For fans of the Houston Astros, January 5, 1975 will always be something of a day of mourning. On that day, one of the Astros greatest players left the great ballpark of life, leaving behind him more than enough fond memories to fill a thousand Minute Maid Parks in the team’s home city of Houston. The player’s name was Donald Edward Wilson, but his teammates and fans alike knew him simply as “Don”.
The rise of a pitcher
Don Wilson was born February 12, 1945, and played his college baseball in Compton, California – at the Compton Community College. After college, he was recruited in 1966 by the Astros, who were in need of good pitchers – as most teams usually are. He was known as a bit of a wild card in college, and his wild streak continued in the early years of his professional career. Part of that lack of control was simply the result of the speed with which he threw the ball. He was routinely referred to throughout his 9 years in the Majors as having one of the hardest thrown pitches in all of baseball. As many analysts have noted over the years, the truly hard throwing pitchers often find that the first thing they must sacrifice to obtain such speed and force is their control over the pitch.
Wilson is known for a great many things in Astros lore, including being the first pitcher to ever record a no-hitter under a dome or on artificial grass. That no-hitter also saw an impressive display of strikeouts, as Don’s brutal pitches sealed the fates of 15 total batters on the day, including the legendary Hank Aaron, whose strikeout was the final deciding out in the contest. A year later, Wilson would record 18 total strikeouts in one game, setting a record for the franchise. His hard-throwing style was paying off.
By the time Wilson threw what would prove to be the last game of his career, he had earned the respect of his team, fans, and foes around the league. No-hitters were always a possibility when Don took the mound, and his opponents knew it. His very last game was close – a 5 to nothing, two hit affair over the Atlanta Braves in September of 1974. It was the last time he would ever be seen by a batter, however, as his body was found in his garage in January of the following year, dead in the passenger seat of his own car. The engine was still running, but the official account recorded the death as a tragic accident since there was no evidence of intent to commit suicide.
A few months later, the Astros organization officially retired Don’s number, a fitting tribute to a man who had given his life to the ball club. The next season, the players all wore the number 40 on a uniform patch to commemorate their fallen comrade. To this day, fans across the Houston area still talk about the hard-throwing pitcher who always left everything he had on the field of play.