When Boston’s Ted Williams hit .406 to win the American League batting crown in 1941, he was regarded by many as baseball’s last .400 hitter. However, a brief look at the history books would prove you wrong.
Some seven years after the Splendid Splinter turned the trick, one of the best leadoff hitters in the history of Negro League baseball would take his place as professional baseball’s last .400 hitter.
Artie Wilson of the Birmingham Black Barons was regarded by many as one of the finest shortstops in baseball in 1940′s. Wilson grew up in Alabama, the hotbed of Negro League talent, and played in the Birmingham Industrial semi-pro league before he was signed by the Barons in 1944.
As a rookie, Wilson’s .348 batting average was just behind Cleveland’s Sam Jethroe’s league-leading .353 in ’44. He was also chosen as a starter for the West in the East-West All-Star Classic that year.
Birmingham won the West, but a near fatal automobile accident would sideline Wilson and four of his teammates during the Negro League World Series. The Homestead Grays beat the Barons in five games.
From 1944-48, Wilson averaged .371 with Birmingham including batting titles in 1947 and the magical season of 1948. His lowest average during that period was when he hit .288 in 1946.
He rebounded to hit .370 the next season.
In 1948, Wilson hit .402 and helped lead Birmingham to a 55-21 mark in the West, beating out the Kansas City Monarchs. Among one of his teammates that season was a 17-year-old rookie by the name of Willie Howard Mays.
Wilson would go to appear in three more East-West Classics in during his Negro League career. He and Hall of Famer Josh Gibson are the only players to ever have four hits in the All-Star Classic. The Barons would win the West two more times during that period, but they would fall to the Grays in the World Series each time.
Following his stellar season in 1948, he became a hot property for both the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball. Wilson’s contract was purchased by the New York Yankees, who assigned him to the Newark club in the International League.
However, Wilson refused to report because the salary would have been less than what the Barons were paying him. Wilson would negotiate a contract with the San Diego Padres, but the Yankees appealed to Commissioner Happy Chandler.
The commissioner immediately ordered Wilson off the Padres roster. Wilson was then sold to the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, where he finished the 1949 season.
At the age of 28, Wilson became the first African American to play full time for the Oaks. To no one’s surprise, he won the PCL’s batting crown (.348) and led the league in stolen bases with 47.
Of his 211 hits, 19 were doubles and 9 triples. The rest of his hits, singles, were usually to the opposite field. So much so that one PCL skipper — Lefty O’Doul — played all of his fielders on the left side whenever Wilson came to bat.
Ironically, Wilson’s roommate that year would later go on to become a manager for the Yankees — Billy Martin. A year later, Wilson batted .312 in 196 of the Oaks 200 games including a career-high 27 doubles.
He led the league in both runs (168) and hits (264). On the field, he teamed up with former New York Giant second baseman Bobby Hofman to form a solid double-play combination.
Wilson would later join the Giants in 1951 but only hit .182 in 22 at-bats, mostly as a pinch-hitter. New York optioned him out in mid-season.
Unfortunately for major league fans, they never got a real good chance to see one of the greatest hitters in Negro League history.
In a 2000 interview with journalist Eric Enders, Wilson reflected on his 1948 season and his career. “Some might say it doesn’t count because I did it in the Negro Leagues,” Wilson says.
“Well, if I hit .400 in the Negro Leagues, I probably would have hit more in the majors, because I’d have gotten better pitches to hit.” Wilson died in Portland, Oregon on October 31, 2010, three days after celebrating his 90th birthday.
Like many Negro League players before and after him, the baseball populace didn’t get to see the best of Wilson. The majors’ loss was a gain for the fans of the Negro Leagues.
NOTE: The Negro League Baseball Players Association and the Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball contributed to this story.