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

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.

After his short stint in the majors, Mr. Wilson moved on to Seattle, Portland and Sacramento in the PCL, hitting .300 four times. He retired in 1957 and then attempted a brief comeback in 1962.

"The PCL was just another ballgame as far as I was concerned," Mr. Wilson once recalled. "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."

Arthur Lee Wilson was born Oct. 28, 1920, in Springville, Ala. As a boy, he taught himself to hit with a rubber ball and a broomstick. He lost the tip of his right thumb while working in a factory, but it never hindered his playing.

He settled in Portland in 1955 and spent more than 40 years working for a car dealer. Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Dorothy Daniels Wilson, and three children.

Mr. Wilson played in old-timers' games well into his 70s and never tired of speaking of his days in the Negro leagues, playing alongside such legends as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.

"Those fellows I played with were giants in the game," he said in 1991. "Oh, my, could they ever play! I know one thing - if some had played in the majors in their prime, there would be a lot more records than there are now."

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