As we approach game eight of the season today, we can remember an eight game losing streak from years past. In 1969, the Houston Astros ended an eight game losing streak in the most dramatic way possible: Don Wilson threw a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds. The was the second no hitter for the fireballing 24 year Astros right hander--he had no hit Hank Aaron and the Atlanta Braves two years earlier. However, this no hitter was thrown in old Crosley Field---a good deal more hitter friendly ballpark than the Astrodome, where he threw his first no hitter.
This no hitter has many stories within a story, in the way that only baseball, among all sports, is a story tellers' dream. This was not the prettiest no hitter--Wilson walked six batters--but it may be the best no hitter at changing a team's momentum.
Put yourself in the Astros' shoes on May 1, 1969. The team's record was 4-20, which was terrible, even for a team that had never seen anything but losing seasons in its history. The Astros were in the midst of a dreadful 8 game losing streak, and on the previous day, the Astros had been no hit by the Reds's James Merritt in a 10-0 loss. Can a team be at a lower point?
Then, Wilson threw his no hitter, ending the 8 game losing streak with a 4-0 win. Wilson featured one of the highest velocity fastballs in baseball, and in his words he simply "threw it down their throats." Wilson's risng fastball was so electric that the Reds could hit only one ball on the ground; the remainng outs consisted of 13 Ks, six pop ups, and seven fly balls to the outfield, all routine. The dramatic win ignited a turnaround for the Astros. In the next two weeks, the Astros went 8-4. And then the Astros went on a 11 game win streak. The Astros were 10 games over .500 and only 2 games behind in the NL West on Sept. 10, The Astros would end up with a .500 record, the first non losing record in team history.
But, like I said, there are stories within a story. I will rely on Astrosdaily as the main source.
Don Wilson was a fiery player. Nine days before this no hitter, Wilson lost a lopsided game to the Reds in which he believed that the Reds' players were trying to humiliate the Astros before the Astros' home crowd. Whether real or imagined, Wilson claimed that the Reds' players, which included Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, were laughing and making fun of the sad sack Astros. Wilson had struck out 16 and 18 Reds in two games in the previous year against the Reds; so it is conceivable that the Reds took special pleasure in whipping a pitcher who had tied the major league single game strike out record against them. Wilson's reaction:
"You just don't do that in my book. Nobody is going to do that to our club and get away with it."
Wilson spoke by phone with Bench, one of the objects of his anger, after that game. Bench claimed that there was no intent to insult the Astros, but Wilson didn't buy it apparently. He would fume and wait for his next game against the Reds---which came on May 1, 1969. Wilson was so determined and grim faced before the game that some of the Astros feared that Wilson's emotions might work against him.
Wilson said he was thinking of throwing a no hitter from the beginning; he said he never wanted anything so much in his life. The Reds' players had words for Wilson early in the game, but the chatter became quiet late in the game when the Reds realized where the game was headed. When he batted, Wilson had to dodge pitches on several occasions, and he was hit by a Merritt pitch. Wilson, for his part, hit Johnny Bench with a pitch. When Wilson had to hit the ground to avoid a high pitch, the Reds' manager yelled,"Gutless," and Wilson yelled back, "No, you're the gutless blankety-blank." But all of the back and forth baiting only seemed to channel more energy into Wilson's fastball. Audio of the last batter in the no hitter is here.
Harry Walker, the Astros manager said:
"I never saw a guy more psyched up -- or more mad -- in my life than Wilson was that night,He pitched like he had a personal grudge with every member of the Cincinnati team. He wouldn't talk to anybody on the bench. The guys were afraid to go near him. They left him alone."
Another part of the story is that this was only the second time in baseball history that opposing teams pitched no hitters on back to back games. For Wilson's Astros teammates, this must have been an emotional way for the Astros to snap a dreary losing streak and pay back the Reds for a no hitter in the previous game.