Wilson, Max

Primary Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Haw River

Date of Birth:  June 3, 1916    Date and Place of Death: Jan. 2, 1977, Greensboro
Burial: Pine Hill Cemetery, Burlington

High School: Burlington High School 
College: Oak Ridge Military Institute, Oak Ridge, N.C.

Bats: L             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 5-7, 160
Debut Year: 1940       Final Year: 1946          Years Played: 2
Teams and Years: Philadelphia Phillies, 1940; Washington Senators, 1946

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
12        0          1          0          9.15     19.2     11        -1.1

 Max Wilson was a star in high school and a statewide sensation by the time he graduated from college. He was the “famous” Max Wilson in newspapers by then. Because shameless excess was the hallmark of good sports writing at a time when the reading public wasn’t so easily insulted, “marvelous Max” was also the “midget,” the “half pint,” the “tiny tosser.” Writers marveled that such a little guy – young Max was 5-7 and maybe 155 pounds soaking wet – could throw so hard.

Regardless of his size, there was no denying Wilson’s talent. The boy could pitch. In high school, in college, for the mill teams that flourished around his home in Burlington, among the hand-picked amateurs sent to England to showcase the American sport, even for the Navy during World War II, Wilson was always the best pitcher on the squad, usually leading his teams to championships.

Where it counted though, in the big leagues, Max Wilson was a dud. He made two trips to the majors, six years apart. In a dozen games and almost 20 innings, Wilson compiled an embarrassing 9.15 earned-run average, walking as many as he struck out. See, said the doubting scouts at the time, the “tiny southpaw” is just too small. Maybe. More likely, like so many promising kids before him and since, Max Wilson for the first time faced the best hitters on the planet. Johnny Mize or Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams didn’t play on the Tower mill team or make the trip to England.

Born in 1916, Max was the eldest of Earl and Veta Wilson’s three boys. They grew up in Haw River in Alamance County where Earl was a superintendent in a knitting mill.

Wilson pitched his Burlington High School team to consecutive state championships in 1934-35. He struck out 20 batters in a game his senior year, starting a streak of 66 Ks in 38 innings.

When school ended for the summers, Wilson worked in the mills and pitched for their very competitive baseball teams.

The summer of 1937 was the exception. The now-defunct U.S. Baseball Congress invited Wilson and about 100 other amateurs to Miami that spring to try out for teams that it would send to England to promote the sport. The organization, which supported amateur baseball, was lobbying for baseball to be added to the Olympics. Wilson made the cut and went 13-0 in England that summer.

His fame was solidified back home in Guilford County, at what is now Oak Ridge Academy.[1] After returning from England, Wilson enrolled in the private military school’s junior-college program. By then, the school had acquired a reputation as a baseball incubator, having graduated a number of major leaguers. Wilson threw a perfect game against Wingate Junior College in 1938, striking out 25 of the 27 batters. Only one hitter managed to put the ball in play. Nine days later, he pitched a no-hitter, striking out 18. Wilson yielded just four hits in a 10-1 win in his next outing, fanning another 18. He led Oak Ridge that year to the state junior college baseball title.

He became the “famous one” in newspaper accounts, and major-league teams considered signing him despite the misgivings about his size. Connie Mack, a shrewd judge of baseball talent as the longtime manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, wrote to a friend in North Carolina who knew Wilson that he “would like to take a chance with this youngster and am wondering if you could see him and have him get in touch with me pertaining his joining our club.”[I]

A cocky Wilson told a sportswriter in 1938 that he intended to play major-league ball after graduating from Oak Ridge in the spring. “It just wouldn’t be worth my time to fool with the minor class of ball,” he said, “but I fully realize that my size is a handicap if I do get in the majors.”[II]

Wilson, of course, had no say in the matter. The Cleveland Indians beat Mack and signed Wilson after graduation,  assigning him to their farm team in Springfield, Ohio. Though it was a Class C league, the lowest in the minors, Wilson didn’t gripe and considered his 8-4 record a success. “And the other reason is that I proved to myself and a lot of other guys that a little fella can stay in there with the rest of ‘em,” he said.[III]

The Indians, though, apparently had second thoughts. They traded Wilson to the Philadelphia Phillies after the season. He won 35 games over the next two years in the minors and was called up to Philadelphia at the end of the 1940 season. In three games that September, the 24-year-old lefty gave up 10 runs in seven innings.

It was back to the minors. Wilson had his best season in 1941, going 19-9 with a 2.39 ERA in a Class B league. Who knows what would have happened if Japan hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor that December.

Wilson enlisted in the Navy soon after the attack. As a petty officer third class, he pitched spectacularly during the 1943 Norfolk Navy World Series, winning three games, two by 1-0 shutouts. Wilson pitched again in the service’s World Series two years later while stationed in Honolulu, throwing a 4-0 one-hitter in the second game.

He was 30 when the war ended, and his best pitching days were behind him. Wilson fared just slightly better in his second call up to the majors, this time with the Washington Senators in 1946. He gave up another 10 runs in almost 13 innings of relief. His career was over.

Wilson and his wife, Emogene, moved to Greensboro in the 1950s where they raised their two sons and Wilson worked for S&W Distributors. The boys, Robbie and Max, would later pitch for N.C. State University. Their dad never missed a home game.

Wilson died in 1977. He was only 60.

[1] Oak Ridge Academy occupies an important place in the history of baseball in North Carolina.  The school, which traces its roots to the 1850s, was considered one of the best prep schools in the state in the late 19th century. Under coach Earl Holt, the school’s baseball program during the first decades of the 20th century developed more than a dozen major-league players, including Jackie Mayo, Dick Burrus, Al Evans, Pete Shields, Chubby Dean, the Ferrell brothers (Wes and Rick), and the Hayworth brothers (Red and Ray).

[I] Hayden, Wesley. “They’re Taking Notice.” Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC), May 13, 1938.
II] Beerman, William L. “Pardon Me, But…” Daily Tar Heel (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC), May 13, 1938.
III] Bedingfield, Gary. “Max Wilson.” Baseball in Wartime, April 24, 24 2008. http://baseballinwartime.com/player_biographies/wilson_max.htm