Grave Story: Don Wilson (1945-1975)

Here lies Don Wilson, an All-Star pitcher for Houston who threw two no-hitters in his 9-year career. He died at the peak of his playing career in a family tragedy that shook the baseball world and created an incomplete picture of who he was as a person. Wilson played for the Houston Astros from 1966 to 1974.

Donald Edward Wilson was born in Monroe, La., on February 12, 1945, but he grew up in Compton, Calif. He attended Centennial High School there and then went to Compton Community College. He was a shortstop and third baseman in high school, and his brother Willy pitched for the team every Tuesday and Friday. “He was getting mighty tired, so he asked me to pitch a few games to spell him,” Wilson said in a 1966 interview. “I did and I’ve been hooked on pitching ever since.”

The Houston Colt .45s, as they were known at the time, signed Wilson prior to the 1964 season (courtesy of scout Karl Kuehl) and assigned him to the Cocoa Rookie League in Florida. Wilson spent two seasons pitching in Florida for the organization. In 1964, he was eased into professional baseball, appearing in 10 games and working 28 innings. However, he struck out 35 batters in those 28 innings and allowed 23 hits, so he was already showing some of the stuff that would make him a successful pitcher in the majors. After the season, Wilson returned to California and married Bernice Delores Greene on October 31, 1964. She was 18 years old, and he was 19.

In 1965, pitching for the Cocoa Astros in the Florida State League, Wilson started 24 games and had a sparkling 1.44 ERA, to go with his 10-8 record. In 181 innings, he allowed just 132 hits and fanned 168. He gave up just one home run all season long. Wilson threw 4 shutouts, including a 3-0 win over West Palm Beach on September 2, 1965. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before it was broken up by a Texas League single by Cito Gaston, so he settled on a 3-hitter. Wilson moved up to the Amarillo Sonics of the Double-A Texas League in 1966. He quickly proved to be one of the top prospects in the league, winning 18 games with a 2.21 ERA. He finished second in the league in wins and in strikeouts with 197 — one K behind Fred Norman for the lead. Manager Buddy Hancken saw him as a major-league pitcher sooner rather than later. “His best pitch is a slider but he’s deceptively fast because he’s so smooth,” the manager stated. “If you were building a model pitcher, he’s it.”

For all his success, Wilson was named Texas League Pitcher of the Year. He was also brought to the major leagues after the Sonics’ postseason run ended. He only appeared in one game with the Astros that year, but it was a noteworthy performance. Starting pitcher Bob Bruce left the game against the Cincinnati Reds on September 29 after 2 innings due to a knee injury. Wilson entered and threw 6 innings of relief, allowing 2 runs on 5 hits. Wilson fanned 7 Reds, and his only mistake was a 2-run home run hit by Art Shamsky. Meanwhile, Houston’s Chuck Harrison and Aaron Pointer both homered off Reds pitcher Joe Nuxhall, so Wilson ended up the winning pitcher in the 3-2 victory.

The Astros put Wilson into the starting rotation in 1967. The pitching coach, Gordon Jones, told Wilson to nibble the corners and pitch to spots, and the rookie pitcher had decidedly mixed results. He won his first start of the year, beating the Reds 8-2 while working 5 innings. In his next start, the Reds knocked him out of the game in the first inning with 5 straight base hits. Going into his start against the Atlanta Braves on June 18, Wilson had a 3-3 record and 3.52 ERA. For that game, he decided to ignore Jones’ advice. “I made up my mind that if the Braves were going to beat me that were going to have to hit my fastball,” Wilson said.

Don Wilson gets sprayed in the face with champagne following his first no-hitter over the Braves. Source: El Paso Herald-Post, June 19, 1967.

As it turned out, the Braves couldn’t hit his fastball… or anything else. Wilson struck out 15 batters and no-hit the Braves 2-0, becoming the first rookie to throw a no-hitter since 1962 (Bo Belinsky, who was Wilson’s teammate on the Astros in ’67). He struck out Braves slugger Hank Aaron three times. Wilson walked 3 batters (Aaron once and Denis Menke twice) and never allowed a runner to reach scoring position. The Astros got their scoring off Braves starter Phil Niekro in the fourth inning with an RBI double by Jim Wynn and an RBI groundout by Eddie Mathews.

“He was really firing the ball. He threw it right past me,” Aaron said after the game. “He’s the kind of guy that makes me want to retire from the game.”

