This article was written by Matthew Clifford
This article was published in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the Space Age (Houston, 2014)
Don Wilson won 109 games in nine seasons with the Houston Astros, including two no-hitters, but his death at age 29 in mysterious circumstances ended what might have turned into an exemplary pitching career.
Wow! Look at all those bright colors. The baseball field at the Astrodome suddenly resembled a Tequila Sunrise. Yellow, red, and orange floated over jade green Astroturf as the players took their positions. Perplexed fanatics couldn’t take their eyes off the gaudy new 1975 uniforms on the backs of their Houston Astros. Thankfully, the back of the shirts accurately identified the players. But the numbers on the front of the jerseys slipped off the fabric and landed on the right hip of the players’ pants?
While the fans digested the new Astros garb, they noticed another change. Each Houston jersey had a circular black patch on the left shoulder with “40” in white. The pointing and giggles at the new costumes abruptly stopped as fanatics recognized what it signified. The number “40” had belonged to fireballing righthander Don Wilson. Houston’s new uniforms were created to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Astrodome—a ceremony Don Wilson was unable to attend.
- Related link: Read Matthew Clifford’s SABR biography of Don Wilson
Born in Monroe, Louisiana, on February 12, 1945, Donald Edward Wilson grew up a baseball fan. He idolized Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays. Don and his family migrated to California and settled in the busy city of Compton. He enjoyed playing in the local Little Leagues and for his high school team, the Centennial High Apaches. He played shortstop and third base while his older brother Willy handled pitching duties for the Apaches. On one occasion Willy called his little brother in for relief. Don recalled his exciting assignment in a 1967 interview. “[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.”[fn]“No-Hit Pitcher Got Start When Brother Got Tired,” Washington Afro-American, June 20, 1967, Volume 97, 14.[/fn]
During his freshman year at Compton Community College in 1964, the scouts took note of Don’s fiery right arm. Houston’s baseball talent birddog, Karl Kuehl, reviewed Wilson’s performance and appeared interested—and then he disappeared. Disappointed by Kuehl’s apathy, the young pitcher threw a lightning bolt at the screen fence behind the batter’s box. “I got mad at what I thought was a brush-off and fired one with all my might. It took off and hit the screen.”[fn]Arthur Daley, “Wilson Ball Big-Time.” St. Petersburg Times, March 20, 1968, Volume 84, No. 240, 40.[/fn]
To Wilson’s surprise, Kuehl witnessed Don’s angry fastball, spying from a distance. The Astros’ ivory hunter approached the frustrated player after the game and told him, “The only pitch you threw hard was the one that hit the screen.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Kuehl signed Wilson and sent his recruit to play for the Cocoa Colts of Florida’s Cocoa Rookie League. Wilson spent his time with the Colts working as a reliever and adding speed to his fastball.
Don graduated to the Florida State League in 1965, playing Class A ball for the Cocoa Astros. Manager Billy Goodman put Wilson to the test as a starting pitcher. Don handled 181 innings with a 10–8 record. Before the season ended, Wilson and his wife Bernice celebrated the birth of their first child, Denise. In 1966 Don was sent to play for the Amarillo Sonics of the Class AA Texas League. Sonics skipper Buddy Hancken also used the 21-year-old as a starting pitcher. Don dished out 197 strikeouts in 187 innings before the Astros interrupted the TL schedule. The Houston Astros plucked him from the Sonics’ roster a few days before the minor league season closed. On September 29, 1966, Don Wilson made his debut at Crosley Field against the Cincinnati Reds, notching his first major league win after striking out seven Reds and leaving Pete Rose hitless.
In 1967 Wilson made the Astros roster for good. Before the season started, he bought a new baseball to secretly carry with him. He confessed the reason for the private purchase in a 1968 interview: “I bought that baseball to get the autographs of all my boyhood heroes—Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks and all the others.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Astros Manager Grady Hatton immediately put Wilson in the pitching rotation. As one of the youngsters on the hurling squad, Wilson learned tricks and tips while practicing with Houston’s seasoned pitchers, Miguel “Mike” Cuellar and Bobby “Bo” Belinsky. Don was excited to enjoy his first full season in the majors and the chance to pitch in the famous Astrodome. Wilson would make history on the Astrodome’s artificial grass that June.
