Earl Wilson: Baseball and Race

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Earl Wilson: Baseball and Race

Former major league baseball pitcher Earl Wilson died yesterday. But if you don't give a damn about baseball, you probably won't care that Wilson was the first black pitcher to throw a no-hitter (1962). And you won't be impressed by the fact that Wilson was one of the best-hitting pitchers in baseball history -- he hit a homerun in that '62 game and slugged 34 others in his major league career.

But there is something in Wilson's passing that even non-baseball fans can take stock in. Wilson's death prompted this Boston Globe obituary, reminding us of the degrading stereotypes and discrimination that black Americans faced in the 1960's. Excerpts of the obit:
Former Red Sox pitcher Robert Earl Wilson, who endured racism to become the first black American Leaguer to throw a no-hitter, died of a heart attack Saturday in Detroit. He was 70.

... The subtext of the Red Sox scouting report on Mr. Wilson when he was signed was an indication of the bias in the organization at the time and what Mr. Wilson had to overcome to make it to the major leagues. It read in part, ''well-mannered colored boy, not too black, pleasant to talk to, well-educated, very good appearance.''

''It never bothered me what people said in the stands in Boston,'' Mr. Wilson told the Globe in 1980. ''What I heard in the South was so much worse ..."

Despite racial epithets and biased management, Mr. Wilson emerged to become one of the best Sox players on teams that struggled to reach mediocrity. The Red Sox brought up Mr. Wilson to the major leagues on July 29, 1959, just one week after the Sox called up their first African-American ballplayer, outfielder Elijah (Pumpsie) Green. The Red Sox were the last of the original 16 Major League franchises to have an African-American on its roster.

... In 1966, Mr. Wilson was traded to the Detroit Tigers ... Many thought at the time the trade was retribution for outspoken remarks by Mr. Wilson during spring training. That year, the Red Sox had moved their spring training camp from Scottsdale, Ariz., to Winter Haven, Fla. Mr. Wilson was refused entrance to two nightclubs because of his race. He did not let the matter die. He told his plight to sportswriters covering the team, exposing racism and the Red Sox's reaction to it.

The trade to the Tigers was a blessing for Mr. Wilson. During his years with the Red Sox, they never had a winning record. Mr. Wilson found a home in Detroit, which had a larger population of middle-class blacks.
Which is not to say that Detroit was the "the land of milk and honey" for black Americans. Racial divisions helped to spark multiple riots in Motown during the 1960's. More than 40 people were killed in Detroit's '67 riot, which made the cover of Time magazine.

We've come a long way since then, but we still have a way to go.

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