Obituary: Duane Wilson (1934-2021)

RIP to Duane Wilson, who was the starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in two games games in 1958. He died on November 9 at the age of 87. Wilson was buried at White Chapel Memorial Gardens in Wichita, Kan.

Duane Lewis Wilson was born in Wichita on June 29, 1934. Even as a lefty pitcher at Wichita East High School, he had a knack for racking up strikeouts. In an American Legion game on July 14, 1950, he struck out 19 as Wichita rolled over Salina 7-1. In 1952, he set a Kansas tournament record with 17 strikeouts, as East defeated Wyandotte 4-3. He also threw a no-hitter against Planeview that year. He was signed by the Boston Red Sox shortly after graduation, and his pitching skills carried over to the minors quite well. The 18-year-old won 9 games for the High Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms of the North Carolina State League to wrap up the 1952 season, and then he won 13 games in 1953 and ’54.

Source: The Wichita Eagle, August 30, 1953.

“He is one of the brightest young pitching prospects in the Red Sox system,” said Eddie Popowski, manager of the Greensboro Patriots in 1953. Wilson was a hard-luck pitcher for that team, with a 13-12 record but a 2.21 ERA. The young southpaw logged more than 200 innings that year, too. “I’ve learned how to pitch and pace myself,” Wilson said of his success. “In early season I was having trouble going nine innings, but now I can pace myself so that I don’t tire in the last two frames.

“I’ve got one goal ahead — Fenway Park,” he added.

Wilson made it as high as Triple-A Louisville in 1955, where he worked mainly as a reliever. His young age (21) and prior heavy workload have have led the Sox organization to ease up on his usage that season. He returned to starting in the lower minors, and while he repeatedly picked up double-digit win totals, his walk numbers were alarming. He had a 12-11 record for Oklahoma City in 1956, but he walked 149 batters while striking out 93. The Sox sent him all the way back to Class-A ball with the Albany Senators of the Eastern League in 1957. He won 13 games there and harnessed his control, dropping his walk totals to 75 in 169 innings. He also had 117 strikeouts.

Wilson joined the Red Sox in spring training in 1958 and ended up spending the early part of the season with the Double-A Memphis Chicks of the Southern League. He won 9 games with a 2.50 ERA and was rewarded with a promotion to the major leagues that July.

Source: The Commercial Appeal, April 25, 1958.

Wilson’s major-league debut came in a start against the Baltimore Orioles on July 3, 1958. It qualifies as a quality start, as he allowed just one unearned run in 6 innings. However, Wilson battled out of trouble the entire game, putting runners on base in five of those innings via 8 hits and 5 walks. He threw his only 1-2-3 inning in the top of the sixth, but he started off the seventh inning by surrendering base hits to Foster Castleman and pinch-hitter Al Pilarick. Billy Gardner reached on an error by first baseman Dick Gernert to load the bases, and Wilson walked Jim Busby to force in a run. He was relieved by Leo Kiely, who got out of the inning with the Red Sox leading 2-1. Unfortunately, The Orioles rallied and won 7-5 in 15 innings, leaving Wilson with a no-decision.

Wilson’s second start on July 12 against the Chicago White Sox was a short one. He quickly loaded the bases in the first inning with a walk to Billy Goodman, a single by Nellie Fox and another walk to Jim Landis. Ray Boone brought in a run with a sacrifice fly, and Al Smith followed it up with an RBI single. That was enough for manager Mike “Pinky” Higgins, who pulled Wilson out of the game. Reliever Mike Fornieles promptly gave up a home run to Earl Battey, adding another run to Wilson’s tally. He was spared a loss when Frank Malzone tied the game at 5 in the fourth inning with a 2-run homer. The White Sox then scored 8 unanswered runs to cruise to a 13-5 win. It was Wilson’s last appearance in the majors.

Days later, the Red Sox optioned Wilson to the Minneapolis Millers. He struggled there, with a 6-5 record and an ERA approaching 5. He was also upset about his briefest of tryouts with the Red Sox. He told Star Tribune reporter Tom Briere that when he started the ’58 season with Memphis instead of the Triple-A Millers, he figured that it was his last year in organized ball. “Then I won nine and lost five and went to the Red Sox with high hopes,” he said. When asked how manager Higgins could determine his abilities on a short audition, he replied, “I don’t know. I can’t figure it out but that’s when you get in trouble in baseball, when you start thinking anyway.”

Source: The Wichita Beacon, August 17, 1966.

Wilson’s two games with the Red Sox resulted in a 5.68 ERA in 6-1/3 innings of work. He allowed 10 hits and 7 walks, while striking out 3 batters. He had two plate appearances, striking out once and laying down a sacrifice bunt once. Wilson spent 1959 with the Minneapolis Millers as a swingman and had a 3-3 record and 3.00 ERA in 8 starts and 16 relief appearances. It was his last year in pro ball; he had an 85-70 record in eight minor-league seasons with 730 strikeouts in 1,216 innings. He wasn’t injured when he retired at the age of 25. “I was home 30 days and gone 35… it was no good for a married man,” he later explained.

Wilson stayed in Wichita starting in 1960, pitching for the champion Kansas squad Weller Indians in the National Baseball Congress Tournament. He continued to play on baseball and fast-pitch softball teams over the next several years, and his hitting was almost as potent as his pitching. He also found a career in finance, working for Interstate Finance Co. and Aetna Finance Co., both located in Wichita. He became manager of the finance loan department at Stockyards National Bank in 1966. By 1979, he was vice president of the United American State Bank of Wichita.

Wilson was inducted into the Kansas Baseball Association’s Hall of Fame in 2005, along with Gene Mauch, Jack Banta and minor-leaguer Jim Thomas. His wife, Carol Sue Wilson, died in 2013. Duane Wilson is survived by daughters Diana, Lori and Kari, and their families.

For more information: Downing & Lahey Funeral Home

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