Tuesday, October 23, 2012

134. Charlie Sweasy: Cincinnati's first second baseman

I'm angry. And disappointed, too. Once again my ball club has let me down. I wrote a long and recklessly eloquent intro piece on how the Reds blew the playoffs this year and my explanation of why they did. Oh, it was magnificent in its unrelenting venom and just looking at the card of Charlie Sweasy of the 1869 Red Stockings I had designed specifically for the day when the Reds clinched the 2012 National League pennant made me angry all over again. Then all at once I stopped. It wasn't worth it. Anyone who comes here can simply read the same thing at countless other blogs all over the internet - disappointed Angels fans, angry Cardinals nuts and perennially pissed-off White Sox aficionados probably wrote more or less the same stuff I had. 

So I pressed delete. 

Who the heck needs another rant? Let's get to some good old-time base ball...

It was the end of August, 1870. For the past 2 years the Cincinnati Red Stockings criss-crossed the nation destroying all who were foolish enough to engage them on the field of battle. They were the first all-professional baseball team  assembled and they lived up to all the expectations anyone ever had of them, but by the time the team disembarked from a river steamer at Portsmouth, Ohio their success was such that it was starting to work against them.

The novelty of seeing a Red Stockings game no longer had that certain shine any longer - they were going to win and that was that. Attendance suffered. Once you saw them there wasn't any reason to go again such was the usual lopsidedness of the exhibitions. The team also became a victim of their success on the field. The ballplayers who were once held to vows of abstinence from alcohol was now starting to cut loose. Where once the Red Stockings were the only professional team in the nation, two years after their founding many of the players were being courted to jump the Red Stockings and join newly formed pro teams for more money. With the threat of being tossed off the only paying ball club now irrelevant, the ballplayers became lax on and off the field and it was starting to show.

On the ball field at Portsmouth, the once invincible Red Stockings were losing to the half-rate local Riverside Base Ball Club. When the 9th inning rolled around Portsmouth was ahead 27-23. After Cal McVey and Charlie Gould made 2 quick outs, it looked like the Red Stockings were about to lose their 3rd game of the year. With one out needed to secure a Portsmouth win, Fred Waterman chiseled out a base hit when the shortstop dropped an easy play. Doug Allison and Harry Wright singled to keep the inning alive and suddenly the bases were full of Red Stockings. Andy Leonard then launched an easy fly ball to left field and as the Portsmouth outfielder settled under it for the final out, Leonard slammed down his bat and swore. But the left fielder lost track of the ball, then found it again and made a jumping catch for what appeared to be the final out. Waterman and Allison had crossed the plate but it was in vain as the umpire ruled it an out, game over.

Cincinnati manager Harry Wright ran over to the umpire and claimed it wasn't a catch, that he saw the left fielder drop the ball. Wright and the umpire went out to the left fielder who was picking himself up off the grass. Astonishingly, he willingly admitted he did in fact drop the ball. The umpire ruled a hit and Waterman and Allison runs counted bring the score to 27-25 Portsmouth.

Asa Brainard came up next and his single loaded the bases once again. That brought up Cincinnati's second baseman Charlie Sweasy. He was the team's leading slugger that season, and that afternoon in Portsmouth, Ohio, he certainly didn't disappoint. With a mighty wallop, Sweasy drilled the ball to deep center. Watching the ball carry, Wright, Leonard and Brainard roared around the bases followed closely by Sweasy. Since there was no outfield fence, the center fielder eventually came up with the ball and threw towards the infield - but it was too late. Charlie Sweasy's inside the ballpark home run put Cincinnati ahead 29-27.

It was a close one - too close. To all present it was obvious the quality of the Cincinnati Red Stockings ball playing had seriously deteriorated. While the Portsmouth win was certainly exciting, there was no reason it should have even been close. Nightlife and offers of more cash had taken its toll on the greatest best ball team in history.