The Atlanta Braves came to Houston on June 18 with their heavy hitter, Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron. Hatton put Wilson in to start the game. Nine innings later, Don found himself drenched in champagne with his Houston contract torn to shreds. After facing 30 Atlanta batters and doling out 15 strikeouts, Wilson had pitched the first no-hit game at the Astrodome. Prior to the game, he had racked up 62 strikeouts. With 77 big Ks on the year and a no-hit game on his record, Wilson couldn’t stop smiling.
Wilson worried during his final inning against the Braves. The screams from the Houston crowd filled the dome when Atlanta’s final batter came to the plate: Don’s longtime hero, Hank Aaron. With all the precision he could muster, Don delivered three slingshot fireballs past Aaron’s bat. The crowd went wild. Striking out “Hammerin’ Hank” was the cherry on top of Wilson’s “no-hit sundae.” Immediately after the game, Aaron told the press, “It’s young guys like this that make me want to retire.”[fn]John Wilson, “Wilson’s No-Hit Smoke Blinds Braves,” The Sporting News, July 1, 1967, Volume 163, No. 24, 7.[/fn]
While Hank spoke of retirement, Don Wilson was getting showered with champagne in the Houston locker room. Wilson mentioned his worries facing Aaron in an interview that immediately followed the game: “I didn’t want to face Aaron, but after I walked [Denis) Menke in the eighth, I knew I’d have to. I consider him one of the best clutchers in the game.”[fn]“Astro Rookie Don Wilson Hurls No-Hitter At Braves,” Sarasota Herald Tribune, June 19, 1967, Volume 42, No. 239, 18.[/fn]
Astros’ manager Hatton remarked, “I was amazed that he was able to pitch that long and hard with so much stuff after such a hard game. But that last pitch he threw to Aaron was as hard as any pitch he threw all day.”[fn]Wilson, op. cit.[/fn]
Owner Roy Hofheinz tore up Wilson’s contract and had it rewritten to include a $1,000 raise. Wilson stayed on fire as he delivered a sweltering streak of 29 scoreless innings from July 9 to 26. When the season closed, Wilson had 159 strikeouts, a 2.79 ERA, and a 10–9 record. With help from his summer raise, Don and Bernice purchased a home in South Houston. The pitcher spent his offseason working at a sporting goods store.
In one of his many interviews, the pitcher mentioned his only complaint about playing in the majors. He preferred the hot temperatures of California rather than the chill of Philadelphia, Chicago, or the air-conditioned Astrodome. He suffered muscle strains from pitching in the cold and wore two jackets between innings trying to keep warm. “I’m a warm weather pitcher. I like it when it’s hot. It keeps me loose. Sure, I get tired in the heat. But it keeps my arm from tightening up.”[fn]“Astro Pitcher Doesn’t Like Image,” Ellensburg Daily Record (Ellensburg, WA), July 3, 1974, Volume 73, Number 156, 14.[/fn]
Three months into the 1968 season, Astros General Manager H.B. “Spec” Richardson fired Hatton and replaced him with the team’s batting instructor Harry Walker, but the Astros still crawled last across the NL finish line. One highlight of the season happened on July 14 when Wilson struck out 18 Reds in the second game of a doubleheader at Crosley Field. But medical troubles found him on August 4 during a game against Philadelphia. After pitching seven innings, he complained of chest pains and was taken to Methodist Hospital in Houston. Don admitted to doctors that he had been suffering the pain for some time but had kept his complaints to himself so he could finish the season. Doctors cleared him to resume play days later. Wilson racked up 175 strikeouts in 1968, but his ERA increased almost half a run.
