November 26, 2014

The Mysterious and Tragic Death of Don Wilson

October 12, 2010 by · 10 Comments 

In the spring of 1968, a magazine called SPORTS STARS OF 1968: BASEBALL named Houston Astros hurler Don Wilson one of its “Stars of the ’70s” based on his rookie season performance in 1967 when he went 10-9 with a 2.79 ERA and tossed a no-hitter at the Atlanta Braves on June 18, fanning 15 batters in the process. At only 22, Wilson seemingly had years of success ahead of him. Little did anyone know he actually had only seven more years of life before it was tragically cut short on January 5, 1975.

Reports of Wilson’s death hit everyone hard and left more questions than answers. He had been found dead in his garage, “slumped over a reclining seat on the passenger side of his sports car,” the victim of asphyxia due to carbon monoxide. Apparently he drove into his garage at around 1:00 AM, activated the automatic door closer and passed out with the car still running. But the pitcher wasn’t the only victim of the tragedy; his five-year-old son, Alex, who’d been sleeping upstairs, was also overcome by the toxic gas. Wilson’s nine-year-old daughter, Denise, who’d also been sleeping in her upstairs bedroom, was found alive but in critical condition, and his wife, Bernice, had a broken jaw and was in shock.

Sources around the Internet list Wilson’s death as a suicide, but it was officially ruled an accident and was never considered anything more than that. But what really happened in the early morning hours of Sunday, January 5, 1975 and how did the Wilson family arrive at that point?

Don Wilson was born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1945 but grew up in Compton, California, a city 16 miles southeast of Los Angeles that once spat out major league all-stars at a regular rate. Compton was home to only one African-American resident in 1930, but that number soon grew when African-American families began migrating west in the 1940s. Centennial High School was built to accommodate the growing population and produced several major leaguers, seven of whom were All-Stars, including Wilson, Reggie Smith, Roy White, Lonnie Smith and Hubie Brooks, and two of whom finished second in MVP voting (Al Cowens) or Rookie of the Year voting (Mitchell Page).

Wilson, Smith and White played little league baseball together. “I remember one day I hit Wilson between the eyes with a line drive,” recalled White years later, “but he got up and pitched a one-hitter.” That wouldn’t be the last time Wilson dominated opposing batters, but his professional pitching career almost ended before it began.

“When I was a junior in high school at Compton, Calif., there’d be maybe 10-15 scouts come out to watch me pitch,” Wilson told a reporter in 1967. “Then I tore a ligament in my arm and nobody came out when I was a senior. They said I was through. A scout for the California Angels said I’d never make it to the big leagues…” Eight months later he recounted much the same story to Arthur Daley of the New York Times, adding that he eventually landed at Compton Junior College where he rehabbed his arm through strength training and “other therapy” and that he caught the eye of the Astros while playing semi-pro ball.

The Astros offered Wilson a $450-a-month contract but no bonus. “I’ve been told that the Yankees gave Phil Rizzuto a sandwich before signing him,” he told Daley. “I didn’t even get a sandwich.” What the Astros got, though, was a very talented pitcher with a good head on his shoulders.

“Don has a great arm,” said his first major league manager Grady Hatton in 1968. “He has a high-riding fast ball and a short, hard slider…He’s young, strong and eager. He should be a dandy.” He also earned plaudits for his demeanor and intelligence. “Wilson is a handsome man with nice, even features and a bright intelligence,” wrote Daley. “He speaks well in a low, modulated voice. And it would seem that he has the necessary inner drive.” Doc Young of the Los Angeles Sentinel called Wilson, “Intelligent, articulate, concerned and competitive.” He was also called a “class act” by those who knew him personally and by Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron.

The powerful righthander began his professional career in 1964 with the Colts of the Cocoa Rookie League and appeared in only 10 games as a 19-year-old rookie. He blossomed in 1965 with the Cocoa Astros of the Class-A Florida State League, going 10-8 with a 1.44 ERA in 26 games, then went 18-6 with a 2.21 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 187 innings for Amarillo of the Class-AA Texas League in 1966. For his efforts, he was named to the Texas League All-Star team and was named Pitcher of the Year, and earned a berth on the Class-AA All-West squad.

He was also called up to the big leagues and made his major league debut on September 29 against the Cincinnati Reds, a team he would torment over the rest of his career. Wilson entered the game in the third inning in relief of injured starter Bob Bruce and tossed six innings, allowing only two runs on five hits and a walk while fanning seven. The runs came courtesy of an Art Shamsky two-run blast in the bottom of the seventh, but Wilson held on for his first major league win after Turk Farrell tossed a scoreless ninth to preserve the victory.

Less than a month later, Hatton was predicting that Wilson would be on his staff come Opening Day 1967. “When you have a real good arm and can throw strikes, you can move up to the majors,” the Astros skipper told Houston beat reporter John Wilson. “Hatton gives Wilson a good chance to make the team next year, even though he has only two years in the minors,” the reporter wrote in The Sporting News in October 1966. But the Houston coaching staff also wanted the hard-throwing prospect to develop a change-up.

The hurler agreed. “In the minors I had confidence I could get the batters out with a fastball,” Wilson said. “You know, I was 18 years old before I ever threw a curve? But in the big leagues you need more than a fastball and a curve. Maybe I’ll be a pretty good pitcher when I master the change-up.”

Wilson was already a “pretty good pitcher” before he mastered the change. He went only 10-9 in his rookie year, but with a 2.79 ERA and the aforementioned no-hitter. According to Wilson he was supposed to work his change-up into his repertoire against the Braves but his fastball and slider were so unhittable he threw only one change and one curve. Going into the ninth inning, Hatton had one piece of advice for his hurler: “Just relax and throw your best stuff. Don’t start trying to pitch now—you’ve gone too far for that.”

“I was petrified when I went out for the ninth,” Wilson later admitted. “But when we got [Felipe] Alou out on the popup [to third base], that play gave me a lift.” Indeed, Wilson fanned Tito Francona on three straight offerings, then blew a 3-2 fastball by Hank Aaron to complete the no-hitter, the first no-hit, no-run game in Houston franchise history. After the game he received a $1,000 bonus from the Astros’ owner and the baseball with which he fanned Aaron.

