Don Wilson was an intense pitcher. He was easy to anger on the mound and took out his frustrations on any batter that stood in front of him. In nine seasons, he was in the top ten five times for hitting batters. His teammates called it passion. His management called it results except for Harry Walker who once had to duck a thrown punch. His fans called it intensity. But was there something darker happening?
On January 5, 1975, Don Wilson was found dead. The official story follows a plausible path. Don Wilson had too much to drink and decided to sleep in his car. Being inebriated, he did not realize he was creating a death trap that would end up killing both him and his son, who was sleeping in the room above the garage.
It sounds possible. But reading deeper into the tragedy reveals a few details that make this story sound contrived. Interviews taken by police immediately after the fact showed that Mrs. Wilson had a broken jaw and had ferreted the children into their rooms. She then tried to go to sleep but said she had trouble sleeping because the car was running. When police arrived, the gas tank was empty.
For some time, a few people have debated between accidental death and suicide. But there is a third possibility that seems reasonable but unacknowledged. Wilson's wife had clearly been hit by an intoxicated husband. It is probably a safe assumption that it was not the first time that too much alcohol led to physical abuse.
Is it unreasonable to believe that Don Wilson fell asleep in a running car and his wife left him there to die? The one fact that points to this possibility is the empty gas tank. If the running car was keeping her awake, why would it take her so long to check on her husband? Depending on how much fuel was in the car, it could have taken hours to burn all of the gas in an idle position. In fact, it ran long enough that it filled two other rooms with carbon monoxide, killing one of their children and putting the other into a coma.
There is no way to truly know the answer to this mystery. In the end, it may not matter why it happened. A tragedy is a tragedy. Regardless of the reason it all unfolded, it is odd that the Houston Astros honored him after his death. No matter which of the three possible causes was correct, it does not paint a favorable image of a very talented pitcher. He did pitch two no-hitters for the Astros, but he was at best a drunkard that killed one of his children and himself accidentally. At worst he was a drunkard that abused his wife and took one of his children with him in a selfish act.
Should such a man be honored in the same manner as Nolan Ryan or even Jim Umbricht? Should the personal shortcomings of a player affect how they are remembered as a professional baseball player?