The first black man to pitch for the Boston Red Sox, Earl Wilson was a late bloomer. Having missed most of two seasons due to military service, the tall right-hander didn’t mature into a successful big league pitcher until his late 20s. Just as he started to come into his own, the Red Sox dealt him to the Detroit Tigers in the middle of the 1966 season in a five-player trade. Wilson ended up winning 18 games between the two teams and hit seven home runs.
He was always an excellent hitter: his 35 career home runs are the most for a pitcher in the post-expansion era. It’s likely that had Wilson concentrated solely on hitting he could have been a power-hitting first baseman.
In 1967 he won 22 games for the Tigers, a league-leading total that helped him finish 12th in MVP voting. The following year when Detroit rain away with the pennant, Wilson didn’t get great run support and finished a modest 13-12, but he had a 2.85 ERA and hit seven home runs to help his cause. In the World Series the Tigers got a heroic performance from Mickey Lolich, as the lefty started, completed, and won three games in Detroit’s come-from-behind triumph over the Cardinals. But had Wilson not been “nervous” to pitch on such a big stage, manager Mayo Smith probably wouldn’t have given Lolich three starts. A few members of the ’68 team have revealed that Wilson got a case of the nerves during the Fall Classic.
Wilson might have had some help on the mound during his career from an illegal pitch. In 1966, Frank Robinson, newly a member of the Baltimore Orioles after spending his career in the National League with the Reds, accused Wilson of throwing a wet ball. “I know he threw one to me,” Robinson said in June.