In 1969, Don notched another distinctive mark in the baseball record books. On April 30 the Astros arrived at Crosley Field to play the Reds in a match that would leave every Houston player seeing red—including Wilson. The bad blood between the Reds and Astros had started eight days earlier when the Cincinnati team clobbered the Astros, 14–0. Tensions increased when the peppered twirls of right-handed Cincy pitcher Jim Maloney kept the Astros bats cold on April 30. Despite a painful groin muscle strain handicapping his talent, Maloney no-hit Houston. Hoots and teasing from the Reds added insult to injury. Wilson went to bed angry, vowing revenge. The next day, Don took the mound and threw the hardest pitches he could. He kept the Reds hitless in the first inning. The scoreless scene suddenly seemed all too familiar. Eight hitless innings followed and Don added another no-hitter to his resume. It was the second time in major league history that two teams exchanged no-hitters on successive days.[fn]The identical coincidence took place in 1968 when Gaylord Perry of the Giants and the Cardinals’ Ray Washburn completed the odd feat of two consecutive “Cadillacs” on September 17 and 18.[/fn]
Moments after Wilson achieved victory, the press swarmed him. “There were a couple of times my legs were shaking so much I had to step off the mound,” said Wilson. “I never wanted anything so bad in all my life as to pitch that no hitter.”[fn]Earl Lawson, “Wilson Was Boiling Mad During His No-Hitter,” The Sporting News, May 17, 1969, Volume 167, Number 18, 8.[/fn]
Wilson told the press that Reds manager Dave Bristol added fuel to his personal flame by taunting him from the dugout with the word “gutless.” He also said that all the excitement of the no-hitter may have upset his wife (who was pregnant with their second child and weeks away from delivery) as she watched on TV. Don jokingly told the press to give Bernice his personal message, “Don’t get excited and have that baby now.”[fn]“Angry Wilson Scalds Reds With No-Hitter, Remarks.” Eugene Register-Guard, May 2, 1969, Volume 102, Number 191, 11.[/fn]
When asked for his remarks on Wilson’s performance, Houston pilot Harry Walker said, “There’s not a lot to say. What was said was made from the pitching mound. One man just over-powered nine men.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
The familiar scene of a shredded contract and well-deserved raise followed the performance. Wilson’s reliable backstop Don Bryant also received a raise from Astros GM Spec Richardson. Wilson personally gave Bryant an engraved wristwatch days after the game.
Wilson and teammate Curt Blefary made news-paper ink in June after the two were ridiculed by several major league players and fans because they shared hotel rooms on the road. Blefary, Houston’s Italian-Caucasian first baseman, was not bashful to those who objected to his African-American roomie: “They said they couldn’t believe I was rooming with a colored guy. I told them to go to hell.”[fn]Sam Lacy, “It Happened In Texas Of All Places.” Baltimore Afro-American, June 3, 1969, Volume 77, Number 93, 5.[/fn]
Don admitted that he received an anonymous hate letter about rooming with a white player. “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.”[fn]“It’s No Big Thing, Says Don Wilson,” The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA), May 27, 1969, Volume 85, Number 125, 5.[/fn]
As the tension and hoopla of no-hit games and broken color barriers calmed, Don and Bernice celebrated the birth of their son, Donald Alexander. Wilson notched a 4.00 ERA in 1969, the highest of his playing career.
The start of the 1970 season was difficult as Wilson developed an acute case of tendonitis in his right elbow, hitting the 21-day disabled list in early April. Wilson returned in late April and immediately went back to work throwing fastballs. He closed the season with an 11–6 pitching record and 3.91 ERA.
The 1971 season would be Wilson’s best, with a 16–10 record and the lowest ERA (2.45) of his career. Wilson was selected to play in the 1971 All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium in Detroit and was recognized as the Most Valuable Player of the 1971 Houston Astros. The following offseason Harry Walker boasted to the press: “Last year, I thought [Wilson] was one of the best pitchers in the league. The next five or six years will be his best in baseball.”[fn]“Walker Expects Good Astro Club,” Spartanburg Herald-Journal, January 23, 1972, Volume 100, Number 6, 5.[/fn]
On August 20, 1972, Don confirmed Walker’s confidence in him as he fanned 14 Phillies at Veterans Stadium. A week later, the Astros fired Harry Walker and installed Leo “The Lip” Durocher as the new manager. On July 27, 1973, Wilson’s lip earned a $300 fine from Durocher after he called his manager a name on the team bus at Houston International Airport. Three months after the argument, Durocher resigned from his management position. Spec Richardson replaced Leo with Houston’s third base coach, Preston Gomez. Wilson wound up with a 1973 record of 11–16 and a 3.20 ERA.
Gomez kept the helm in 1974. On September 4 at the Astrodome, Don Wilson reached for his third no-hit game against his favorite competitors—the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds’ George Foster and Cesar Geronimo got free passes from Wilson and the two were tediously shifted to score two runs but the Reds were no-hit through eight innings. With the score 2–1 in Cincinnati’s favor, Gomez needed a run on the board. Wilson was benched for pinch hitter Tommy Helms. Helms grounded out. Shortstop Roger Metzger hit a single, but Cedeño struck out and Metzger was caught trying to steal. The attempt had failed and Gomez was assailed by boos when he sent left-hander Mike Cosgrove to the Astrodome mound in the ninth.
Cincinnati didn’t produce any runs against Cosgrove, though they did get a hit and the end tally remained in favor of the Reds, 2–1.
