Wilson and Price hold special distinction in Tigers history

Earl Wilson and David Price are two of the few African American pitchers to start for the Tigers.

The date was October 5, 2014.

The Detroit Tigers were playing the Baltimore Orioles at Comerica Park.

It was the third game of the American League Division Series, and the Bengals were down two games to zero.

David Price was on the hill for Detroit. He pitched a great game, going eight frames and giving up only two runs, but his mates could do nothing against the O’s Bud Norris. Baltimore won the game, 2-1, sweeping the Tigers in the process.

We mention this game not merely to dredge up bad memories, but to point out a historical fact that went overlooked that day.

Price was only the second African American pitcher to start a postseason game for the Detroit Tigers.

Since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the team had played 75 playoff or World Series games before Price’s start. Only one of them had featured a black starting pitcher in a Tigers uniform.

That man was Earl Wilson.

A strapping right-hander from Louisiana, Wilson had enjoyed a 22-win season for Detroit in 1967, but had spent all of 1968 in the shadow of Denny McLain, who was on his way to 31 victories.

Back then, wins and losses were the end-all be-all stat for pitchers, and Wilson’s pedestrian 13-12 record overshadowed what was, statistically speaking, nearly as fine a season as he’d had the year before. He had a lower ERA and WHIP. His home run and walk rates per nine innings were down, and his strikeout rate per nine was up. Both years, he had a Wins Above Replacement of 2.3, per baseballreference.com.

Wilson was essentially a victim of nonsupport in 1968. In ten of his losses, the Tigers scored two runs or less. In his 33 starts, the Tigers averaged 3.3 runs, worst among the club’s starting staff. That figure ranked 26th among 39 American League pitchers with at least 20 starts. McLain, conversely, had benefitted from the best run support in the AL, with Detroit averaging 5.2 runs in his 41 starts.

Wilson had begun his career in 1959 with the Boston Red Sox, becoming that organization’s first African-American pitcher. Not only was he a very good hurler, Wilson was an excellent hitter. By the time he retired following his 1970 season with the San Diego Padres, he had blasted 33 home runs as a pitcher, good for fifth all time among moundsmen (he also hit two additional round-trippers as a pinch-hitter).

McLain and Lolich started the first two games of the 1968 World Series, both of which were in St. Louis. The two teams split, and back in Detroit for Game Three on October 5, Detroit manager Mayo Smith went with Wilson. The pitcher had turned 34 just three days prior.

He got off to a shaky start, issuing a free pass to leadoff man Lou Brock, who promptly stole second. Wilson appeared rattled, as he also walked Curt Flood. He fanned Roger Maris for the first out, and Brock, trying to steal third on the pitch, was gunned down by Bill Freehan for a double play. Orlando Cepeda grounded out, and a potential big inning for St. Louis was averted.

In the bottom of the third, with Dick McAuliffe on second base, Al Kaline blasted a home run into the left field stands to give Detroit a two-run lead. But Wilson was not on his game. He was uncharacteristically wild, walking six Cardinal batters (he hadn’t issued more than five in a game all season). He gave up four hits before he had to be removed with one out in the fifth due to a tight hamstring. He was charged with three earned runs, and St. Louis teed off on a parade of four Tigers relievers to come away with a 7-3 win.

It would take another 46 years to the day for a second black pitcher to start a game for Detroit in the postseason.

Wilson remains the only African American pitcher to start a World Series game for the Tigers.