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.
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.
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.