As the sun set, the Red Stockings boarded the river steamer Fleetwood for the overnight trip back to Cincinnati. Because of the mixed emotions of that day's game, the team settled into the steamers restaurant and drank freely. The teams once stringent alcohol policy was all but forgotten by now, and most of the men drank continuously through the night. The tanked-up ballplayers became more and more agitated and the air was right for something to happen. When breakfast was being served, Charlie Sweasy, the hero of the previous day's win, began fighting his teammates. Reporters accompanying the team didn't say what the argument was all about, but it's easy to assume it was over his teammates' lousy play of late. Sweasy was in the process of taking on 2 or 3 other Red Stockings when the Fleetwood's captain threatened to run the ship aground if the fighting didn't stop. 

The thought of being marooned somewhere along the rural Ohio River wisely put an end the brawl. When the team returned to Cincinnati, its executives decided to suspend Sweasy from the team. Discipline had been breaking down for some time and it was obvious Harry Wright was losing control of his men. 

So now Charlie Sweasy, Cincinnati's first second baseman was now professional baseball's first suspended ballplayer.

Charlie Sweasy was a product of Newark, New Jersey's bleak and seamy slums. The city made the young man strong and tough, and it was inevitable that this athletic scrapper would become roped in by the area's burgeoning baseball scene. The game had been popular since before the Civil War, and by the time Sweasy picked up a bat North Jersey boasted some of the most competitive baseball in the country. After cutting his teeth with a few of the many sandlot teams in Newark, Sweasy was recruited by the New Jersey Irvingtons. This was the ball club that launched Sweasy as well as his teammate Andy Leonard to stardom. Their play with the popular Irvingtons got them both a lucrative offer from the Cincinnati Buckeyes from whom they were in turn snatched away from when the Red Stockings formed in 1869. 

With Cincinnati, Sweasy became their solid and dependable second baseman. While not their best hitter, he was 2nd on the team with 30 home runs in 1869 and first the next year with 18, securing his reputation as the Red Stockings' premier slugger. When he felt his $800 salary for 1869 was not enough for the following season, Sweasy held out for a couple hundred more and became baseball's first hold-out.

But the man the Red Stockings swiped from the Buckeyes was to prove a complicated fellow. At times belting out popular songs and appearing gregarious and witty, he was also cranky and irritable. By the time the Red Stockings swiped him off the Buckeyes' bench, Sweasy was known as a troublesome character. Booze was mostly to blame, and the Red Stockings' enforced abstinence kept Sweasy from becoming his own worst enemy for most of 1869 and 1870. When fame started destroying the team in the late summer of 1870, Sweasy was its first casualty.

The suspension of the team's best slugger was unpopular with the press and fans, resulting in a quick reinstatement. The decision further brought out the Red Stockings' problems: when the team completed its schedule it was announced that Harry Wright was taking the Red Legs name and most of the marquee players and heading for Boston. Sweasy, though he led the team in home runs, wasn't one of the players invited to join. More than anyone else, Harry Wright knew that left to his own devices, Charlie Sweasy was a shipwreck waiting to happen. Though he didn't take his old second baseman to Boston he did vouch for him to other clubs, being careful to tell them that he performs best when held under strict guidelines to ensure sobriety. Along with old pal Andy Leonard he went to Washington but his play never came close to what he'd become known for with Cincinnati and he left after a season. From then on his career was like a pinball machine - Cleveland, Boston, Brooklyn, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Providence and finally back in Newark. Somewhere he picked up rheumatism to add to his alcoholism and he dropped out of the game, spending the rest of his life peddling oysters on the dank streets of Newark.

  • Rhodes, Greg and Erardi, John, The First Boys of Summer: The 1869-1870 Cincinnati Red Stockings (Road West Publishing, 1994)
  • Guschov, Stephen D., The Red Stockings of Cincinnati (McFarland & Company, 1998)
  • Wheeler, Lonnie and Baskin, John, The Cincinnati Game (Orange Frazer Press, 1988)
  • This Game of Games (thisgameofgames.blogspot.com)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

133. Melo Almada: Not quite Mexican, Not quite American

My girlfriend, who happens to be as much of a degenerate baseball fan as I am, casually asked me one night "when did it become bad form to bunt to try to break up a no-hitter?" 

