Monday, January 2, 2012

#304 - Don Wilson

Nothing like starting the new year off with a big beaming smile. Especially on this guy who came to such a tragic end. Don Wilson shows off some pearly whites back on the farm compound in spring training. In terms of wins and losses, '73 would be the worst season of his career. But despite a contraction in his K to walk ratio, it wasn't all his fault. His ERA was well better than league average. In his 16 losses, the Astros only scored 34 runs, including a run of four games in a row in which they only scored one per game. He also missed a few games after breaking his hand. His low point probably came in July when after a loss in Philly he charged some heckling fans. So it was a pretty frustrating year. But the smile still looks good.

Don Wilson was born in Louisiana and as a kid moved to Compton where in high school and American Legion ball - he played against Roy White and Reggie Smith - he developed local fame due to his excellent rising fastball. His senior year he got hurt which scared off most scouts so he went to Compton Junior College to get healthy and after a year there was signed by Houston in '64. He only got into a few games that summer in Rookie ball, going 1-2 with a 4.33 ERA as a reliever but he did throw 35 strikeouts in 28 innings. He then put up two very nice minor league season: in '65 he went 10-8 with a 1.44 ERA in Single A; and in '66 he went 18-6 with a 2.21 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 187 innings in Double A. The latter season he was his league's pitcher of the year. By the end of '66 he was up top where he won his first game.

Great things were expected from Wilson who was still throwing heat almost exclusively. Around this time he began working in a curve and another change-up but their introduction into his inventory of game-day pitches was slow and uneven. But in '67 despite a torn muscle in his pitching arm he put up a nice ERA as well as his first no-hitter. In '68 his ERA popped to above league average and he had a losing record in another injury-marred season, this time to a pulled leg muscle. In '69 the ERA continued to climb but so did the heat and he struck out a Houston-record 235 batters, including 14 in his second no-hitter against the Reds. He also made some off-the-field news as one half of baseball's first regularly integrated roommate pair, the other half being Curt Blefary. In '70 Don, no stranger to injury, missed the early part of the season due to tendinitis in his shoulder which contributed to a serious contraction in strikeouts. But he did post his best winning percentage that year and when he came back in '71 and '72 he posted the two best seasons of his career, earning an All-Star selection in '71. In '73 despite all the frustrations indicated above, he did record the only two saves in his career.

In '74 Houston kept Prestom Gomez as manager - he'd replaced Leo Durocher towards the end of the '73 season - and Gomez began the season with a four-man rotation, exactly the size Wilson thought he needed to win a coveted 20 games. Unfortunately Don wasn't one of the four and he began the year in the pen. That lasted until a high-strikeout performance against the Reds got him back in the rotation. He began the year with a very inflated ERA but over time pulled it in. That September he no-hit the Reds through eight full innings - although he was down 2-1 - and was pinch-hit for by Gomez in the bottom of the inning. Gomez had also pulled that move with Clay Kirby when he was managing the Padres. But Don actually supported his manager and the move, which won him a lot of fans. It would be one of Don's last games. In January of '75 he and his young son died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a car left running in Don's garage. He was only 29. He left behind a record of 104-92 with a 3.15 ERA, 78 complete games, 20 shutouts, the two saves, and 1,283 strikeouts in 1,741 innings.

I discussed Don's star bullets above, as well as the cartoon. When he passed away, there were many suppositions that it was intentional, but that was never proven and everyone that knew Don disclaimed that possibility. In '73 he was the last pitcher to face Hank Aaron, forcing Hank to wait a year to tie Babe Ruth's home run record.

Now that the year is new some of this music stuff may be a bit redundant. On January 1, 1974 the UK announced its first ever gold record in Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells." The title song from that album was the theme song to the movie "The Exorcist." They also announced the first ever platinum single - the UK versions of these awards were created way after they were in the States - in Gary Glitter's "Love You Love Me Love." I've already commented on that guy so I'm going to leave that one alone.

These guys never faced each other except perhaps back in the LA area as kids:

1. Wilson and Tom Griffin '69 to '74 Astros;
2. Griffin and George Hendrick '77 Padres.

1 comment:

  1. I am so sorry. I wish I had either found or been told about this blog sooner, especially since you're site is now on it's third year or relevance.

    Regardless, your site has now (finally) been added to the Sports Card Blogroll.


    JayBee Anama