You probably don’t know the story of Edgar Willard, not unless you knew the man. He did not want you to know him; he did not want you to know his story. Sure, people tried. What a funny word, tried. Could you really have tried when the odds of success going in were zero?
Yet, I knew Edgar Willard, lived next door to him for eight years. Shot hoops in the backyard and when I missed, the ball would roll into his yard. He’d pick it up and toss it back. Not a word.
One day I asked him why he kept silent, why he had no visitors, why he was so aloof, and he told me. He told me everything.
He told me how in high school he was the homecoming king, the class president, the fancy of every young schoolgirl. He told me how he threw two perfect games his senior year, striking out a sophomore pinch-hitter by the name of Ted Kluszewski to end one of them. Of course, it was only years later that he found out he had struck out one of the most feared power-hitters of the 1950s, when Kluszewski himself said in an interview that Willard had the best curveball he ever faced.
He told me how he was the best football player in the state of Illinois, the best halfback to run down the gridiron since Red Grange a decade prior. He told me how he would have gone to the University in Champagne had his mother not found a wartime job in a factory in central New Jersey. He could not enter the second World War due to 20-100 eyesight, something that miraculously did not hinder him on the playing field.
He enrolled at Plainfield Teachers’ College in 1941, but an ankle injury in the first game pushed him out of the lineup. Unfortunately for him, he would never play again. Another freshman, Johnny Chung, rushed for over 400 yards the next two games, earning the starting spot. He dropped out of college after the semester to try to make it in professional baseball.
But the injury continued to haunt him.
While he still had all the physical abilities, he started to lose it mentally. He felt detached, alone. As the war dragged on, he wished he could be serving his country. He began to drink heavily.
“He had all the mental anxieties of a soldier without any of the experience,” said Boo Ferriss, a minor league teammate of Willard before his 1945 call-up by the Boston Red Sox. “He drank, cursed, moaned, heck, I think at some point he even shot himself in his non-pitching hand to create a battle wound.”
On June 16, 1946, pitching for the Roanoke Red Sox, Willard threw a no-hitter against the Asheville Tourists, the class B affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Three days later, he gave up a minor league-record 15 consecutive hits to start the game. It would be his last appearance in organized baseball.
(As an interesting side-note, the man called up to replace him was Earl Grayson, a career minor-league pitcher who in 1952 struck out Willie Mays in Mays’s last at-bat before being called up to the Major Leagues for good.)
However, he left his mark on the game.
He had an eye for talent unmatched by anyone else. Anyone. It was almost uncanny. Despite never serving as the scout for any team or coaching any team, he would find people.
He discovered Nolan Ryan as an eighth grader and contacted a friend in the New York Mets’ front office.
“I told him this kid is the real deal,” Willard told me with a tear in his eye. “He’s almost unhittable.”
Little did Willard know just how correct he was.
His time helping the Mets did not end with Ryan.
In 1983, he convinced the Mets to draft a little-known Buddhist boy by the name of Sidd Finch. While Finch retired before pitching in the big leagues, he created a splash during spring training in 1985 with a fastball that shattered all previous records. Spiritual obligations made baseball a second priority for the young Finch, who had been a 43rd-round selection.
And his success was not just with pitchers.
Willard met Albert Pujols when he was just a child in the Dominican Republic in 1991.
“He took a liking to me that no one had ever shown before,” Pujols said during the 2004 World Series in an interview with the Boston Globe. “He could not speak a word of Spanish, but he found someone who did and made sure to stay in contact with me.”
When Pujols moved to New York City with his family in 1996, it was Willard who found work for Pujols’s family. He saw New York as a bad place for Pujols and found them an apartment in Independence, Mo. Willard made sure the now-teenaged Pujols was enrolled in high school. Finally, he tried to make sure Pujols was drafted into baseball.
“He called every team, he called every executive, everyone,” Pujols said.
It took 402 picks for anyone to listen.
He found Tommy John for the Cleveland Indians and Don Sutton for the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the same time, he warned the Atlanta Braves against selecting Todd Van Poppel during the 1990 MLB Draft. Bobby Cox does not want the help forgotten.
“There were a lot of factors that went into selecting Chipper Jones that year, but [Willard’s] analysis probably swayed the most,” Cox said. “He said Van Poppel could be good, but Chipper was a sure thing. He said we’d be dumb not to select him.”
But Willard did not want the recognition; it was not him. He just loved baseball and loved being alone. If he saw talent, he wanted the talent to be recognized. But he never wanted anyone to recognize him.
For years, Willard would refuse to talk to the media. When Pujols’s story broke, there were a rush of people to my neighborhood. They all wanted a word with him. Instead, Willard called the cops.
He told me how he never married. Sure, he courted women, including one girl whom he lived with for 15 years, but he never married. His life was his life, his time his. He could never grasp the ability to share it. Maybe it was the injury in college; God knows he wasn’t a hermit before that. Maybe it was his sobering-yet-drunken experiences in the low rungs of professional baseball. Who knows?
His only escape into reality was baseball. His only connection to the world was baseball. Nobody ever called him unless he called them first, and he never called anyone unless he had found a superstar. But when he called, teams listened.
I write this not because I want to break Willard’s confidence; God knows I could have done that at any point over the past five years. But I could never do that. He told me his story because he knew I would not tell it.
But Edgar Willard died last week in his home. He was 86. His body was found last night upright in a chair. He was wearing an autographed Albert Pujols jersey.
It’s fitting that the story has gone under the table, but it needs to be told. Sometimes, the unknown recluse needs to be outed. Sometimes his accomplishments need to be brought back to life, if only for one fleeting article.
So Rest In Peace, Edgar Willard. Your contributions to the game live on even as your connection is forgotten. Just as you always wanted it.