The reason she brought that up was earlier this season Justin Verlander of the Tigers was throwing a no-hitter against her L.A. Angels. Erick Aybar tried to get on base by laying down a bunt in the 8th inning. Fundamental baseball, right? Not to Verlander. Detroit's ace was pissed someone would dare try to put his no-hitter in jeopardy. He went so far as to call Aybar a "bush-leaguer" for trying to get on base and get the Angels moving. Apparently "big leaguer" Verlander thought a no-hitter was something the other team was just supposed to hand over to you after a certain amount of innings had been played. What is that magic inning number? The 7th? 8th? What is it? 

When did baseball become like youth soccer? Maybe Verlander should be playing right wing or some other stupid position on a community soccer field somewhere. In my opinion, if you can't deal with a bunt in the late innings then you don't deserve a no-hitter - you don't even deserve to wear that Detroit ball cap. Bush league. Hell, with an attitude like that Verlander should just pull up his socks, pull on some ad-riddled polyester jersey and hit the soccer field. At least between the goals no one will call you a sissy if you fall down and writhe around in pain if you get bumped.

It used to be that baseball was a tough sport. The outfield walls weren't padded. Guys slid hard into a base and someone in the opposing dugout always found something in your ethnic background to needle you ceaseless with. You broke up a double play with your body and every time you stepped up to the plate the chances of having an 82 mph fastball thrown directly at your head was frightfully good.

It was a tough game and unfortunately, it wasn't always for everyone, no matter how good they were. So that brings me to Melo Almada, the first Mexican-born ball player to make it to the majors.

He was born Baldomero Almada Quiros but everyone called him Melo or Mel. He was recklessly handsome, olive skinned with a thousand watt grill that made the broads go limp. He was musically inclined and his travel luggage included a state-of-the-art radio which he immediately installed in each hotel room, keeping up with the newest hits. His manners were as impeccable as one of those mustachioed stars you saw in a Hollywood musical. And he was a heck of a promising young ballplayer.

His Pop was the Mexican Consul in Los Angeles, a position he accepted because the governorship of Baja California he was initially posted to came with an incumbent who didn't seem to want to vacate. The hundred-man private army he surrounded himself with made any attempt at collecting the keys to the governor's mansion seem, well, stupid. And Melo's father was anything but stupid.

The Almada's traced their lineage right back to Spain and countless "Dons" and "Donas" dangled from the family tree. By the time Almada Senior was handed the Baja governor's job his family controlled silver mines and their vast land holdings amounted to the size of Belgium. When the Mexican revolution broke out in 1910 the Almada's and their wealth became a prime target of the angry peasants and quite a few Almada's were victims of the violence that Mexico descended into. So in 1914 when Almada Senior realized the odds of him becoming governor of Baja was a certain death wish, he wisely realized the time had come to get the heck out of Mexico. 

Melo was but a year old when the family settled in Los Angeles. Both he and his older brother Lou quickly adapted to life in America and of course that included baseball. Their father also developed a passion for the game and encouraged his boys to play the sport. Lou was good enough that he turned pro in 1927 and within a year was well on his way to becoming the first Mexican-born major leaguer when he was injured. Meanwhile younger brother Melo was back in high school breaking every athletic record he could find. Track and field, football, baseball - you name it Melo excelled at it. But, and Melo was the first to admit this, his older brother was the better baseball player. After Melo graduated high school, Lou, who was now with the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League, invited his little brother to spring training in Santa Cruz. The younger of the two Almada boys was in a quandary whether to go to college or play baseball. Melo chose baseball.

Though he originally pitched like his older brother, Seattle recognized Melo's speed and power and quickly converted him to be an outfielder.In a twist that was eerily similar to the DiMaggio brothers, Melo actually swiped his brother's place on the team. It wasn't that Lou was a poor ballplayer - it just made fiscal sense since he was holding out for a bigger contract. 

For Melo, the speed came naturally but fielding did not and he struggled to learn his trade. Throughout the 1932 season Melo batted an impressive .311 and before anyone knew it, the rookie was the team's regular left fielder. Over in San Francisco older brother Lou was slugging .320 for the Mission Reds who picked him up after being let go by the Indians.

