Stephen Tsai: Artie Wilson 'excited' for recognition of stars like his dad

Jun. 4—1/2

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Artie Wilson eventually settled in Portland, Ore.


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Artie Wilson was an all-star shortstop in the Negro Leagues.

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The best players you've never watched in person are finally a visible part of Major League Baseball history.

Last week, it was announced statistics from the Negro Leagues would be incorporated into MLB's historical record. That meant official recognition for the achievements of such stars a Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and Monte Irvin, as well as unheralded players.

"I think it's about time," said Spectrum Sports analyst Artie Wilson Jr., whose namesake father was considered one of the best shortstops in the Negro Leagues."I'm excited for the acknowledgement of so many great players who loved the game but couldn't play (in the major leagues) back in the day because of segregation. But they still played the game at a very high level. It's pretty special that one of them was my dad."

The elder Wilson, who died in 2010 at age 90, enjoyed a 25-year career that was a cocktail of accomplishments and twists.

He grew up in Springville, Ala., the only son of a single mom, and learned the game on actual sandlots. The baseball was the product of a golf ball that was glued and wrapped in twine. When he was 17, he worked for the American Cast Iron Pipe Company, which also allowed him to play in the company's industrial league.

In 1942, he joined the Birmingham Black Barons, one of the top teams in the Negro American League. While African Americans endured discrimination and segregation in the South at the time, the escape was at the ballpark, where the stands were filled, with men in suits and women in sundresses.

"My dad said they were some of the greatest players to ever play the game of baseball," the younger Wilson said. "It was frustrating because they knew they had great talent but they could never play in the major leagues. That didn't take away from their joy of playing baseball."

One of the elder Wilson's Birmingham teammates was Willie Mays, a future Hall of Famer.

In a game against the Kansas City Monarchs, Wilson led off against Paige. He fouled off two pitches, took two balls, then lined a double into the left field corner. According to the younger Wilson, "a story my father told many times," Paige turned to Wilson and said that was as far as he would advance that inning. Paige struck out the next three batters, turned to Wilson, and tipped his cap.

In 1948, his last season with the Black Barons, Wilson batted .433 in 29 games. Despite that abbreviated stint, he is widely recognized as the last player to hit .400 in the Negro Leagues.

After the 1948 season, Wilson was named player-manager of the Mayaguez Indians of the Puerto Rican league. With Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier a year earlier, more MLB teams were seeking to sign African American players.

According to the younger Wilson, Bill Veeck, the charismatic owner of the Cleveland Indians, flew a crop-duster around Puerto Rico and, using a megaphone, begged for "Art Wilson to call." The elder Wilson signed an offer sheet with Cleveland, but then the New York Yankees made an offer. Commission Happy Chandler eventually assigned Wilson's contract to the Yankees.

But Wilson turned down the opportunity to join the Yankees, instead opting to play in the Pacific Coast League.

In 1951, Wilson signed with the New York Giants. But with shortstop Alvin Dark and second baseman Eddie Stanky as the double-play combo, Wilson played sporadically. In May that year, Wilson reportedly told manager Leo Durocher that if he wasn't going to play regularly, it would be better to call up the "Kid."

"That 'Kid' they talked about?" the younger Wilson said. "That was Willie Mays."

Wilson played the remainder of his career in the PCL.

Wilson and his wife, Dorothy, were married for more than 60 years. They settled in Portland, Ore., where he worked at a car dealership until his retirement. As for regrets about not playing in the major leagues during his prime, the younger Wilson said his father had none.

"My dad, to his credit, never showed bitterness or resentment because he was still able to play baseball for a long, long time," Wilson Jr. said. "He had a great career."