Jackie Robinson deserves all the credit he gets for what he endured to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier. “There was a color barrier to break everywhere you went in baseball,” said baseball historian Gaylon White about the sport in 1949.
In his book, “Singles and Smiles: How Artie Wilson Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier,” White tells the story of a great from the Negro Leagues, who became the first modern black player for the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League.
Artie Wilson’s rise from the Birmingham Industrial League, through the Negro Leagues, to the Oaks sheds light on many lost nuances of pro baseball in that era. The owners of the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians fought over the right to sign Wilson. When he wound up playing for the then-New York Giants, he actually gave up his spot on the roster so the Giants could bring up a young Willie Mays from the minors.
When Wilson showed up to play for the Oaks, one teammate refused to play with him. Another teammate, Billy Martin, offered to be his roommate.
As the Bay Area’s two Major League Baseball teams begin to face off in the Bay Bridge Series, it’s a good time to remember Wilson’s unique place in baseball history on both sides of the bay.