SABR

Don Wilson

This article was written by Matthew Clifford.

Don Wilson’s early death in mysterious circumstances ended what might have turned into an exemplary pitching career. Born in Monroe, Louisiana, on February 12, 1945, Donald Edward Wilson moved with his family to Southern California and settled in Compton, a city just south of Los Angeles. He played in the local Little League and for his high-school team, the Centennial High Apaches. He played shortstop and third base and his older brother, Willy, pitched, but Don also pitched a few times.

“(Willy) was getting mighty tired, so he asked me to pitch a few games to spell him. I did and I’ve been hooked on pitching ever since,” Don said in 1967.1 During his freshman year at the Compton Junior College in 1964, the scouts took notice of his fiery right arm. Wilson signed with the Houston Colt .45’s and was sent to pitch for the Colts in Florida’s Cocoa Rookie League where he spent most of his time working as a reliever.

Wilson stepped up in 1965 to the Cocoa Astros of the Florida State League, where he was used as a starting pitcher and logged a 10-8 record. Before the season ended, Wilson and his wife, Bernice, celebrated the birth of their first child, Denise. In 1966 he pitched for the Amarillo Sonics of the Double-A Texas League, where he won 18 games and lost 6 as a starter, with 197 strikeouts in 187 innings pitched. Called up to the Astros in September, he made his big-league debut on the 29th at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, pitching six innings in relief and getting credit for the Astros’ 3-2 victory.

Astros manager Grady Hatton put Wilson in the pitching rotation in 1967. On June 18 he pitched a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves at the Houston Astrodome, the first no-hitter at the two-year-old ballpark, striking out 15 Braves in the process. Wilson ended the game with a three-pitch strikeout of his boyhood idol, Hank Aaron.

Wilson followed up his perfecto with a streak of 29 consecutive scoreless innings between July 9 and July 26. He ended the season with a 10-9 record and 159 strikeouts for the ninth-place (out of ten teams) Astros. After the season he and Bernice purchased a home in South Houston. Wilson spent the offseason working at a sporting-goods store.

Three months into the 1968 season, Grady Hatton was fired and replaced by the team’s batting coach, Harry Walker. It didn’t help; the punchless Astros finished in last place. Wilson won 13 games, lost 16, and posted a 3.28 earned-run average. On July 14 he struck out 18 Reds in a game at Crosley Field. On August 4, while pitching against Philadelphia at the Astrodome, Wilson complained of chest pains in the eighth inning and was taken to Methodist Hospital in Houston. He told doctors there that he had been suffering the chest pain for some time but said nothing about it so he could finish the season. Nine days later he was back on the mound and shut out the Phillies in Philadelphia.

In 1969 Wilson played a role in a rare achievement. On April 30 at Cincinnati, Reds pitcher Jim Maloney pitched a no-hitter against the Astros. The next day, May 1, Wilson took the mound and threw another no-hitter. It was the second time in major-league history that two teams exchanged no-hitters on successive days. (It had happened just the season before when Gaylord Perry of the San Francisco Giants and Ray Washburn of the St. Louis Cardinals did it on September 17 and 18.) “There were a couple of times my legs were shaking so much I had to step off the mound,” Wilson said after the game. “I never wanted anything so bad in all my life as to pitch that no-hitter.”2 He was alluding to bad blood between the teams after the Reds routed Wilson and the Astros, 14-0, nine days earlier.

Wilson told reporters that the Reds’ manager Dave Bristol, provided added motivation by taunting him from the dugout with the word “gutless.” He said he hoped all the excitement hadn’t upset his wife, who was pregnant with their second child and weeks away from delivery as she watched the game on TV in Houston. Wilson jokingly told the press to give Bernice his personal message, “Don’t get excited and have that baby now.”3 The new baby was a son, Donald Alexander Wilson.

Wilson and his catcher, Don Bryant, were rewarded with raises by Astros general manager Spec Richardson. Wilson himself gave Bryant a gift of an engraved wristwatch.