By the time 1933 season was half way over Melo was the best outfielder on the coast and being touted as the guy who would become the first Mexican national in the big leagues. While the Mexican fans in the cities around the league honored the kid with "Melo Almada Day's" and the sports page coined all kinds of dopey nicknames utilizing his Mexican heritage, Almada always thought of himself as a regular ol' American. In interviews he stressed this point, telling the Sporting News "...you see, I am very much an American."

The Red Sox came calling first and the $40,000 they paid Seattle reportedly saved the club from financial ruin. On September 8th, 1933 Melo Almada emerged from the Red Sox dugout and took his place in center field, the first Mexican American to make it to the majors. Boston kept him up with the big club for the remainder of the season and the next year sent him to their American Association farm team for seasoning. Playing outfield for the Kansas City Blues, Almada clobbered the ball at a .328 clip, swiped 30 bases, was named the teams' most valuable player and made the all-star team before the Red Sox saw enough and sent for him. He batted only .233 in just over 20 games but the Sox liked the speedy outfielder and when 1935 began Melo was with Boston for good. Six months later he'd hit .290 and was being called the best Red Sox outfielder since the mythical Tris Speaker.

And just as fast as it came, it quickly started to fade away. Baseball was a tough sport back in the depression years. Guys held onto their jobs with all means necessary. Every man knew that the farm teams that littered the countryside were chock-full of kids desperately trying to claw their way into their very seat in the dugout. Desperate times leads to desperate measures and as a result, big league baseball was not for the feint of heart. Clinging to their big league berths, ballplayers used every edge they could find to get the jump on the opposition. Somewhere, sometime around 1938 Almada was beaned by a pitch. Like I said, this wasn't an uncommon occurrence, hell, the brush back was a just another pitch in a pitcher's arsenal. 

Thing was, Melo took it all personally. Coupled with the expected racial ribbing he received for being Mexican, a fastball at the noggin took on a more sinister meaning to Almada. He was convinced opposing teams singled him out and were trying to hurt him. And as he tortured himself by thinking about where the next pitch was going to be aimed, his batting average plummeted. 

Was there a big league conspiracy to drive the first Mexican out of the majors? Nah, no way. Melo's own brother Lou thought he was wrong, telling him that those guys were throwing at him not because he was Mexican, they were throwing at him because he was a batter. In 1937 it was just part of the game. What probably happened was opposing pitchers caught on to Melo's fear and soon everyone was brushing him back. For many, once you get beaned even a mildly close fastball is enough to throw off your concentration and that fear was an edge any pitcher worth his salt would exploit to their benefit. 

The Red Sox dealt Almada to the Senators who in turned passed him down to the Browns. He rebounded a few times but by 1939 the perceived head-hunting drove him out of the majors. After a disappointing season back where it al started in the Pacific Coast League Melo headed south to the land of his birth.

Melo Almada was the highly-touted player-manager of the Torreon Union Laguna team. His experience as a successful major leaguer should have made him the keystone of the fledgeling Mexican League which was trying to establish itself as a professional level entity. Unfortunately, that was not meant to be. Though he was batting .343, Almada quit in early May. Seems that the very thing that should have made him a star in the Mexican League was what drove him back north. Almada, though considered Mexican by American fans and sportswriters, was considered "Americanized" by Mexicans who resented his success up north and his privileged upbringing. In the States he was "olive-skinned," down there he was "high-white." The rough characters in the league threw at him with a vengeance and his own players refused to respect him. After 26 days he threw in the towel and quit the game.

Back in Southern California Almada's good looks got him some movie parts and when the war started he served in the U.S. Army. In the mid-1950's he gave baseball another try and managed the Sonora team in the Mexican Pacific Coast League. This time it went much better and the league's rookie of the year award is called the Baldomero Almada Trophy.

So was it a tragedy that bean balls and brush backs ran Melo Almada out of the majors? Sure. A few guys who played with and against Almada went so far as to say if he played today he might have enough to be Hall of Fame material. But in Almada's time, baseball was a tough game. Still is. Nothing is handed to you. It's up to every man who puts on a uniform to play his best and win the game for his team. Back in 1938 bean balls and brush backs helped a pitcher do just that, and until this season, I though a well-placed bunt did as well. To Erick Aybar and the Los Angeles Angels it still does, but I guess to Justin Verlander it's a thing of the past.

