Artie Wilson Jr. stood in a restored locker room at historic Rickwood Field and lamented he was not there with his late father, the former Birmingham Black Barons baseball player for whom he is named.
“I’d give anything to be able to walk through here with him,” Wilson said. “It’s six years too late. That would have been priceless.”
Wilson recalled touring the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City with his father but added that being in Birmingham would have been better.
“It would have been even more special to be here where it all started with him in his home and a place he always thought the best of,” he said. “It’s still special to be able to be here now. Yeah, pretty special times.”
Wilson and his wife, Marie, were in Alabama over the weekend as his youngest daughter graduated from the University of Alabama. During their stay, they visited the Negro Southern League Museum and Rickwood Field to see memorabilia of his father, Black Barons great Artie Wilson.
They also visited the Rev. William Greason, one of two surviving teammates of his father from the 1948 Black Barons. The other survivor from that squad is Willie Mays.
Wilson said he had nearly completed elementary school before he really grasped how special his dad was.
“At the time, I knew he was good. I just didn’t know how good as a young child,” he said. “And probably more so with him because he was extremely humble and never really talked about himself. If you talked to him, he would say he was just a guy who loved baseball. He wasn’t one of the best ever; he was just a guy who loved baseball.”
The elder Wilson’s place in baseball history is well documented.
A 2012 inductee to the Birmingham Barons Hall of Fame, Wilson played for the Birmingham Black Barons from 1942 to 1948. During that time, he was considered to be one of the league’s top shortstops.
Wilson was named the starting shortstop of the league All-Star team four times from 1944 to 1948, missing out only in 1945 when Jackie Robinson earned the nod.
The Black Barons won the Negro American League championship in 1943, 1944 and 1948, advancing to but never winning the Negro League World Series.
Perhaps Wilson’s greatest claim to fame came in the 1948 regular season in which he batted .402. He is credited as the last player in a top-level league to bat over .400.
Dr. Layton Revel lent his collection of Negro League artifacts to the museum. He counted the former ballplayer as a friend and delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
Revel said Artie Wilson Sr. would rank with the best of Negro Leaguers.
“He had a brilliant career,” the doctor said in a phone interview. “When you look at what he did in the Birmingham Industrial League, the last player to hit .400, when you look at what he did in organized baseball, in Puerto Rico, he was a great ballplayer.”
Revel said ranking Negro League players is unfair because they played in different eras.
Revel recounts the story that Wilson Sr. told him in which the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and New York Giants each thought they had the signing rights to the Black Baron. After spending spring training with the Indians, Wilson went to the Giants.
Wilson had good seasons in the minors for the Giants and ultimately, after a strong spring, made the big league Giants squad.
“But they don’t know where to play him,” Revel said. “Do they play him in the infield? Is he a pinch hitter? Is he a pinch runner? He was basically a utility player. He’s on the New York Giants roster but he’s mainly sitting on the bench.”
Preferring to play than sit, Wilson asked the manager to send him down to the Pacific Coast League, where he had earned a batting title or two.
“What you’re looking for is a power hitter,” Revel recalled Wilson saying. “You guys got a kid down in Minneapolis I played ball with in the Negro Leagues, Willie Mays. You need to send me down where I can play ball every day … and bring up Willie Mays.
“That’s what they did,” Revel said. “That’s how Willie Mays got called up. That’s a true story. Well, it was true as far as Artie Wilson was concerned.”
Wilson Jr. played baseball and basketball in his youth before playing basketball collegiately at the University of Hawaii. The owner of Artie Wilson & Associates real estate company in Hawaii is a broadcast basketball analyst and host of a radio show.
Sitting in a restored locker at Rickwood Field, he said he had a contract offer out of high school with the Kansas City Royals. By then, he was in love with basketball.
“I wish I had not touched a basketball,” he said. “I probably would have gone on and followed in his footsteps and played baseball. That didn’t happen but it’s OK.”