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TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Artie Wilson's major league record appears in a most abbreviated form in my copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia, which contains an extensive array of statistics on virtually everyone else who has ever played in the big leagues. The abridgement of Wilson's record was intentional, but not malicious. To qualify for a full listing in the 1974 edition of the encyclopedia, a player had to have at least 25 major league at bats; Artie Wilson had only 22 for the 1951 Giants. The cursory way in which Wilson is treated says a great deal about the incompleteness of what is supposed to be baseball's basic reference work. But it says even more about the game itself, which prevented Wilson and generations of players like him from qualifying for the encyclopedia because of a single and, indeed, malicious reason. Artie Wilson is black.
When you dig further, the records on Wilson still yield only a fraction of his truth. He played shortstop, second and first with the Giants, appeared in 19 games and hit .182. Officially Wilson was 30 during his only major league season. Some suggest he was four years older. Whatever, his skills had long since been eroded by having to play professional baseball 11 months a year.
Monte Irvin, who was 30 before he was allowed to begin his brief, brilliant big-league career, says, "Artie was one of the greatest shortstops anybody ever saw. In the old Negro leagues we called him the Octopus, because it seemed as though he had eight arms. He had tremendous range, wonderful speed, a super arm. Besides that, he was a first-rate pinch hitter. But by the time they let him join us on the Giants, he simply wasn't the player we'd known."
You find Wilson these days among the damp green silences of Portland, Ore., where Artie's minister, the Rev. Thomas L. Strayhand, says there are no racial problems of any kind. Pastor Strayhand smiles slightly. "That's because there aren't enough of us blacks here for them to notice."
Wilson sells Chryslers for a company called Gary-Worth, and during our three days together he managed to mention in his quiet, relaxed way all the merits of a model called the Cordoba. Artie is a hard-working auto salesman, and, yes, I would buy a used car from that man. But mostly we talked baseball, which Wilson looks back on with a warmth that others focus on old romances.
"Oh, but I loved playing the game," he said in the tidy living room of his two-story frame house in northeast Portland. "I loved it as a little kid 'round the sand-lots in Birmingham, and I loved it playing for the Acipco cast-iron pipe company. Say, you know I played against Willie Mays' daddy back then? Cat Mays played for Westfield in the Tennessee Coal and Iron League. And I loved it with the Birmingham Black Barons. We used to have an all-star game in the colored league. I was the starting shortstop most of the years I was playing for Birmingham. Except 1945. That year they had Jackie Robinson take my place."
"I never thought Robinson had a big-league shortstop's arm," I said.
"Right," Wilson said, "but Jackie cheated. He studied the hitters good and made up for the arm by playing position. He knew where they'd hit the ball. For the Giants, Alvin Dark done the same thing. There wasn't nobody who saw me and Jackie in 1945 who wouldn't tell you but one thing. I was the best shortstop. There isn't nobody with intelligence who wouldn't tell you something else. For integrating baseball, Jackie was the best man."
What Artie loved most was his one season in the major leagues playing for Leo Durocher. "Leo had the greatest tricks," he said. "He'd carry a rubber cigar—he didn't smoke—and he'd come up to some rookie and say, 'Hey, gimme your matches.' Twenty minutes later he'd be asking the kid what he was doing in the Thunderbird Club last night. The rookie wondered how Leo knew where he'd been drinking. Leo had looked at the matches, that was how. But after a while the rookies got smart. You can't stay dumb forever. They stopped carrying matches and bought cigarette lighters. Then Leo would come up with something else. No way you could get ahead of that guy."