SABR

Jimmie Wilson

This article was written by Gary Livacari.

Jimmie Wilson was a two-time All-Star catcher whose major league career spanned 23 years (1923-46) as a player, manager, and coach with four different National League teams. He played on four pennant winners, was a coach on a fifth, and was a member of two World Series championship teams. He is best remembered for his role in the 1940 World Series. At age 40, while a coach for the pennant-winning Cincinnati Reds, he was pressed into emergency catching duty and was the unlikely hero in the decisive seventh game, bringing a World Series championship to Cincinnati.

In his day, Jimmie Wilson was that baseball rarity: a dependable, hard-nosed catcher who could hit. As manager of mostly mediocre teams, he had little success, yet he was known as a fiery leader with a keen eye for talent who was not afraid to stand up for his players, as his 30 lifetime ejections attest. Although he possessed little power, he compiled a respectable lifetime .284 batting average, hitting over.300 four times. He was a solid contact hitter, striking out only 280 times in 4778 at-bats (5.9%), ranking 83rd all-time in this category. A fine defensive catcher, he led the National League in putouts three times, assists twice, and double plays three times, ranking 6th all-time in this last category. Prior to his major league career, he was also an accomplished soccer player.

James Wilson, nicknamed “Ace,” was born on July 23, 1900, the sixth of ten children of Robert Wilson and Agnes Mae McCuley, natives of Scotland who migrated to America in 1896 with their two oldest children. The couple settled in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, where they raised their large family. Kensington was a textile center and Robert found work at a local mill. Robert Wilson was a former quoits champion and soccer player in his native Scotland. He nurtured a soccer interest in his athletic sixth child, Jimmie.

As a youth, Jimmie Wilson attended Porter grammar school in Philadelphia, where he played both baseball and soccer. In baseball, Jimmie’s preference was catcher, but being small in stature, he became an outfielder. Jimmie quit school at age 14 and followed his father to a local Kensington hosiery factory where he worked as an apprentice knitter. This experience proved to be valuable, as he returned to the textile factory during the baseball off-seasons until 1931.

During his teenage years, Wilson preferred soccer, probably due to the influence of his father. He soon was playing outside forward for the famous Lighthouse soccer club of Philadelphia. This was the first step in a soccer career that would lead to national recognition. Between 1919 and 1923, Wilson played on four different soccer teams: Philadelphia Merchant Ship B, Bethlehem Steel Field Club, Harrison Field Club, and Philadelphia Field Club. In 1919, while with the National Champion Bethlehem team, he went on a successful Scandinavian tour, which resulted in three wins, one loss and two ties. While on this tour, Jimmie stopped in Scotland to visit his oldest brother, who had returned to the country of his birth. With Harrison of the new American Soccer League in 1922, he played in three National Challenge Cup games, scoring four goals. It was during this time that he met the Hall of Fame soccer player Dick Spaulding, another two-sport professional athlete. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that in later years would find Spaulding coaching for Wilson when he managed in Philadelphia and Chicago.

Throughout his soccer career, he kept his interest in baseball alive, playing semi-professionally for extra money during the soccer off-seasons. He soon made a name for himself as a talented young catcher. The conditioning and speed acquired playing soccer were valuable assets for a budding professional baseball player who now stood 6’1/2” and weighed 200 pounds. In 1918, he caught the attention of Philadelphia Athletics scout Mike Drennan and was soon offered a contract by Connie Mack. However, his immigrant father, who cared little for baseball, would not allow his 17-year-old son to honor the contract and was not hesitant to let Connie Mack know how he felt. Speaking about the incident years later, Wilson said: “When I signed to play baseball with the Philadelphia Athletics, my old man said no boy of his was going to make a jackass of himself [playing baseball]. He went to Connie Mack and made him give me my release.” i

After his 18th birthday, and out of his father’s control, he was signed by George Weiss to play for New Haven in the Eastern League. After a year with Bethlehem of the Industrial League, a Boston Braves affiliate, he was back with New Haven in 1921 and became the starting catcher, hitting .295 in 95 games. This was also the year that he married Selena Edwards, who would become the mother of his two children, Robert and Jane.

While with New Haven, he caught Hall of Fame pitcher Chief Bender, who readily shared his knowledge of pitch selection with the talented, eager-to-learn Wilson. His New Haven manager, Wild Bill Donovan, a former Major League pitcher, also proved to be a valuable mentor to the young catcher. Wilson had another fine offensive year in 1922, as he hit .293. In February 1923, he ended his soccer career to concentrate exclusively on baseball. He was traded from New Haven to his hometown Phillies and made his major league debut on Opening Day, April 17, 1923, against the Brooklyn Robins. He entered as a pinch hitter against Dutch Reuther and went 0-for-1. This was the beginning of his long playing career that would extend over 18 seasons and 1,525 games with the Phillies, Cardinals, and Reds.