Fifteen years later, Francona called it one of the most devastating pitching performances he ever saw. “Wilson was unbelievable that day,” Francona recounted in the May 1982 issue of Baseball Digest. “Everybody always talks about Koufax’s no-hitters and especially that perfect game he pitched against the Cubs in 1965. I faced Koufax and, no doubt about it, he was great, but I don’t quite remember another pitcher who threw the ball as hard as Wilson did that day.”

Much was expected of Wilson prior to the 1967 season. A scouting report in the March issue of Baseball Digest read: “Can throw hard. Control could be improved. Loose arm. Good motion. Good body. Can throw breaking stuff. Has a good chance to rise.” But he got off to a rough start and didn’t start impressing the coaching staff until late in spring training. By then, he was also making an impression on his opponents. “If Houston can’t find a place for him, the Dodgers can,” said Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro after Wilson dominated them in a 13-1 victory. In mid-April, he earned votes from the United Press International’s board of baseball experts as one of the top rookies heading into the campaign.

He started off losing three of his first four decisions and had to leave his May 4 start against the Phillies in the fourth inning when he tore a muscle above his bicep. He returned on the 14th and pitched well in a no-decision, then won his next three decisions, the second of which was a 13-strikeout gem against the Giants followed by his no-hitter. Ironically, the day before Wilson’s no-hitter John Wilson chastised the Astros for blowing so many leads with Don on the hill. In the hurler’s first nine starts, he had leads of 3-0 after five innings, 2-0 after seven, 3-0 after seven, and 1-0 after eight and ended up with either a loss or a no-decision.

But the pitcher never complained. “Wilson is glad to be in the majors this season, at least a year ahead of schedule, and despite the things that have happened, he is proving to himself and everybody else that he can pitch in the big leagues,” John Wilson reported in The Sporting News.

In fact, he broke the Astros team record for consecutive scoreless innings when he logged his 25th on July 20 in a complete-game shutout over the Mets, prompting Mets skipper Wes Westrum to declare, “[Wilson] has one of the best arms I’ve ever seen.” According to Met outfielder Ron Swoboda, the Astros rookie was throwing “little teeny weeny aspirins at the plate.” Still, Wilson never considered himself overpowering, insisting he was more of a control pitcher. Grady Hatton agreed, insisting the Houston organization had several pitchers who threw as hard or harder than Wilson.

What made Wilson so difficult to hit was the movement on his fastball. “His fastball was fast, about 93, and it had fantastic movement—sometimes diving, sometimes sailing, sometimes breaking sharply out on a right-handed hitter,” wrote Bill James in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. “When his fastball was moving, he just aimed for the middle of the plate and threw fastballs.” Author and historian Craig Wright concurs. “Wilson had a lot of movement on his fastball, but it was not like he was a sinkerballer,” Wright told me. “He was getting a lot of lateral movement, kind of like Kerry Wood in his early days. He was not a big strikeout pitcher when he was at his best. It was his movement that got people out.”

Wilson’s pitching coach, Jim Owens, claimed that Wilson had the best high fastball in the league and that was how he recorded most of his strikeouts. Wilson himself once told reporters that he could aim a fastball at a hitter’s belt and by the time it reached the plate it would be at shoulder level. Hyperbole, perhaps, but former big league hurler and current Tampa Bay Rays minor league pitching coordinator, Dick Bosman, told me much the same thing. “I only saw him pitch in spring training in Pompano Beach, probably in 1966,” Bosman explained in an e-mail. “I was amazed at how hard he threw—it looked like the ball actually went up on the way to the plate! He threw so easy and the ball just exploded out of his hand.”

Bob Lazzari, another friend who saw Wilson pitch, had this to say: “[Wilson] threw hard and was just wild enough to keep batters a bit scared. He had the kind of talent to win 250 games if his career had lasted (and he was on a better team).” Perhaps. Bill James’ favorite toy has Wilson at an 8% chance at winning 250 assuming another seven years of pitching, which would have taken him into the early 1980s. And who knows where Wilson might have landed in the earliest stages of free agency.

Despite suffering a second injury—“a pulled quad that he pitched through”—Wilson recovered from his slow start and lack of support from his teammates and bullpen and went 9-6 in his last 15 decisions with a 2.57 earned run average that dropped his ERA almost a full run from May 19 to his last start on September 30. Still, he felt he needed to improve his change-up or curveball to become a better pitcher. “If I can come up with the one other pitch, or even two, I think it would help me a lot because the hitter couldn’t just lay back and wait for the fast ball and slider,” Wilson told The Sporting News in November 1967.

Working on a new pitch to add to his repertoire would be a recurring theme during Wilson’s career, although James insists Wilson never mastered either. “Although he experimented with a curve and a changeup from 1967 until his death, neither of these pitches amounted to much,” he wrote.

Wilson received a substantial raise prior to the 1968 season, signing for “probably just under 15,000,” according to The Sporting News, and eagerly returned his signed contract, the first Astro to do so. But his ’68 season was marked by inconsistency and more health problems. He finished at 13-16 with a 3.28 ERA that was actually substandard in a league that averaged 2.99 for the entire year. Wilson had winning streaks of at least three games twice, but also had four-game and three-game losing streaks.

Sometimes he was brilliant—he fanned 18 Reds on July 14 to become only the third pitcher in history to strike out that many in a nine-inning game, then whiffed Reds batters 16 more times on September 10. Other times he was awful—he allowed five runs to the Dodgers in only one inning of work in May and was yanked after facing only four Met batters in a June game the Astros lost 9-4.

Then on August 4, Wilson surrendered two runs to the Phillies in 7 1/3 innings, but was rushed to Methodist Hospital in Houston when he began suffering shortness of breath after the game. The Los Angeles Sentinel reported that Wilson had been removed from the game after complaining of a sore knee, but Wilson told doctors the pain was in his chest and had been there for some time. The paper wondered if Wilson would be lost for the season, but the righty returned and finished out the season. Apparently he’d sneezed too hard and suffered a muscle tear in his rib cage.

