Today in sports we’re accustomed to independent, outspoken athletes. 100 years ago it wasn’t so common. But had there been a Twitter in 1912, Detroit pitcher Ed Willett would have surely tweeted his opinion on any number of topics, ranging from his favorite (and least favorite) teammates to Presidential politics.
Willett was a fixture in the Tigers rotation for six years, from 1908-1913, winning at least 13 games in every one of those seasons, topping out with 21 in 1909 when the right-hander helped the Bengals to their third straight flag. It might seem that it was a prerequisite that your name was Edward in order to pitch for Detroit during those days – the Tigers had four Ed’s who toed the rubber back then: in addition to Willett there were veterans Ed Siever and Ed Killian, lefties both; and Ed Summers, who broke into the rotation in ’08 with Willett. As successful as all four Ed’s were for the Detroit ballclub – and as cranky as Killian and Summers were known to be – Willett may have been the most strong-headed.
Born and raised in Virginia, a state known for producing proud and sometimes stubborn leaders, Willett was formed in that mold. Though he didn’t earn a college degree, Willett did briefly attend Virginia Military Academy before dropping out to pursue a professional baseball career. With a fantastic arm attached to his right shoulder, Willett wowed scouts in his first season with Wichita in 1905, impressing with his durability and fielding skill. In 1906 he was purchased by the Tigers, beginning a notable career in the major leagues.
In his second season with Detroit, Willett earned respect from his teammates when he tossed a gutty complete game victory over the Philadelphia Athletics in August. In that game, Willett brushed back three A’s batters in the same inning, responding after teammate Charley O’Leary had been hit by a pitch from Eddie Plank. Willett’s aggressive revenge served notice that the tall Virginian was not to be intimidated.
On a Detroit club that was about as tough as they come, Willett also wouldn’t be intimidated by any of his teammates, regardless of their status. He and catcher Boss Schmidt (a tough team leader) had their share of arguments over pitch selection, and Willett was one of the few Tigers who had the guts to confront teammates like Ty Cobb when they made poor plays behind him. In one game in 1910, Willett and Cobb nearly came to blows after The Peach made what Ed thought was less than a stellar effort to catch a fly ball in center field.
Willett frequently finished among league leaders in hitting batters, leading the AL with 17 in 1912. For his career he plunked 105 opposing batters. Perhaps in part because he was known for pitching inside, he allowed few home runs, even for that era. In 1913 he pitched more than 240 innings and did not allow a single homer.
Even though Willett won 21 games for the Tigers in ’09, manager Hughie Jennings did not choose to start his 25-year old righty in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Instead, Jennings gave the ball to veteran hurlers George Mullin and Wild Bill Donovan for five of the seven games. In the other two games Jennings started Summers, a decision that was second-guessed, especially after Summers allowed 13 runs in his two outings. Willett pitched in relief in both of those games and tossed 7 1/3 innings without allowing a run. The curious decision to not start the 21-game winner against the Bucs in the ’09 Series may have been forgotten by most baseball experts this many years later, but it stands as one of the oddest moves by a manager in the history of the Fall Classic. One can only imagine what Willett might have had to say for the record if there had been a 24/7 sports network like ESPN.
Pitcher’s in the so-called Deadball Era had to be well-rounded ballplayers, and Willett was the prototypical all-around athlete. Not only was he a rubber-armed winner on the hill, he was one of the best fielding pitchers in the American League, skilled at scooping up bunt attempts and come-backers. A pitcher who rarely struck out or walked batters and kept the ball on the ground, Willett had plenty of opportunities to flash the leather. He was also a fine hitter- in 1911 he clubbed eight extra-base hits and batted .268. He hit a pair of homers the next season, and in 1913 he hit .283 with 13 RBI on 26 hits in his 30 starts. He certainly wasn’t Justin Verlander with the lumber.
True to his free spirit, Willett made a decision in 1914 that took him away from Detroit. That winter a rival baseball circuit – the Federal League – was formed by rich investors who dangled big contracts in front of some of the biggest stars in the game. Willett put his name on a contract with the St. Louis Terriers in January, ending his stay with the Tigers. Playing on a last-place club in the fledgling league, Willett went 4-17. The next season he found himself pitching out of the bullpen and he called it quits. But he was lured back by a minor league contract in 1916 and Willett pitched into his mid-30s in the Pacific Coast League, pitching and pinch-hitting.
Willett was in Wellington, Kansas, managing an amateur ballclub in 1934 when he died suddenly of a heart attack. The well-rounded, outspoken former Tiger pitcher was just 50 years old.