Philadelphia was managed that year by Art Fletcher, the long-time shortstop for John McGraw’s pennant winning teams of the early 1910s. Fletcher took Jimmie under his wing, making adjustments to his swing. After a slow start with the bat, he completed an acceptable rookie year, hitting .269 in 252 at-bats as backup catcher to Butch Henline. The next year, 1924, was even better, as he hit .279 in 280 at-bats, while striking out only 12 times. By 1925 he was the first-string catcher and was chasing Rogers Hornsby for the National League batting crown. Wilson had a .342 batting average as late as September 16. A late season slump brought him down to .328 at season’s end as Hornsby hit .403. This was the first of four times that Wilson would top the .300 mark in his career.

He hit .305 in 1926, and his leadership ability started to emerge. When manager Fletcher was suspended by National League president John Heydler following a furious altercation with umpire Bill Klem, Phillies president Bill Baker named the 27-year-old Wilson as manager for the last four games of the season, amid rumors that he would be offered the manager’s job for 1927. Instead, he was named captain of the team. His average fell off to .275 that year while striking out only 15 times in 443 at-bats.

In 1928, Wilson started the season hitting a solid .300 by early May. This would be the year he entered baseball history in an unusual way. On May 1, St. Louis Cardinal general manager Branch Rickey unexpectedly traded his All-Star catcher, Bob O’Farrell, to the New York Giants. The Cardinals now found themselves in need of a dependable catcher. Ten days later, on May 11, Rickey offered three players to the Phillies for Jimmie Wilson: Spud Davis, Homer Peel, and Don Hurst. The Phillies accepted the offer. The team was playing a doubleheader in St. Louis that day. Wilson caught the entire first game and had started the nightcap. During the second inning, Phillies manager Burt Shotton called time and took Wilson out of the game. Shotton informed him that he was now a Cardinal. He went into the Cardinals clubhouse, changed into a Cardinal uniform, and sat on the Cardinals bench for the reminder of the game, becoming the only player in major league history who was a member of two teams during one game.

The trade proved to be beneficial. In one day he was propelled from a perennial cellar dweller on to a contender. At season’s end, he found himself in his first World Series. The Cardinals were overmatched by a great Yankee team in the Fall Classic and were swept 4-0. Babe Ruth hit .625 for the Series with three home runs; Lou Gehrig hit .545 with four home runs and nine RBI’s. There were few highlights for the Cardinals, as they hit a combined .206 for the Series. Jimmie Wilson’s contribution was an anemic .091.

It was a nightmare series for Jimmie Wilson because of two incidents involving Babe Ruth. The first occurred in possibly the worst inning of Jimmie’s career. In Game Three, with the score tied 3-3 in the sixth inning, Wilson was on the receiving end of a violent collision with Ruth on a close play at home. Wilson was known as a bulldog behind the plate, but on this day he was no match for the burly Ruth. On an infield force-out by Bob Meusel, Ruth had attempted to score from second base. The throw to the plate by first baseman Jim Bottomley had Ruth beat, but Ruth barreled into Wilson with such force that Jimmie dropped the ball for an error, allowing the lead run to score. Meusel advanced to second on the play, and went to third on the shaken Wilson’s second error of the inning. To add insult to injury, Meusel then stole home. Before it was over, the Yankees scored three runs and went on to win the game, 7-3.

In the sixth inning of Game Four with the Yankees down a run, Ruth was at the plate. He turned around to gripe with home plate umpire Bill McGowan after he called strike two. Wilson tried to surprise Ruth and called for a “quick pitch” from pitcher Bill Sherdel. As Ruth turned back around, the ball sailed over the plate and McGowan rang out “Strike three.” Quick pitches were allowed in the National League, but not in the American League, so should the pitch be allowed in a World Series game? After a conference, the umpires decided “No pitch.” Cardinal manager Bill McKechnie protested furiously, but to no avail. Ruth was given another chance and he responded in typical Ruthian fashion. After taking the next two pitches to even the count at 2-2, he promptly hit the next one over the right field wall. It was his second of three home runs in the game, tying the score at two. As Ruth rounded the bases, he waved his hands defiantly at the crowd and taunted the Cardinal bench. As if following a script, Gehrig then came to the plate and hit a back-to-back home run, his fourth of the Series. Suddenly, the 2-1 Cardinal advantage turned into a one-run deficit. The Yankees went on to win the game 7-3, and won the Series 4-0.

