Arthur Lee Wilson
Nicknames: Arthur Lee, Artie
Teams: Birmingham Black Barons (1944-1948), minor leagues (1949-1957, 1962), major leagues (1951)
Height: 5' 10'' Weight: 160
Born: October 28, 1920, Springville, Alabama
The Birmingham Black Barons' crack shortstop Artie Wilson was an ideal leadoff batter. A left-handed opposite-field hitter, he notched averages of .346 in 1944 and .374 in 1945, finishing second to Sam Jethroe each time. Wilson slipped to .288 in 1946 before finally winning batting titles of his own in 1947-1948 with averages of .370 and .402, respectively.
The speedster was also an asset on the bases, finishing among the leaders in stolen bases each season. A superior defensive shortstop who was a master at the double play, he was generally regarded as the best shortstop in black baseball during the 1940s. In his five years in the Negro American League (1944-1948) he appeared in four East-West All Star games, missing only the 1945 contest, and helped the Black Barons win three pennants (1943-44 and 1948). Unfortunately, the Black Barons lost the World Series to the Negro National League champion Homestead Grays in each instance.
As a youngster. Wilson taught himself to hit with a rubber hail and broomstick, and as he got older, he would play with a ball made from wrapping thread around a golf ball. He bought his first uniform for $2.98, earning the money by shining shoes. At age sixteen he began attending school three days a week and working at the Acipico Pipe Company two days a week. While working there he lost his thumb in an accident. But he also honed his baseball skills playing semipro baseball with the company's team in the Birmingham Industrial League prior to signing with the Black Barons.
He left the Negro Leagues and made the transition to the major leagues with the New York Giants after the color barrier was lifted. During this time he and Luis Marquez were the center of a controversy between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians, but Commissioner Happy Chandler resolved the disagreement on May 13, 1949, by ruling that Wilson was the property of the Yankees.
The circumstances surrounding the controversy began after he led the Negro American League in batting in 1948 and spent the ensuing winter as player-manager in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. He was hitting about .370 in the latter part of January when he was scouted by Yankee scout Tom Greenwade. Wilson was making $750 per month at Birmingham, but when approached about signing an AAA contract for a maximum of $500 per month with the Yankees, he responded that he was just interested in getting a chance at the major leagues and that "salary is not important."
Acting in good faith, the Yankees' Larry MacPhail negotiated with Tom Hayes, Jr., owner of the Black Barons, who accepted the terms for transferring the contract. However, Wilson changed his mind, wanting a higher salary and a portion of the sale price, and in February both Wilson and Hayes wired MacPhail that the deal was off. Subsequently Hayes entered into an agreement with Abe Saperstein, representing the Cleveland Indians, to sell Wilson's contract for a higher amount. Chandler declared this to he null and void and that he was the property of the Yankees' Newark farm team.
After the financial maneuverings were settled, Wilson entered organized baseball in 1949, and had two seasons in the Pacific Coast League of .348 and .312 batting averages, earning a place on the New York Giants' roster in 1951. Always a left-field hitter, while with the Giants, opposing teams used a shift on him like he was a right-handed pull hitter, and he just could not pull the ball to overcome the shift.
Used sparingly, he hit an uncharacteristically low. 182 in only 22 major league at-bats. Some observers felt that in the early years of baseball desegregation, there was an unwritten quota system, and when Willie Mays was brought up to the Giants, Wilson was farmed out.
The remainder of 1951 was spent with three different teams in the three highest minor leagues. Finally he settled in the Pacific Coast League and hit for averages of .316, .332, .336, .307, .293, and .263 for the years 1952-1957, while leading the league in hits (in 1952) and in triples in consecutive seasons (1953 and 1954). But he never got another look at the big leagues. His best years came in Seattle, but he also played with Portland, Oakland, and Sacramento.
After four years away from baseball, he returned to Portland in 1962, but the layoff was too much to overcome, and he finished the season with Kennewick in the Northwest League. After retiring with a .312 lifetime batting average in the minors, he opened a car dealership in Portland.
Baseball Career Highlights:
Wilson was an all around baseball player. As a superb leadoff batter, he posted averages of .346 in 1944 and .374 in 1945, second only to Sam Jethroe both years. He ranked first two consecutive years with .370 and .402 in '47 and '48, respectively. Being quick on his feet, he finished among the leaders in stolen bases each season. Regarded as the Leagues best shortstop in the 1940s, Wilson was a master at the double play. During his five years in the Negro American League, Wilson played in four East-West All Star games and was a key component in the Barons' three pennant winning seasons ('43, '44 and '48).
In 1949, Wilson left the Negro Leagues to play with the New York Yankees. During heated contract negotiations, Wilson played organized baseball in the Pacific Coast League, where he posted .348 and .312 batting averages after two seasons. In 1951, Wilson joined the New York Giants; but received limited playing time. Returning to the Pacific Coast League, his averages were .316, .332, .336, .307, .293 and .263 for the years 1952-1957. In 1952, he led the league in hits and in '53 and '54, he led in triples. After leaving baseball with a .312 lifetime batting average in the minors, Wilson worked at a car dealership in Portland.
Awards, Honors, Titles, Championships,
• Four East West All Star Games - 1944, 1946-1948
• Three Negro American League Pennant - 1943-1944, 1948
NLBM Legacy 2000 Players' Reunion Alumni Book, Kansas City Missouri: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc., 2000.
James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.