In mid-October 1968, John Wilson reported in The Sporting News that Don was going back home to California to once again work on his curveball and change-up during the winter. “I started having some success this year when I got to where I could get the breaking pitch over the plate,” Wilson told the reporter. “You know, most of the called strikeouts I got this year were on curve balls that they took.”

Whether his breaking pitches helped or not, Wilson established career highs in 1969 in wins (16), starts (34), innings (225) and strikeouts (235). But he also posted his worst ERA at 4.00, walked a then-career-high 97 batters and tossed a league-leading 16 wild pitches. His season was marked again by inconsistency and a little bad luck. He threw his second no-hitter on May 1, blanking the Cincinnati Reds only a day after Reds hurler Jim Maloney tossed a no-hitter at the Astros. He also had 10 games of 10 or more strikeouts, and two of his late-season losses came in games in which he threw nine innings and surrendered two runs or less.

But he also had starts of two-thirds of an inning, one and one-third, four, two and two-thirds, three and a third, and three and two-thirds, and allowed 24 earned runs for an ERA of 13.78 in those six starts.

Wilson also made news off the field, mostly because of his friendship with first baseman Curt Blefary, which resulted in the two rooming together on road trips. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, except that Wilson was black and Blefary white, and black and white teammates didn’t room together until 1967 when Blefary and his black Baltimore teammate Sam Bowens roomed together on two road trips. It wasn’t until 1969, though, that Wilson and Blefary became the first regularly integrated roommates in the majors.

“Blacks and whites have not been rooming together on the road in baseball. I do not know why not,” wrote Dick Young of the New York Daily News. “The long delay in integrated baseball rooming lists does not necessarily reflect a resistance by white players toward rooming with black players, although that is part of it. The other part is the resistance of black players toward rooming with white players.”

But according to Jim Bouton, who pitched for the Astros in the latter part of the ’69 season, there was a “different relationship between whites and blacks” on the Astros than there was with the Seattle Pilots, with whom Bouton pitched before being traded. “It’s as though the blacks go out of their way to join with whites and the whites try extra hard to join in with the blacks,” Bouton wrote in his seminal book Ball Four. “Tonight [Norm] Miller and I were having milkshakes and Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn came over and sat down with us. It doesn’t seem forced, and I think it’s worth a lot to a ballclub.” According to Blefary, he, Wilson, Wynn and Morgan played cards together all the time and referred to themselves as the “fearsome foursome.”

Still there was backlash from a few opposing players who couldn’t believe Blefary would want to room with a “Negro,” and the pair received funny looks in places like Atlanta and San Francisco. And because of Doug Rader’s friendship with black shortstop/outfielder Leon McFadden, other white players would call him “nigger-lover.” But the biggest bombshell came in 1972 when Morgan, who’d been traded to Cincinnati during the offseason, accused Astros manager Harry “The Hat” Walker of being “anti-black,” claiming Walker didn’t like him because of the color of his skin.

“After he got over here [from Pittsburgh], he’s only had trouble with the black players,” Morgan told the Houston Post. “He had trouble with Dick Simpson from the start. He’s had near fist fights and shouting matches with Don Wilson, Jim Wynn, me, Cesar Cedeno, Jay Alou and Marty Martinez.” Morgan also insisted that Donn Clendenon refused to play for Houston after he was traded to the Astros for Rusty Staub because Clendenon had played for Walker in Pittsburgh and “knew how it was.” According to Morgan it was because of Walker’s anti-black attitude that he was fired as Pirates manager after the players refused to play for him any more.

When Walker heard the allegations he responded, “If he feels this way, there must be some prejudice inside of him…My conscience is clear and I sleep good at night. I’m just sorry Joe feels that way. I don’t. If he’s got that big a chip on his shoulder, then he ought to look in a mirror.”

In a conversation my friend and colleague Mark Armour had with former Astros hurler Larry Dierker earlier this year, Dierker explained that Walker did not do well with black players. But Bouton remembers being warned by his new teammates that Walker was a screamer and that he screamed at everyone.

“He screams all the time,” one of the Astros told him. “He’s going to scream at you. Try to keep from laughing if you can.” Another Astro told Bouton, “Half a dozen guys have wanted to punch him.” Wilson was one of them. According to sports writer Joe Heiling “[Wilson] had to be stopped from taking a few swings at ‘The Hat.'” Bouton grew to like and respect Walker, as did Astros third baseman Doug Rader.

Walker being anti-black is debatable, however, especially when you consider that the skipper almost fielded the first all-black lineup in major league history when he sent eight black men onto the field in a game against Philadelphia in 1967, the lone exception being Denny Ribant, a white pitcher.

And he’s received support from Hall of Fame hurler Bob Gibson, who wrote in his autobiography Stranger to the Game, “Harry…had a reputation back then (late-1940s) as one of the most bigoted players in baseball. But… he changed his attitude completely after playing and getting to know black players.” Gibson also credits Walker with encouraging him early in his career during Solly Hemus’ reign as Cardinals manager. And, according to research done by my SABR colleague Rory Costello, Clendenon’s real beef with Walker stemmed from a clash they had in 1966 when Walker attempted to remake Clendenon “as a hitter in his own style” and not from something racially motivated. Apparently he tried to do the same to Morgan but was met with resistance.

It certainly wasn’t the first time Walker tried to tinker with a batter’s hitting style. According to Bill James, in 1966 Walker convinced Matty Alou “to use a heavy bat and chop down on the ball, rather than using a light bat and uppercutting as do most modern hitters.” Alou went from a .259 career hitter in his first five full big league seasons to a .317 career hitter over the rest of his career, and won a batting title his first year under Walker’s tutelage. “Matty was [Walker’s] dream come true,” wrote James in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, “his perfect pupil, and he gave interviews about how he had turned Matty’s career around until everybody was pretty much sick of hearing about it.”

Despite the career highs in wins and strikeouts, 1969 would prove to be Don Wilson’s worst season in the big leagues. Still, many predicted that he was destined for stardom and that the best was yet to come. “He’s on the verge of becoming a real fine pitcher,” Walker told Dick Peebles of the Houston Chronicle in August 1969. “What he needs is finer control on the days when he does not have his real good fastball. But this will come in time. You don’t become great overnight.”

