In 1994, Todd Jones of the Cincinnati Post took a look at Wilson, his career and apparent suicide on January 5, 1975. Wilson’s one of the few major league pitchers with at least two no-hitters, and I believe the only such pitcher, aside from Addie Joss, to die in the midst of his career:
“He could throw hard – kind of like Bob Gibson,” said former Reds manager and player Tommy Helms.
Helms knows. It was 25 years ago Sunday – May 1, 1969 – that he made the final out in Wilson’s no-hitter against the Reds at Crosley Field. Wilson’s feat for the Houston Astros came 24 hours after Jim Maloney of the Reds no-hit Houston. Nothing new for Wilson. He tossed a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves in 1967. And he had a no-hitter going against the Reds Sept. 4, 1974, before he was lifted after eight innings for a pinch-hitter with the Astros trailing 2-1.
Four months later, Wilson was dead.
Wilson’s body was found in his car, a victim of poisonous carbon monoxide fumes swirling in the garage of his Houston home. Whether the death was a suicide or accident never has been determined. He was 29.
“It was a sad, sad thing,” said Helms, a Houston teammate of Wilson at the time of the pitcher’s death.
The sudden death was the final mysterious chapter in a career of an intriguing and mysterious player.
Wilson had a 104-92 record, a career ERA of 3.15, and 1,479 strikeouts for the Astros from 1966-74. He was a talented but moody player who became known as much for his idiosyncracies as for his abilities.
“He was a great teammate and competitor,” said Helms, “but sometimes he might not speak to you for three or four days and then all of sudden talk to you. He would come to the park early to do his work so no one would see what he did. You just have to call him a loner.”
Said former Reds manager Dave Bristol: “You didn’t know what he was thinking. He’d be talking to himself on the mound.”
Bristol was the cause of a feud between Wilson and the Reds. Wilson so dominated Cincinnati in 1968 – striking out 18 Reds (including eight consecutive) in one game and 16 in another – that Bristol resorted to verbal taunts from the dugout, trying to rattle the pitcher.
“He threw hard, hard,” Bristol said. “We used to get on him all the time to try to upset him and distract his attention.”
Nine days before the Reds went hitless against Wilson they pounded him 14-0. The taunts of Bristol and Wilson’s knockdown pitches that day caused bad blood to boil.
Wilson was angered that Pete Rose attempted to take an extra base with the Reds far in front. He was upset, too, because Johnny Bench called for breaking pitches against Houston in the ninth inning. After the game, Wilson telephoned Cincinnati’s clubhouse.
Wilson’s revenge came on the field nine days later. Before a Crosley crowd of 4,042, he struck out 13 Reds, including Helms to end the no-hitter.
“After he pitched the no-hitter he wanted to whip my butt,” Bristol said. “He wanted to come after me. He didn’t even want congratulations from his teammates. Lucky for me they got to him first.” Wilson was stoic afterward.
“I’ve got a few friends on the Reds, but most of them I’ve got no use for,” Wilson said. “I beat the Reds. That’s why I got more personal satisfaction out of this no-hitter than the last one.”
Wilson was just entering the prime of his career when he died. His body was found slumped over a reclining seat on the passenger side of his sports car on Jan. 5, 1975. The ignition was turned on, but the engine was not running.
Fumes from the car’s exhaust seeped into the master bedroom above the garage and killed his 9-year-old son, Alex. Wilson’s wife and daughter also were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes but survived after being hospitalized. His wife had a broken jaw that never was explained.
Wilson was buried on a gloomy, overcast day.
In reporting on the death, the AP wrote:
A Houston Fire Department spokesman, Jack MacGillis, said a woman had called the fire department, which handles ambulance service within the city, saying that she could not wake her children and that her husband was in their car. MacGillis said the call was received at 1:24 P.M. Calls for ambulances are automatically reported to the Houston Police Department, which then dispatched officers to Wilson’s fashionable home in the city’s southwest section.