The following year, 1929, proved to be Jimmie Wilson’s best with the Cardinals as he hit .325. In 394 at-bats he struck out just 19 times and was now considered one of the best catchers in the National League. Billy Southworth had replaced Bill McKechnie following the World Series collapse, but he was not popular with the players. By July, the Cardinals were out of contention and mercurial owner Sam Breadon made another change, sending Southworth to the minors and bringing McKechnie back to manage for the remainder of the season.

1930 saw another new manager for the Cardinals, Gabby Street, and another pennant. After a slow start they were only one game over .500 as late as August 9. They proceeded to win 39 of their last 49 games, clinching the pennant over the Cubs by two games. This was a historic year for the Cardinals, as it was the only time in major league history that all eight position players finished with batting averages over .300.

In the World Series, the Cardinals found themselves again facing a great team. This time it was Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, with such stars as Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, and George Earnshaw. An ankle injury kept Wilson out of the first two games, which the Cardinals lost, but he returned to the lineup as the Cardinals won the third and fourth games. They would eventually lose the Series in seven games. In 1931, Wilson’s average slumped to .274, but he struck out only 15 times as the Cardinals earned another trip to the World Series. This time, they prevailed against the A’s, winning 4 games to 2.

From 1934-38, Wilson was the player-manager for his hometown Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies were one of the worst teams in baseball during this period and in five forgettable seasons his teams finished no higher that seventh. In his last year, the Phillies lost 103 of 149 games. One bright spot occurred in 1935, when Wilson suggested that his young protégé, the highly-touted infielder and fellow Philadelphian, Bucky Walters, move from third base to the pitching mound. Observing Walters’ strong arm firing the ball across the diamond, and knowing that a nagging thumb injury hampered his batting stroke, Wilson was the first to perceive his potential as a pitcher. He persuaded the reluctant Walters, who wanted to remain an everyday player, to make the transition.

Walters started slowly pitching for the lowly Phillies, but then the move paid off. After a trade to the Cincinnati Reds, where he was reunited with his mentor Wilson, now a Reds coach, Walters hit his stride and blossomed on the mound. He went on to have an exceptional career that some believe is worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. He starred on two pennant winners and one World Series championship team. In 1939 he was voted the National League MVP, winning 27 games with an ERA of 2.27. In an ironic twist of baseball fate, Walters would later pitch to catcher Jimmie Wilson in the 1940 World Series, where they would both he lauded as heroes. Jimmie Wilson’s vision had proven to be prophetic. According to research by Walters’ grandson Jeff, Wilson later described how he persuaded the right-hander that he could make more money pitching: “I had to get him a little plastered to convince him he could be a great pitcher.”ii

Another highlight for Wilson during the 1930s was his two All-Star selections: 1933, while with the Cardinals, and 1935, while the player-manager for the Phillies. He was honored to be the starting catching in the first-ever All-Star Game, played in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1933.

In 1938, his second tour with the Phillies mercifully ended and he joined the Cincinnati Reds coaching staff the next year. He again found himself with pennant-winning teams, this time as a coach, as the Reds won pennants in 1939 and 1940. In ’39, they lost to another great Yankee team, this one led by Joe DiMaggio. They were swept in the Series 4-0. By 1940, Jimmie Wilson was a 40-year-old coach whose playing days were thought to be behind him. One memorable event occurred on May 13 that year. When the umpires were a man short for the game at Crosley Field, Wilson was activated from the coach’s box and found himself umpiring at first base in a game that went 14 innings and ended in an 8-8 tie.

With the opening of the 1940 World Series, the stage was set for Jimmie Wilson’s unexpected heroics. The Series pitted the returning National League champion Cincinnati Reds against a strong Detroit Tigers team featuring Hank Greenberg and Rudy York. Willard Hershberger’s suicide earlier in the year had devastated the Reds and left them without an experienced backup catcher. To make matters worse, on September 15 the regular backstop, Ernie Lombardi, suffered a severe ankle injury. Manager Bill McKechnie had rookie catchers Bill Baker and Dick West available, but chose to activate the 40-year-old veteran Jimmie Wilson for the last 16 games of the pennant race. Lombardi’s ankle failed to heal, so Wilson was pressed into emergency catching duty as the Fall Classic began. In spite of having two “charley horses” himself, he responded by catching the last six of the seven games, was the hitting star at .353, and stole the only base of the Series. In the deciding seventh game, he had a perfect day at the plate, going 2-2 with a key sacrifice bunt.