  • Nowlin, Bill, Mel Almada (SABR Bio Project)
  • The Sporting News (Sept. 5, 1935)
  • The Sporting News (August 29, 1988)
  • Wilson, Nick, Early Latino Ballplayers in the United States (McFarland and Company, 2005)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

132. Artie Wilson: Last of the .400 Hitters

A few months ago Larry Blakely wrote to me suggesting Artie Wilson, last of the .400 hitters, as a suitable candidate for The Infinite Baseball Card Set. Larry spelled out Wilson's credentials - a key member of the Negro League Champion Birmingham Barons, one of the first blacks to play in the majors, teammates with Willie Mays both in the Negro and Major leagues, a legend in Puerto Rico for his batting prowess and all-around fan favorite in his later years in the minors out on the west coast. As if that wasn't enough to convince me that Artie Wilson did indeed deserve a place on this site, Larry also sent along a copy of an article he'd published a few years ago about Wilson. After reading it I instantly knew that no one was better qualified to write about the subject so I asked Larry if he'd consider letting me run his article as-is along with a card I illustrated. Larry graciously agreed, updated the earlier published piece with some new tidbits, and, well, here it is...

Almost every baseball fan knows Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Less well known is the fact that integration of baseball thereafter was a slow process, taking far longer than it should have. After Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, the door of opportunity for African American players was ajar but not yet fully open, the stream of blacks entering the majors was initially more like a trickle.

True, the integration of baseball was faster than the glacial “all deliberate speed” of school desegregation in America that began in 1954. Nonetheless, for several seasons after Robinson’s breakthrough, tapping into the existing pool of talented Negro League veterans was more sluggish than swift. For reasons ranging from simple to complex, clear to obscure, many star players didn’t get the call. Some, like Josh Gibson in 1947, had died young. Some, like James “Cool Papa” Bell, had played their best ball a decade earlier. And some, though clearly qualified to play in the major leagues, had a break or two go against them. Case in point: Artie Wilson.
In July of 1959 the Boston Red Sox became the last major league team to shake its Jim Crow heritage and include an African American on its roster. Elijah “Pumpsie” Green modeled his game after a speedy shortstop who played professionally for the Oaks in nearby Oakland when Green was growing up. His name: Artie Wilson.
Who was the last big leaguer to hit .400? No, it’s not that Red Sox slugger who ended the 1941 season with a .406 batting average. It was a different left-handed hitter known for knocking line drive singles to the opposite field. The year was 1948 (Ted Williams only managed a paltry .369 that year). The player: Artie Wilson.
1948 was a very good year for Arthur Lee Wilson. Besides hitting .402 in the regular season and winning his second batting title in a row, he played in the East-West All-Star game as well as the Negro Leagues World Series. After the Series he went to Puerto Rico for winter ball where he led the Mayaguez Indians to a Cuban league title, hitting .379. Oh yeah, in 1948 Wilson also met Dorothy Daniels, the manager of a Birmingham record store, and later left her tickets for a game. Turned out she and her father were big baseball fans. The following year “Dotty” became his bride.
Artie Wilson first played professional baseball in 1944-48, five seasons with the Birmingham Black Barons. Four times he was selected to play in the All-Star game, a huge event in black baseball that usually drew 40,000-50,000 fans to Comiskey Park. The only year he missed, 1945, the shortstop chosen was a rather talented Kansas City Monarch rookie, Jackie Robinson. Wilson played in the Negro Leagues World Series three times, including the final one in 1948, each time losing to the powerful Homestead Grays. “Those guys could play,” Wilson said in a classic bit of understatement. “Even their pitchers could hit.” 

