Glenn Wilson escaped Sparky’s doghouse after famous trade in 1984

Glenn Wilson debuted in center field for the Detroit Tigers in 1982.

Glenn Wilson debuted in center field for the Detroit Tigers in 1982.

He was less than two years removed from a fine rookie campaign in which he’d batted .292 for the Detroit Tigers, while playing a dynamic center field that led to comparisons to Mickey Stanley. But he had quickly gotten into manager Sparky Anderson’s doghouse, a place where, as the Eagles once sung, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Glenn Dwight Wilson was born in Baytown, Texas, on December 22, 1958. He attended Channelview High School, starring in football, baseball, basketball, and track. He hit over .400 every year, but didn’t receive a single scholarship to play college baseball. But Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas offered him a football scholarship. Of course, he wound up playing baseball there, as well.

Detroit made Wilson its first-round pick (#18 overall) in the 1980 Major League Baseball June Amateur draft. Wilson remembers hanging around the phone at his house, waiting for the call. It finally came at 10 AM and Wilson picked it up.

“Is this Glenn Wilson?” an older man asked at the other end of the line.

“Yes, sir,” said the excited Wilson.

“This is Hoot Evers and I am with the Detroit Tigers. We just made you our number one pick.” Ready to bounce off the ceiling with joy, all Wilson could say in return was “ok.”

His bonus came to $62,500. Not bad.

Drafted as a third baseman, he displayed good power with 20 home runs in 1981 while splitting time between the Birmingham Barons and Evansville Triplets. But in his first year of pro ball in 1980 he made 33 errors in only 77 games, and the Tigers decided he might make a better outfielder. He did, showing fine range and keen instincts. And he had a cannon for an arm.

He began the 1982 season back at Evansville, but not for long. After hitting two home runs in the team’s opening game, Tiger General Manager Bill Lajoie met him at the top step of the dugout. “They need you in The Show.” Because of injuries in the Tiger outfield, he and Howard Johnson were getting called up.

After a couple of weeks, the rookie Wilson was batting close to .400 and catching everything in sight in center field. When a reporter asked him if he was surprised at his success, Wilson answered, “I’m not surprised, but I bet the fans are pretty surprised. I’ve been doing these things my whole life; you guys just haven’t been there to see it.”

This brash comment did not go over well with some of Wilson’s teammates.

The bigger problem, however, was that it didn’t go over well with the old-school Sparky, who felt that rookies should be seen and not heard. It was the beginning of a strained relationship between Wilson and his famous manager, who felt Wilson was too much of a hot dog on the field.

Following a solid sophomore campaign in 1983, Wilson easily envisioned himself playing in Detroit for the next 20 years. But that winter rumors swirled that Wilson was available in a trade.

“I could not stand Sparky,” Wilson admitted decades later. “In my opinion Sparky had an ego bigger than Texas and wanted everyone to know that he was the man. Since I had an even bigger ego, and I was the one playing the game, it was probably the best thing to trade me. I was sure Sparky and I would clash in a bad way at some point.”

The Tigers told Wilson to bring a third baseman’s glove to spring training in 1984, despite the fact that he was relatively inexperienced at the position, not having played it since the 33-error fiasco in his first year in the minors. “I had no idea why anyone thought I could play third, unless they were trying to trade a guy.”

Here’s how Wilson describes his short, unhappy life at third that spring: “In that first game on a ground ball hit to me, with a runner at first, I did not get the ball out of my glove as fast as I should have. We still turned the double play, but the next day the papers quoted Sparky ripping me on my performance. Sparky was saying that I nearly got Whitaker killed and that the third base experiment was over.”

Well, it wasn’t exactly over. It dragged out for a couple more weeks of Grapefruit League play, with Sparky shuffling various candidates in and out. With six days remaining in spring training, the team traded Wilson, along with ten-year reserve catcher John Wockenfuss, to the Philadelphia Phillies for relief pitcher Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman. It was the trade that virtually sealed the World Series for the Tigers because within weeks they had the best bullpen in the game lined up.

Wilson had been a man without a position in Detroit. Kirk Gibson, Sparky’s Chosen One, was the rising star in right field. Chet Lemon was a gold glove center fielder who seemed born to roam Tiger Stadium’s vast expanse. Right Field was manned by Larry Herndon, a hitter with power and another of Sparky’s favorites. Wilson was simply not going to break into that outfield.

But Wilson was also convinced Sparky wanted to get rid of him, and the third base “experiment” would be his excuse. “That was just a ploy on Sparky’s part to not look as bad for trading me. He was under a lot of pressure because of the two years I had in Detroit. They were pretty decent years and I was supposedly this up-and-coming star and the pressure was on. But in his heart he needed Willie Hernandez bad and the only way he was going to get him was to let go of something.”

After leaving Detroit, Wilson went on to play eight more big league seasons. He was never a great player, but he did make the National League All-Star team as a member of the Phillies in 1985, when he knocked in a career-high 102 runs. With his powerful arm, he led all NL outfielders in assists in 1985 and 1986. His last professional stop was with the Buffalo Bisons of the American Association in 1993.

During his playing days, Wilson also ran the popular “Glenn Wilson’s Hit-and-Run Exxon” in Montgomery, Texas. Today, he lives in Conroe, Texas. He claims to be a born-again Christian, and speaks at prisons every few months. He also preaches around Conroe. In 2012, he released his autobiography, Headed Home.