Wilson, initially upset with his manager’s decision, disappeared into the clubhouse after the game. The pitcher emerged hours later to speak with the press. “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.”[fn]“Gomez Right Says Astros’ Don Wilson,” The Victoria (TX) Advocate, September 6, 1974, Volume 129, Number 122, 5B.[/fn]
Don ended the season with a record of 11–13 and a 3.08 ERA. ABC TV contacted Wilson during his winter break and asked if he would act as a judge on the televised 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, 1974. Tennis star Billie Jean King was in attendance, as was pro golfer Sandy Palmer and Olympic swimmer Debbie Meyer.
The event was plagued by poor attendance and the 4,000 spectators in the Astrodome stands preferred to mock the women’s sport competition rather than cheer. Marilyn Preston, a television critic for the Chicago Tribune, summarized her opinions of the show: “I just figured this out. ABC only gets its kicks when the girls look like fools. This is the worst exploitation of women yet.”[fn]Curry Kirkpatrick, “There Is Nothing Like A Dame,” Sports Illustrated, January 6, 1975, 22.[/fn]
During a time of the controversial 1970s feminist movement, it appeared that the original intentions of ABC’s “Superstars” had taken a very wrong turn. Don 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 short review, Don agreed with the violation and the competitor was disqualified. Billie Jean King protested Wilson’s judgment. “The judges were told to be lenient about this stuff. Now you’re getting technical?”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
ABC reporter Donna de Varona attacked Wilson’s stalled decision. A meet official noticed that Wilson was getting frustrated with de Varona’s interrogation. The official warned de Varona to stick to her report and refrain from arguing. De Varona exclaimed, “I’m not arguing, I’m investigating. I’m an investigative reporter.” Wilson, who was clearly annoyed by the situation, replied to Donna de Varona with sarcasm, “I need THIS?”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Don and Bernice celebrated Christmas with their children, Denise and Alex. But shortly after, a terrible calamity took place at the Wilsons’. On Sunday, January 5, at one o’clock in the afternoon, Bernice Wilson called a friend and asked her to come to the house because something was “wrong.”
Bernice explained that Don was sleeping in his car parked in the garage and her children were still sleeping. The acquaintance was puzzled at the thought of Don and the kids sleeping into the afternoon hours. She advised Bernice to set down the phone and physically check Don. Bernice returned to the phone and gave her friend the results. She told Bernice to call an ambulance then hung up and called the Houston Police Department herself.
When the ambulance arrived, Bernice answered the door wearing a green velvet robe. The house was still dressed with Christmas decorations, including braided silver garland that zigzagged the banister of the winding staircase in the center of the house. The paramedics immediately noticed the left side of Bernice’s face was swollen and bruised. Bernice stayed in the living room while the paramedics went upstairs. Another paramedic went into the garage. Moments later, they told Bernice they were taking Denise to the hospital, but that her 29-year-old husband Don and her five-year-old son Alex were deceased.
The Houston Police arrived on scene and found the Wilsons’ brown 1972 Ford Thunderbird on the left side of the two-car garage, their Datsun 240Z on the right, and 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. Don was reclined in the passenger seat of the Thunderbird, his ankles crossed in front of him and his hands on his lap, an open pack of cigarettes on the dashboard. The ignition keys were in the “start” position and the gas gauge read “E.” Alex had been found in the bed of the master bedroom on the second floor above the garage. Denise had been found unconscious—in critical condition—in bed in her bedroom on the second floor. Ambulance services took Denise to Texas Children’s Hospital, while Bernice was taken to Southwest Memorial.
Six hours later, the police questioned her. She told them that she did not know how her jaw was injured and that she and Don had been with Don’s teammate, Cesar Cedeño, on Saturday evening. She 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. Bernice explained that she went to check the children. She felt Denise’s face and noted that her daughter was “hot and sweaty.” She retrieved a wet cloth and wiped Denise’s face. When she felt Alex, his skin felt cold. Bernice took Alex out of Denise’s bed and put him in the bed of the master bedroom where she stayed with him.
Investigators asked Bernice when she found her husband. Mrs. Wilson explained that when she found her husband, she called her friend for help. When she went to the garage initially, the vehicle was running and its doors were locked. One newspaper mentioned that the car’s radio was on when Don was found. Bernice retrieved her set of Thunderbird keys and unlocked the passenger door to get to Don, who appeared to be sleeping.
