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The Last .400 Hitter

November 14, 2010

The last .400 hitter died the day before the Giants won the World Series, an exit worthy of a graceful ballplayer vanishing into the dugout a few hours before the final out.

Artie Wilson’s career can and should serve as an example for aspiring baseball players, regardless of race, social class, and opportunity. The reason is simple. As a black baseball player in an era when baseball did not want players of any ethnicity, Wilson had the rare gift of never letting the outside world influence him.

He wasn’t the guy who blamed circumstances out of his control for what happened or didn’t happen. It didn’t make him a pacifist or complacent at heart, it didn’t mean that he wasn’t aware of what was going on around him. What it made him was a professional baseball player from the start, a guy who understood that the only thing he could directly influence was how well he played.

We live in a baseball world where every at-bat may feel like life or death, where insecurity is so rampant that the world is looking over its shoulder. Be it in travel ball, college ball, the minor leagues or the majors, most baseball players unknowingly live by Satchel Paige’s ageless rule of ‘Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.’

Wilson knew that he could not control who played him, when, how or where. He did understand that it was on him to make the most of every opportunity. Wilson excelled in this, with a makeup that belied where he had been and what he had seen, his personable and sunny outlook transcending hatred and oppression. He liked to tell the story of the two fans in Sacramento who gave him what he only called “grief.”

The way Artie could make it sound, the fans were on him for having a hang nail. Artie didn’t worry about the outside world. He got a few hits that day, asked the fans how they felt now, and beamed that they got to like him right away once they saw him swing the bat. That was Artie Wilson, bat control better than anyone remembers, and a command of his own personality and presence that simply put to shame anything out of his control.

Wilson grew up in Birmingham, where Paige rose to stardom as a member of the Birmingham Black Barons in the 1920s, where two decades later, the double-play combination of shortstop Artie Wilson and second baseman Piper Davis was as famous as Ruth and Gehrig. Baseball took Davis out of the coalmines and it took Wilson out of the pipe fitting shop, where the tip of his thumb was severed off as teenager. You think the NCAA is stringent? Try building a baseball career through segregated baseball and before child welfare laws.

Wilson was unequivocally one of the best professional shortstops of the 1940s, regardless of league and regardless of what Major League Baseball thought about segregated baseball. Any scout who looked at him as a scout first and not a man with an agenda could not miss the tools.

Wilson had a lean and rangy athletic body, genes passed on through his family. He had long, loose limbs. Those who played with him swear he was a defensive shortstop without match, capable of ranging to his right. In fact, one of Wilson’s most famous staged photographs is of him going to his backhand side.

Once he got the ball, you would see the “awful” arm, which meant awful good. It had to be fast and whippy in a running league, from a time when baseball was considered a throwing game first. That has changed over the years, where we say it’s the bat first and everything else second, but in the days when only players who could throw and run were considered star performers, Wilson could gun down the best.

He could run like hell, which means if you graded him, he’d have been a 7 or an 8. Offensively, I had many former players tell me that Juan Pierre reminded them a great deal of Wilson. He wasn’t Ted Williams as a run producer. He was a table setter. Wilson was a slap-hitting left-handed hitter who fed his family by going to right field.

In any era, there will be scouts who hate inside-out hitting infielders, and in Wilson’s era, anyone looked for any reason not to like a black player. Wilson didn’t care what people thought. He just kept hitting. His .402 batting average in 1948, his last season with the Birmingham Black Barons, was compiled in the last great season of the Negro American League. There were still plenty of power arms that later played in the majors. Wilson, godfather to Willie Mays, helped Davis mentor and protect the 17-year old high school sophomore playing pro ball with grown men. We have modern travel ball, and they had their travel ball.

Wilson was a natural hitter, and he proves a scouting point I will always believe. I don’t care how a guy does what he does. It’s not about where the swing starts or where the swing ends. It’s about how he gets his hands into position at the point of contact, and how well he controls the bat head. If you want another left-handed comparison for Wilson, try Rod Carew.

I guarantee you Carew would have a hard time in pro ball today because he was a corner without power. Wilson would have a hard time, too. Baseball is at fault, not the baseball player. The cookie cutter has taken the craft out of the game and made it into a mind-numbing procession of one-dimensional thought. Position players must have power, end of story. Wilson could run, field and throw. He could hit, but not with power. A four-tool guy with four “6” tools on the scale, and I’m not sure he would get so much as a look today. That’s a travesty, but I still see this happen to players today.

In typical Artie fashion, he would never say what I just said with the same passion that I did. It didn’t mean he didn’t have passion. It meant Artie had game, the coolest cat you’d ever find, smooth and elegant, right down to the white sport coat and matching fedora, and the cigar wrapped near the severed thumb. It was elegance personified. He didn’t have to speak much. His actions and appearance spoke for him. He would always hold the door for a lady.

The bat also talked for Wilson. He was an all-star in every league he played. When he got to the Pacific Coast League in 1949, he won a batting title, hitting .348 for the Oakland Oaks. He hit .300 six times. He played winter ball for several seasons, tacked on more .300 seasons, facing Triple-A and established major league pitching. You hit .300 once, it’s a fluke. You hit .300 10 times, it’s for real.

I would have liked to have seen him play. I told him that the first time I met him and I could tell that meant more to him than anything else. I have a way with ballplayers, no matter the age. We spoke a few times when I did the research for Willie’s Boys and he helped me to the best of his ability.

Artie was not a bitter former player. He was not the guy who tells you that politics and infighting short-changed his career. He knew what he wanted out of baseball for himself and his family, and like his old pal Piper, he got it.

Artie was so modest that I don’t think he fully understood his place in baseball history. In most articles you find, he is the player who had a cup of coffee for the 1951 New York Giants. He was the player returned to the minors when Mays was brought up.

This was only half the story.

Wilson asked to go back to Triple-A and begged Giants manager Leo Durocher to send him back to the Coast League and bring Mays to the majors. Durocher liked Wilson and was trying to do right by him. But Artie didn’t see sitting on the bench in the major leagues as any great reward. He needed to play to earn better money and Mays needed to play. Durocher finally caved in and the rest is history. Mays became who he is because of Artie Wilson and Piper Davis, and neither guy ever asked for one bit of credit.

When I was in Birmingham a few summers ago, I drove out to Rickwood Field on a Sunday afternoon. The field was locked that day. I walked around the edges of the field peeking through the fence. I got to the third base side and I could see the hole at shortstop.

Artie Wilson was the first guy I thought of, ranging deep to his right, turning that pivot foot on the outfield grass and throwing an awful strike to nail a guy by a step. He could have played shortstop in a tuxedo. And right there, words cannot describe how I longed to have seen that.


One Response to “The Last .400 Hitter”

  1. […] related, but in a way it’s Kansas City related.  John Klima at Baseball Beginnings writes The Last .400 Hitter, about Artie Wilson who hit .402 in the Negro American League.  Also, if you are not, you should […]

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