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Changing the Game 

When Ponchatoula native Earl Wilson died last month, he left a baseball legacy that includes breaking the infamous color barrier of the Boston Red Sox.

The Boston Red Sox missed several opportunities to avoid being known as baseball's most racist franchise -- and probably a few chances to break the fabled 'Curse of the Bambino' and win the World Series as well.

Late Pittsburgh Courier sports editor Wendell Smith worked exhaustively in 1945 to convince big-league clubs to give tryouts to Negro League players. On July 16, 1945, Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams were given such a chance, donning Red Sox uniforms and taking the field at Fenway Park and going through numerous drills under management's eye. Red Sox scout Hugh Duffy promised the club would be in touch soon. The players never heard from the team again.

The Red Sox slipped further away from championship-level talent in 1949 when a scout refused to brave the rain during a trip to Alabama to check out the prodigious talents of a then-unknown Willie Mays. Two years previous, Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers en route to a Hall of Fame career. Robinson led the Dodgers to a World Series title in 1955; only last year did the Red Sox finally win a championship and snap an 86-year drought.

'It was a racist ball club that made decisions based on that prejudice instead of the abilities of black players,' says Howard Bryant, a Boston Herald columnist and author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (Routledge).

In 1959, Ponchatoula native Earl Wilson became the first black player signed by the Red Sox, when the team discovered him playing catcher for a Marine Corps team. In addition to integrating the Red Sox, he also served from 2000 to 2004 as president of Major League Baseball's Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which helps ballplayers in financial need.

Wilson, 70, died of a heart attack on April 25 in Southfield, Mich.

BAT executive director Jim Martin remembers Wilson as a man who, despite his accomplishments, didn't look back. 'He was a wonderful man, a true friend,' says Martin. 'When you went into his house, you would have no idea he played pro ball if you didn't know already. He didn't show off with pictures, trophies, memorabilia or anything. Earl had so much more than that, and was always more focused on the future than the past.'

ROBERT EARL WILSON WAS BORN ON Oct. 2, 1934, in Ponchatoula, the son of Amanda and Earl Wilson. His family had been strawberry farmers for generations, says Earl Wilson's son, Greg Lawrence, who lives in Hammond.

'He knew from the time he was a little kid that he'd have to figure a way to get out of here, because he didn't want to pick strawberries, too,' Lawrence recalls.

Yet Wilson remained a well-known figure in Ponchatoula who visited his hometown often. 'I'd always see him when he came back to town to see his mama, which was pretty regular,' says Danny Dufresche, son of the late C.J. 'Buddy' Dufresche, founder of the Ponchatoula Athletics, a white team on the semi-pro circuit in the 1950s and '60s.

After distinguishing himself at Greenville Park High School, an all-black school between Hammond and Ponchatoula, Wilson joined the Marine Corps in 1956, and played as a catcher for various military squads. He became the first African American to sign with the Red Sox, breaking into the big leagues in 1959. At the time, the Red Sox were the only all-white squad left in the major leagues. (Infielder Pumpsie Green was actually the first black to appear in a Red Sox uniform, taking the field a few games before Wilson.)

Wilson saw limited action his first two seasons in Boston. The hard-throwing right-hander had a breakthrough season in 1962, pitching a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Angels on June 26, while also hitting a home run to help the Red Sox win the game 2-0. It was the first time a black pitcher had achieved a no-hitter in the major leagues. Wilson went on to win at least 10 games per season for the next eight years.

According to anecdotes collected in Bryant's book Shut Out, Wilson was never happy in Boston. He carved a niche for himself in Roxbury, the city's traditional black neighborhood, where he frequented Celtics legend Bill Russell's jazz and supper club, Slade's. But his difficulties with the organization's upper management forced his trade to the Detroit Tigers in 1967, Bryant says.

'The difference between Wilson and Pumpsie Green is that Green didn't have the type of talent to protect him,' Bryant says. 'Wilson was a very straightforward, activist type of person. But neither really had the support of management.'

All this came to a head during the Red Sox's spring training in Winter Haven, Fla., before the start of the 1966 season. Wilson was denied entry to a restaurant where his teammates ate. He was furious -- and wounded even more by the fact that the team ate at the restaurant anyway.

Wilson recalled that he was advised to downplay the incident. 'I'll never forget (former Red Sox executive) Dick O'Connell told me not to do anything or say anything that would hurt me,' Wilson said in a 2003 interview with 'Of course, me being me, I opened my big mouth and started talking about it. It was the best thing I ever did, because that June they traded me to Detroit.'

In 1967, Green won 22 games for the Detroit Tigers. That same season, the Red Sox lost the World Series in seven games, with many fans lamenting a weakened pitching corps that couldn't carry the series' distance. (In recent years, the Red Sox's new ownership has been lauded for its efforts to heal the club's divisive racial history.)

'Like a lot of black players that came through Boston, Wilson's time here wasn't indicative of his talent,' Bryant says. 'He never felt comfortable here. The fault lies with the racism of the organization and the city. And it probably cost us a World Series.'

IN DETROIT, WILSON FLOURISHED IN A MORE WELCOMING environment. 'It was the first time I had seen black folks with their own homes, own businesses, their own new cars,' he told 'Everything was wonderful in Detroit and it became home to me.'

Wilson retired from baseball in 1970 with a career record of 121-109, hitting 35 home runs, just two shy of Wes Farrell's major-league record for a pitcher. He went on to establish a successful automotive supply company. 'He built his business himself, running a company for 30 years that employed as many as 350 people,' Martin says. 'He was as proud of being an African-American businessman as anything he accomplished.'

Martin praises Wilson's leadership at BAT, a five-year period in which the player-assistance organization raised more and distributed more money (estimated at $4 million) than at any point in its 20-year history. 'Wilson's saying was that, 'It's better to err on the side of giving a guy too much than to err on the side of shorting somebody.''

'He would always tell me about life, and it didn't matter to him about getting all the accolades and awards,' says Wilson's son, Greg Lawrence. 'He was more concerned about being a good human being and treating people fairly. That's what he instilled in me.' In addition to Lawrence, Wilson is survived by a wife, Roslin, and two stepchildren, Marvin and Mark. On the night after he died, the Detroit Tigers observed a moment of silence before their game.

click to enlarge The late pitching legend Earl Wilson with the Detroit - Tigers in 1968. - ROBERT STINNET/ZUMA PRESS
  • Robert Stinnet/Zuma Press
  • The late pitching legend Earl Wilson with the Detroit Tigers in 1968.
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