A huge presence in the lean years
Earl Wilson was one of them. One of the few. Years before the Red Sox were chic, before there was a Nation, even before we figured out that George Herman Ruth cast a spell on us, Robert Earl Wilson was one of the very few good reasons to come to Fenway Park.
"Yeah, those were the lean years," recalled Frank Malzone, himself a raison d'etre of the Fen-
way times, thinking back yesterday upon learning that Wilson died at age 70 over the weekend. "We had some good clubs, but it was always the Yankees in those days; they won eight of the 10 years I was in Boston, if memory serves me right. Lean years, yes, but great people -- and Earl was a great guy." The Sox of the early 1960s, the post-Ted Williams Red Sox, were a motley lot, often playing in front of sparse crowds in the dowdy ballyard. Wilson, a 6-foot-3-inch, 215-pound righthander, was an old-fashioned fastball pitcher who powered his way through innings, stringing together eight seasons of 200-plus innings in the prime of his career.
"I remember one game he worked here, a June game against the Yankees -- I'll never forget it," said Johnny Pesky, the 85-year-old ambassador of all things Back Bay baseball. "Earl had thrown the hell out of the ball, well over 100 pitches -- this was before we counted pitches -- and I went out to the mound to get him. The Big Boy [Dick Radatz] was ready in the pen, and you could hear his pitches popping in the catcher's mitt out there, that snap echoing in the park."
Wilson was spent, recalled Pesky, but didn't want to admit it. It was the way of the era, starters were stoic and stern. Catcher Bob Tillman joined in the conference at the mound, the bases chock-full of Yankees. Pesky shot Tillman a glance, and Tillman gave him the wink, the sign that Wilson was out of gas. But the proud righthander from Ponchatoula, La., didn't want to hand over the ball, and Pesky didn't want to take it from him. Against his better judgment, Pesky was about to acquiesce, and made one more reference to the ever-ready Radatz as he turned to the first-base dugout.
The game would go on, and Wilson with it.
"You know," Wilson said as Pesky pirouetted, "my arm is getting kind of tired."
Wilson was done. In came the behemoth Radatz to face the likes of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Elston Howard. The Sox had a one-run lead that stood one pitch from being transformed into a three-run deficit.
"Radatz, boy, he was the king," said Pesky. "He struck out Mantle on three pitches. He fanned Maris on four pitches. Howard, he grounded out, after fouling off a couple. We won and I looked like a genius. I loved Wilson and I loved Radatz -- loved 'em both. And, geez, now they're both gone, in just a few weeks. Very sad."
Radatz, just shy of his 68th birthday, died March 16 after a fall down a flight of stairs at his home.
For all his impressive work on the mound, Wilson in his Boston days may have been better known for his bat. A converted catcher, he swung for the fences, totaling 35 homers in his 11-year career. He twice hit seven homers in a season, once in 1966 (the year he was dealt, in June, from the Sox to the Tigers) and again in '68, when he helped the Tigers to their World Series victory over the Cardinals. Pesky, who also managed Wilson in the minor leagues (Seattle, 1961) often used him as a pinch hitter in Triple A.
"I know people say he was a great hitter," said Malzone, 75, who still lives in Needham, in the same house he moved into during his last year playing for the Sox. "And he could hit, he could really hit for power. He could get a hold of one and hit it a mile, kind of like Don Drysdale. But, hey, pitchers pitch for a reason. There's a big difference, hitting in one or two games a week and then hitting every game, day-in and day-out. Put a guy in there and see what he can do."
Malzone was at his customary third base spot the night of June 26, 1962, when Wilson no-hit the Los Angeles Angels, 2-0. The game was televised -- not a given in those days -- and the defensive gem was Malzone's catch of a foul ball. Malzone charged to the top step of the visiting dugout, leaned to a 45-degree angle, and snared the ball just a few inches before it would have banged off the roof.
"Oddly enough, I didn't fall," recalled Malzone. "I kept my balance. I thought one of their guys was going to catch me, but funny, I don't know where they went. Not sure who hit it -- maybe Leon Wagner, Bobby Knoop, Albie Pearson. Just a great game by Earl. Late in his career, he picked up a real good breaking ball, and had even more success after he left us. Good guy. Always represented himself well."
Wilson was also a pioneer in Boston, considering the times. Jackie Robinson didn't break Major League Baseball's color line until 1947 when, at age 28, he broke in as a star with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But it wasn't until 1959, when Wilson first came to Boston with Pumpsie Green, that the Red Sox finally suited up African-Americans.
Wilson appeared in 22 games across his first two years, 1959 and '60, and then spent the '61 season in Seattle, where Pesky was the manager.
"He was a great kid from the day I met him, and he was always great -- always, always a gentleman," said Pesky. "I called him Rafer Johnson -- you know, the track star -- and he loved that. Years later, whenever I saw him, he'd give me a big hug. He was big, handsome, and dressed impeccably. The girls were wild for him. But we got rid of him, because [Mike] Higgins didn't like him. Why? Who knows? A very strange guy, Higgins. We got an outfielder from Detroit [Don Demeter] for him, and Wilson went on and had the best year he ever had [22-11 in '67] with the Tigers. Did we ever miss him."
Wilson retired in the Detroit area and, according to Pesky, became a millionaire as an executive with a company with ties to the auto industry. He died Saturday of a massive heart attack.
"Tillman . . . Radatz . . . now Wilson . . . loved those guys, and I've outlived 'em all," mused Pesky.
"We had fun, we sure did," said Malzone. "Great guy, Wilson. He and Radatz, that's two gone in just a couple of months, right? Well, I guess we're reaching that time in our lives."
The baseball cards still make their way through the mail, to Malzone's house in Needham. The autograph seekers are endless and diligent. One of the fans' favorites has Malzone, Jackie Jensen, and Vic Wertz on the same card, under the heading "Boston Bombers."
"Jackie's gone, and Vic, too," said the matter-of-fact Malzone. "I used to have to kind of squeeze my signature in there, next to those guys. Now, I've got all kinds of room to write."