You would think that someone who cares deeply for baseball’s rich history would thoughtfully choose which players she highlights and celebrates.
You would think that she wouldn’t just see a player named “Highball” and think, “Oh my God, a pitcher named Highball. I’m gonna have to write about him.”
You would think.
Here Are 12 Things You Should Know About Highball Wilson.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, Highball Wilson was not named Highball by his parents. Highball Wilson, a righty pitcher, was born Howard Paul Wilson in Philadelphia on August 9, 1878. (I realize that this would be a far more interesting post if his parents had named him Highball, and I’m sorry if you feel duped.)
(Highball Wilson was one of five future big leaguers born in Philadelphia in 1878. Only Highball played more than one season.)
So, who named him Highball?
I don’t know. The origins of Highball’s nickname seem lost to the ages. He isn’t called “Highball” by the press during his major league playing days, best I can tell. Did it refer to his drinking or to his pitching? While pitching for Washington in 1903 and 1904, he is often referred to as “Abe.” Same guy. Different nickname. And, I don’t know why they called him Abe, either.
So, what can I tell you? Well, I learned there were plenty of other Highball Wilsons. Bet you didn’t see that coming. One Highball Wilson led a popular Midwestern dance orchestra in the 1910s. Another Highball Wilson played minor league ball in Iowa around 1905-1906, who may or may not be our Highball Wilson. Other Highball Wilsons show up from time to time – including Pete Wilson, a Yankees pitcher in 1908-1909 who was, at least once, called Highball, but was not our Highball.
Should all this Highball talk make you thirsty, you can whet your whistle with a vintage highball, the way it was enjoyed in Howard “Highball” “Abe” Wilson’s day. 2 oz. whiskey, 2 oz. soda water, 1 ice cube. “That’s all.”
Should you use Wilson Whiskey, your highball becomes a Wilson Highball, named in honor, it’s said, of President Woodrow Wilson and not Highball Wilson.
Highball Wilson played in his first big league game on September 13, 1899 – pitching for the hapless Cleveland Spiders. He lost that game, against his hometown Philadelphia Athletics, 8-2. (The Spiders would win just 20 games that season – losing 134 – making them the loser’iest major league baseball team of all time, so Wilson’s loss was pretty much on point.)
It was Wilson’s first and only appearance with Cleveland.
Wilson won’t appear in another big league game until 1902, when he joins his hometown Philadelphia Athletics and appears in 13 games.
1902 Philadelphia Athletics. Highball Wilson, back row, far left.
Wilson’s first win as a big league pitcher comes on July 14, 1902, when the Philadelphia A’s defeat the Boston Red Sox 4-3 in 10 innings. Wilson pitches all 10 and is cited for his control and for being calm under pressure.
Boston’s losing pitcher that day? One of baseball’s greatest – Cy Young.
“Wilson showed the coolness of a tried campaigner, never displaying the slightest worriment, no matter how critical the situation.”
An umpire tells The Philadelphia Inquirer that Wilson “was about the coolest proposition he ever encountered.”
Box Score, 7/14/1902
Cy Young won a league-leading 32 games in 1902. His mid-season loss to Wilson was one of only 11 losses that season.
(Stay tuned: Wilson will defeat Cy Young again …)
Highball went 7-4 for the 1902 Athletics who would go on to win the AL pennant with an 83-53 record. (They wouldn’t, however, win the World Series, which would not be invented until 1903.)
Highball Wilson spends the 1903 and 1904 seasons with the Washington Senators.
While it certainly didn’t bestow the same honor on pitchers as it does today, Wilson was Washington’s Opening Day starter on April 14, 1904. So many rooters squeezed into the new Washington park on Opening Day that the overflow of fans were spread out into the outfield.
Washington will lose that game to the Athletics 8-3. Wilson will lose two more games that month – a loss to the Red Sox on the 18th and the New York Highlanders (Yankees) on the 25th.
Wilson’s not the only Senator pitcher losing. The Senators will start the season 0-13 and won’t win their first game until May 5.
Highball Wilson appears just one more time in a major league game. On May 17, 1904, against the White Sox, Wilson comes in as a pinch hitter in the ninth. He doubles to right. The Senators lose anyway.
(In June, Washington refuses to pay Wilson until his arm improves. He leaves the team on the grounds that he has been treated poorly and retains a lawyer to sue for back pay. Things eventually get worked out and Wilson returns to the team later in the season, but does not appear in a game.)
Wilson is small – 5’9”-ish – and injury-prone. When newspapers do mention him – which is seldom – reporters will call him “diminutive,” and note his “glass arm” and bad knees. He is known for being “clever” on the mound, rather than dominating; his pitches are best described as “floaters.” While playing on a Philadelphia YMCA team in 1901, nursing a leg injury, he pitches standing on one leg. (I realize that pitching while standing on one leg should have been noted much earlier, but thank you for reading this far.)