But John Wilson thought stardom might never come to Wilson, referring to him as a “mental case” in a conversation he had with Bouton. “You’ve seen him pitch,” the writer said to Bouton during a flight. “How can your arm be bothering you if you can go five, six innings? It’s only after that that he blows up. How can that be his arm?” Then Wilson pointed to his head. “Maybe it’s all up here.”

Walker expected Don Wilson to give the Astros 15-20 more wins in 1970, but the fireballing righty was going to have to get healthy first. He finished the 1969 season with shoulder tendonitis and shut his season down on September 15 after going only 3 2/3 innings against the San Diego Padres. In the offseason, Wilson sang the same tune that he had in the past, that he wanted to work on his curveball and change-up so he could throw them “in tight spots where they’re only looking for fast balls.” He also admitted that he wanted to improve his control and finish a full season without an injury. He set a goal of 40 starts and 250 innings and claimed, “I pitched about half as well as I think I can [last season].”

Before the 1970 season got underway, however, Wilson suffered two setbacks. His buddy, Curt Blefary, was traded to the New York Yankees in December for flamboyant playboy Joe Pepitone, who’d worn out his welcome in New York despite a trio of All-Star berths and Gold Gloves from 1963-1969, and an average of 23 homers and 75 RBIs in those seven seasons. According to Bill Lee, sports editor of the Hartford Courant, Pepitone “didn’t fit into the Yankee image.” But Yankee manager Ralph Houk liked Blefary, “a genuine professional who stings the ball in clutch situations…”

Then Wilson’s goal of getting through a season uninjured was shattered when the tendonitis that cut his ’69 season short landed him on the disabled list for most of the first three weeks of the ’70 season. He made two relief appearances on April 24 and 25th to begin the season and didn’t make his first start until May 2. Wilson was ineffective at first, but he battled his way to a record of 11-6 with a 3.91 ERA. He was a different pitcher, though, fanning only 94 batters in 184 1/3 innings or 4.6 batters per nine innings pitched, the lowest mark of his career.

According to Bill James, Wilson had to rely on his off-speed pitches to get by in 1970 and did “surprisingly well.” John Wilson corroborated that fact when he wrote about the pitcher in the January 2, 1971 issue of The Sporting News, “The big smoke was gone. Wilson was giving them soft stuff and curves. There were only a few games he had enough of a fast ball to keep the hitters off balance.” Much to the delight of the Astros organization, however, Wilson regained his “old zip” prior to the ’71 season and was healthy for the first time since 1969.

It was in 1971 that Wilson finally became a pitcher and not just a thrower. He went 16-10 with a 2.45 ERA, increased his K/9 to 6.0 and paced the league in hits per nine innings at 6.5. His record could have been even better, but he lost five games in which he threw at least seven innings and allowed two runs or less, and in four of those games he went at least eight. Regardless, he was named to the National League All-Star team and began receiving plaudits for being a more complete pitcher. And his success seemed to change his attitude.

“There appears to be another change in Wilson this year,” wrote John Wilson in The Sporting News. “He doesn’t seem to be quite as tied up inside. His moody periods, pronounced during the time he was worried about his arm, almost have disappeared.” The pitcher admitted as much. “In the past I kind of kept to myself. I didn’t really become quite as close to the other fellows as I have this year. It wasn’t that I was unfriendly, but just that I kind of went my way. But this year we’ve gotten closer, especially with the other pitchers. We talk more, maybe play cards together sometimes, and it’s just a little closer thing.”

The Chicago Defender was also impressed. “If Houston’s Don Wilson ever strikes the mother lode in his long search for consistency, he’s bound to become one of baseball’s golden pitchers,” wrote the newspaper. And while Wilson felt he should have won 20 games with better run support in 1971, he said all the right things toward the end of the season. “I’m not really all that concerned about [not winning 20 games],” he said. “My big goal is just to be consistent. I’ve been working all year on it and feel I have that consistency now. Once that is established, the wins will take care of themselves.”

For his efforts Wilson was named the Astros’ MVP by the Houston chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “I feel like we’re going to win every time he goes out there,” said Walker. And John Wilson wrote prior to the new season that Don “looms as one of the league’s prime candidates to reach the 20-win circle in 1972.”

The Astros hurler enjoyed another very good season, going 15-10 with a 2.68 ERA and setting a new career best in K/BB ratio at 2.61, but the consistency everyone raved about in 1971 was gone again in ’72, at least during the first half of the season. At times he was brilliant, fanning 11 Padres on May 24 and tossing a two-hit shutout at the Montreal Expos on June 4, but he also had starts that lasted only two innings, three and two-thirds innings, and two-thirds of an inning.

Wilson started to string quality starts together in late July, striking out 12 Cubs on July 22 to run his record to 6-7, then fanning 12 Giants on August 12 and 14 Phillies on August 20. But his best performance of the season came on September 7 when he surrendered only one run to the Giants in 13 innings of work to earn his 11th victory of the season.

After starting the season at 5-7, Wilson went 10-3 in his last 13 decisions and lowered his ERA from 3.41 to 2.68. He also recorded the team’s 82nd victory on September 27 for new manager Leo Durocher, who’d replaced Harry Walker in late August after the Astros fell nine games out of first place. Still, Wilson expressed disappointment at failing to win 20 games. “It’s the first time I ever had set a goal,” he told The Sporting News.

In the offseason, Wilson blamed Houston’s five-man rotation for his lack of consistency. “Sometimes it was six or seven days before our turn would come around,” he told John Wilson. “You just can’t maintain your consistency that way.” According to the sportswriter, Wilson expected to have his best year in 1973, mostly because the Astros were expected to go back to a four-man rotation. They did, but Wilson suffered through one of his worst seasons as a pro, going 11-16 with a career-low .407 winning percentage and a 1.62 K/BB ratio that was almost a full point worse than in 1972.

