day 40: don

Today is 40 days, which is five days and five weeks of the omer: hod she’b’yesod.

The Astros have retired nine numbers in the club’s history, and most of the players I’d either actually watched or had heard a ton about — except for numbers 32 and 40. Both men died young, and neither regularly appears in the trivia on the AT&T SportsNet game broadcasts (which is how I learn a lot about players before my time). Pitcher Jim Umbricht, who died of lymphoma in the off-season in 1964, was #32, and pitcher Don Wilson was #40.

Don_Wilson_Tribute_PatchIn 1975, the Astros took the field on opening day in the “Tequila Sunrise” uniforms meant  to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Astrodome, dubbed the “8th wonder of the world.” Founded as an expansion team in 1962, the Houston Colt .45s changed their name and got a new home that day in 1965. Also on those uniforms the first day of the club’s 14th season was a circular black patch with the number 40. The Astros retired the number in a ceremony a few days later. (That season ended with a similarly funereal pall, with the Astros last in the division, 64-97, 43 1/2 games behind the Reds. Yes, you read that right.)

But for years before that sad day (and sad season), Wilson brought much joy to the Astrodome, with 104-92 win-loss record, 1,283 strikeouts, and two no-hitters. His no-hitter on June 18, 1967, was the first in a domed stadium and on artificial turf (the ‘Dome’s AstroTurf) and the first no-hit, no-run game in Astros’ history. He struck out 15 batters, including one of his idols, Hank Aaron (whom we’ll get to in a few days), for the final out.

The next year he set the club record for the most single-game strikeouts (18), a record that still stands. And on May 1, 1969, he threw his second no-hitter against the Reds — revenge for the no-hitter the Reds’ Jim Maloney had thrown against the Astros the day before. That year was also the Astros’ first franchise record above .500. In 1971, Wilson made the NL All-Star team.

Wilson was known for throwing the ball hard. It was that strength that got him notice from a Houston scout, who had come to see Wilson pitch at the community college he attended. The scout expressed interest but then seemed to have disappeared, causing Wilson to hurl a fastball at the screen behind the batter’s box in frustration. The scout reappeared suddenly to sign him.

And Wilson garnered attention off the field because of his friendship with white first baseman Curt Blefary. In 1969, in what was looked at as an odd choice at the time, the two became the first regularly integrated road roommates in the majors. Wilson even got hate mail because of that relationship. Ultimately, he remained a bit of loner, standoffish and mysterious to most of the people he played with, throughout his career. But one of his teammates said, “Don, he’s always been in the background a little bit, but if you needed him, he was there.”

On January 5, 1975, Wilson was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his car in the garage of his Houston home. Tragically, his son, sleeping in the bedroom above the garage, also died that day, and his wife and daughter were hospitalized. Wilson had a high blood alcohol content at the time of his death, which was ruled accidental.

In honor of this quiet pitcher who was part of the beginning legacy of the Astros organization, let’s count Day 40, “foundation that manifests as humility.”

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