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Artie Wilson, Negro leagues player who hit .400 and mentored Willie Mays, dies at 90

Artie Wilson makes a leap during spring training with the Cleveland Indians in 1949. He went on to play that year for the Indians' top minor league team in San Diego. A year earlier, he had hit .402 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League.
Artie Wilson makes a leap during spring training with the Cleveland Indians in 1949. He went on to play that year for the Indians' top minor league team in San Diego. A year earlier, he had hit .402 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League. (Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; 12:01 AM

Artie Wilson, 90, who once hit .400 in baseball's Negro leagues and mentored the teenaged Willie Mays when they played together in Alabama, died Oct. 31 at his home in a retirement facility in Portland, Ore. He had Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Wilson was a speedy, 162-pound shortstop who played with the Birmingham Black Barons from 1942 to 1948. He led the Negro American League in batting two times and in 1948 had a robust average of .402.

He is considered the last player in a top-level professional league to hit .400. No major leaguer since Ted Williams, who hit .406 for the Boston Red Sox in 1941, has topped the magical .400 mark since.

In his final two seasons in Birmingham, Mr. Wilson was a professional tutor to Mays, who became one of baseball's greatest stars.

"He was one of the guys that made sure I didn't get in any trouble," Mays, who first worked with Mr. Wilson at age 16, told the Oregonian newspaper in Portland. "I owe a lot of debt to him."

Their paths almost crossed again in 1951, during Mr. Wilson's short-lived major league career. He played in 19 games for the New York Giants before being released one month into the season. He was replaced on the roster by Mays.

"I didn't mind," Mr. Wilson said in 1991. "I kept telling [manager] Leo [Durocher] all that spring that Mays was going to be the best of all time. He came up, and the Giants won the pennant. I went down and got to play every day. It worked out fine for everyone."

Before and after his taste of the big leagues, Mr. Wilson had a stellar career in the Pacific Coast League. The PCL was sometimes called the "third major league" for the quality of its baseball and for its long seasons, which stretched to 200 games. Mr. Wilson, who was known as "the Birmingham Gentleman," became one of the league's most popular players.

He came to the West Coast only after two major league teams had vied for his talents in 1949. He was playing for the Cleveland Indians' top minor league team in San Diego when the New York Yankees complained that Mr. Wilson had previously made a verbal commitment to them.

Baseball commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler voided Mr. Wilson's contract with the Indians, and the Yankees then sold his contract to the Oakland Oaks. Mr. Wilson became Oakland's first black player. His roommate was his double-play partner, second baseman Billy Martin, who later played for the Yankees and had a standout career as a manager.

Mr. Wilson was a smooth fielder with a strong arm. At the plate, he was a pesky left-handed hitter who usually slapped the ball to the opposite field. Some teams put three players to the left of second base in an effort to stop him.

In 1949, Mr. Wilson led the PCL in batting and stolen bases, with a .348 average and 47 steals. The next year, he scored 168 runs and collected 264 hits while playing in 196 games for Oakland.


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