He posted a respectable 3.20 ERA, set a career high with 37 appearances and even recorded a pair of saves, the only two of his career, but it was a disappointing season, nonetheless, especially in light of the fact that he set a goal of 25 wins for himself prior to the season. “At this point in my career, why set my goal at 20?” he asked. “I might as well set it at 25.” But when he began the season with three losses in his first four decisions, 25 wins was effectively out of reach. Only twice during the season did his record reach .500, when he was 3-3 and 4-4, but he lost eight of his next 10 decisions and in only one of them did he pitch well.

Wilson also had off-the-field issues. In late July, the pitcher was fined $300 and threatened with suspension when he called Durocher an “uncomplimentary” name as he boarded the team bus at Houston Intercontinental Airport. “Durocher was sitting at the front of the bus and Wilson reportedly made the remark as he passed Durocher on the way to his seat,” reported the Baltimore Sun. “The Houston manager apparently was not sure he heard right, a sportswriter said, and asked the pitcher to repeat his comment. Wilson did so several times.”

Doc Young of the Chicago Defender called 1973, Wilson’s “summer of discontent” and speculated that he might be pitching elsewhere in 1974 after the name-calling incident with Durocher. In fact, it was a summer of discontent for most of the Astros squad. Durocher started the ’73 campaign off with a bang by pulling his players from a meeting with Players’ Association executive director Marvin Miller in March, then fired pitching coach Jim Owens on the eve of the season. Only two weeks after the season got under way, Durocher was hospitalized with diverticulitis. He returned to the team, then announced in July that he was canceling batting practice for the remainder of the season because it wasn’t the same as facing live pitching. “All you’ve done in batting practice is tire yourself out,” he told reporters.

After guiding the Astros to a record of 82-80, Durocher stepped down after only one season and was replaced by third base coach Preston Gomez. “Durocher, known for his turbulent temper with umpires throughout his career, stirred up controversy as well with the Astros during his short tenure,” wrote the Chicago Defender.

But Wilson’s run-ins with Walker and Durocher can’t be laid entirely at the managers’ feet. According to Astros third baseman Doug Rader, Wilson had become bitter and wasn’t the same man with whom he played in the minors and early on in the majors. “What made him bitter? I’d say he was a little disillusioned with people,” explained Rader. “He was a very sensitive warm person, and very often the bad element in some people would disappoint him tremendously…A lotta people thought Don Wilson was a militant, but it wasn’t true. He was just a very defensive individual.” Teammate Bob Watson explained that Wilson was just misunderstood. “A lot of people didn’t like Don Wilson because he spoke his mind. That was his way of letting people know he was a man. He had his opinions and he stuck to them.”

One person Wilson liked was Preston Gomez, the team’s new skipper. Gomez managed the San Diego Padres from 1969 to 1971 and the first 11 games of 1972 before he was replaced by Don Zimmer, and gained some notoriety when he pulled Clay Kirby from a game on July 21, 1970 even though Kirby had yet to allow a hit through eight innings. Trailing 1-0, Gomez called on Cito Gaston to pinch hit for Kirby with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the eighth. Gaston struck out, then reliever Jack Baldschun surrendered three hits and two runs in the top of the ninth to give the Mets a 3-0 victory.

Gomez joined the Astros coaching staff in 1973 and often managed the team in Durocher’s absence. “I’ve seen Preston operate, including the times he took over when Leo was sick,” Wilson told Joe Heiling. “I like what I’ve seen of him. He doesn’t do things on impulse or superstition like the last guy. Every move he makes is based on sound judgment.” Little did Wilson know he was going to experience Gomez’s “sound judgment” right off the bat.

The new Houston pilot chose to go with a four-man rotation, even though the team had five solid starters in Wilson, Larry Dierker, Dave Roberts, Tom Griffin and veteran southpaw Claude Osteen, who’d come over from the Dodgers in a trade for Jimmy Wynn. Wilson ended up being the odd man out and began the season in the bullpen, making only one start in the team’s first 30 games. When Wilson allowed runs in four of his first six appearances and posted a 6.88 ERA in 17 innings, it looked like Gomez had made the right call. And all four hurlers ahead of Wilson on the depth chart got off to good starts, making it more difficult for the big righty to crack the rotation.

He didn’t get his second start until May 12 but made the most of it, fanning 14 Cincinnati Reds in a 4-2 loss. That performance by itself launched him back into the rotation. “There’s no way he can’t be in there now,” said Astros pitching coach Roger Craig. “Not the way he pitched against the Reds…That was the Wilson of old out there…If Don can sustain that type of pitching, he can beat anybody in the league.”

He began to whittle away at his ERA but over his next eight starts through June, he was maddeningly inconsistent. He tossed a seven-hit shutout at the Mets on June 7 for his third win of the season, then lost his next three decisions, allowing 13 earned runs in 25 2/3 innings while posting a K/BB ratio of 0.88. “An articulate 29-year-old, Wilson has fallen short of the greatness many predicted for him in his early days in the big time,” wrote Larry Bortstein in the June 1974 issue of Baseball Digest.

But as the weather heated up, so did Wilson. He threw consecutive shutouts at the Braves and Pirates to begin July, and lowered his ERA to 3.60. He won his next start over the Cubs to even his record at 6-6, but his next three appearances resulted in two losses and a blown save, the second defeat a 2-0 heartbreaker in which he allowed one earned run in seven innings. August was a microcosm of most of his career; when he was good he was very good and when he was bad, he was awful.

In four of his six August starts, he allowed two runs or less, including back-to-back eight-inning gems in which he allowed no earned runs. He followed that up by surrendering only two runs to the Phillies in eight innings on August 30 to even his record again, at 10-10. But he also suffered consecutive losses at the beginning of the month in which he allowed nine earned runs in 14 2/3 innings, walked 10 and fanned only eight. Still, he went into September with a season-best 3.51 ERA.

In 26 appearances since April 13, Wilson trimmed almost five runs off his gaudy early-season ERA of 8.44 and almost three-and-a-half runs off the 6.88 ERA he boasted on May 8. His start on September 4, however, would prove to be arguably the most frustrating one of his career. On that day, the fourth-place Astros hosted the second-place Reds, who were only two-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Dodgers. Meanwhile Houston was 15 games out of first with only 27 left to play. Since many of Wilson’s most memorable performances had come against the Reds, it was no surprise when he began dominating them again.

