Any player/Any era: Artie Wilson

What he did: Wilson’s an answer to a trivia question as the last player to hit .400 with his .402 season for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League in 1948. He also mentored a young Willie Mays, was written of as the best black shortstop of the 1940s, and was a four-time batting champion and Hall of Famer in the Pacific Coast League. Wilson, who died in 2010 at age 90, could have been something else, too: the first black player for the New York Yankees.

Era he might have thrived in: Former Yankee PR director and longtime baseball writer Marty Appel has a history on the club, Pinstripe Empire due out on May 8. The following is excerpted:

In 1948, the New York Football Yankees of the All American Conference, owned by Dan Topping, signed the black All-American, Buddy Young. In February 1949, the “Baseball Yankees” made a decision to enter the Negro League market, and announced the signing of both infielder Artie Wilson of the Birmingham Black Barons, (who was missing a finger on his throwing hand), and the dark-skinned Puerto Rican outfielder Luis Marquez of the Homestead Grays. The deals proved to be complicated; Cleveland also claimed to have signed them both, and when the deals were reviewed by Commissioner Chandler, Wilson was awarded to New York, and Marquez was sent to Cleveland.

But Wilson didn’t want to take the pay cut the Yankees were offering him to play for Newark, and he wanted a piece of the purchase price as well. So five days later he was sold to the Indians organization after all. In his place, the Yanks signed Frank Austin, a Panamanian shortstop, from the Philadelphia Stars. So who was the first black player in the Yankees organization? Both Austin and Marquez started the season with Newark in ’49 and share the distinction, but both were out of the organization by May. Only Marquez would see brief Major League action some years later.

It took until 1955 for the Yankees to field a black player, Elston Howard, New York among the last clubs to integrate. Wilson, for his part, barely played in the majors, 19 games with the New York Giants in 1951, and one can only wonder what might have been. Wilson’s departure from the Yankees may have been due to a combination of greed, racism, and Phil Rizzuto sharing his position, though Wilson may have thrived in pinstripes.

Why: Perhaps the Yankees weren’t the most bigoted franchise of their era. The Boston Red Sox passed on Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. The Pittsburgh Pirates never responded to a sportswriter’s cable in 1937 suggesting the team pick up Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Cool Papa Bell. Still, the Yankees weren’t much better, if at all, and their reticence to sign black players had a lasting effect on their fortunes.

Red Smith wrote upon Ed Barrow’s death in 1953 that the Yankee general manager could push a button on his desk and know within five minutes what a prospect in Kansas had eaten that morning. The same organization missed a chance to sign Mays, David Halberstam wrote in Summer of ’49, after a Southern-born scout reported he couldn’t hit a curve ball. The Yankees also kept Vic Power in Triple-A, watching him hit .331 in 1952 and .349 in 1953 before they traded him to the Athletics, purportedly because he liked to date white women. Power is considered one of the best defensive first basemen in baseball history. In his place, the Yankees went for much of the ’50s with Moose Skowron, a fielder so inept he was eventually sent to Arthur Murray Dance School to refine his footwork.

Halberstam wrote:

The Yankees thought of themselves as the elite team of baseball. They felt they did not need black players (as the Dodgers, a poorer cousin in Brooklyn, did) because their teams were already so good, their farm system so well stocked, and their overall operation so profitable. The whites-only policy reflected the attitudes of men, born around or before the turn of the century, who felt the use of black players tainted their operation… They would, management believed, draw black fans, who would in turn scare away the good middle-class white fans. When the question of blacks, or Negroes, as they were then called, arose, the Yankee answer was that they would sign one when they found one worthy of being a Yankee.

With that attitude, the Yankees eventually went through a moribund stretch from the late ’60s to mid ’70s. With Power at first, Mays alongside Mickey Mantle in the outfield, Wilson somewhere in the infield, and perhaps other black stars in tow, one can only wonder. Racial diversity was a hallmark of so many teams that shined as the Yankees dimmed.