Wilson goes “missing” in October 1903 – between his first and second season with Washington. He leaves Washington on September 30 headed for home in Philadelphia and carrying between $600 and $1,000 in cash. When he hasn’t shown up two weeks later, his father contacts the police, believing he has been robbed and murdered.
This story gets scant attention – apparently people went missing in DC all the time back in 1903 and Wilson was no celebrity. His “safe and sound” discovery is never reported, but as I’m sure you’ve figured out, Wilson was not murdered, as he next shows up in March 1904 as a university pitching coach – more on that in the next section – and, as noted above, in Washington Senators box scores in April. Whew.
In March 1904, prior to joining Washington’s spring training, Wilson is tapped to coach the University of Pennsylvania’s pitchers. He is said to have done a good job. (In April, UPenn, behind stellar pitching, will defeat the University of Virginia twice – 7-1 and 10-1.)
In 1910, six years after his last major league game, census records report that Wilson is 31, single, living with his parents in Philadelphia, and working as a clerk in a cotton mill that also employs his father.
I’m afraid little else is known about Howard “Highball” “Abe” Wilson.
Howard Wilson died in Havre de Grace, Maryland on October 16, 1934 at age 56. No cause of death is reported. His funeral is in Philadelphia. His death notice in The Philadelphia Inquirer lists no spouse or children.
Highball Wilson played in 47 games over four major league seasons. He won 14 games and lost 26, with a career ERA of 3.29.
Of Wilson’s 14 career wins – seven with Philadelphia in 1902 and seven with Washington in 1903 – he will defeat Cy Young twice, including that game I mentioned in July 1902 and again on August 1, 1903, when Wilson will throw a 5-hit shutout for the Senators in a 1-0 win over the Red Sox.
Box Score, 8/1/1903
Thank you to v of Verdun2’s Blog for allowing me to continue his “12 Things” posts while he is on break.
Jackie, something curious caught my attention: in the box score from 8/1/03, it lists the game time as one hour and seven minutes. What? Surely, even a game that was “three up and three down” for nine innings would have lasted for longer than that, so I have to wonder if the reported time was a typo, or if there is something about early 20th Century, big league baseball that was radically different, in terms of game duration. Any guesses?
Thanks, as always, for another episode in a series of “players about who’s existence I would never have guessed, but about whom you made me care”. Be well.
Hi John! You read that correctly … one hour, seven minutes! The other game — the other box score in the post — went 10 innings and took just one hour and 40 minutes.
It really was a different game … few, if any, calls to the bullpen, no stepping off the mound and checking under your cap before every pitch, no warm-up pitches, no warm-up swings, no adjusting your batting gloves or stepping out of the batter’s box, no mound visits by coaches and managers, no video reviews, and, the biggest difference of all, I think, no breaks between innings and half-innings for radio/TV commercials. They went from one half-inning to the next instantly, without dawdling for ads, mascot races, jumbotron ads, “kiss cams.” The pitcher just got up there and threw the ball and the batter just swung.
Fun Fact’sh: one of the quickest modern era games was in 1919 … the Giants defeated the Phillies, 6-1 in just 51 minutes. (I say “fact’ish” because game times were a little fuzzy back then, so there may be another game that was even faster, but that’s the one most people agree on.)
Thanks Jackie. This was a walk down memory lane in more ways than one. My parents drank highballs on special occasions, though with more than 2 ounces of soda water. How bizarre that he was called Abe in one report. His story is a bit sad. Even in the team.photo he is standing at the edge of the group, almost as if he’s not really part of it.
He was called “Abe” consistently by the Washington newspapers. I’m sure they had their reasons!
I agree … I thought his story was a little sad, too. Although I did find one story that said he was a very nice guy.
Funny … I would think someone named “Highball” Wilson would be right up your alley!
Well, I do like the quirky ones. :)
Did you come across anyone called Lowball?
That would have been a good nickname for Eddie Gaedel!
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Loved this… Wilson played with Rube Waddell, which is how I first met Highball Wilson. There was a Wilson Highball sign on the outfield wall – does that count?
I wonder why he was called Abe, though. That seems so out of the blue…
The earliest reference to Highball Wilson in the newspapers was in 1969, when the first Big Mac encyclopedia came out and reviewers made notes of he charming newspapers. Makes me wonder if researchers for the book saw the Iowa kid or the musician (Hugh “Highball” Wilson) or something… Nothing in Baseball Magazine to that effect, nothing in 1902 when he was on a pennant winner… What if Highball is just wrong?
I think you could be right, Paul … Highball could just be a misremembered nickname. So much of our early baseball history relies on oral tradition and fading memories that we thought to document decades later. It’s only now that we all have so much info at our fingertips that we’re able to unpack some of these mysteries.
A friend recently had me research a distant relative on her tree who played for the Cubs in 1903. Come to find out, he didn’t. It was a little fish story he told because back in the day there was no internet filled with news stories and box scores to prove him wrong. His baseball story grew so big it was included in his obituary. I actually felt a little bad uncovering his fish story (his baseball career was one of a few he told).