Wilson said that he didn’t do anything differently that day than any other day before correcting himself. “Oh, yes, there was one thing. My wife [Bernice] didn’t cook breakfast for me. She wasn’t feeling well.” When asked if she’d be excused from cooking breakfast before his starts, he said, “I’ll try it one more time and see what happens.”

The no-hitter didn’t exactly turn his season around. The Astros were a 93-loss team that finished in ninth place in the National League, and Wilson’s win-loss record was 10-9. However, he did lower his ERA to 2.79 by the end of the season, and he struck out 159 batters in 184 innings. He became one of the constants in a pitching rotation that saw considerably turnover over the next few seasons.

Wilson went 13-16 in 1968, as the Astros plummeted to last place in the NL. His ERA rose to 3.28, but he made a notable contribution to the “Year of the Pitcher.” On July 14, he tied a major-league record with 18 strikeouts in a 6-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds. He struck out the side in each of the first three innings, with a first inning walk to Alex Johnson being the only thing to break up the streak. Wilson tied a record of eight consecutive strikeouts, and catcher John Bateman tied the catchers’ record with eight straight putouts.

The Astros moved up to .500 in 1969, thanks to the workhouse pitching of Wilson and fellow starters Larry Dierker and Denny Lemaster. Wilson threw 225 innings and struck out a career-high 235 batters, and he finished with a 16-12 record and an even 4.00 ERA. He completed 13 of his 34 starts and threw 1 shutout. And it was a memorable one.

On April 30, 1969, Cincinnati battered Houston 10-0. To make matters worse, Jim Maloney threw a no-hitter, striking out 13 Astros along the way. The very next day – May 1 – the two teams met again, and the Astros got their revenge. In only the second time on Major League Baseball history, two teams no-hit each other on consecutive days. Gaylord Perry of the Giants and Ray Washburn of the Cardinals accomplished the feat in 1968. This time, Wilson returned Maloney’s no-hitter with a 4-0 no-no of his own – the second one of his career.

Don Wilson and catcher John Bateman celebrate after Wilson struck out eight consecutive Reds, tying a record for Wilson as a pitcher and a consecutive putouts record for Bateman. Source: Shreveport Journal, February 15, 1968.

There had been bad blood between the two teams to kick off the season. Cincinnati had beaten Houston 14-0 on April 22, and some Astros felt the Reds unnecessarily poured it on. Wilson lasted 5 innings in that game and gave up 5 runs before exiting. He came into his May 1 start in Cincinnati with something to prove.

“They don’t like me, and I don’t like them,” Wilson said after the game. “I wanted to pay them back for what they did to us when they beat me 14-0. They stuck their tongues out at us. They laughed at us… They’ve got some good guys on the field – friends of mine off the field – but then they’ve got some others.”

Wilson wasn’t as effective as he was in his first no-hitter. He struck our 13 Reds but walked 6 and hit Johnny Bench, which some Reds contended was intentional. Doug Rader homered to lead off the top of the fourth inning for the only run Wilson would need, and Menke added two insurance runs with a double in the fifth. Wilson himself added the last run with a sacrifice fly that scored his roommate, Curt Blefary. When Tommy Helms popped out to end the game, Wilson walked toward the departing Reds players before his teammates and manager Harry Walker rerouted him back to the Astros dugout.

When asked to comment about the loss, Reds manager Dave Bristol said, “I’m not a Don Wilson fan. I don’t think many of our guys think much of Wilson either.” He accused Wilson of deliberately aiming at Bench in the game. “But I don’t believe he scared Bench any.”

After the game, Wilson had cooled down and said that this no-hitter gave him more personal satisfaction than the one in his rookie year. “I was pretty strongly motivated not only for the win but to get the no-hitter. I wanted to prove to them that we are professionals, too.” When asked what he would say to his wife, who was back in Houston and almost ready to deliver the couple’s first child, he said, “Don’t get excited and have that baby now!” Bernice later responded, “I thought I was going to have it when catcher Don Bryant dropped the pop foul in the eighth.” It was the Astros only error on the day. Bernice gave birth to Donald Alexander Wilson on May 13, 1969.

Wilson, it was noted by some teammates, pitched better when he was mad. And the Reds, led by Bristol, loved riding Wilson from the bench. The Reds manager set the tone by cursing out the Astros pitcher, and Wilson would usually retaliate by throwing at his players. “The one thing you should never do with Don Wilson is make him mad,” said Dooley Womack, who was an Astro in 1969. “He’s just super when he’s mad.”

