Monday, November 1, 2010

Artie Wilson, Negro Leagues great and New York Giants shorstop dies at 90

Artie Wilson, who was one of the first black players for the New York Giants died Sunday in Portland after suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He was 90.

While Wilson only batted .182 in 22 at-bats for the Giants in 1951 as a "rookie" at the age of 31, he is regarded as the last .400 hitter from the Negro Leagues, batting .402 for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. At the time, his teammate was a 16 year-old outfielder named Willie Mays. Ironically, it would be Wilson who was farmed out by the Giants in 1951 to make room for the future Hall of Famer.

In a September 2000 interview, Wilson reflected on his short time with the Giants. His opportunity to crack their infield was stifled by an established double play combination.

“I figured I’d get a chance," he said. "If anybody could make it, I could make it. If I’d gotten with some other club, I’d have been the main shortstop, but the Giants had a tough combination: Alvin Dark at short and Eddie Stanky at second. It’s pretty tough to break into a lineup like that. I was a rookie and didn’t know the club, didn’t know the players. So I just sat there and waited.”

Wilson would find tremendous success in the Pacific Coast League, swatting over 200 hits during five different seasons between 1949-1954. A notorious spray hitter, teams tried to employ a shift on him while batting left-handed, moving the infielders to cover the hole between third base and short stop. The effort proved futile as Wilson continued to rattle the veterans of the PCL.

The gifted shortstop appeared in four East-West All-Star games in the Negro Leagues alongside Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Leon Day, Monte Irvin and Willie Wells.

After his baseball career, he found success working at a car dealership in Portland.

I had the good fortune of being able to interview Wilson in 2008 on the telephone. He gave me about an hour of his time talking about a young Willie Mays and his teammates Piper Davis and Ray Dandridge. He was humble and gracious, playing down his achievements and yet so willing to highlight the strengths of the greats that he played with. I was so captivated by the interview that I forgot to start my tape recorder. Future attempts to interview Wilson proved futile and I am left with the fleeting memories of an evening phone call between Wilson and myself.

As the San Francisco Giants attempt to lock up their first World Series championship since moving from New York, Wilson's death marks the third former New York Giant in as many weeks and leaves 37 living players who donned the uniform in the Polo Grounds.


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