thought Earl Weaver was gonna kill himself.”
Weaver lived, and the game continued on. The Tigers broke it wide open in the third. They scored five runs on five hits, including an RBI single from Wilson. That was his fourth RBI of the game. On the mound, Wilson was just as fierce. He scattered four hits and only walked one while striking out nine in a complete game. The Tigers chewed up the Orioles 10-1 and took two out of three in the series. They were picking up steam. The home run was Wilson’s 29th as a pitcher (31st overall). That tied him with future Hall of Famer Don Drysdale for the lead among then-active pitchers. Drysdale, the Dodgers great, hadn’t homered since 1966 and never homered again before injury forced his retirement in August 1969.
Wilson became the active leader with a solo home run off future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter in the sparsely filled Oakland Coliseum on September 3. That put the Tigers up 2-0 in the seventh. Wilson shut the A’s down 1-2-3 in the bottom half of the inning. He got into a jam in the eighth, and reliever Elroy Face couldn’t keep the rally at bay. Detroit went into the top of the ninth trailing 3-2. The 1968 Tigers became legendary for their late-inning, come-from-behind, game-winning rallies. This game had one of those. It was a four-run explosion, and the Tigers topped the A’s 6-3.
Hunter and Wilson had a rematch in Detroit on September 13. Big Earl didn’t get a hit off Catfish in two at-bats, but he outlasted him on the mound. When Hunter exited after seven innings, the Tigers led 2-0. In the eighth, Wilson homered into the upper deck in left field off reliever Diego Segui. It was his seventh longball of the season, which tied the career high he set with Boston and Detroit in 1966. Wilson pitched a scoreless ninth to wrap up the 3-0 shutout. It was an unlucky Friday the 13th for the A’s, but not for Wilson. He picked up his 13th win of the year.
The win brought the Tigers’ magic number down to five. On an evening that saw another late-inning, come-from-behind, game-winning rally, Detroit clinched the AL pennant at home on September 17. Although Wilson was the team’s only pitcher to hit a home run in the regular season (for the third year in a row), it was Mickey Lolich who did it in the World Series. The affable lefty surprised the world when he cleared the fences in Game 2. Wilson, in his only plate appearance, struck out in Game 3. The Tigers went on to take the Fall Classic from the Cardinals in seven games.
The Last One
Something strange happened in 1969. Wilson didn’t hit any home runs that season. As a Tiger, he had only one more left in his bat. His 17th homer in a Detroit uniform, which matched the total he hit for Boston, provided the only run in a 2-1 loss to the Indians on June 20, 1970. The Padres purchased Wilson from the Tigers in July.
Wilson hit the final home run of his big league career off the Braves’ future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro on September 9. “The Duke of Earl” was one of the last pitchers who raked before the advent of the DH in the American League changed the game three seasons later. In Cantor’s book The Tigers of ’68, Wilson said,
“I prided myself on my hitting. To me, it was another weapon I had as a pitcher. It infuriated me when they brought in the designated hitter. That was after I retired, but they started talking about it back then. That penalized pitchers like me who worked on their hitting, who cared enough about it to make themselves good at it. I hit 35 home runs in my career. The fans used to love to watch me hit…I could hit one out at any time…”
Wilson hit 33 of those home runs as a pitcher. The only moundsmen who did it more are Red Ruffing (34), Warren Spahn (35), Bob Lemon (37), and Wes Ferrell (39). Of that group, only Wilson and Ferrell are not Hall of Famers.
When the 70-year-old Wilson died in April 2005, he had most recently served as the chairman of the grant committee for an organization called the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which still exists. BAT provides assistance to former players, scouts, and others were a part of organized baseball. Before taking on that committee role, Wilson had served back-to-back, two-year terms as the organization’s president. With a bat and with BAT, Earl Wilson was a home run hitter in baseball and in life.