1948 was also the year that a fellow Alabama native, 16-year-old Willie “Buck” Mays, joined the Black Barons. Wilson, who had once played against Willie’s father “Cat” in Birmingham’s semipro industrial league, said the elder Mays was a terrific all-around player who covered center field like a tarp. “He’d played real shallow, practically in the infield,” he recalled, “but he could run down anything hit his way.” In fact, in his entire career, Wilson says he never saw a player better than Willie Mays Sr. though he conceded son had better home run power than dad. Wilson’s wife said her husband was like a second father to young Willie. In 2006 the Wilsons attended a banquet in Beverly Hills where Mays honored four surviving Black Barons teammates. He said his Birmingham mentors knew he could, with a little guidance and a little luck, play in the majors. “What they did for me, I’ll never forget.”
In the spring of 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson made sports history, it appeared Wilson was likewise headed to the major leagues.
The Cleveland Indians, after winning the 1948 World Series with Larry Doby, the American League’s first African American player, and an aging yet ageless Satchel Paige on their roster, purchased the rights to Wilson from Barons president Tom Hayes Jr. In February of 1949 Cleveland’s flamboyant president Bill Veeck personally flew to Puerto Rico to sign Wilson, 28, who they had been scouting for a year. Earlier, between the regular season and winter ball, Wilson had barnstormed with Satchel Paige’s All-Stars, playing Bob Feller’s white All-Star team in venues all over the country. In addition to Rapid Robert, he hit against top pitchers such as Warren Spahn, Bob Lemon and Spud Chandler. So when he arrived at the Indians’ Arizona spring training site in 1949, a confident Wilson commented, “I’ve hit major league pitching before. I think I can do it again.”
1949 was also the year the New York Yankees signed a raw talent from Oklahoma who could likewise get wood on a baseball: Mickey Mantle. Unfortunately, the Yanks also thought they had secured the rights to one of the Negro Leagues brightest prospects: Artie Wilson.
New York General Manager George Weiss, sounding very much like he’d just eaten a large serving of sour grapes, claimed Veeck’s signing Wilson was unethical if not illegal.
To the middle infielder caught in the middle who simply wanted a chance to play Major League Baseball, the controversy was difficult to fathom. “New York made me an offer. I didn’t accept it,” Wilson told a newspaper reporter. “Cleveland came along with another offer. I liked it. I accepted it and signed. That’s all there is to it.”
Well, so it seemed.
Except the Yankees, being the Yankees, weren’t about to let a rival best them in the pursuit of new talent. They were probably still stinging from Cleveland’s taking the 1948 World Series title, a title held the previous year by the Bronx Bombers (and for five consecutive years starting in 1949). The fight for Wilson wound up in the commissioner’s office for resolution. At the same time a second contract dispute developed between the Indians and Yankees involving former Negro League outfielder Luis Marquez who, unlike Wilson, had signed with New York. In biblical times, King Solomon threatened to split the baby. In this case, baseball commissioner “Happy” Chandler switched the players. He voided both contracts, sending Marquez from the Yankees’ farm club in Newark to the Cleveland organization and Wilson to Newark. Unhappily, neither player would make it to the majors for another two years.
Truth be told, in those days the Negro Leagues owners knew, with integration finally becoming a reality, their teams’ days were numbered. Some were less than straightforward with both their own players and the major league teams seeking to sign their best players. So it’s possible Hayes, unbeknownst to Wilson, conveniently backed out on the Yanks when a better offer came along. Or the Yankees simply muscled the commissioner’s office into wiping out a legitimate deal. Or perhaps Chandler was pushing his own hidden agenda.
In any event, after the decision was announced, the Yankees promptly traded Wilson to the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League where he played his first season of integrated ball one year after the PCL color barrier was broken. 

One day a cocky second baseman arrived and overheard someone mention that Wilson didn’t have a roommate. “Yeah, he’s got a roommate,” said 20-year-old Billy Martin. “I’m his roommate.” Wilson fondly recalled Martin was both a good player and a good person. In those days, of course, it was not exactly common for teammates of different races to share a room on the road. Although the fiery Martin matched with the even-tempered Wilson seems an odd couple, Wilson said they—sharing a passion for the game—got along great.
That year Wilson quickly became the Oaks most popular player while topping the league in both hitting (.348) and stolen bases (47). After the 1949 season, the Yankees bought the rights to second baseman Billy Martin. Yet it was another year, during which he helped Oakland win the 1950 pennant, before the shortstop who played next to Martin got an opportunity to move up. It was not the Yankees but New York’s Giants who signed Wilson, and in the spring of 1951 it appeared he was finally going to be playing on major league diamonds. In Florida, he shined in spring training, once collecting 5 of the Giants 11 hits in a game. In one of his typical at-bats reflective of the faster, more freewheeling style of the Negro Leagues, Wilson laid down a bunt and rocketed to first, stole second and then scored on a single. During a short barnstorming tour after spring training, Wilson had a team-high .480 batting average.