Through three innings, the only man to reach base against Wilson was George Foster who was hit by a pitch. Wilson walked former teammate Joe Morgan in the fourth, then surrendered two more walks in the fifth and allowed two unearned runs on an error by shortstop Roger Metzger. He walked Johnny Bench in the sixth, but escaped the inning on a pop out and a double play, then set the Reds down in order in the seventh. The Astros cut the lead to 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh, then Wilson sandwiched three more outs around another Morgan free pass.

With the pitcher due to lead off the bottom of the eighth, Gomez had a decision to make. Although Wilson had surrendered five walks and hit a batter, he had yet to allow a hit and was within three outs of his third career no-hitter. But the Astros were down to their last six outs and were still losing 2-1. Just as he’d done in 1970 with Clay Kirby, Gomez replaced Wilson with a pinch hitter. Ironically, Kirby was sitting in the opposing dugout watching the drama unfold, having been traded to the Reds during the offseason.

“Preston Gomez did it again Wednesday night,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “For the second time in five seasons, Gomez, the manager of the Houston Astros, removed a pitcher working on a no-hitter but trailing by a run.” The Astrodome crowd of only 8,024 booed “lustily” when Tommy Helms was announced as Wilson’s pinch-hitter. Helms grounded out to short, and a Houston rally was cut short on a strike-‘em-out, throw-‘em-out double play to end the inning. Relief pitcher Mike Cosgrove lost the no-hitter in the ninth on a Tony Perez leadoff single and the Astros lost the game when Reds starter Jack Billingham set them down in order in the ninth.

“I get paid for winning the ball game not the no-hitter,” Gomez explained after the game. “This was not one of my toughest decisions. The name of the game is to win.” Reds manager Sparky Anderson defended Gomez. “If I had not done what Preston did, I wouldn’t have been able to look baseball people in the face,” said Anderson. “I would have had to retire if I let Wilson bat.” Some tried to make light of the situation; “Preston Gomez has broken up more no-hitters than Ty Cobb,” quipped Jim Murray of the L.A. Times. “Would he have rested Babe Ruth for the World Series after homer No. 59?”

Newspapers reported that Wilson was “apparently upset over his removal,” and couldn’t be reached for comment. Milton Richman reported that Wilson was hanging out in the trainer’s room, having a beer and avoiding the media, with whom he didn’t want to speak. Not only was he attempting to become only the second National League hurler with three no-hitters, joining Sandy Koufax on that very short list, but he was about to become the first pitcher in baseball history to toss two no-hitters against the same opponent, in this case the Cincinnati Reds. After cooling off, Wilson defended his manager’s decision. “I respect Preston Gomez more than ever tonight,” Wilson told reporters on September 5. “When people start putting personal goals ahead of the team, you’ll never have a winner. I understand how Preston feels. He is consistent and I have nothing but admiration for him.”

Doug Rader lauded Wilson for that. “We all knew how he felt, but he was very understanding of the situation. He removed himself from the area until he got his wits about him and when he did he thought the manager had done the right thing.” But Richman reported that Wilson’s wife, Bernice, was angry that her husband had been pulled from the game. And Bill Nunn Jr. of the Pittsburgh Courier claimed that friends of Wilson described the pitcher as being “furious” that he wasn’t given the opportunity to complete the no-hitter.

Wilson fell to 10-11 with the loss, then suffered two more tough-luck losses to the Padres and Dodgers despite allowing only four earned runs in 13 innings to fall to 10-13 on the year. Then he completed his season with consecutive fantastic performances against the Braves, allowing one run in eight innings on September 22, then tossing a complete-game two-hit shutout on September 28.

Craig Wright pointed out that in his final eight starts of 1974, Wilson posted a 1.02 ERA and held batters to a “miniscule” .158 batting average. And while Bill James asserts that Wilson wasn’t able to effectively use his curveball or changeup, Wright has a differing opinion. “Wilson was successfully reinventing himself as a pitcher who used his breaking pitches more and was poised for an exciting second half to his career.”

Wilson finished the season at 11-13 with a 3.08 ERA. His last appearance of the ’74 campaign, the aforementioned complete-game two-hit shutout over the Braves, would prove to be the final one of his career and was called “probably the best swan-song pitching performance ever” by author and former Hall of Fame Library Senior Research Associate, Bill Deane. Ironically, the pitcher who once fanned a record-tying 18 batters in one game, recorded no strikeouts in his final performance.

Wilson did get a chance to step onto the Astrodome’s turf one last time before he died, although not as a pitcher or member of the Astros. A few days before his death, he served as a line judge in the softball throw competition on ABC’s “Women’s Superstars,” the brainchild of the Women’s Sports Foundation run by tennis legend Billie Jean King and a spin-off of the original “Superstars” that first aired in March 1973. Wilson found himself at the center of a heated debate when it appeared that golfer Jane Blalock stepped over the line during her throw.

Jockey Robyn Smith saw the foul and brought it to her lawyer’s attention (why her lawyer was there is anybody’s guess), who filed a protest with “Superstars” director Barry Frank. “Frank looked at Wilson,” wrote Curry Kirkpatrick in Sports Illustrated. “The esteemed line judge suddenly looked very tired.” Wilson appealed to “Superstars” chief umpire and former astronaut Walt Cunnigham, who indicated that Blalock did indeed commit a foul. When asked why he hadn’t called the foul sooner, Wilson explained it was because no one bothered to give him a flag to use to indicate an infraction.

After being accosted by King and ABC’s Donna de Varona, the pitcher responded with three simple but sarcastic words. “I need this,” Wilson said. “What an unbelievable bunch of garbage,” King shot back. It’s unfortunate that Wilson’s last experience on his home diamond came in an event that was described by the Chicago Tribune’s Marilynn Preston as “the worst exploitation of women yet.”