Bernice also said that she and Don were not having any domestic problems. Mrs. Wilson remained at the hospital for treatment of her jaw pending additional X-rays. Her daughter Denise had drifted into a coma. The Harris County Medical Examiner, Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk, completed autopsies on both Don and Alex Wilson. Upon review of Don’s blood analysis, the medical examiner found 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. (A 40 percent level of carbon monoxide in the bloodstream is lethal.)
Several neighbors were interviewed by the Houston Police Department and none of them mentioned any domestic troubles occurring at the Wilson address. Police interviewed Cesar Cedeño twice during their investigation and the Houston player explained that he and Don were out together on the evening hours of Friday, January 3, not Saturday, January 4. Police also interviewed Houston first baseman Bob Watson since he lived close to the Wilson address. Watson explained that 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 of Don attempting suicide. Those who knew Don staunchly disagreed with the notion. If a man were going to commit suicide, why would he do it on the passenger side of a vehicle? Wilson was 6-foot-3 inches and weighed approximately 230 pounds at the time of his death. The Ford was parked two feet from the driver’s side of the Datsun. The length of the passenger door on the Thunderbird measured six feet. How did Don squeeze his way into the passenger side with only two feet of clearance to open a six-foot door? Some believed that the vehicle was pulled into the garage by someone while Don was seated on the passenger side. A blood test proved that Wilson was intoxicated. Was he passed out drunk when his driver left the vehicle running?
Two burning questions haunted Houston police detectives: Was it a homicide or a suicide? And why did Bernice Wilson have a jaw injury she could not explain? During one interrogation, Bernice stated that she vaguely recalled falling into a wall two days before she found her husband dead.
Peggy Nedruft, a spokesperson for Southwest Memorial Hospital, explained new details involving Bernice’s injury. Mrs. Wilson’s jaw was not fractured but was “swollen, bruised, and quite painful.” The heartbreaking story took a light turn when Denise Wilson came out of coma and was in stable condition on January 7. She suffered some brain damage from carbon monoxide and would not be able to attend the funerals of her father and little brother.
Memorial services for Donald Edward Wilson and his son Donald Alexander Wilson took place in Houston on February 9. The following day, they were laid to rest at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park mausoleum in Covina, California.
It was clear that Don, Alex, and Denise were poisoned by carbon monoxide. But if Bernice was in the house with Don, the kids, and the Thunderbird’s fumes, why didn’t she suffer from the effects of poisoning? Detective Larry Ott was quoted, “We’re not pointing the finger at anyone. We just want to tie up loose ends, clear up some unanswered questions and inconsistencies.”[fn]“Wilson Death Probe ‘Open’ For ‘Unanswered Questions,’” The Gazette (Montreal, Canada), January 8, 1975. Volume 197. 28.[/fn]
Houston pitcher Dave Roberts disagreed with talk of Don committing suicide. He told the press: “Don had everything going for him. He had it all together.”[fn]“Don Wilson, Son Dead,” The Ledger (Lakeland, FL), January 6, 1975, Volume 68. Number 82, 10.[/fn]
Dave and Don had been working together in the Astros’ speakers bureau, a business that arranged speaking engagements for Houston baseball players. Mention of suicide also disturbed another member of Houston’s pitching squad, Tom Griffin. Evidence showed that Wilson had plans to meet and work with Griffin on Sunday, January 5, at an Astros pitching school. Don had agreed to attend the workshop as a substitute instructor for Ken Forsch, who was unable to participate. Griffin mentioned this fact to the press and added, “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.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Astros teammate Doug Rader bet his life on Don’s personal stability. “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.”[fn]Milton Richman, “Competitive Described Don Wilson,” The Beaver County Times, January 6, 1975, 11.[/fn]
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, seven days before what would have been Don’s thirtieth birthday, Harris County Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk ruled the deaths of Don and Alex Wilson “accidental.” The case was officially closed. The Houston Astros retired Don Wilson’s jersey number “40” on April 14, 1975. A special plaque displaying a photo of Don Wilson and his retired number is currently displayed on the Astros’ “Wall of Honor” at Houston’s Minute Maid Park.
MATTHEW M. CLIFFORD is a freelance writer from the suburbs of Chicago. He joined SABR in 2011 to enhance his research abilities and help preserve accurate facts of baseball history. His background in law enforcement and forensic investigative techniques aid him with historical research and data collection. He has reported several baseball card errors and inaccuracies of player history to SABR and the research department of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He also writes for SABR’s BioProject.