Remembering the Detroit Tigers’ Duke of Earl

When he died of a massive heart attack in April of 2005, Robert Earl Wilson, the elegant Duke of Earl, left behind a void that went far beyond the parameters of the baseball field.

Although forever worshiped in Detroit as part of the beloved 1968 Tigers World Championship team, Earl actually came up in the Boston organization, first having a cup of coffee in The Bigs in ’59 and ’60, and finally becoming a fixture with the Bosox in 1962. By itself, this was not a shabby accomplishment, especially when it is taken into account that it was not until earlier in the same 1959 season that saw Earl’s debut, that the Red Sox, courtesy of Pumpsie Green, had become the very last team in the major leagues to break the color barrier.

Earl began as a catcher back in his days with the Marines, and he signed with Boston as a catcher. But, in what may have been a career-lengthening move, the gun he had for a throwing arm soon saw him firmly established on the mound instead. It was easy to see why. Even though the Sox were languishing in the basement during the years that he played for them, Earl won in double-digits for four straight seasons before the Bostons turned him over to Detroit in 1966. He promptly went 13 and 6 for the remainder of the ’66 season, and the following year he racked up a league-leading (and career-high) 22 wins – and, partly as a result of those wins, he almost saw his new team take the pennant from an amazingly rejuvenated Red Sox club. The following year? Well, the following year was 1968.

Earl’s lifetime ERA was a very respectable 3.69. He won a total of 121 ball games. He struck out 1452 men and walked only 796. His “WHIP,” a wonderful statistic invented by Rotisserie League players – walks and hits per innings pitched – was a decent 1.30. [For what it’s worth, this puts him about with Rick Porcello (1.36). Justin Verlander’s WHIP was 1.18 this past season, and Cy Young winner Zack Greinke tallied an ubelievable 1.07.].]

Earl Wilson was a starting pitcher that any ball club would be delighted to have in its rotation. But when he died, what did people talk about? Earl’s hitting. The home runs. The towering fly balls and rising line drives that seemed to go on forever. Earl Wilson could pitch the ball, but he also could hit it further and harder than just about any man before or since — and he did it without, shall we say, any chemical enhancement. Earl pitched a no-hitter in 1962, and even his no-hitter had to share billing with the fact that he also hit a home run in the same game.

Maybe the fascination with Earl’s hitting is that there is an element of irony involved when a pitcher can hit the ball that way. No matter. The bottom line is that Earl Wilson, with 35 home runs (two short of Wes Ferrell’s major league record for a pitcher), hit the long ball once for every 21 times he came up to bat. Al Kaline only did it once for every 25.

Earl died a successful man. He founded an automobile parts company (Autotek Sealants, Inc.) and was well-respected in business circles. He forever reached out to people who needed help, and he helped them. At the time of his death, Earl had just completed a four year term as president of the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), a group that provides assistance to needy individuals who once played for or worked in professional baseball, whether major, minor, or Negro leagues. Earl’s involvement with BAT was total. He is credited with bringing BAT into step with the Major League Baseball Alumni Association. The minute he stepped down as BAT president, he took over as chairman of the organization’s grants committee. Nor was BAT his only way of giving back to the community. Earl supplemented his work at BAT with various private, Christian charitable efforts.

But maybe we still need to give the nod to his hitting. Forty years after the Red Sox peddled the Duke to Detroit for outfielder Don Demeter, Boston journalist David Margolick was still steaming mad.

“…And Earl Wilson hit more home runs as a pitcher for Detroit,” fumed Margolick at the time of Wilson’s death, “than Demeter [ever] hit as an outfielder for the Red Sox!”