Wilson and teammate Curt Blefary drew comment in June from several major-league players because they roomed together on the road. Blefary, a first baseman of Italian descent was blunt in responding to those who objected to white and African-American “roomies,” telling a sportswriter, “They said they couldn’t believe I was rooming with a colored guy. I told them to go to hell.”4 Wilson himself said he had received an unsigned hate letter, and commented, “It’s just hard for them to get it through their heads that we are just two human beings trying to make a living in the same game.”5

The Astros improved their record to .500 (81-81) in 1969. Wilson won 16 games and lost 12, but his ERA rose to 4.00, the highest of his playing career. The start of the 1970 season was difficult for Wilson; he developed an acute case of tendinitis in his right elbow. In early April, the ailment landed the pitcher on the disabled list. He returned to the active list in May and that year he posted an 11-6 pitching record and a 3.91 ERA.

In 1971 Wilson won 16 games, lost 10, and posted the lowest ERA (2.45) of his career. He was picked to play in the All-Star Game and pitched two scoreless innings in the National League’s 6-4 loss. He was selected as the Astros’ most valuable player. After the season his manager, Harry Walker, called him one of the best pitchers in the National League and added, “The next five or six years will be his best in baseball.”6 If that was to happen, Walker wouldn’t be around to see it: On August 26, 1972, he was fired, even though the Astros were 67-54, and replaced by Leo Durocher as the new manager of the team. Wilson clashed with Durocher, and on July 27, 1973, the manager fined the pitcher $300 for calling him a name on the team bus at the Houston International Airport. Wilson wound up with an 11-16 pitching record and a 3.20 ERA as the Astros went 82-80. After the season Durocher resigned and was succeeded by third-base coach Preston Gomez.

On September 4, 1974, at the Astrodome, Wilson held his favorite competitors, the Reds, hitless for eight innings, but was undone by wildness. He walked George Foster and Cesar Geronimo in the fifth inning and after a sacrifice, the two scored unearned runs on an error by shortstop Roger Metzger. In the eighth, with the Astros trailing, 2-1, manager Gomez listed Wilson for a pinch-hitter. Reliever Mike Cosgrove gave up a hit to Tony Perez in the ninth inning to break up the no-hitter. Wilson, initially upset with his manager’s decision, eventually told sportswriter, “I respect Preston Gomez as a manager and I respect him more than ever. He wants to win and I want to win as much as he does. When people start putting personal goals ahead of the team, you’ll never have a winner. I understand how Preston feels.”7

Wilson ended the season with an 11-13 record and a 3.08 ERA. In the offseason he appeared as a judge on the ABC sports show The Superstars. The show involved female athletes from every sport competing in Olympic-type events. The production was filmed at the Astrodome on December 21 before a small crowd. Wilson experienced some feminine fire during the softball throw competition. One competitor crossed the throw line and Wilson failed to call the violation. After a review, he agreed with the violation and the woman was disqualified. Billie Jean King protested Wilson’s judgment, saying, “The judges were told to be lenient about this stuff. Now you’re getting technical?”8 ABC reporter Donna de Varona also criticized Wilson. The pitcher, who was clearly annoyed by the situation, replied to de Varona with sarcasm: “I need THIS?”9

Calamity took place at the Wilsons’ home on January 5, 1975. At 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Bernice Wilson called a friend and asked her to come to the house because something was “wrong,” that Don was sleeping in his car, parked in the garage, and her children were still sleeping. The friend advised Bernice to set down the phone and physically check Don. Bernice returned to the phone and gave her friend what she had seen. She told Bernice to call an ambulance. She herself called the police. When the ambulance service arrived, Bernice answered the door wearing a green velvet robe. The Wilson home was still dressed with Christmas decorations, including braided silver garland that zigzagged the banister of the winding staircase located in the center of the house. The paramedics noticed that the left side of Bernice’s face was swollen and bruised. A paramedic went into the garage. Moments later, the ambulance service told Bernice that they were taking Denise to Southwest Memorial Hospital.

Bernice was also advised that Don and 5-year-old Alex were dead. The police arrived and found the Wilsons’ brown 1972 Ford Thunderbird occupying the left side of the two-car garage. The family Datsun 240Z was parked on the right side of the garage. Investigators noticed a black stain on the concrete floor below the tailpipe of the Thunderbird.