Earlier I had written that Wilson was roommates with Curt Blefary. The two became friends during an Astros offseason caravan when Blefary, who had just come from the Baltimore Orioles, traveled with Wilson, Wynn and Joe Morgan. Wynn and Morgan, who were both black, roomed together, and it was assumed that Wilson would get his own room. But Blefary and Wilson became friends and decided to room together. In doing so, they broke one of baseball’s last remaining racial barriers by becoming one of the first, if not the first, pair of black-and-white roommates.

“We like a lot of the same things,” Blefary told Daily News columnist Dick Young. “We watch daytime television shows like Let’s Make a Deal and Jeopardy and Dream House. After the games, we’ll watch a late movie. We try to stay away from the cowboys. We’re big on murder mysteries.” And if the two couldn’t agree on what to watch? “He’s bigger than I am,” Blefary responded.

The two roommates also went to some favorite hangouts on the road, which is how Wilson and Blefary ended up in a black club in Cincinnati. “And he said, ‘Don’t you dare leave me alone. Don’t you go to the men’s room without me!’” Wilson said, laughing.

Wilson missed time in 1970 with arm and shoulder problems and was limited to 29 games – 27 of which were starts. He went 11-6 but threw fewer than 200 innings and failed to reach 100 strikeouts for the only full season of his career. He rebounded in 1971 with perhaps his finest season. He was 16-10 with a 2.45 ERA and threw a career-high 268 innings. He allowed 195 hits and led the NL with 6.5 hits per 9 innings pitched. That is the only league-leading statistic of his career, aside from leading baseball with 16 wild pitches in 1969. Wilson completed 18 games and threw 3 shutouts. He was also named to the All-Star Team for the only time in his career. He worked the final two innings of the game, allowing just a walk to Carl Yastrzemski, who was erased on a Harmon Killebrew double play. He struck out Don Buford and Al Kaline.

Wilson’s injuries from 1970 had forced him to use more pitches than just his fastball, and he credited the change to making him a better pitcher. “After I was injured, I had to develop something else. I think I’m a 50 percent better pitcher now. When you got nothing but a fastball some players will just haul off and hit it,” he said in an interview. “I’ve got more pitches now and I’m more confident. That’s the big thing, I’ve got more confidence.”

Wilson’s strikeout rate did drop after his partial 1970 season. From 1966 to 1969, he averaged 8.3 strikeouts per 9 innings. From 1971 onward, he averaged 5.9. However, during those same spans, opponent batting average dropped from .232 to .218, so Wilson did become a more effective pitcher when he began to find other ways to retire hitters.

The Astros had their best season of Wilson’s career in 1972, when the team finished 84-69, good for a third-place finish in the NL West. Wilson finished with a 15-10 record and 2.68 ERA. He struggled through the first couple of months, and manager Harry Walker attributed it to continuing recovery from his 1970 injuries. Starting with a 12-strikeout performance against San Francisco on August 12, Wilson won 5 straight decisions to turn the season around. He threw a 13-inning complete game against the Giants on September 7, allowing a run on 10 hits. That game ended courtesy of home runs by Bob Watson and Roger Metzger (a 3-run shot) off the Giants bullpen in the top of the 13th inning. By then, Wilson was playing for a new manager – Leo Durocher.

Durocher was 67 years old and in his final year of managing. Despite his Hall of Fame status, he was not every ballplayer’s favorite, and it seems like Wilson didn’t care for him. On July 28, Durocher fined Wilson $300 for calling him an “uncomplimentary name.” Wilson called Durocher something as the pitcher boarded the team bus at the Houston International Airport, following a flight from Los Angeles. According to sportswriters who were on the bus, Wilson made his remark as he passed by Durocher, and when the manager asked the pitcher to repeat his comment, he did so several times. Durocher added that Wilson could face a suspension, but that would be up to General Manager H.B. “Spec” Richardson. Wilson wasn’t suspended, though his next appearance in a ballgame came as a reliever. Wilson got the final four outs of a 3-2 win against the Dodgers on July 31, earning his first career save. Wilson had been starting consistently to that point in the season, but Durocher worked him as a reliever for a few games toward the end of the year. It was never disclosed just what Wilson said or why he said it, but he was hardly the only ballplayer who ever felt like calling Durocher an “uncomplimentary name.”

