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ROIT -- Between the meteoric rise of Denny McLain and the year-in, year-out consistency of Mickey Lolich, Earl Wilson sometimes can be forgotten in the Tigers' pitching greatness of the late 1960s. Yet without the addition of the veteran hurler from Boston in 1966, the Tigers might never have made their charge to the 1968 World Series.
"I remember facing him with Boston, and I thought he was very tough," Hall of Famer Al Kaline said. "And then all of a sudden when we got him, he was a big part of our ballclub for quite a few years -- not only as a pitcher, but also as a hitter."
Wilson's family will be presented with the Detroit Tigers African American Legacy Award prior to Sunday's game against the Pirates at Comerica Park.
Wilson made history as Boston's first African-American pitcher in 1959, and he won 12 games in his first full season in the Red Sox rotation three years later. His next three seasons reflected the Red Sox as a whole -- he just under .500 but putting his game together under the microscope of being an African-American pitcher with one of the last teams to integrate.
After the Red Sox moved their Spring Training home in 1966 to Winter Haven, Fla., an incident at a bar in nearby Lakeland, where a bartender refused to serve him, became a major story. Finally, midway through the '66 season, Tigers general manager Jim Campbell swung a deal for him, snagging the big right-hander for versatile outfielder Don Demeter.
Demeter had a decent stretch run in Boston, but was done after the 1967 season. Wilson, meanwhile, was on the verge of a breakout. With a Tigers rotation centered around a 22-year-old McLain and a 25-year-old Lolich, the 31-year-old Wilson brought a veteran presence and an aggressive style of pitching.
He won 13 out of his 23 Tigers starts in 1966, averaged better than seven innings a game, and allowed just 126 hits over 163 1/3 innings. He couldn't save the Tigers from a midseason collapse, but he set the stage for their rise over the next two years.
"I just think he got a chance to play," Kaline said. "He went into a different type ballpark than Fenway Park and he had that good slider, was able to keep the ball away from the hitters. And he was very tough on the mound.
"He was one of those very competitive guys that would throw the ball inside. I remember one time I faced him, and I told him this many times: Usually when a guy knocks me down, they always went away with the next pitch. And he was one of the first ones that threw two of them in there."
Wilson picked up where he left off by leading the AL with 22 wins in 1967, pacing the Tigers in a pennant race until the season's final weekend. He fell to 13-12 in 1968, but his 2.85 ERA was the best full-season number of his career. Detroit won seven games in which Wilson picked up a no-decision for a start.
Wilson went 64-45 with a 3.18 ERA as a Tiger. He was a Michigander until his death in 2005 at age 70.
"Earl was one of those guys that actually stayed in Michigan," Kaline said. "He got in business and was very successful. He meant a lot, not only to the Tigers, but to the whole community."