Blast from Baseball’s Past: Willy Wilson, a Real ‘Moonlight Graham’

The other day I was paging through the Baseball Encyclopedia when I stumbled upon the following baseball “career.”

Willy Wilson, Pitcher (Washington) 1906:One game, only 3 hits and 2 walks allowed in 7 innings pitched, resulting in 2 earned runs and a loss.

Immediately, I thought of Moonlight Graham. You remember Moonlight Graham. He was portrayed as a fictional character in the movie “Field of Dreams.” Moonlight’s major league career lasted all of one game — more accurately, all of one-half inning as a bottom-of-the-ninth defensive replacement. But Willy Wilson’s pitching debut on the big stage had been impressive, making his disappearance from the “fast company” of the majors curious.

I was convinced there had to be a story here, and there was.

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The final day of the 1906 baseball season paired the two cellar-dwellers in the American League in a doubleheader of little interest, and no significance. The pennant race for both the Washington Nationals and the Boston Americans had been over months ago. For Boston, just two years removed from a pennant and three years removed from a World Series championship, the season could have been optimistically viewed as a rebuilding year. For Washington, the year could have only been viewed as a nightmare, one that began with the death of starting shortstop Joe Cassidy, and ended in yet another losing season. (The Senators/Nationals had never finished a season over .500, and wouldn’t for another six years.)

It was a meeting of two teams playing two games for nothing but pride. A total of 1,200 people huddled in the stands on this chilly October afternoon to say goodbye to the season.

The crowd got more than their money’s worth. The pace of both games was as crisp as the weather, marked by clutch defensive plays and dominant pitching, punctuated by animated exchanges. (“It was outside,” growled a batter. Home plate umpire Tommy Connolly fired back: “You’ll be outside in a minute.”) Cy Falkenberg (Wash.) and Joe Harris (Bos.) locked horns in the opener. The game was scoreless after nine action-packed innings squeezed into the span of but an hour. Washington ended the drama by scoring in the 11th to eke out a 2-1 victory.

Columbus, Ohio, native Willy Wilson started the second game for the Nationals, making his major league debut. As major league debuts go, it would have merited SportsCenter raves: The right-hander threw seven innings of three-hit ball, walking only two.

Unfortunately for Willy, leadoff walks combined with timely hitting led to two early Boston runs. Trailing 2-1, Washington wasted a Jake Stahl triple in the fifth that might have tied the game had he not been picked off moments later. Boston starter Len Swormstedt held the weak-hitting Nationals in check, matching Wilson pitch for pitch. When it was decided that the game be called after seven innings so the Boston team could catch the train back home, Wilson took a tough loss in his first start.

The season was officially over — and so was Willy Wilson’s major league career. He just didn’t know it yet.

In 1907, Wilson joined the big league club in Galveston, Texas, for spring training — and several doses of bad luck. New manager Joe Cantillon let it be known that Washington already had a talented pitching staff under contract. Wilson would have to battle two other young hurlers for the final spot on the staff. A severe spiking injury then sidelined Willy for three weeks. When he finally got a chance to start, the club was already in the midst of a string of April exhibition games that wound north from Galveston to opening day.

Two consecutive days of rain had canceled games scheduled in Cincinnati and Dayton. It rained again the third day, the morning of the game Wilson was to start in Springfield, Ohio. Despite the rain, over 500 die-hard fans waited to see if the game would be played. Facing the possibility of three straight days of road expenses with no gate receipts, the temptation to squeeze in five innings was great. When the sun came out around one, the decision was made to play the game.

Reporters called the game a farce. The field was a sea of mud. Players struggled and failed to retain their balance with every play. Rabbit Nill snared a liner at third, and in merely turning to touch third, slipped and fell in the muck. First baseman John Anderson slowed as he pulled into second, only to have his feet fly out from under him. Wilson himself slid headfirst in the mire lunging after a bunt, but covered in mud he still managed to throw the batter out. How? The batter had lost his balance mere steps from home plate, sprawling headfirst down the first base line.

What had started as an exhibition game had turned into a slapstick comedy. In the third inning, it began to rain again. In the fourth, gusting winds shook the grandstand, ripping off part of the roof. Even the hardiest spectators fled for cover. Finally, mercifully, the game was called. It had been Willy’s last chance to impress, but bad timing and unforgiving weather had conspired to rob him of the look of a winner. Instead, Wilson had escaped the slop with very little dignity and a 4-2 lead.

But there would be scarcely any winners to emerge from Washington’s spring training of 1907. Willy Wilson was immediately sent to Milwaukee in the American Association, never again getting a chance to stick in the majors. Joe Cantillon’s “talented pitching staff” would manage to lose 102 games, leading one to question whether Joe really had a clue when evaluating talent. In three years with Cantillon at the helm, the Nationals would twice finish last in the league, and no higher than seventh. No, the only winner coming out of the spring of 1907 had to be the old lady whose house lay just outside the confines of Galveston’s ballpark.

She held every ball that was fouled over the grandstand and into her yard for a 50-cent ransom, and reportedly didn’t negotiate price.

That’s right. She knew how to play hardball.

Sources for this article:
Washington Times, 1906-1907
Washington Herald, 1906-1907
Baseball Reference.com
Sporting Life, 1906-1907