Overall, 1973 was a disappointing season. Though the Astros finished above .500 again, Wilson had an 11-16 record, and his ERA rose to 3.20. He allowed just 187 hits in 239-1/3 innings of work, but he surrendered a career-high 21 home runs. He missed 3 weeks of the season after breaking his hand while trying to field a bunt on May 23. He had a bit of fun on September 30, the final game of the season. The Astros were facing the Braves, and Aaron entered the game with 713 career home runs – one shy of Babe Ruth’s record. Dave Roberts (this Dave Roberts, not that Dave Roberts) got the start, his teammates joked with him that by giving up the record-tying home run, he could eat well on the banquet tour all winter. Wilson left the bullpen during the game and camped out behind the center field wall with a baseball glove, ready to catch the ball. Roberts waved his teammate back into the pen, and he later said that the levity helped relax him. Aaron got 3 hits off Roberts that day, but they were all singles. Wilson pitched the final three innings but avoided putting his name in the record book by getting Aaron to pop out to second base.

Wilson had another sub-.500 record in 1974, with an 11-13 record. His ERA was 3.08, and he had his fifth consecutive ERA+ of 100 or higher (112 in ’74), meaning that he was consistently an above-average pitcher. Some of Wilson’s hard luck could come from the fact that he pitched about half his games in the cavernous Astrodome, which dramatically cut down Houston’s offense. He noted another issue with the domed stadium – it was just too cool. “I’m a warm weather pitcher. I like it when it’s hot. It helps keep me loose,” he said. He added that he found ways to combat the cool temperatures inside the dome. “I learned how to overcome it by wearing two jackets between innings and, sometimes, I even wrap a towel around my arm.”

In his eighth full major-league season, Wilson still had the capability to dazzle. He came within three outs of a third no-hitter on September 4 against his old foes, the Cincinnati Reds. Wilson threw no-hit ball for 8 innings but found himself with a 2-0 deficit. At the top of the fifth inning, Wilson walked Cesar Geronimo and George Foster. Reds pitcher Jack Billingham bunted them over to second and third base, and then Pete Rose reached on an error by shortstop Metzger, allowing both unearned runs to score. As the game went to the bottom of the eighth inning, new Astros manager Preston Gomez made the difficult decision to pinch-hit for Wilson with Tommy Helms. The move didn’t result in a run, and Astros reliever Mike Cosgrove allowed the Reds only single, to Tony Perez, in the ninth inning. Wilson ended up with the hard-luck loss dropping his record to 10-11 on the year.

According to UPI writer Milton Richman’s report about the game, Wilson stayed in the trainer’s room after the game, drinking beer, away from the media. When he emerged, he had nothing but praise for Gomez’s decision. “If I was managing and the same situation came up, I’d probably do the same thing he did. As a player, I consider myself fortunate playing for him. I like him. He’s consistent, and you can talk to him. You go in, tell him how you feel, exactly what’s on your mind, and he doesn’t hold it against you. He’s all right,” Wilson said. (And you can probably infer from those comments his opinion on Leo Durocher, too.)

According to the article, Wilson arrived home after midnight, and his wife Bernice vented about Gomez and the decision to bring in a pinch-hitter.

“Well, these things happen,” Wilson reportedly said. “It may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened. Say I would’ve pitched another no-hitter. There would’ve been a lot of publicity, a lot of excitement, a lot of everything. Who knows, you might have gotten so upset with me, we might’ve gotten a divorce in the morning.”

Wilson lost his next two starts but ended the season with one of his best efforts on the year. He shut out Atlanta 5-0 on a two-hitter. He walked 3 and didn’t strike out a single batter. After the season, he asked for and received assurances from Gomez that he would remain in the starting rotation for the 1975 season. He predicted to an Astros employee that he would win 20 games for the first time in his career. He also busied himself with a pitching school for children in Houston he ran with teammate Tom Griffin.

Police were called out to the Wilson residence at 6226 Vickijohn Dr. in Houston early in the morning of January 5, 1975. There, they found Don Wilson slumped in the passenger seat of his 1972 Thunderbird in the two-car garage. The ignition was turned on, but the engine was cold. Wilson, 29, had died of asphyxiation from the carbon monoxide fumes. His son, Alex, 5, had been in the bedroom located above the garage, and he too had died. Daughter Denise, 9, was transported to Texas Children’s Hospital in critical condition and remained in a coma for several days. Bernice Wilson, 29, was taken to Southwest Memorial Hospital for shock, carbon monoxide poisoning and a suspected broken jaw. It was later determined that the jaw was not broken but swollen and bruised.

