Wilson carved a niche in PCL

Former Negro Leaguer formed double-play combo with Billy Martin

(National Baseball Hall of Fame)

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com | February 8, 2007 5:00 AM

Artie Wilson's resume doesn't read like some of the stars who made the move from the Negro Leagues once baseball finally integrated in the late 1940s. But the wiry Alabama native proved you didn't have to make it big in the Major Leagues to have a successful career.

Wilson's big-league career consisted of 22 at-bats for the New York Giants in 1951. That he hit only .182 and contributed little to the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" has caused some to overlook what was actually a stellar career, one in which Wilson left an indelible impression on the game.

Consider that Wilson, not Ted Williams, is considered by many to be the last player to hit .400 in a season. Wilson also earned a place in Pacific Coast League history when he became the first African American to play full-time for the Oakland Oaks in 1949. He won the batting title that year and went on to become a favorite of Pacific Coast League fans before calling it a career in 1962.

"It was an experience," Wilson, 86, said of his time in the PCL. "I was treated very well. The Pacific Coast League was a good league; it could have been a third Major League. It was tough. 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 was one of the reasons the PCL was such a talented league. He had played for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948 and hit .402 in the 76 official league games. He batted .371 over his final four seasons in the Negro Leagues, making him one of the more coveted leadoff hitters of the day. While historians often overlook his average in 1948 because of where it was fashioned, the Yankees were paying attention and won a bidding war with Cleveland for Wilson's services.

The Bombers wanted to send him to Newark, but because his salary would have been less than what he was making in the Negro Leagues, Wilson negotiated his own deal with the San Diego Padres of the PCL. The Commissioner's Office, however, voided the deal and Wilson was assigned to Oakland, where he met one of the most colorful figures in the game's history.

Wilson formed a friendship and a dazzling double-play duo with future Yankees player and manager Billy Martin. The fiery Martin stood up for Wilson at the first sign of racism, quickly defusing what could have become a nasty situation.

"When I got there they said they didn't have a room for me," Wilson said. "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.

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"I do remember one game down in Hollywood where a couple of guys were trying to spike me coming into second base. So Billy came over and said let them try that again. Well, the next time someone was coming in, Billy came over from second base with the ball and was waiting for him. The runner just turned and ran into right field and Billy threw the ball at him. There was no more of that. Charlie Dressen was the manager at the time and he came out to see what had happened, but once he found out he didn't say anything about it."

With Martin by his side, Wilson proved to be a dominant force in the PCL. He not only led the league in hitting (.348), he was tops on the circuit with 47 stolen bases. He collected 211 hits (183 of which were singles), slapping many of them the opposite way to left field. His ability to punch the ball was such that opposing managers began imposing a shift when he was at the plate, taking away the left side of the field.

The Oaks lost a seven-game semifinal series to San Diego in that year, but rebounded the following season to win 118 games and the pennant. "The Birmingham Gentleman," as Wilson was known, batted .314 and led the league in hits (264) and runs (168) while appearing in 196 of Oakland's 200 games.

Wilson reached the Major Leagues in 1951 but had little success. He says his inability to get on base stemmed, in part, to a shift several teams employed against him. The shift came courtesy of Dressen, who was managing Brooklyn after a successful run in Oakland.

The Giants shipped Wilson to Ottawa early in the season before Oakland worked out a deal to bring him back to the PCL. Oaks' fans were thrilled to have one of their heroes back in the fold, but Wilson struggled for much of the season, hitting only .255. He was sold the following year to Seattle, where he again led the league with 216 hits.

Wilson played five more seasons with Seattle, Portland and Sacramento before retiring. He came back for one final season with Portland in 1962. Upon retiring from baseball, he worked at a Portland car dealership for nearly three decades.

"The PCL was just another ballgame as far as I was concerned," he said. "It was an experience playing against those guys but I didn't make a big deal of it. It never bothered me being there so long. I was making more money than a lot of the players in the Major Leagues.

"All I wanted to do was play baseball. I got to play in Japan and Cuba, too. So I've had a good life."

And a career that doesn't get nearly as much recognition as it should.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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