The day that issue of Sports Illustrated hit newsstands happened to be the same day that newspapers carried the tragic news of Wilson’s death. The 29-year-old pitcher and his five-year-old son, Alex, had succumbed to asphyxia due to carbon monoxide after Wilson passed out with his 1972 Thunderbird’s motor running in the sealed attached garage located directly beneath the bedrooms where his family slept. According to reports, Wilson’s wife, Bernice, called a neighbor in the early afternoon hours of January 5 and said she needed help. Apparently she had been awakened by the running motor and went to check on her kids, who “sounded like they were crying in their sleep.” Bernice picked up Alex and carried him into the master bedroom, then shut the doors of both the master bedroom and her nine-year-old daughter, Denise’s, room.

She tried to go back to sleep but the running motor kept her awake, so she went to the garage to investigate and found Don. When she failed to find a pulse on her husband, Bernice called the fire department. She and her daughter were rushed to Southwest Memorial Hospital where Bernice was found to be in shock with a fractured left jaw, but in fair condition. Denise was in a coma and was transferred to Texas Children’s Hospital in critical condition.

When police arrived at the Wilson residence, they found Don in the passenger seat of his car. “His head was tilted back resting on the seat, and his arms were at his sides,” reported the New York Times. “His left foot was crossed over his right foot. A pack of cigarettes was on the dashboard in front of Wilson. The left front door was closed, but the right front door was open. The ignition was on and the gasoline indicator was at empty, but the car’s engine was cold.”

“Details of the deaths are still sketchy but the preliminary investigation indicates the deaths are accidental,” said a police homicide spokesman. “That is all we know now. An autopsy has been ordered. Perhaps more on the death and Mrs. Wilson’s injury can be released tomorrow.”

Although Wilson’s death resembled a suicide and has been reported as such by various sources, no one who knew Wilson actually believed he killed himself. “Don had everything going for him. He had it all together,” said fellow Houston hurler Dave Roberts. “We had been working at the speaker’s bureau together and everything was fine.” The Astros speaker’s bureau arranged speaking engagements for the players and employed Wilson and Roberts during the offseason. The last time Roberts saw Wilson was at the bureau’s office on December 15. But others, like Astros publicity director, Bobby Risinger, claimed they had seen Wilson at the offices several times over the winter and that he was looking forward to the 1975 season.

“He really was enthused about the upcoming season,” Risinger said. “We were looking over some of his statistics from last year and he said he thought he could win 20 games this season. That meant a lot to Don, to win 20 games.” Tom Griffin, another teammate and fellow moundsman, called Wilson “a nice person, a great person…He was a good human being.”

“The most heartbreaking thing to me, the shame of it all,” said Doug Rader, “is that he had overcome his bitterness, and he was now again the man he used to be, the one I knew at first…I’ve heard all kinds of crazy things, rumors, about how Don Wilson died. I don’t care what anyone says, I’ll never believe he killed himself. He loved life too much. His death simply had to be an accident. I’d stake my life on that.”

The day after Wilson was found dead in his car, Harris County medical examiner, Dr. Joseph Jachimcyzk, found an excess of 60% of carbon monoxide in Wilson’s blood. The autopsy also found that the pitcher’s blood/alcohol level was .167, well above the .10 legal limit in Texas. “For purposes of driving he was over one and a half times drunk or under the influence,” Jachimcyzk reported. “He would have been booked for driving while intoxicated.”

His daughter, Denise, was still in a coma and it was reported that Wilson’s widow, Bernice, didn’t have a fractured jaw, it was merely bruised, swollen and painful. Detective Jim Pierce opined that the deaths were accidental. “I don’t see how it could have been anything else,” he said. “There were no signs of violence at all.”

So what about Bernice’s jaw? She first told the attending physician that she had no idea how she suffered her injury. Then she said she thought she might have been struck. Finally, she claimed that she had fallen against a wall a few days prior to her husband’s death. Her story about that evening’s events also changed slightly, or at least the reports changed, but she was heavily sedated at the time and was “unable to give officers a complete account of the incident.” The New York Times reported that Bernice had been awakened by her children crying in their sleep and it was then that she heard the running car engine. She “wiped the childrens’ faces with a cool cloth and returned to bed,” the Times wrote, mentioning nothing about her picking up Alex and carrying him to the master bedroom. When she couldn’t get back to sleep, Bernice went to the garage and found Don in his car with all the doors locked.

On January 7 the Hartford Courant reported more details about the case. Dr. Sheldon Green, Harris County assistant medical examiner, said Wilson had been dead several hours before he was found, which makes sense considering police speculated he arrived home around 1:00 AM and wasn’t discovered by Bernice until more than 12 hours later. “Exhaust stains found on the garage floor indicated the car had been running for some time,” wrote the Courant. “It was out of gas and the battery was dead.” It was also reported by Astros team doctor, Dr. Harold Brelsford, that Wilson had learned he had a kidney ailment in December, but that the ailment was minor. As for Bernice’s injured jaw, Detective Doc Fults stated, “That’s being investigated now. We don’t have any other information yet. Detectives are at the house now.”

A day later homicide detectives said they were unable to rule Wilson’s death accidental because of “unanswered questions.” One of those questions involved Bernice’s jaw, which according to her physician was not broken, fractured or bruised; it was swollen from an “infected salivary gland at the jaw and ear,” the fourth explanation about the status of her bruised face. Meanwhile, Denise was still in critical condition.

Memorial services were held for Don and Alex on January 9 in Houston, then the funeral was held in Faithful Central Baptist Church in Los Angeles the next day, attended by several former teammates who served as pallbearers, and Astros general manager Spec Richardson and team president Herb Neyland. Father and son were buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Covina Hills, California.

On January 16 the Corpus Christi Times reported that Bernice was no longer cooperating with homicide officers and was referring all questions to her attorney, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. Homicide detective, Larry Ott, said “so far as the police are concerned the case was an accident but authorities wish to clear up various elements in the story.” Howie Evans of the New York Amsterdam News wondered whether Bernice’s “infected” jaw was actually caused by a domestic dispute just prior to Wilson’s death. “It was a known fact that Wilson and his spouse weren’t exactly hitting it off,” Evans wrote on January 18. “Could it be Wilson and his spouse argued in the car, he popped her, and in his less than sober state remained in the car with the motor running? We’ll never know.”

