This is a year of many 50th anniversaries. The Cuban Missile Crisis. John Glenn’s orbital mission. The Beatles’ first album. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev’s first dance. West Side Story’s Academy Award. Marilyn Monroe’s suicide.
All that plus Earl Wilson’s no-hitter.
That no-hitter, the first by a black pitcher in the American League, came 50 years ago Tuesday night, on a sparkling Fenway evening. I knew that without looking it up, just as I know, without going to the Internet, that the last out in the top of the ninth was an outfield fly, and that Wilson dropped to his knees in prayer while the ball was in the air. I know all that because it was the very first time I attended a baseball game and how could anyone forget a night like that?
For that night began my half-century love affair with baseball, with the Red Sox and, later, with the Pittsburgh Pirates, hopeless National Leaguers who today share the same fugue of futility that was the soundtrack of my North Shore childhood in the middle years of the 1960s.
I’ve been alive for more than 21,000 nights but almost none seems as vivid as that one 50 years ago, witnessing history at age 8 in Section 26 of the Fenway grandstand, surrounded by my father and grandfather, two men I worshiped like no other, except perhaps Carl Yastrzemski, whom I never met but would invite to my wedding, and Don Schwall, who shared a March 2 birthday with me and thus was an object of special favor.
My father sat there with thinning hair, my grandfather with white hair, and how could I have imagined that someday I would be sitting in the same place, there in Fenway with white, thinning hair, accompanied by two beautiful daughters (Red Sox fans, both of them, and hard-wired to know how to keep a flawless scorecard) and that these two would be gone?
But now that they are gone, that night, shared with only 13,999 other souls, means ever so much more to me, and as I went through a pile of collectables the other night I noticed that for years I have been acquiring old and odd clippings about Earl Wilson, whose trade to the Detroit Tigers in 1966 set me to weeping.
In the years that would follow, Wilson would thrive in Detroit, winning 22 games and almost leading the Tigers to the American League pennant one year. But that season was 1967, and the Red Sox were fated to win the flag that year in the Impossible Dream season, an event that is a hinge in the history of baseball and all of New England.
Yet five years earlier, in 1962, Wilson still was a pioneer, only the second black to join the Sox after Pumpsie Green, and his time with the Bostons wasn’t a sunshine idyll. The time he was denied entrance to an all-white nightclub during spring training was only the start of it. The Red Sox were not a light upon the nation’s pastime when it came to racial tolerance.
Roger Birtwell, who covered Wilson’s masterpiece for the Globe, referred to him as the “question-mark pitcher of the Boston Red Sox,’’ but at 26 Wilson was already a formidable figure, 6 feet 3 inches tall, weighing 216 pounds, terrifying on the mound but perhaps more so at-bat. At his first appearance at the plate that night, Wilson provided himself with the margin of victory by hitting a Bo Belinsky pitch into the stands for a homer.
Shortstop Eddie Bressoud and my hero at third, Frank Malzone, contributed stunning defensive plays to keep Wilson’s no-hitter alive. Then lefty Lee Thomas came to the plate.
He was the cleanup hitter for the Los Angeles Angels, batting .282 - he’d finish the season at .290 with 26 homers and 104 RBIs - and then ensued a classic confrontation between a batter destined for a small measure of greatness (he’d be an All-Star that season, a Red Sox player two years later, and eventually the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies) and a pitcher, one out away from history, sculpting a small moment of greatness.
Then, on a 1-and-2 count, came Wilson’s pitch, which Thomas sent to the depths of the Fenway outfield. Gary Geiger, in center field, was there to catch it, sealing the no-hitter, a 2-0 victory, and Wilson’s place in history. You could look it up. I didn’t have to.