It has been 45 years since possibly the most beloved team in Tigers history won the World Series. The ‘68 Tigers, much like the 1984 incarnation of the franchise, have gained a special place in Detroit lore. Not only did those Tigers satisfy the wishes of a baseball fan base hungry for a championship, but they also served to calm a racially-divided city in the aftermath of the horrific race riots of 1967.
From time to time here on this blog, I’ll take a look back at that season, while profiling some of the players (like Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, Gates Brown, and Dick McAuliffe) who made that summer stand out at a tumultuous time in Detroit’s civic history. In looking back at the 1968 Tigers, we tend to remember the team winning the last pure pennant (before the implementation of two divisions in each league) in a 12-game runaway. But that runaway did not begin until September. In late August, there remained serious questions as to whether the Tigers would stave off the challenges of the rest of the American League, principally the Orioles of Earl Weaver.
At this time in 1968, the Tigers held a decent but not insurmountable lead. In losing a doubleheader to the Yankees on Sunday, August 25, the Tigers saw their advantage in the pennant race shrink by a game and a half, down to five games. The doubleheader defeat was especially infuriating because of how the Tigers lost the first game, dropping a decision to outfielder-turned-pitcher Rocky Colavito. Yankee manager Ralph Houk summoned Colavito, the former Tiger playing as a backup in his last major league season, to pitch long relief after an ineffective start by Steve Barber. The strong-armed Colavito shut out the Tigers over two and two-third innings, earning the win in a strange 6-5 decision at Yankee Stadium. To add insult to injury, the Tigers blew a 5-0 lead.
In the meantime, the Orioles won an 18-inning marathon over the Red Sox to pull closer to the pacesetting Tigers. For a team that had once led the league by eight games, a five-game advantage seemed precarious.
After the sweep, the Tigers continued their road trip with a critical two-game stop in Chicago. In the first game, a Monday night affair at Comiskey Park, manager Mayo Smith gave the ball to burly right-hander Earl Wilson. At 10-11, Wilson had pitched decently but not spectacularly as the Tigers’ No. 3 starter behind Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich. Using a good fastball and his vintage slider, Wilson proceeded to shut down the White Sox on six hits and a walk, spinning an impressive 3-0 shutout. With the Orioles splitting a doubleheader against the A’s, the Tigers’ lead jumped back up to five and a half games.
Wilson would win only two more games the rest of the season, but that was mostly due to a lack of run support and bad luck. By season’s end, he lowered his ERA to 2.85, the second best figure among starters after McLain (and ahead of Lolich). A full-bore workhorse, Wilson gave the Tigers 224 innings, including 10 complete games. He also did good work with the bat, contributing seven home runs, an especially impressive total given how the conditions of the day favored pitchers.
It’s interesting to note how Wilson became a Tiger in the first place. Originally drafted as a catcher by the Red Sox, the Red Sox converted him to pitching. In becoming the first African-American pitcher in the history of the Red Sox, he had to overcome some immediate racism. The Red Sox’ original scouting report of Wilson contained the following words:
“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. Wow. In spite of such a backhanded assessment, Wilson made his way through the Red Sox’ system and became an effective power pitcher with a good fastball and slider. He also established a reputation as one of the greatest hitting pitchers of all-time. (For his career, he hit 33 home runs as a pitcher, ranking him fifth all-time among hurlers, behind only Wes Ferrell, Bob Lemon, Warren Spahn, and Red Ruffing.)
Although Wilson pitched consistently for the Red Sox, highlighted by a 1962 no-hitter, they decided to trade him during 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 Lakeland, Florida, during spring training. One of the bar’s employees told the Red Sox’ pitchers flatly, “We don’t serve niggers here.” It was Jim Crow segregation at its worst, persisting two years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
Wilson, Bennett, and Morehead had no choice but to leave the segregated bar. Wilson then informed Red Sox management about what occurred, but was told to forget about the incident and say nothing to the media. As a proud African American, Wilson could not comply with that request. He told a member of the Boston media what had happened. The story that came out underplayed the angle of race, instead emphasizing that several Red Sox pitchers had been out drinking at a late hour. Shortly thereafter, in a move that many considered an act of punishment, the Sox sent Wilson and little-used backup outfielder Joe Christopher (another African American) to the Tigers for outfielder-first baseman Don Demeter and right-hander Julio “Whiplash” Navarro.
The retaliatory trade would backfire for the Red Sox. Demeter would play decently for the Red Sox, but he would be rerouted to Cleveland the following year and then retire at season’s end. Navarro never appeared in a game for the Red Sox. In stark contrast, Wilson thrived in Detroit, winning 13 of 19 decisions and putting up a stylish 2.59 ERA. The following summer, he won a career-high 22 games for the Tigers, who nearly captured the American League pennant before settling for a second-place finish. Then came the World Series ring in 1968.
Winning a World Series might very well have been the highlight of Wilson’s career, but it was not his most significant accomplishment. No, that would have been his work as the president of the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), the organization entrusted with the work of helping former players who are indigent or have otherwise hit hard times. A smart businessman, Wilson had done well for himself financially in the Detroit area, but he was disturbed by the misfortunes suffered by other players. Joining BAT gave him the opportunity to do something about the situation. Along the way, he made himself plenty of friends.
Wilson served BAT as its president through 2004. The following April, he suffered a massive heart attack, passing away at the age of 70.
Though he’ll never be as well-remembered as McLain and Lolich, the staff aces of the 1968 Tigers, Wilson created his fair share of memories, including the no-hitter with the Red Sox and the key stretch of good pitching in August and September for the ‘68 champs. Earl Wilson did well as a pitcher, and even better as a baseball philanthropist. There’s nothing wrong with a legacy like that.