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Hurt his arm, became an outfielder, bounced around in the minors, broke in with the Pirates in 1908. Couldn't cut it in centerfield, was moved to right, hit only .227 but developed into a good rightfielder with a great arm. (In 1978 The Sporting News quoted an old-timer as saying that one of the greatest throws he ever saw was made by Wilson, who caught a fly in the ninth with one out and the winning and tying runs on second and third, made an instant calculation and ended the game by throwing the trailing runner out at third before the lead runner could cross the plate.
The 1909 Pirates had two future Hall of Famers in shortstop Honus Wagner and player-manager Fred Clarke and another longtime stalwart in centerfielder Tommy Leach. They won the pennant. Wilson played every game and got his average up to .272. In the Series against the Tigers he hit only .154 but was in the thick of a famously tooth-and-claw seven-game struggle (Cobb going after Wagner spikes-high, Wagner tagging Cobb in the mouth, that sort of thing) in which the Pirates eventually prevailed. Wilson's role was most prominent in the sixth game, and here, at what one might think would be the most documented moment in Wilson's career, the murk of baseball Annals once again dismays the BATSABLister. Out of the several varying accounts (the Macmillan Encyclopedia, which I rank right up there with Carnegie Hall and the Louvre, gets this one wrong), here is an authoritative composite:
In the top of the ninth, with the Tigers ahead 5-3 and Pirates on first and second, Wilson bunted the ball in front of the plate. Tiger catcher Boss Schmidt threw to first baseman Tom Jones—but Wilson bowled Jones over while he was trying to catch the ball. Wilson ended up on second; Jones had to be carried off on a stretcher. A run was scored on the play. Sam Crawford (who is still the alltime career triples leader) moved from centerfield to take Jones's place at first. Pirate catcher George Gibson grounded to Crawford, who threw the other runner out at the plate. With Wilson still inexplicably on second and Gibson on first, a pinch hitter struck out, and on the third strike Wilson got thrown out trying to steal third. That ended the game. Wilson spiked the third baseman.
That is Chief Wilson's place in history. That, and his 36 triples three years later. In his eight other big league seasons Wilson never hit more than 14 triples. So what got into him in 1912?
Let us restate our first four factors: park, tools, limitations, the state of the ball itself.
From June 1909 through June 1970, the Pirates' home park was Forbes Field. Its outfield was huge. In 1912 it was 360 feet to left, 406 to left center, 462 to the deepest corner just left of straightaway center, 422 to dead center, 408 to right center, 376 to right. Forbes Field kept nearly every batted ball inside its fences before the advent of the lively ball around 1920, and it kept most of them inside even afterward. (In his first full season after the Pirates moved from Forbes to Three Rivers Stadium, Willie Stargell hit 15 more home runs than he had ever hit.) Between 1900 and 1979, according to the '80 Baseball Research Journal, the Pirates led the league in triples 40 times and were second 23 times. Part of this dominance was due to the park and part to the Pirates' specialization in speedy line-drive hitters—Roberto Clemente and Dave Parker in his prime being recent examples.
(Here is an example of how BATSABListics sometimes works: I was riffling through the Encyclopedia on my way to Wilson when I came across Possum Whitted. Interesting name, I thought. Well, it turns out that when it comes to Forbes Field's ability to turn hitters into triplers, Possum Whitted is a perfect case in point. In 1919 he played 78 games for the Phillies and hit one triple and played 35 games for the Pirates and hit seven.)
Wilson was not slow (he stole some bases and handled a good many chances in the field); he was a line-drive hitter with some but not enormous power; and there was no jackrabbit in the ball throughout his career. So he was a solid candidate to hit quite a few triples.
But 36? No one else has ever approached 36 triples in a season, not even in the 19th century or in the minor leagues. The only explanation is the adjacent-outfielder factor.
Recall that Wilson started out as a centerfielder but failed. He was a much better fielder than Webb, but like Webb he was not even the best outfielder on his team, and surely he suffered over it. In 1911 the Pirates had handed over center to a great fielder, Max Carey.