When he was pitching in Connecticut in the minor leagues, young Bill Donovan walked nine consecutive batters. After that embarrassing lack of control he was never again just Bill – he was “Wild Bill”.
The nickname grew to mean much more. Records were not kept of such things, but it’s likely that Donovan was ejected from more games in his career than any other pitcher. He rankled umpires with his jawing and gesticulations on the hill, and as a result, the men in blue often requested that he leave the field before he had finished his job.
Though he loved the ladies, spirits, and the life of being a ballplayer traveling from town to town on a train with his teammates, card games, and the like, Donovan was a very good pitcher. He won 25 games for Brooklyn in the National League in his first full season in the big leagues, and then went 25-4 in 1907 when the Tigers won their first pennant.
While he was in Detroit, Wild Bill was always in the thick of it. He led a players revolt that ushered manager Bill Armour out of town. He had a feud with teammate Frank Kitson, a fellow pitcher who took umbrage when Wild Bill made a joke at his expense in front of Kitson’s wife. The two were cool with each other, and when George Mullin came along, Donovan recruited him to gang up on Kitson. When young Ty Cobb reported to the Tigs at the tail end of the 1905 season, Donovan was one of the few “northerners” to welcome the Georgian. Later, when Matty McIntyre and other veterans hazed Cobb, Donovan maneuvered to get McIntyre off the club. He liked Cobb’s intensity, and the two were friends. Later, after Donovan had retired as a player, Ty recommended him to a friend for a job as a minor league manager.
The man who would pitch the final game at Bennett Park, the wooden ballpark that preceded Navin Field at “The Corner” in Detroit, Donovan was witness to much of the early history of the Tigers. In many ways he was, along with Germany Schaefer, the hard-drinking, screwball infielder, the face of the franchise in the early 20th century.
The Tigers of the early 20th century (the Deadball Era) were a thrilling offensive team, just as likely to use their legs and trick plays to beat you as they were to use their bats and gloves. Even though he earned his money with his right arm, Donovan took glee in being part of the orchestrated circus that was the Detroit offense.
In 1906 in a game against Cleveland, Wild Bill reached base via walk. He quickly scampered to second base, swiping the bag easily. Doing his best impersonation of Cobb, Donovan proceeded to bolt for third base, getting a walking lead. He slid into the bag under a cloud of dust safely, prompting cheers from his teammates in the dugout. A few batters later, after a walk put another runner on first, Donovan danced down the line and made a beeline for home. He tucked his leg inside the tag and was safe on the front end of a double steal. It was a move that Detroit fans were used to seeing Cobb and Sam Crawford pull off, but it was a sight to see Wild Bill involved in such chicanery. In his career, Donovan stole 26 bases, more than any other by a pitcher in Tigers history.
Donovan pitched in three World Series for the Tigers and he pitched the game that clinched the exciting 1908 pennant race. He won that final game at Bennett Park in 1911, but he suffered a sore arm early in 1912 and his career was over. He finished with 185 victories, 140 of them in a Detroit uniform. He later managed the Yankees and Phillies, but never finished higher than 4th place.
“Bill was even tougher on the umpires as a manager than he ever was when he pitched,” said one American League observer.
In December of 1923, while riding a train bound for Chicago for the winter baseball meetings, “Wild Bill” died when the train crashed in Forsyth, New York. He was only 47 years old.