Forty years have passed since Topps issued its memorable black-bordered set in 1971. The set, which is difficult to find in even near mint condition, remains a favorite among collectors. So let’s begin a year-long retrospective by examining the life of a good pitcher and a better man who made his final Topps appearance that year.
As someone who has lived in Cooperstown, I have had the pleasure of meeting many former major league players. I guess it’s one of the benefits that counter these icy, 20-degree days that seem so endless in January.
Unfortunately, I’ve missed out on a few people over the years, either because they never visited Cooperstown, or somehow our paths never crossed. For example, I never met Earl Wilson. That is one that I regret. Any man devoted to such a worthwhile organization as the Baseball Assistance Team (also known as BAT) must have been a good guy. Wilson worked for BAT for years, culminating in his tenure as president and CEO. Along with similarly kindhearted folks like the late Bobby Murcer, Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, and former Hall of Fame chairman Ed Stack, Wilson worked hard to advance the organization’s worthy cause: helping out retired ballplayers who needed and wanted help during their post-playing days. BAT does whatever it can, providing financial grants, paying for health care, and supplying rehab counseling.
Wilson was also an intriguing ballplayer with a fascinating story.
Burly and brawny, with big biceps and strong shoulders, he looks more like a slugging outfielder or third baseman than a pitcher on his final Topps card, which was produced as part of the iconic 1971 set. That’s no accident. Although he was a highly respectable hurler for the Red Sox and Tigers before finishing his career with the Padres, Wilson was also one of the best hitting pitchers of any era. His batting exploits remain legendary. He never did play the outfield or third base as a pro, but originally played as a power-hitting catcher who was moved to the mound because of his arm strength.
During his major league career, Wilson hit 35 home runs, the fifth highest total among pitchers all time. Only Wes Ferrell, Bob Lemon, Red Ruffing and Warren Spahn—the latter three Hall of Famers—hit more home runs as moundsmen. Yet, Wilson’s 35 homers came in only 740 at-bats, compared to the nearly 1,200 at-bats that Ferrell accrued in reaching his career total of 37 home runs. That amounted to a ratio of one home run every 21 at-bats for Wilson, a highly respectable figure.
Wilson’s biggest power showing occurred on Aug. 16, 1965, when he hit two home runs in one game. Capable of making consistent contact, Wilson also hit for a decent average, eclipsing the .200 mark five times during his career.
If Wilson had remained a catcher, he likely would have filled the position nicely for the Red Sox during the 1960s, providing a perfect bridge to the Carlton Fisk era. But Wilson’s powerful arm proved more enticing than his powerful bat, convincing the Red Sox that he would be best suited to pitching every fourth day. And while we’ll never know for sure if he would have enjoyed more stardom as an everyday position player, Wilson’s feats as a pitcher are pretty impressive. He overcame racism in becoming the first African-American pitcher in the history of the Red Sox. Consider these words that were written on the Red Sox’ original scouting report of Wilson:
“He is a well mannered colored boy, not too black, pleasant to talk to, well educated, has a very good appearance and conducts himself as a gentleman.”
Not too black. In spite of such chilling words, Wilson established a reputation as an effective power pitcher with a good fastball and slider. He gained some fame in June of 1962, when he pitched a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Angels. Wilson also accounted for one of the Red Sox’ two runs that day, with a home run against Angels lefthander Bo Belinsky.
Although he pitched consistently for Boston, the Red Sox traded him in the middle of the 1966 season. The trade came just a couple of months after an incident in which Wilson and two white pitchers, Dennis Bennett and Dave Morehead, walked into a bar in Winter Haven, Fla., during spring training. One of the bar’s employees told the Red Sox’ pitchers flatly, “We don’t serve niggers here.”
Wilson informed Red Sox management of the incident, but was told to forget about it not mention it to reporters. As a proud African American, Wilson could not comply with that request. He told a member of the Boston media what had happened. Shortly thereafter, in a move that many considered a retaliatory act, the Sox sent Wilson and little-used backup outfielder Joe Christopher to the Tigers for outfielder-first baseman Don Demeter and righthander Julio Navarro. Demeter would play decently for the Red Sox before retiring at the end of the 1967 season, but Wilson would thrive in Detroit, winning 13 of 19 decisions with a 2.59 ERA. The following summer, he won a career-high 22 games for Mayo Smith’s second-place Tigers.
Remaining an effective pitcher through the end of the 1969 season, Williams won 121 games in the major leagues. Most notably, he earned a World Series ring as part of a racially integrated and socially significant Tigers championship team in 1968.
That latter accomplishment might be the most important of Wilson’s career, given his efforts to aid players of all kinds in his later years. It was something that he did right up until that day in 2005 when he died from a heart attack at the age of 70.
Wilson didn’t care if a retired player was black or white, too black or too white, only if he needed help. Earl Wilson just plain cared.