Well into his 80s, Negro League veteran, New York teammate and Hall of Famer Monte Irvin retained an encyclopedic memory of his baseball career. He compared Wilson to major leaguer Ichiro Suzuki and said, “You couldn’t get Artie out. As soon as his bat hit the ball it seemed like he was already halfway to first base.” Irvin added, “Artie was great in the clubhouse. He kept us loose and laughing, always had a joke to tell. That’s why Leo Durocher loved him so much.” Heading into the regular season, an April 3 New York Times headline touted the versatile Wilson as being slated for a regular berth. In fact, when asked about the highlight of spring training, Giants manager Durocher said, “This fellow Wilson. In my book he has been terrific and I don’t see how I’m going to keep him out of the line-up. A fellow who can field and hit the way he can is going to take somebody’s job, make no mistake about that.”
It never happened.

On the road toward full integration of the game, at the intersection of talent and opportunity, Wilson hit a roadblock. After the regular season started Wilson played only sparingly for the Giants, getting only 22 at bats in 19 games, sometimes as a pinch hitter, other times while playing second or even first base. He once commented, “The only time I got into a game was when somebody got hurt or kicked out.” One day Durocher, who Wilson admired in spite of “The Lip” routinely stealing his cologne while he was in the shower, asked him to play center field. According to a newspaper account, Wilson replied, “You’ve got the best center fielder in baseball down in Minneapolis. Why don’t you get him up here?” Indeed, a 20-year-old on the Giants’ farm club was torching AAA pitching at a .477 clip after 35 games. 

Willie Mays was called up. After initially batting a less than spectacular 1-for-26, he soon became, well, Willie Mays. And to make room on the roster for the Say Hey Kid, Wilson was sent down. Thus a dependable leadoff man who consistently hit well over .300, a speedster who ran like a cheetah on caffeine, a slick-fielding shortstop who had a strong arm and a soft glove, a player who was popular with fans and players alike, was gone.

After Bobby Thomson hit his famous Shot Heard ’Round the World in a playoff against Robinson’s Dodgers, that Giants team went on to the World Series in 1951. They lost to a Yankees squad that included Joe DiMaggio in the twilight of his career and a blond rookie on the ascent, Mickey Mantle.
As for Wilson, was it simply bad luck because the Giants younger shortstop and co-captain, Alvin Dark, was in his prime? A lack of home run power? Concern that the 31-year-old’s stellar skills might soon decline? Or another possibility that can neither be proved nor ruled out: an unwritten racial quota in play behind the scenes. This much is known: in 1951 only six of the 16 major league teams carried at least one African American player on their rosters. A few owners like Veeck aggressively pursued Negro Leaguers, whereas other teams were more interested in bringing a young black player along through the minor league ranks than signing an established veteran. And some simply and steadfastly maintained a certain uniformity of skin color. With Mays in uniform, the 1951 Giants were also about to field the first all-black outfield in major league baseball and had another African American, catcher Ray Noble, on the roster. A cynic might wonder if someone in upper management was a bit twitchy about the team becoming too dark too fast.

Instead of playing for Giants minor league clubs, Wilson—with Dotty’s blessing—eventually decided to return to Oakland where he earned more money than his major league salary and, even more importantly, could play every day. Major league cities only went as far west as St. Louis until 1959, and in the ‘50s the PCL was often called the third major league as its level of talent was nearly on a par with the major leagues. Upon his return to Oakland Wilson was greeted by a big floral display purchased by fans. His first game back, attendance was four times greater than a normal weeknight crowd. Like the previous two seasons, hordes of youngsters waited after the game to get his autograph, and the friendly shortstop always accommodated the fans.