The same black stain was found on the bottom edge of the overhead electric garage door. Wilson was reclined in the passenger seat of the Thunderbird, with his ankles crossed in front of him and his hands on his lap. An open pack of cigarettes occupied the dashboard directly in front of him. The ignition keys were in the “start” position and the gas gauge needle rested on “E.” Alex Wilson was found in the bed of the master bedroom on the second floor directly above the garage. Nine-year-old Denise Wilson was alive but unconscious in critical condition, found lying her bed in her bedroom on the second floor. An ambulance took Denise to Texas Children’s Hospital. A second ambulance arrived at the Wilson home to take Bernice to Southwest Memorial. Six hours later, the police questioned Bernice Wilson, who told them that she did not know how her jaw was injured. She said she and Don were with Don’s teammate, Cesar Cedeño, on Saturday evening.

Mrs. Wilson remembered waking up in the middle of the night after she heard a car running in the garage and her children crying in their sleep. She said she found both in the bed in Denise’s bedroom. She felt Denise’s face and noted that her daughter was “hot and sweaty.” Mrs. Wilson said she got a wet cloth and wiped Denise’s face. When she felt Alex, she remembered, his skin felt cold. Bernice took Alex out of Denise’s bed and put her son in the bed of the master bedroom, where she stayed with him.

Mrs. Wilson told investigators that when she went to the garage initially, the car was running and the doors were locked. One newspaper mentioned that the car’s radio was on when Don was found. Bernice retrieved her personal set of Thunderbird keys and unlocked the passenger door to get to Don, who appeared to be sleeping in the reclined passenger seat. Bernice said she and Don were not having any domestic problems.

Mrs. Wilson remained at the hospital for treatment of her bruise. Meanwhile, Denise had drifted into a coma. The Harris County medical examiner, Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk, performed autopsies on Don and Alex. Don’s blood showed a level of 68 percent carbon monoxide and a blood-alcohol content of .167. Alex’s blood test noted a 62 percent level of carbon monoxide. Dr. Jachimczyk noted that a 40 percent level of carbon monoxide in the bloodstream is lethal.

The police interviewed several neighbors and none of them mentioned any domestic trouble occurring at the Wilson address. Cesar Cedeño told the police that he and Don were out together on the evening hours of Friday, January 3, not Saturday, January 4. Bernice Wilson’s recollection of events did not add up. Police also interviewed Houston first baseman

Bob Watson, who lived near the Wilsons. Watson said he did not know of any domestic problems between Don and Bernice. Details of Don and Alex Wilson’s deaths made instant headlines in the newspaper.

Several of the reports mentioned the possibility that Don committed suicide. Those who knew Don staunchly disagreed with the notion. If a man was going to commit suicide, why would he do it on the passenger side of a vehicle? Wilson was 6-feet-3 and weighed 230 pounds. The Thunderbird was parked two feet from the Datsun, parked at its right. How did Don squeeze his way into the passenger side with only two feet of room to open a wide door? Why was he found on the passenger side of the T-Bird?

The media suggested several possibilities. Houston police detectives worked hard to learn whether the scene was a homicide or a suicide. They also wanted to find out why Bernice Wilson had a jaw injury that she could not explain. During one interrogation, she said she vaguely recalled falling into a wall two days before she found her husband dead.

Peggy Nedruft, a spokeswoman for Southwest Memorial Hospital, reported that Mrs. Wilson’s jaw was not fractured but was “swollen, bruised, and quite painful.” On January 7 Denise emerged from her coma and was reported in stable condition. Doctors said she had suffered some brain damage from carbon monoxide fume inhalation and exposure.

Although her condition had improved, Denise could not attend the rites for her father and brother. A memorial service for Donald Edward Wilson and his son, Donald Alexander Wilson, took place in Houston on February 9. The next day the father and son were interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park mausoleum in Covina, California. It was clear that Don, Alex, and Denise were poisoned by carbon monoxide. There was part of the story that bothered everyone who read the details.

