The Boston Red Sox acquired Jason Varitek on this day, 15 years ago. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Game of Note: On July 31, 1959, Earl Wilson became the first black pitcher to ever start a game for the Boston Red Sox. This was the same season in which Pumpsie Green had finally broken the color barrier for the Tom Yawkey-owned Red Sox, who were the last team to integrate thanks to policies that weren't exactly a well-kept secret.
Wilson threw just 3-2/3 innings, walking nine and striking out four, but he didn't surrender a hit nor a run, and Boston won 6-5. While his first season with the Sox didn't go well, Wilson ended up pitching seven seasons for Boston, posting a 95 ERA+ in 1,024 innings, nearly all of them as a starter (156 of his 174 appearances came as a starter). Wilson also pitched with the Tigers and Padres, finishing up with over 2,000 career frames and a 99 ERA+.
Besides breaking the color barrier for Boston on this day 53 years ago, Wilson also threw a no-hitter against the Angels, and even hit a home run off of the opposing pitcher to help secure his victory. The former catcher went deep 35 times in his career, 33 times while playing as a pitcher -- you don't see many pitchers come in and collect two pinch-hit homers in their careers these days, but Wilson did. He was also part of the 1968 Tigers' club that won the World Series, when he posted a 2.85 ERA in 224 innings. Amazingly enough, given the context of the time, that 2.85 ERA was only six percent better than the league average.
Wilson was dealt from the Red Sox in June of 1966, months after a spring training incident at a Florida bar in which he was refused service for being black. Boston wanted to sweep it under the rug to avoid controversy, but Wilson (rightly) revealed the story to the press.
Wilson passed away at age 70 in 2005, following a heart attack. By then, all traces of Yawkey ownership were gone from Boston, as the team had been sold from the Yawkey Trust to the current group of John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino. It's a shame Wilson couldn't play in a more accepting time period for the organization -- and for America -- but the career of Wilson and other black players helped pave the way for the game we know today.
Transactions of Note: How do you choose one July 31 transaction, given it's the deadline for non-waiver trades? Easy: you choose July 31, 1997, because that's the day that Dan Duquette's Red Sox dealt reliever Heathcliff Slocumb to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for both Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. Those two were a huge part of Boston's first World Series championship team since 1918, with Varitek hitting .296/.390/.482 in 2004, and Lowe, despite a down regular season, allowed just four runs in 19-1/3 postseason innings. He won three games in those playoffs, all of them the deciding contests of playoff series, and also tossed 5-1/3 innings in Game Four of the ALCS, a game that started Boston's return from down three games to none.
All told, Lowe threw 1,037 innings with Boston, racking up 70 wins, 85 saves, and a 127 ERA+. Varitek played all 15 years of his career with the Sox, logging a .256/.341/.435 line with defense that was considered superior even before the advent of advanced defensive statistics. All that in exchange for a closer who, while the owner of some quality seasons and moments, just wasn't worth what he was dealt for.
Birthdays: Gabe Kapler is 37 years old today, two years after retiring from the game. He spent 12 years in the bigs, including four with the Red Sox, hitting just .270/.321/.391 with an 82 OPS+ for Boston. He was a popular player, though, and he did come up in the Tigers organization, the club the Sox happen to be facing on this July 31.