Monday, April 3, 2017

Earl Wilson Could've Saved the Impossible Dream

Earl Wilson could have been a game-changer for the '67 Red Sox (Boston Globe)
Like every franchise, the Boston Red Sox have made their share of regrettable trades over the years, from dealing Jeff Bagwell and Pee Wee Reese while they were still prospects to sending Sparky Lyle to the Yankees for Danny Cater. And while not a trade, the sale of Babe Ruth will forever haunt them.

One that few Sox fans remember, however, likely cost them the World Series in 1967. Because while the Impossible Dream team had an ace in Jim Lonborg, it could have easily had two.

Earl Wilson is remembered for being the first African-American pitcher in Red Sox history, and their second player of color after Pumpsie Green. But while Green was a utility player who lasted just five seasons, Wilson developed into one of the American League's better pitchers of the 1960s. In addition to becoming the Junior Circuit's first African-American to throw a no-hitter (in 1962), he followed Mudcat Grant as the league's second black 20-game-winner when he tied Lonborg with 22 victories in '67.

Unfortunately for Boston, Wilson was no longer a member of the Sox by then. He had been traded the previous summer following a racial incident during Spring Training, when Wilson was denied service at a bar in Winter Haven. Wilson reported it to the media against ownership's wishes, and after getting off to a slow start he was dumped to Detroit in June (along with another African-American -- Joe Christopher) for outfielder Don Demeter and a player to be named later.

The deal immediately proved disastrous. Free from Boston's bigotry, Wilson finally reached his potential with the more integrated Tigers. He immediately turned his 1966 season around, going 13-6 with a 2.59 ERA and 1.00 WHIP the rest of the way. His success carried over into '67, as he posted a 3.27 ERA over 264 innings while keeping Detroit in the pennant race until the season's final day. He would remain effective through the rest of the Sixties before age and heavy workloads took their tolls.

Demeter contributed little to the Red Sox, playing just 93 games for Boston and hitting fewer home runs than Wilson from that point forward. The Sox salvaged the deal by flipping him the following summer for starter Gary Bell, who was instrumental to their playoff run and was an All-Star in '68. Wilson he was not, however, and Boston wouldn't have needed him to shore up the rotation had they simply held on to Wilson in the first place. Best-case scenario, the Red Sox would have had two 20-game winners in '67, co-aces who would have led them to an easy pennant and potentially a world championship.

The argument can be made, however, that Wilson never would have reached that level in Boston due to its stifling racism, which negatively affected the city's minority athletes for decades. Even if he just continued pitching at the same level, though, his performance would have been on par with Bell's. The difference is that Wilson would have started '67 with Boston rather than joining in June, and thus would have contributed nearly 100 more innings than Bell provided. A full season of Wilson would have been more valuable than two months of Billy Rohr (4.61 ERA in eight starts) and four months of Bell, who combined to produce just 0.4 bWAR for the Sox that year -- a figure Wilson exceeded every year on offense from 1962-1968.

Wilson, who was typically good for around 2-3 WAR per year during his Red Sox tenure, likely would have added a couple wins to Boston's ledger in '67 -- victories that might have made all the difference down the stretch. With Boston needing a win on the season's final day to guarantee at least a tie for the pennant, they were forced to expend Gentleman Jim rather than save him for the Series opener against Bob Gibson. Lonborg turned in dominant efforts in Games 2 and 5 before faltering on short rest in Game 7 against Gibson.

But if Lonborg had twirled his shutout in Game 1 rather than Game 2, he would have edged Gibson and turned a 2-1 Boston defeat into a 1-0 victory. Then, backed by five Red Sox runs, either Wilson or Jose Santiago probably take Game 2 and give the Cardiac Kids some momentum before heading to St. Louis. Boston still would have lost Games 3 and 4, when they scored just two runs combined, and possibly Game 5 as well, when they managed only three.

Even so, the Red Sox win Game 6 (regardless of who pitches) with a four-home-run explosion, setting up a classic Game 7 between a now fully-rested Lonborg and Gibson. Maybe Gibson still comes out on top given his superior postseason track record, but Lonborg was equally devastating in big games and may have gotten the best of him in a redux of Game 1. It's a toss-up, but Boston's odds dramatically improve with Lonborg gaining an extra day of rest (and if Wilson or Santiago pitches a gem in Game 3 or 5, then Game 7 never happens and the Sox take the flag in six).

Wilson might not have swung the Series, but he would have made it more thrilling by facilitating three duels between Gibson and Lonborg rather than just the one. The ending may have been the same for Boston, but at least Red Sox fans wouldn't still be wondering how Lonborg might have fared on regular rest.