Artie Wilson, a legend of the Negro American and Pacific Coast Leagues, died on Sunday morning at the age of 90.
Wilson's long and winding professional baseball career spanned the better part of two decades and was peppered throughout with notable accomplishments. He is considered the last baseball player to hit .400 in a premier professional league, having accomplished the feat as a member of the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons. The fleet-footed Wilson hit .402 that season, reaching base at a prodigious clip while also serving as a mentor to 17-year-old Willie Mays.
"He was one of the guys that made sure I didn't get in any trouble," Mays told The Oregonian. "I owe a lot of debt to him."
Wilson was a native of Birmingham, and 1948 was his fifth and final season as a member of the hometown Black Barons. The slap-hitting shortstop went to the Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks in 1949, in the process becoming the club's first full-time black player. He led the PCL with a .349 average, teaming up with future Yankees legend Billy Martin to form one of the circuit's best double-play combinations. The two became fast friends, on and off the field.
"When I got [to Oakland], they said they didn't have a room for me," Wilson told MiLB.com's Kevin Czerwinski in 2007. "But Billy Martin stepped up and said that he's got a roommate -- I'm his roommate. I got to know Billy quite well, and there were no problems anywhere after that."
Baseball's unspoken but rigidly enforced segregationist policies denied Wilson the opportunity to compete in the Majors for many years, but he finally got the chance in 1951 (at the age of 30). He opened the season with the New York Giants, but he accumulated just 22 at-bats before being demoted in May. Ironically, the player who took his place on the roster was none other than his former teammate Willie Mays.
Undaunted, Wilson returned to the PCL and continued to put up stellar numbers while suiting up for the Oaks, San Diego Padres, Seattle Rainiers and Portland Beavers. This was prior to MLB's westward expansion, when the PCL was often referred to as a "third Major League."
"[The PCL] was tough," recalled Wilson in 2007. "We had guys who couldn't hit .250 or .260 but hit .300 in the Major Leagues. That's how tough it was. It wasn't easy."
Wilson finished his baseball career as a member of the Beavers, and he remained in Portland for the rest of his life. He worked as a salesman at a local car dealership until the age of 85, and he was elected to the PCL Hall of Fame in 2003.
"All I wanted to do was play baseball," he said in 2007. "I got to play in Japan and Cuba, too. So I've had a good life."
Wilson is survived by his wife, Dorothy, daughters Jean and Zoe, son Artie II, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A memorial service for Wilson will be announced at a later date.