Might Wilson have been an upgrade over Rizzuto? Perhaps. Rizzuto is a Hall of Famer and helped anchor the Yankees through five straight championships from 1949 to 1953. He ranks among the worst shortstops in Cooperstown, though, hitting .273 with an OPS+ of 93 and 41.8 WAR. Negro League Baseball Museum president Dr. Bob Kendrick told me Wilson hit better, had a stronger arm and better range than Rizzuto. I’d venture Wilson might have excelled as a lefty batter in Yankee Stadium and had the speed to fly around the bases when his teammates cranked balls into the broad power alley in left-center.

We’ll never know, and with the 65th anniversary of Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers coming Sunday, that’s a shame.

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Any player/Any era is a Thursday series that looks at how a player might have done in a different era than the one he played in.

Others Negro League veterans in this series: Jackie Robinson, Josh GibsonMonte IrvinSatchel Paige

0 thoughts on “Any player/Any era: Artie Wilson”

  1. Why the need to denigrate Moose Skowron ??
    He was so inept that in 1956 he led the league in DP for first basemen,57 led the league in TC/G,1958 led the league in FA,1960 led the league in PO,1961 DP. It is no coincedence that in 1959 when the Yankee’s string of pennants was broken Skowron was injured and played in only 74 games.

    1. I may have been unduly hard on Skowron, though surely Power would’ve been an upgrade at first base. He won seven straight Gold Gloves from 1958 through 1964 and led for a bunch of defensive stats as well.

  2. Graham,
    Very informative write-up about a player I was unfamiliar with. Perhaps worse than being a shortstop in the Yankees farm system behind Rizzuto was that Wilson’s one brief MLB opportunity came with the Giants, who had Alvin Dark entrenched at short. In the early ‘50s, displacing Dark from his place in the Giants lineup was at least as challenging as displacing Rizzuto from his place with the Yankees.
    One point I would dispute: Indeed the Yankees management was slow to awaken to racial integration in the ‘50s, but the team’s poor performance in the late ‘60s is better attributed to a general lack of talent than to systemic racism. By the mid-60s, the Yankees were as integrated as most MLB teams; they just didn’t have any stars other than Mantle, black or white. The talents of their black players (Howard, Al Downing, Roy White, Horace Clarke) were on a par with those of their white players (Mel Stottlemyre, Fritz Peterson, Joe Pepitone, Tom Tresh).

  3. I am reading Appel’s book and I just got to that section on Artie Wilson and Luis Marquez. I was disappointed that Appel didn’t mention Wilson making the majors as he did Luis Marquez. I am also more disappointed that when I had the opportunity to interview Artie Wilson on the phone in 2007 that my computer crashed during the interview and I lost the whole thing. I spent an hour on the phone with him and he was GREAT, but sadly I could never get him on the phone afterwards.

  4. Yes, the gratuitous denigration of Skowron leaves a bad taste in the mouth- it sounds like reverse racism. When Skowron was on the Yankees, they won the Pennant year after year. Did Vic Power really help his teams to win? Win what? Of course the Yanks could have signed Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in the 1930s, but no one did, not just the Yankees, even the basement clubs that might have catapulted to Pennant winners overnight.

  5. Hi Bill,

    Definitely not my intent to engage in reverse racism. As I said two years ago, I may have been hard on Skowron. I’ve since learned he was not the only player the Yankees sent to Arthur Murray Dance School. Skowron’s defensive sabermetrics compared to Power also look like a near-push at first glance: 45 defensive runs saved for Skowron in 1,658 games versus 66 for Power in 1,627. Clearly, Power has a slight edge, but the numbers suggest Skowron may have been a bit underrated defensively. Maybe as I continue to learn defensive sabermetrics, I’ll find more to support this.

    As for the Yankees winning a bunch of pennants with Skowron, the same could be said of Charlie Silvera. One player alone will generally not make or break a team, unless we’re talking a legend like Babe Ruth or Willie Mays or a saboteur like Hal Chase.

    That said, thanks for your comments in recent days. I actually tweeted the one you left about Babe Ruth, something I almost never do.

    Talk to you later,
    Graham

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