If Bernice was in the house with Don, the children, and the Thunderbird’s fumes, why didn’t she suffer from the effects of poisoning? Detective Larry Ott said, “We’re not pointing the finger at anyone. We just want to tie up loose ends, clear up some unanswered questions and inconsistencies.”10 Houston pitcher Dave Roberts disagreed with talk that Don committed suicide. He told the press: “Don had everything going for him. He had it all together.”11 Dave and Don had been working together in the Astros’ speaker’s bureau, a business that arranged speaking engagements for Houston players.

Mention of suicide also disturbed another Houston pitcher, Tom Griffin. Evidence showed that Wilson had been scheduled to meet and work with Griffin on Sunday, January 5, at an Astros pitching school. Don had agreed to come as a substitute instructor because Houston hurler Ken Forsch, who was originally assigned, had to bow out. Griffin said of Wilson, “I really enjoyed being around him. He was a great person. I want people to know what kind of guy he was. He was a good human being.”12

Doug Rader bet his life on Don’s personal stability, saying, “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.”13 When detectives attempted to interview Bernice on January 14, she informed them that she had retained an attorney and she would not answer any questions without her counsel present. On January 19, Denise Wilson was told that her father and brother had died. On February 5, 1975 (seven days before what would have been Don’s 30th birthday), the medical examiner, Dr. Jachimczyk ruled the deaths of Don and Alex Wilson accidental. The case was officially closed.

The Astros retired Wilson’s number 40 on April 14, 1975. During the season each Houston player wore a black patch on the left arm of his jersey that displayed Wilson’s number 40.

A plaque displaying a photo of Wilson and his retired number was placed on the Astros’ Wall of Honor at Houston’s Minute Maid Park.

 

Sources

McKenna, Brian, Early Exits: The Premature Endings of Baseball Careers, (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2007)

Shkrum, Michael J., and David A. Ramsay, Pathology of Trauma: Common Problems of the Pathologist (Totowa, New Jersey: Humana Press, 2007)

Zimniuch, Fran, Shortened Seasons: The Untimely Deaths of Major League Baseball’s Stars and Journeymen (Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007)

The Sporting News

Associated Press (1966-1975)

Baseball Almanac

Baseball Hall of Fame Museum and Library

BaseballLibrary.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Net54Baseball.net

Retrosheet.org

SABR Encyclopedia

Seamheads.com

SI.com

Sportsencyclopedia.com

Additional assistance provided by:

Houston Police Department

Danielle Clifford

Adam Gauer

Mike Lynch, Seamheads.com

Joe Zapata, Houston police open records division

Keith Pinney

Brian Russell

Chad Sullivan

Matthew Wilson

 

Photo credit

Courtesy of the Topps Company (Card #308 from the 1974 edition)

 

Notes

1 “No-Hit Pitcher Got Start When Brother Got Tired,” Washington (D.C.) Afro-American, June 20, 1967, 14.

2 Earl Lawson, “Wilson Was Boiling Mad During His No-Hitter,” The Sporting News, May 17, 1969, 8.

3 “Angry Wilson Scalds Reds With No-Hitter, Remarks,” Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard, May 2, 1969, 11.

4 Sam Lacy, “It Happened In Texas Of All Places,” Baltimore Afro-American, June 3, 1969, 5.

5 ”It’s No Big Thing, Says Don Wilson,” Fredericksurg (Virginia) Free Lance-Star, May 27, 1969, 5.

6 “Walker Expects Good Astro Club,” Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald-Journal, January 23, 1972, 5.

7 “Gomez Right, Says Astros' Don Wilson,” Victoria (Texas) Advocate, September 6, 1974, 5B.

8 Curry Kirkpatrick, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” Sports Illustrated, January 6, 1975, 22.

9 Ibid.

10 “Wilson Death Probe ‘Open’ For ‘Unanswered Questions,’” Montreal Gazette, January 8, 1975, 28.

11 "Don Wilson, Son Dead,” Lakeland (Florida) Ledger, January 6, 1975, 10.

12 Ibid.

13 Milton Richman, "Competitive Described Don Wilson,” Beaver County (Pennsylvania) Times, January 6, 1975, 11.

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