The garage where Don Wilson died on January 5, 1975. His 5-year-old son Alex, whose bedroom was directly above the garage, also died. Source: Tipton County Tribune, January 6, 1975.

Police said that Wilson drove into the garage around 1:00 a.m. on January 5 and shut the garage door, but left the engine running. Bernice Wilson called a friend between 1:00 and 1:30 and said that she needed help. She said that she awoke from the sound of a car running and that the children were crying in their sleep. She carried Alex from the master bedroom to his bedroom above the garage. The friend she called was a registered nurse who told her to check her husband for a pulse. Police were called to the house that afternoon and arrived around 1:00 p.m. By then, Wilson and his son were dead at the scene. It was estimated that the car had run for about 5 hours in the garage before running out of gas. The deaths were ruled accidental, though some reports listed it as a suicide.

It was reported on January 16 that Denise Wilson had recovered enough to go home. Bernice Wilson ceased cooperating with the police around that time and referred all questions from the police to her attorney. Wilson was legally drunk at the time of his death, and it was suspected that his wife’s bruised jaw was the result of a domestic incident. According to the Seamheads website, there were several explanations for her injuries, ranging from a fall down a flight of stairs to an infection. Her story about the events of January 4 and 5 changed as well, though shock and carbon monoxide poisoning could explain her hazy memories. She didn’t know how she had hurt her jaw when first questioned by police.

Wilson and his son were buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Covina, Calif., on January 9. Widow Bernice Wilson was able to attend, but Denise remained hospitalized as a result of her injuries. Pallbearers included teammates Bob Watson, Cesar Cedeno, Ken Forsch, Tom Griffin, Doug Rader and Dave Roberts. J.C. Hartman, a former Astros shortstop turned Houston policeman, spoke at the memorial service. “[Don] had a particular love for children. There were many times we’d call him to help out with programs in the police department and he never let us down,” Hartman said of his former teammate. “I’ll remember little Alex, too. Little Alex was so full of life. He just bubbled over with life.”

Over 9 major-league seasons, Wilson had a 104-92 record and a 3.15 ERA, with 78 complete games, 20 shutouts and 2 saves. In 1,748-1/3 innings of work, he struck out 1,283 batters and walked 640. He had a career FIP of 3.10 and a WHIP of 1.212.

Wilson was an extremely competitive ballplayer, and he was intense on the days he pitched. That helped to spread the characterization that he was a perpetually angry person with few friends. The Cincinnati Enquirer asked Reds players to describe him, and the answers were predictable. “When he pitched he was mean,” said Jack Billingham. “He’d never smile out there.” “He remained pretty much by himself,” said Denis Menke, who had been Wilson’s teammate with the Astros and foe with the Reds.

UPI’s Milton Richman spoke with Doug Rader, who gave a more complete description of his teammate. “I loved this man dearly when I was in the minors and when he first came up in the big leagues, but then for two or three years he became bitter,” Rader said. “The most heart-breaking thing to me, the shame of it all, is that he had overcome the bitterness, and he was now again the man he used to be, the one I knew at first.

“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.”

Rader also responded to the rumors and theories that surrounded his death. “I’ll never believe he killed himself,” he said. “He loved life too much. His death simply had to be an accident. I’d stake my life on that.”

Don Wilson’s Number 40 was retired by the Astros in 1975. He was part of the Astros Hall of Fame’s inaugural Class of 2019.

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One thought on “Grave Story: Don Wilson (1945-1975)

  1. Alcohol and anger are never a good combination. Having known my share of hard drinkers, I can envision how Wilson’s inebriation led him to pull his vehicle into his garage, where he most likely passed out before he had a chance to turn off the ignition. No way would he have intentionally taken his five-year-old son with him; that was an equally heartbreaking consequence of his being drunk. His life and his son’s may have ended tragically, but it’s heartening to know that the Houston Astros still remember him with respect for his on-field accomplishments rather than ignoring or burying them because of the nature of his death, and that good guys like Curt Blefary later on in his career may have helped mute the pain of being assigned to 1960s FLORIDA as a rookie, which must have been a fraught experience for a young Black man making his way on professional baseball, Jackie Robinson notwithstanding. Thank you for investing your bio of Wilson with the care and affection it deserves, Sam, much appreciated.


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