Thursday, December 26, 2019

Retired Numbers: Don Wilson

This is the continuation of a series on who has had their number retired by the Astros, and why. Click here to see the first post, on Jim Umbricht.

Don Wilson came to the Astros in 1964 from Compton Community College in Los Angeles. He threw 28IP for the Colts of the Cocoa Rookie League in 1964 and posted a 4.18 ERA. The Astros' eyes were opened, however, in 1965, when he threw 181IP, allowing 132H/29ER, 168K:46BB for Cocoa of the Single-A Florida State League, going 10-8 with a 1.44 ERA/0.98 WHIP.

1966 saw Wilson advance to Amarillo of the Double-A Texas League. In his Age 21 season Wilson threw 187IP, 150H/46ER, 197K:68BB (walks would be an issue for Wilson throughout his short career), going 18-6 with a 2.21 ERA/1.17 WHIP. It earned Wilson a call-up for the Astros, and he made his Major League debut at Cincinnati on September 29, 1966. 2,002 fans saw Wilson come in relief of injured starter Bob Bruce in the 3rd Inning. Over the next six innings Wilson allowed 5H/2ER, 7K:1BB, striking out the side in the 5th, as the Astros won 3-2. Wilson wouldn't return to the minors.

Wilson would spend most of 1967 in the rotation, but did come out of the bullpen on three occasions. Wilson recorded 21 outs in 17 of his 28 starts, 24 outs in eleven starts, and threw seven complete games, three of those were shutouts. The highlight of Wilson's 1967 season came on June 18 when Wilson threw 9IP, 0H/0ER, 15K:3BB against Atlanta, recording the third no-hitter in franchise history, and the first one thrown at The Astrodome. Wilson didn't allow a baserunner until he walked Denis Menke in the 5th. Wilson struck out Hank Aaron in the top of the 9th to complete the no-hitter. It was Wilson's second straight complete game, and he set a franchise record for strikeouts in a two-game span, at 28. Aaron:
He just threw that last one right by me. It's young guys like this that make me want to retire.

Tito Francona, on Wilson's fastball that day:
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 remember another pitcher who threw the ball as hard as Wilson did that day.

Astros owner Roy Hofheinz cancelled Wilson's contract after the game and issued him a new one with a $1000 raise. Manager Grady Hatton:
He had thrown 155 pitches against San Francisco in his last start and we had brought him back on three days' rest where we have been on a five-man rotation. I was dying in the dugout - this is just too hard on a manager. I should get extra pay, too.

It was the first no-hitter by a rookie in the National League since 1934, and Wilson joined Bob Feller as the only two 22-year olds to throw a no-hitter. On July 20, 1967 Wilson set a franchise record with 25 consecutive shutout innings. He would end 1967 with a 2.79 ERA / 1.14 WHIP.

Over the next three seasons (1968-1970) Wilson would post a below-average 93 ERA+ on a 3.73 ERA / 1.32 WHIP. On July 14, 1968 he became just the 3rd pitcher to strike out 18 batters in a 9-inning game (against the Reds, of course). A late-April/early-May 1969 series at Cincinnati would prove to be historic. On April 30 the Reds' Jim Maloney no-hit the Astros to drop Houston to 4-20 on the season. The very next day Wilson became the first, and still only, Astro to throw two no-hitters, when he repeated the feat.

But he posted a League-high 16 wild pitches in 1969 and had 3.3 BB/9. Wilson made news off the field in 1969, however, when he and Astros 1B Curt Blefary became "baseball's second pair of interracial roommates" on road trips.

But Wilson would bounce back in 1971 with a career year. In his Age 26 season Wilson threw a career-high 268IP, 195H/73ER, 180K:79BB, good enough for a 2.45 ERA (career-best 138 ERA+) and a league-leading 6.5 hits/9. It resulted in the only All-Star selection of Wilson's career. The Houston-area BBWAA chapter named him team MVP.

He followed that 1971 season up with another solid year in 1972, going 15-10 with a 2.68 ERA. Over 68 starts in 1971-1972, Wilson threw 31 complete games. Wilson's strikeout rate started declining, though, while his walk rate increased:

1967: 7.8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9
1968: 7.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9
1969: 9.4 K/9, 3.9 BB/9
1970: 4.6 K/9, 3.2 BB/9
1971: 6.0 K/9, 2.7 BB/9
1972: 6.8 K/9, 2.6 BB/9
1973: 5.6 K/9, 3.5 BB/9
1974: 4.9 K/9, 4.4 BB/9

In 204.2IP in 1974 - Wilson's last season - he struck out 112 batters but walked 100. He was 22-29 in 1973-1974, albeit with a 3.14 ERA (113 ERA+). Astros 3B Doug Rader noted that Wilson was different later in his career, and had become bitter. Rader:
What made him bitter? I'd say he was a little disillusioned with people. 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.

At some point early in the morning of January 5, 1975 Wilson pulled his 1972 Thunderbird into the garage with a BAC of .167. Bernice, Wilson's wife, called a neighbor in the early afternoon saying she needed help after being awakened by Wilson's running motor and by her children crying. An ambulance was called at 1:24pm.

When police came they found Wilson's "head...tilted back resting on the seat, and his arms were at his sides. His left foot was crossed over his right foot. A pack of cigarettes was on the dashboard in front of Wilson," wrote the New York Times. The driver's side door was closed but the passenger door was open. The car had run out of gas but the ignition was on and the engine was cold. The garage doors were open.

Don Wilson died of carbon monoxide poisoning five weeks short of his 30th birthday. Alexander, Wilson's five-year old son whose bedroom was above the garage, also died. His 9-year old daughter, Denise, was hospitalized in a coma. Bernice had a "bruised, swollen, and painful jaw" but Houston detective Jim Pierce believed the deaths were accidental. Pierce:
I don't see how it could have been anything else. There were no signs of violence.

Bernice gave varying accounts of why her jaw hurt. At first she said she didn't know how it happened, then said she "might have been struck," and then said she fell against a wall. A doctor said her injured jaw was a result of an infected salivary gland. Bernice noted that she and Don had been out with Cesar Cedeno on January 4, the night before Wilson was found. Cedeno was interviewed by Houston police twice and said it was January 3, not the 4th. Bernice "claimed amnesia" about the events of January 4-5, 1975. Police had some questions. Mainly, why did Alexander succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning and Denise go into a coma from carbon monoxide exposure, but Bernice wasn't affected at all?

When detectives tried to interview Bernice on January 14, she informed them she had retained Richard "Racehorse" Haynes and there was at least some speculation that "domestic strife" was at least partially responsible for the jaw and Wilson's death.

On February 5, 1975 Harris County Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk ruled Don and Alexander's deaths as "accidental," and the case was closed. Wilson's career ended with a 104-92 record. His 26.4 fWAR was second only to Larry Dierker's 28.7 in franchise history at the time of his death, and is still 6th in franchise history. He's one of eight Astros pitchers to win 100 games with the team, and he's 8th all-time with 245 Games Started for Houston.

The Astros retired Wilson's #40 prior on April 14, 1975, after opening the season with a six-game homestand and the day before the team traveled to Atlanta and Cincinnati. The Astros wore a black patch on their sleeve for the duration of the 1975 season.

The most heartbreaking thing to me, the shame of it all, 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.