This article was written by Norm King
Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but when Don Wilson avenged the no-hitter pitched against his Houston Astro mates the night before, he was hot. Damn hot.
On April 30, 1969, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jim Maloney threw his second career no-hitter as the Reds blasted the Houston Astros, 10-0. (His first came on August 19, 1965, a 10-inning 1-0 win over the Chicago Cubs.) Wilson returned the favor on May 1, winning 4-0 over a team that was a few tweaks short of becoming the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, but which still led the National League in home runs and runs scored in 1969. It was also Wilson’s second career gem; he held the Braves hitless on June 18, 1967, in the first no-hitter ever pitched in Houston’s Astrodome.
Neither team was playing very well going into the series. The Astros were off to a horrible start in 1969. They had a 4-20 record going into the game and had lost eight in a row and 15 out of 16. Not only that, they had yet to win a road game that season, and were pounded by the Reds, 11-5 and 14-0, in two games at the Astrodome the week before. Although the Reds had a superior record at 9-11, Maloney’s win ended a five-game losing streak of their own. Wilson had been the starter and loser in the 14-0 debacle.
Neither Wilson nor the Reds’ Jim Merritt was off to a good start that season. Wilson was 1-3 at game time with a 4.41 ERA, while Merritt was 1-1 with a 5.06 ERA. Considering Wilson’s record and Maloney’s feat from the previous game, what transpired was almost mythical.
Zeroes abounded on the scoreboard early on, as neither team got a hit in the first three innings. Doug Rader led off the Houston fourth with a home run. The Astros expanded their lead to 3-0 in the next inning, when Joe Morgan walked, Wynn singled, and both scored on a double by Denis Menke. Wilson contributed the final run in the eighth, hitting a sacrifice fly to bring home Curt Blefary, who had tripled. That was it for the scoring.
When Wilson took the hill for the ninth, he had enough of a cushion that his pursuit of history remained the main drama, and with Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, and Fred Whitfield due up, his task promised to be a tough one. Oddly enough, Wilson had no trouble with the sluggers, striking out Perez and inducing a fly to center from Bench. Whitfield, in his first start of the season, worked Wilson for a walk, but Tommy Helms popped to third to end it.
Unlike many no-hitters, none of Wilson’s mates had to make any amazing defensive plays to keep the no-hitter alive. He struck out 13, walked 6, and hit Johnny Bench with a pitch. Bench’s teammates thought Wilson hit him deliberately.
Wilson didn’t say if the plunk was intentional, but after the game he started a verbal joust with the Reds through the media. He said he had pitched with a chip on his shoulder from the moment he took the mound because he felt that the Reds had poured it on when they had the 14-0 game well in hand.
“This game gave me far more personal satisfaction than my last no-hitter,” Wilson told reporters after it was over. “Remember the game in Houston? It was 14-0 and what happened? Pete Rose took an extra base with an 8-0 lead. And Bench called 3-and-1 and 3-and-2 sliders with two out in the ninth and a 14-0 lead.”1
“The score wasn’t 8-0, it was 5-0 and I had just batted in two runs,” Rose responded. “It was only the fifth inning. Do you think that’s a safe lead in the major leagues? You can tell Rockhead (the name by which Rose referred to Wilson) that for me.”2
(Rose was closer to the mark on what happened. It was 5-0 when he got his hit and his two RBIs, although it took place in the sixth inning, not the fifth. Rose was also retired on the play and his out ended the inning.)
Wilson also told reporters that some Reds players had made fun of him and stuck their tongues out at him after the shellacking. Whether anybody said “nyah nyah” is unknown.
Wilson’s personal feelings aside, he and Maloney shared an accomplishment that was achieved for only the second time in major-league history. Only the year before, when Gaylord Perry of the San Francisco Giants and the Cardinals’ Ray Washburn became the first pitchers to throw back-to-back no-hitters in the same series. Perry no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals 1-0 on September 17, 1968, at Candlestick Park, and Washburn did the same thing to the Giants the next day, winning 2-0.
Maloney and Wilson also share another distinction: each came within an eyelash of pitching a third no-no. On June 14, 1965, Maloney pitched 10 no-hit innings against the New York Mets, but gave up a home run in the 11th and lost. At the time he was credited with a no-hitter, but in 1991, Major League Baseball decided that even if a pitcher threw nine no-hit innings, he would not be credited with a no-hitter if he gave up a hit in extra frames. They applied the decision retroactively.
On September 4, 1974, Wilson held the Reds hitless for eight innings, but he was wild. Cincinnati scored two unearned runs the fifth on two Wilson walks, a sacrifice, and an error on a ball hit by – who else? – Rose. Astros manager Preston Gomez replaced Wilson with a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth with Houston behind 2-1. Reliever Mike Cosgrove gave up a hit in the ninth and the Astros lost. Wilson agreed with Gomez’s decision.
“I respect Preston Gomez as a manager,” Wilson said. “I respect him more than ever tonight. He wants to win. And I want to win as much as he does.”3
Both Maloney and Wilson had respectable major-league careers, but for Wilson pitching two no-hitters and being part of baseball history were high points in a life that ended far too soon and under tragic and mysterious circumstances. On January 5, 1975, Wilson and teammate Tom Griffin were supposed to attend an instructional school in Houston as part of their offseason jobs with the Astros’ speakers bureau. When Wilson didn’t show up, authorities went to his home and found him dead in the passenger side of his car from carbon monoxide poisoning. His 5-year-old son, Alex, was found dead in his bedroom, also of carbon monoxide poisoning, and his 9-year-old daughter, Denise, was found unconscious. Police found Wilson’s wife, Bernice alive but with a broken jaw; she couldn’t explain how she sustained the injury. Bernice and Denise both survived the incident, which the coroner ruled to be an accident. Wilson was 29.
The Astros retired Wilson’s number 40 during the 1975 season.
This article was published in “Cincinnati’s Crosley Field: A Gem in the Queen City” (SABR, 2018), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
In addition to the sources listed below, the author used the following:
SABR biography of Jim Maloney by Gregory H. Wolf.
SABR biography of Don Wilson by Matthew Clifford.
1 Bob Hertzel, “Angry Wilson Gets Revenge,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 2, 1969: 33.
3 “Wilson Gains Respect for Gomez,” Del Rio (Texas) News Herald, September 5, 1974: 9.