Finally, on February 5, 1975 Dr. Jachimcyzk officially ruled that the deaths of Don and Alex Wilson were accidental. Detective Ott concurred. “I have found no evidence during the investigation that would indicate murder and certainly no evidence that would indicate suicide.” Jachimcyzk speculated that Wilson may have fired up the engine to warm himself with the car’s heater. But he also insisted that Bernice never explained what her husband was doing in the car before he died. And Ott reported that she was now “claiming amnesia for that Saturday and Sunday evening Jan. 4 and also for events early Sunday leading up to the time that the bodies were found.”

Wilson’s daughter, Denise, finally awoke from her coma and recovered, but even though her father’s death was ruled accidental, not everyone was buying it. “Wilson’s death is still steeped in controversy,” wrote the Chicago Defender. “But there are some who still have their doubts.”

Wilson’s number 40 was retired by the Houston Astros and the team wore black patches on their left sleeve in tribute to their fallen teammate.

“Don Wilson never won more than 16 games in a season,” wrote Bill Christine of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “His lifetime record in the big leagues was 103-92 [sic]. That’s not enough to get a pitcher into the Hall of Fame. But off the field he was something special.”

Special thanks to Mark Armour, Cliff Blau, Dick Bosman, Rory Costello, Bob Lazzari, Rob Neyer, Alfonso Tusa and Craig Wright for providing information necessary to complete this article.

Mike Lynch is the author of Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League and It Ain’t So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond, and the founder of Seamheads.com.

Comments

10 Responses to “The Mysterious and Tragic Death of Don Wilson”
  1. Brian Morrison says:

    As the media relation director for the ACC for the past 26 years I have developed a “enjoyable fondness” for well written historical essay/stories, etc. So, just a quick thank you for your outstanding website and YOUR great writing. The Don Wilson piece is an excellent read.

    Thanks
    Brian Morrison

  2. Great job pulling me in. I couldn’t wait to read through it, and the way you developed the story made that task very easy. Amazing how we don’t have anything more conclusive about Wilson’s death, although it is logical to me how his impaired state could have led to the tragic circumstances.

  3. Mike Lynch says:

    Thank you both for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

    Thanks!
    Mike

  4. Bob Hulsey says:

    Outstanding work. One minor correction: Leon McFadden was an infielder, not a pitcher.

    Those who want to learn more about Don’s career can visit his player page at Astros Daily.com. There are also video clips of his 1971 All-Star appearance.

    http://www.astrosdaily.com/players/p/general/Wilson_Don.html

  5. Mike Lynch says:

    Originally Posted By Bob Hulsey
    Outstanding work. One minor correction: Leon McFadden was an infielder, not a pitcher.

    Those who want to learn more about Don’s career can visit his player page at Astros Daily.com. There are also video clips of his 1971 All-Star appearance.

    http://www.astrosdaily.com/players/p/general/Wilson_Don.html

    Thanks, Bob. I don’t know where I read that he was a pitcher, but I should have double checked that. It’s been fixed.

  6. Rondell Webster says:

    I am glad I stumbled upon this article to learn more about this great pitcher. We will never know the truth about his death. However, you have done an excellent job of chronicling what we do know about his life. Thank you.

  7. Gary says:

    Don Wilson. Forever memories etched into my mind, a baseball bat, and a baseball.

    It was July 1971. Astrodome. Playing the Expos. National TV Game. Don Wilson came to bat, swung, and threw the bat into the stands. Section 120 I believe (I think). First row, 3rd base dugout. Seats 1-4. Same place we sat my entire childhood in the Astrodome as my father’s employer had season tickets there from the day the Astrodome opened. I’m the only one who didn’t duck. I put my hands up, as only an 8 year old could think he could catch a ‘foul bat’. It hit me. No damage. Nor to anyone else. I kept the bat. Still have it. The Expos gave me a couple baseballs that I went down after the game to get some autographs. But THE ball I got, brought over by the Astros 3rd base coach later in the game, was from Don Wilson. “Hope you are alright.”. Signed and dated by Don Wilson. The bat? It was Joe Morgan’s bat. Pitchers obviously don’t have bats made for them, and don’t use pine tar. The bottom of the handle had #40 written on it, seemingly from a black marker. Some 15+ years later, at a sports memorabilia show in Houston, soon after Joe Morgan was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I went to get him to autograph the bat. Cost me $30 or so, which I thought was a fortune. When I got up to the front of the line, now in my early 20’s, and handed Joe the bat, he looked at it. Closely. On every side. “It’s not cracked. How did you get this?” Obviously he wasn’t one who regularly gave out uncracked bats as souvenirs. I briefly told him the story about Don Wilson, and told him to look at the bottom of the handle. He shook his head, kind of amazed, and signed the bat. The ball and bat are safely secured as a ‘set’ of sorts, of one of my pride pieces of sports memorabilia from my Astrodome days. Gotta be a tough to beat Don Wilson story.

  8. Tony Wilson (nephew of Don) says:

    Thank You so much for your article about my uncle. I both laughed and cried when I read this article it reminded so much of what I remember of my uncle. I was 13 when he and Alex passed, and it was very hard on our family (especially my grandmother). We had just visited him in december during Xmas vacation and our family had a great time together.

    Don was special and very giving, and I often wonder how all our lives would have been different if he and Alex would have lived. I sometimes stop by his and Alex resting place just to reflect about seeing him coming out of Dodger Stadium after games in LA and visiting with the family before the bus left. He always made time for me, and would bring me signed balls, hats and baseball gloves. He and Joe Morgan, Jim Wynn,Bob Watson would come to my grandmothers house for lunch when playing the dodgers and she would cook everything you could imagine and it was always great food and great fun. Thanks again, and I will forward this to other members of our family

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  1. […] The Mysterious and Tragic Death of Don Wilson (Seamheads). Mike Lynch pens a fantastic piece about a once-promising young pitcher who died well before his time. Former Padres Preston Gomez and Clay Kirby get mentions in this one as well. It’s a long article but very much worth reading. […]

  2. […] much more extensive review of Wilson’s life and death was written by Mike Lynch of Seamheads.com. Published […]



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