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Thursday, May 12, 2016

David Price chases history and the Ghost of Earl Wilson

Price's start has baffled the experts. (AP)

When he takes the mound tonight at Fenway Park,  David Price will be doing more than trying to turn around his season.

There is a fact that you won't find mentioned in his long Red Sox media guide entry, or anywhere else. In many respects that's a good thing -- a sign of progress. Even he likely doesn't know about it,

As history, however, it is worth acknowledging.

When the Red Sox signed Price to a seven-year, $217-million contract last December, they did more than make him the highest-paid pitcher in MLB history. The move meant that, barring injury, the team's No. 1 starter entering the 2016 season would be African-American -- a first for a franchise that dates to 1901.

The Price was right in December. (AP)

Even at a position where there has traditionally not been a tremendous amount of racial diversity at the MLB level, this is surprising for such a storied organization. And while it can't be linked entirely to the team's dubious racial past, this does play a part.

There have, of course, been men of color atop the Boston rotation. Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher most of us will ever see, and the pride of the Dominican Republic. Luis Tiant, the big-game king of the 1975 American League champions, was as famous for his long exile from Castro's Cuba as for his topsy-turvy delivery and victory cigars. Both Pedro and El Tiante were beloved, charismatic winners, but neither was African-American.

Oil Can Boyd, the Mississippi-bred son of a Negro League player, went 15-13 with 3 shutouts for a mediocre Boston club in 1985. He seemed on the verge of No. 1 status, until Roger Clemens' rapid ascent in '86, coupled with Boyd's injuries and off-field problems, kept him from achieving it.

Boyd claims racism was also a factor. This can't be proven, but the other pitcher with perhaps the most legitimate chance to be Boston's first African-American ace was undeniably denied that shot by one of the ugliest injustices in team history -- which happened 50 years ago.

Earl Wilson was called up to the Red Sox in 1959, just a few weeks after infielder Pumpsie Green's promotion made Boston the last of the sixteen original MLB clubs to break the color line. During the next several seasons, the right-hander established himself as a very good pitcher on a very bad team. Twenty-game winner Bill Monbouquette was undeniably Boston's ace, but Wilson was a rising star who pitched a 1962 no-hitter at Fenway Park in which he also homered.

Wilson's no-hitter earned him a $1,000 bonus. (AP)

A down year by Monbouquette prompted his trade after the 1965 season, opening the door for Wilson to step into the No. 1 role. He had poise, experience, and confidence -- all the makings of a star.

Then came spring training of '66, which the Red Sox spent in the still-segregated Deep South. Wilson stepped into the Cloud Nine bar one hot night in Lakeland, Florida, with white teammates Dennis Bennett and Dave Morehead.

After taking drink orders from Bennett and Morehead, the bartender reportedly looked at Wilson and said, "We don't serve niggers here."

A Louisiana native, Wilson was not surprised -- but still angry. He went to team management, and was told to forget about the incident. He later said he thought long and hard about doing just that, knowing the club's dubious reputation in racial matters. In the end, however, he felt he could not remain silent and went to the press.

Even a great power stroke couldn't save Earl.

A few stories appeared in the newspapers, and the front office failed to condemn the incident or back its ballplayer. From that point on, it was only a matter of time.

On June 17, despite a fine 3.84 ERA for a last-place club, Wilson was traded to the Detroit Tigers in a terrible one-sided deal involving otherwise nondescript players. By stirring the pot, Wilson and others close to the situation believed, he had sealed his fate.

It can be argued that Wilson had the last word. He won a combined 18 games (mostly for Detroit) that summer, and then upped his record to 22-11 for the Tigers in 1967. The '68 season ended with a World Series championship, and Wilson -- still a stalwart in the Detroit starting rotation -- was celebrated as a key man in the title run.

Wilson won big in Detroit.

He settled in Michigan and went on to a successful business career after baseball, but the pain of what happened to him in Boston remained with Wilson until his 2005 death. The sting of injustice, and of being left out to dry by an organization to which he had given so much, was "the most humiliating experience of my life."

Now the Red Sox are one of the most racially diverse teams in baseball, and David Price has a chance to avenge this proud, personable man and knock down the final racial wall of Boston baseball. Price may never have heard of Earl Wilson and the Cloud Nine bar, but it's one more reason to root for the would-be ace.

Price ponders -- and hopes for better days.