Wilson hit over .300 each of his first four years after returning to the Pacific Coast League and earned three more batting titles. Obviously his skills had not eroded. But he never again got a look with a major league club. Wilson finished his career in the PCL in 1957 after playing for the Oaks, Seattle Rainiers and Portland Beavers. In an odd twist, the 1955 Beaver team included a couple of former Negro League stars, Luis Marquez and Artie Wilson. And 1955, by the way, was also the first year the Yankees fielded an African American player, Elston Howard. Two years earlier, Jackie Robinson had publicly questioned whether the Yankees had an unwritten pigmentation policy. In a follow-up magazine article, the front office strongly denied it. But their scout who had earlier passed on Willie Mays was quoted, “I got no use for him or any of them. I wouldn’t want any of them on a club I was with.” Policy or no, I’m guessing he wasn’t the only scout to harbor such views.

For over 50 years the Wilsons lived in Portland, Oregon, where they raised two children and Artie sold cars for many years after his professional career was over. Wilson never really left baseball, however, and when he still played in old-timers games in his 70s, the 5’ 11” former shortstop remained within a pound or two of his 163 pound playing weight. At age 85, the man who “loved to hit” threw out the first pitch when the Yankees played the Mariners in Seattle. When asked what would happen if he stepped into the batter’s box, his eyes lit up, he flashed a sly smile and said, “Well, I wouldn’t be leaving the bat on my shoulder, that’s for sure.”
Some 60 years after the fact, Wilson received official recognition for his Negro League stardom. The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia named him both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the Negro American League for 1944. In addition, historian John Holway’s Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues named Wilson and Marquez winners of the Fleet Walker Award (MVP) for their respective leagues in 1947. “There have been only two geniuses in the world,” actress and notorious free spirit Tallulah Bankhead once said, “Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.” A few years ago Mays told an audience, “Artie broke me in. I wish I could somehow pay him back.”
A few centuries ago that other Willie wrote, “Let us not burden our remembrance with a heaviness that’s gone.” By these words Artie Wilson lived, happy in the moment, unfettered by regret. Some have speculated that Josh Gibson’s fatal stroke at age 35 was due in part to heartache after being passed over by major league baseball in favor of Jackie Robinson. If in fact the man known as the black Babe Ruth was haunted by thoughts of what might have been, this definitely cannot be said of Wilson. The mild-mannered player who was never—not once—tossed from a ball game, was completely comfortable in his own skin, fully satisfied with the way things turned out for him both within and without baseball.
Still, one fact is inescapable: in slightly different circumstances he could have played for the Indians with Bob Feller and Satchel Paige. Or the Yankees with Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin. Or the Giants with Willie Mays and Monte Irvin. But Wilson was definitely not one to waste time on idle speculation, not inclined to curse the baseball gods (or owners, if they are different), not the sort of man to bemoan a tricky curveball of fate. Sure, early in his career he was forced to play in the shadows of segregated ball due to a nation’s shameful racism. And for four seasons post-Jackie Robinson, he didn’t get a shot at the major leagues. His typically tranquil reaction, per one newspaper account, “Why be angry about it? There’s a time for all things. It just wasn’t the time.”
Several years ago, following a lengthy discussion about his playing days, Wilson stood on the porch of his comfortable Portland home and gazed down the tree-lined street where he and Dotty lived for a half century. Finally, in a voice scarcely more than a whisper, he said, “Those were some good old days.” A pause. “I had a nice career. That’s good enough.”
Playing across the U.S. and Latin America against some of the all-time best players, both black and white. Batting and stolen base titles. Negro Leagues World Series. Multiple pennants. Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame. All-Star. Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, albeit belatedly. Mentor to Willie Mays. Last of the .400 hitters.
For Artie Wilson, good enough was plenty good. The last of the .400 hitters died in October 2010 a few days after his 90th birthday.

A Little About the Author... Before he retired, Larry Blakely wrote sports for a number of publications including Chicago Sports Weekly. Dust and Dreams, his collection of short fiction, is out of print but he hopes to bring it back soon as an e-book.