A spokesman for the Houston Police Department said that when officers arrived at the Wilson home at approximately 1:30 P.M. they found the pitcher in the garage. He was unconscious seated in the right front seat of his 1972 Thunderbird. His head was tilted back resting on the seat and his arms were at his sides. His left foot was crossed over his right foot. A pack of cigarettes was on the dashboard in front of Wilson.
The left front door was closed. but the right door was open. The ignition was on and the gasoline indicator was at empty, but the car’s engine was cold. The garage doors were open.
Alexander, the son, was found in his bed, lying on his stomach with his arms raised around his head, covered to the waist by a sheet.
T.R. Trinkle, a juvenile-care officer, said he had talked to Mrs. Wilson at the hospital. He quoted her as having said she awoke after having heard a car motor running and had gone to check on the children.
She told him she had picked up the boy and taken him to the master bedroom and shut the doors to both the daughter’s bedroom and the master bedroom. She said she could not go back to sleep because the car motor was still running, so she went to check and found her husband, Trinkle reported.
She told him she had called a friend, a registered nurse, who had told her to check for a pulse. She said she did not know how she got the broken jaw, Trinkle added.
“It was a terrible shock,” said the Astros’ general manager, Spec Richardson. “The whole organization is very sorry over this tragedy.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” fellow Astro pitcher, Dave Roberts, said as he waited at the hospital to visit Mrs. Wilson. “Don had everything going for him. He had it all together.”
“We had been working at the speaker’s bureau together and everything was fine. He didn’t show up for the pitching school this morning and I guess that started them looking.”
Wilson and Roberts work in the offseason at the Astros’ speaker’s bureau, which arranges speaking engagements for the players. Wilson had been scheduled to instruct at a coaching school today with another Astros’ pitcher, Tom Griffin.
Roberts said the last time he was with Wilson was Dec. 15, when the two reported to the speaker’s bureau office at the Astrodome.
An Astro official said Wilson had visited the Astros offices several times during the offseason and was looking forward to the 1975 season.
“He really was enthused about the upcoming season,” said Boby Risinger, in charge of Astro publicity.
“I really enjoyed him and being around him,” Griffin said. “He was a nice person, a great person. I want people to know what kind of a guy he was. He was a good human being.”
And in that same year, 1994, the Austin American-Statesman’s Michael Point took a second look at Wilson and his
1967 no-hitter against the Braves, a 2-0 victory against a hard-hitting lineup that included Henry Aaron, Rico Carty, Felipe Alou and Tito Francona. In fitting fashion, Aaron was the last hitter Wilson faced, and the star-crossed rookie finished his masterpiece in fine style, making the all-time home run champ his 15th and final strikeout.
Wilson is the only Astros pitcher to twice achieve no-hit status. The brilliant, but disturbed, young right-hander probably would have added several more to his total if his personal life could have been as perfect as his pitching. The 29-year old Wilson was found slumped in his car in his garage on Jan. 5, 1975, dead from carbon monoxide fumes. It was ruled a suicide.
After having struck out 197 batters in 187 innings at Amarillo in the Texas League in 1966, Wilson was promoted to the Astros’ starting rotation. He was never taken out of it, and in his brief career led the team in wins and ERA three times. In 1971, he was named to the National League All-Star team and pitched two shoutout innings in the game. Wilson’s name is still among the Astros’ top five in shutouts, complete games, strikeouts and innings pitched. He ranks sixth in wins.
Wilson would be particularly valuable in the Astros’ new division. Cincinnati, a long-time Houston nemesis, has emerged as the Astros’ chief competitor in the NL Central race. Wilson hated the Reds and did his best to make them aware of it. His second no-hitter came in 1969 against Cincinnati, and it was meant to send a message. The Reds’ Maloney had no-hit the Astros, then limping along with a 4-20 record, the game before. Maloney and his fellow Reds had openly ridiculed the Astros during and after the game. Wilson went to the mound with a mission and left it with a no-hitter, silencing not only the mouths but the bats of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and the others.
A much more extensive review of Wilson’s life and death was written by Mike Lynch of Seamheads.com.