“When I was at spring training with Boston in Arizona, I couldn’t live at the same hotel with the white players,” Wilson recalled. “They were at some plush hotel and I was down the road at some cactus joint where they couldn’t afford to turn anyone away.
“That was for a year or two. Then in 1961, and I think a year or two after that, we [the blacks] had to stay in Phoenix about 15 miles away and drive in to Scottsdale [the training site] every day,” he said.
From all that we can gather in talking to ex-players and in reading newspaper accounts of the period, other major league teams training in Phoenix back then apparently did not experience similar problems. That the Sox segregated their black players after 1959, though, is hotly denied by spokesman Bill Crowley. “Only the first year out there – 1959 – was awkward,” said Crowley. Be that as it may. For no matter how unpleasant Scottsdale, Arizona was back in the early ‘60s, there was always Winter Haven, Florida in 1966.
One late February evening that year (the first for the Sox at Winter Haven), Wilson went out to a local drinking sport with two white teammates. He was refused service. Even today, Wilson vividly recalls his embarrassment as he exited the bar: “It seemed like you had to walk two miles, with everybody staring at you, to get to that front door.” At the hotel later that night Wilson ran into a reporter and told his story. Soon it blossomed into headlines and a cause celebre for the NAACP. Publicly, the Red Sox pressed the town of Winter Haven for a change of policy; publicly, they relayed the bartender’s very public apology to Wilson.
But behind the scenes, Wilson now claims, something of an entirely different nature was occurring.
“Nobody from management ever came to me to indicate support,” he charged. “Nobody ever came up and said, ‘Everything’s all right, you should go wherever you want.’ Instead the manager [Billy Herman] came to me and said, ‘You gotta be careful what you say. Don’t say anything that would hurt you.’
“How much more could I be hurting?” Wilson asked. “Naturally I interpreted it to mean management was saying, ‘Cool it, don’t make a scene.”
When informed of Wilson’s account, Sox spokesman Crowley offered a different interpretation. “the gentleman who caused him the problem was murdered a few years later climbing out somebody else’s bedroom window,” said Crowley. “His reputation was pretty bad. Herman may have been trying to warn Earl about that.”
In June, 1966, less than four months after all the headlines, Wilson was dealt to the Detroit Tigers for a 31-year-old outfielder named Don Demeter, hitting .212 at the time.
“I think,” said Wilson with admirable restraint, “that the incident in Florida may have had some bearing on the trade. I wouldn’t be surprised if I hit more homers than the guy they traded me for, and I was a pitcher.”
Almost. Demeter hit 10 homers in some 260 at-bats as a Bostonian that season and in part of the next; Wilson hit nine homers in 160 at-bats over the same two seasons. Wilson also reeled off a 13-6 record with an excellent 2.60 ERA in the remainder of ’66 and then – irony of ironies – he nearly ruined the long-awaited Impossible Dream.