Outfielder Les Wilson came from St. Louis – St. Louis, Michigan – and played the first three seasons of his career playing baseball in Canada. The city of St. Louis is situated in the “middle of the mitten,” the geographic center of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. It was founded in 1853 and in 1868 mineral waters said to have special healing powers were found in town. The mineral springs attracted well-heeled people from around the country and rail lines were built, helping to ensure the city’s prosperity. Lester Wilbur Wilson was born there on July 17, 1885.
His parents were John H. Wilson and Emaline Scott Wilson. There is confusion as to where he attended school. Some reports says he graduated from Broadway High School in Seattle, not long after it opened in 1902, though in his player questionnaire for the Hall of Fame, he said he had attended high school in St. Louis, Michigan for two years, and indicate uncertainty where he’d gone to elementary school by placing a question mark on the line provided.
He started playing baseball in Canada, first in 1909 with the Medicine Hat Hatters in Alberta and then with the Vancouver Beavers in British Columbia. In 1910, he played for Medicine Hat again; the franchise moved to Saskatoon on July 23, he finished the year with the Saskatoon Berrypickers.
Wilson began the year 1911 with the Calgary Bronchos and did exceptionally well, batting .343 average in 45 games, with three homers, seven triples and five doubles for a .509 slugging percentage. His performance attracted attention.
The July 1 issue of Sporting Life told of the unusual way Wilson came to become a member of the Boston Red Sox:
“The Phillies have signed outfielder Wilson, of the Calgary, Alberta, team. Wilson is a left-handed slugger of the Sam Crawford type, and President [Horace] Fogel (President of the Phillies) had to pay an enormous amount for his release. The deal was closed on Friday and Wilson started for this city. Upon his arrival he will at once be placed in the outfield. He is a left-handed batsman and thrower, weighs 180 pounds, and is lightning fast on his feet.” If Wilson were truly underway, he must have re-routed his travel – since it turned out that, rather than the Philadelphia Phillies becoming his home team, he was to be re-ticketed for the Boston Red Sox. A separate article in the same issue – but on the same page – told the further story:
“During the past week, it was supposed that a deal had been consummated with the Calgary Club, of the Western Canada League, for a hard-hitting outfielder named Wilson, through the veteran Ted Sullivan, who had an option on the player. The Philadelphia Club bought this option from Sullivan and then notified the Calgary Club of the deal, with the request to send the player on at once. The Calgary management replied that Wilson could not be spared until the expiration of the option, which had 15 more days to run, but that if the Philadelphia Club would boost the price $500, so Calgary could secure another outfielder, Wilson would be sent at once. This Phillies manager Red Dooin agreed to, but Saturday morning the Calgary Club wired President Fogel that Wilson had been sold to the Boston Americans. President Fogel has lodged a claim for Wilson with the National Commission and notified President John I. Taylor, of the Boston Americans, that the Phillies hold an option on Wilson, good until July 10.1 Clearly, Boston prevailed as Wilson wound up reporting to Taylor’s club.
Taylor and the Red Sox may have felt they pulled off a coup. If so, perhaps Wilson’s play took the wind out of their sails. He first appeared as a pinch hitter in the top of the ninth of the July 15 game in Detroit. Smoky Joe Wood had started the game for Boston, but never got a single Tiger out. After letting the first five batters reach base, manager Patsy Donovan pulled him and put in Walter Moser. The Tigers held a 9-4 lead after eight. Wilson hit for the third Red Sox pitcher, Jack Killilay, but he failed to get a hit. One week later, he pinch hit again in another losing effort, coming into a 6-1 game in the top of the ninth in Cleveland, attempting in vain to get a hit in place of Eddie Cicotte.
The Red Sox returned to Boston and took on the White Sox with Wilson getting his first starting assignment on July 25, playing left field. The Boston Globe explained that because Duffy Lewis was laid up with a bad ankle, “Wilson, from a small league in the wilds of Canada, was sent to left. A sacrifice hit and one fly caught was the extent of the young man’s showing, but he gave evidence of being quite a ballplayer.” He also drew a base on balls. He was otherwise 0-for-2 at the plate. He made out putout, in the top of the ninth. The Red Sox won, 4-1.
His last game was on August 9; he played right field, taking over for Harry Hooper, again 0-for-2 with a strikeout and a soft fly ball to short. All told, he appeared in five games, without a base hit. He was 0-for-7, with two walks and the sacrifice, a batting average of .000. He had four chances in the field and converted them all successfully, for a 1.000 fielding percentage.
Wilson was then sent to New Bedford to join the Whalers. The Class B New England League pitching proved easier for Les Wilson. He hit .325 in 77 at-bats during the rest of 1911, in 24 games.
Wilson was back with New Bedford in 1912 and hit .282 in 38 games, then hit .265 in 27 games for Dubuque, and – traveling further west – back to his hometown ballclub, the Seattle Giants in the Northwestern League. He played 58 games for Detroit, and hit .345.
His status with Boston was unclear; it had to be resolved before the 1912 season could begin. The National Commission ruled on March 14:
The Commission is asked by player Lester W. Wilson to determine whether the Boston Club, of the American League, or the New Bedford Club, of the New England League, is entitled to his services. In August, 1911, he contracted with and joined the Boston Club and later in that month he became a member of the New Bedford Club under instructions from President Taylor, of the Boston Club, although he claims he was not notified of his release. He was paid $150 a month by the New Bedford Club, but asserts that he did not sign with that club.
At the close of the New England League season he returned to the Boston Club, which paid him the difference between his Boston and New Bedford salaries for the time he was with the latter club and settled with him from the date of his return to the expiration of the American League contract period. A contract for 1912 calling for a salary of $150 a month was tendered to the player by the New Bedford Club, but he declined to sign it.
The player’s release by the Boston Club to the New Bedford Club in 1911 is a matter of record. His name does not appear on the 1912 reservation list of the Boston Club, and President McAleer, successor to Mr. Taylor, disavows a claim of any nature to his services. His reservation for 1912 by the New Bedford Club was regular in all respects, and his 1911 contract with that club was promulgated by Secretary Farrell.
The Commission rules that title to his services is vested in the New Bedford Club, and the question of his salary for the coming season is a matter for determination between him and his club, which has offered him the same compensation he received from it in 1911. The Commission considers the course of ex-President Taylor in practically carrying this player on the Boston Club’s payroll, while he was in the service of a minor league club, and also after the disbandment of the latter to the close of the American League race censurable, its ultimate result being harmful alike to the minor league club and the player.2
Tug Wilson – for such was his nickname – played the full 1913 season for Seattle. He hit .241 in 106 games. In 1914, he returned to the Western Canada League, again playing for Saskatoon. He hit .337 in 131 games. His 1915 season was back in the Northwestern League, playing for the Tacoma Tigers and hitting .267 in 153 games. He was on the roster in Butte in 1916, the year he turned 30. It was the last year he played in Organized Baseball. He married Margaret Bell in May 1917.
When he registered for the draft during the First World War, Wilson was working as a merchant for the Home Stores Co. of Edmonds, Washington. By 1920, he was living in Everett, Washington with Margaret. He began a career in the automotive industry, working as an automobile salesman where Margaret gave birth to two daughters, Helen and Evelyn. Subsequently the Wilsons had moved back to Edmonds by 1930 and remained there. Wilson became a partner in the Edmonds Motor Co., a position from which he retired.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Les Wilson died of a coronary thrombosis on April 4, 1969.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Wilson’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.