Saying goodbye to Negro Leagues great

I just heard the bad news: Artie Wilson died yesterday.

Who was Artie Wilson? Probably one of the greatest baseball players you've never heard of.

    Wilson, a star on the Portland Beavers who is still regarded as the last player to hit .400 for a season in a top professional league, died Sunday morning. He celebrated his 90th birthday three days earlier.


    Wilson was a Negro Leagues all-star who spent the prime of his career barred from the major leagues because he was African American but, by all accounts, could have been an all-star there, too.

    Instead, he didn't get the chance until 1951, when he was past his prime. He was brought up from the Oakland to the New York Giants for 19 games before being sent back down to the Oaks.


    Wilson played some of his greatest games in the 1940s, when he was a shortstop for the Negro Leagues' Birmingham Black Barons.

    When then 16-year-old phenom Willie Mays joined the Barons in 1948, Wilson was a well-established player who served as a mentor and surrogate authority figure. "He was one of the guys that made sure I didn't get in any trouble," Mays said from his home in San Francisco. "I owe a lot of debt to him."

    After leaving Birmingham for a brief stint playing for the Mayaguez team in Puerto Rico, Wilson played for several Pacific Coast League teams, broken up by the stint with the Giants. He spent the final years of his career as a Portland Beaver, and was elected to the PCL Hall of Fame in 2003.

I have absolutely no doubt that Artie Wilson would have enjoyed a long career in the major leagues, if that path had been open to him. Playing in the Pacific Coast League into his middle 30s, Wilson was a perennial .300 hitter. In those days, there just weren't many spots in the majors for black players in their 30s.

Perhaps because he settled in Portland in the 1960s and spent the rest of his life there, Wilson seems to have been largely ignored by the people who have done such phenomenal work chronicling the Negro Leagues.

But I've settled in Portland, too. About six years ago, I was lucky enough -- thanks to the good grace of Dwight Jaynes -- to spend some time with Artie Wilson. I was particularly interested in his memories of a 1946 barnstorming tour that featured Bob Feller's All-Stars and Satchel Paige's All-Stars. I don't believe his memory was as sharp as it once was, but he did have a great Satchel Paige story for me. And when I asked him if the black players mingled much with the white players on the barnstorming tour, he replied, "I talked with all of them. Phil Rizzuto told me, 'If I had an arm like yours, I'd play for a hundred years.' "

It's too bad Artie couldn't have hung around for a few more years. Or even just a few more days. Artie Wilson didn't hold a grudge. He was rooting for the Giants in the World Series, right until the end.