In that pivotal seventh game, played at Crosley Field, the Reds were trailing 1-0 going into the home half of the seventh inning. Frank McCormick led off with a double to left and scored the tying run on Jimmy Ripple’s double to right. Wilson was next and laid down a perfect sacrifice, advancing Ripple to third. Billy Myers then flied out to deep center, scoring Ripple. This proved to be the winning run in an exciting 2-1 Reds victory, bringing a World Championship to Cincinnati for the first time since the tainted 1919 World Series. “Old man” Jimmie Wilson had answered the call of his manager brilliantly and was hailed as the hero of the Series. With his World Series exploits capturing the fascination of the nation, he was featured in Look magazine and also on the cover of The Sporting News under the headline Life Begins at 40! Sportswriter Dan Daniel was effusive in his praise of Wilson’s heroics in an article for Baseball Magazine:

“Well, the biggest break the Reds got came when Lombardi hurt his ankle. In place of “Schnozz,” the Reds got the greatest catcher for those six games. Crafty, wise, calculating, instilling marvelous confidence in his pitchers, calling the turn on the Tigers hitters in many vital spots - he, James Wilson was the true hero. Every day he went from the game to an Epsom salt bath. Every day he had to be pasted together with bandages and adhesive, so he could go out and catch that game. The spirit of the Reds was this grand fellow named Wilson. The very spirit of the World’s Series.”iii

Jimmie’s stock was on the rise after his World Series heroics. With high expectations, he was named manager of the Cubs, replacing the popular Gabby Hartnett. Upon his arrival in Chicago, he faced an immediate challenge. The Cubs’ talented second baseman, Billy Herman, was resentful of Wilson’s selection, thinking he had a better claim to the job. With Wilson’s blessing, new Cub general manager Jimmy Gallagher traded the disgruntled Herman to the Dodgers—a deal he would soon regret. The Cubs received two nameless players and $65,000, completing one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. They could only watch as the Dodgers won the National League pennant in 1941. Herman proved to be the catalyst the Dodgers lacked and went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Manager Leo Durocher always maintained that it was Billy Herman who put the Dodgers over the top.

Meanwhile, Jimmie Wilson remained with the war-depleted Cubs for three unremarkable seasons and part of a fourth, failing to lift them out of the second division. He resigned ten games into the 1944 season with the Cubs mired in a nine-game losing streak and was succeeded by Charlie Grimm. Another managerial stint had ended poorly for Jimmie Wilson. His career totals were a dismal 493 wins and 735 loses (.401), the lowest winning percentage of anyone who managed over 1,000 games. He returned to coach Cincinnati for the 1945-46 seasons.

Following the 1946 season Wilson retired to Bradenton, Florida, hoping to enter the citrus-growing business, but his plans were cut tragically short. Less than a year later, on May 31, 1947, he died at age 46 of a sudden heart attack. In apparent good health, he was stricken while eating dinner with friends in a sandwich shop after having finished a round of golf a few hours earlier. He was planning a swimming trip for the next day in the Gulf of Mexico. Wilson was survived by his wife Selena Edwards Wilson; a daughter, Jane Isabel Wilson; one grandson; four brothers and three sisters. Jimmie Wilson was buried in Manasota Memorial Park in Bradenton, Florida.

His son Robert was married to a niece of National League president Warren Giles and was a promising young athlete with hopes of following his father into the major leagues. Robert was a lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II and a B-29 flight crew member. He was killed in a training accident in Kharagpur, India, on November 28, 1944. In January 1945, Robert was posthumously awarded the “Most Courageous Athletic” trophy by the Philadelphia Sportswriters’ Association. Longtime friend Dick Spaulding accepted the award for the Wilson family.

While he will never be a candidate for the Hall of Fame, Jimmie Wilson was a dependable major leaguer with 1,351 games behind the plate, ranking 41st all-time in this category. He was a contact hitter with an outstanding batting eye who hit for average. As a catcher, he was formidable defensively and was a skilled handler of pitchers. He was also an excellent evaluator of major league talent. In addition to Bucky Walters, he was reputed to have revamped the careers of pitchers Claude Passeau, Hugh Mulcahy, Curt Davis, and Joe Bowman. He became an unlikely World Series hero at the age of 40. Like many fine ball players from the ’20s and ’30s, his achievements have been largely forgotten, overshadowed by the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Hornsby, and Grove.

Richard Baker, who is married to a great-niece of Jimmie Wilson, related that Jimmie had been forgotten even within his own family. At the time of his marriage, Rich Baker had not been made aware of the familial connection. Even though he grew up an avid Phillies fan, Baker had never heard of Jimmie Wilson. Only years later did his father-in-law, a nephew of Jimmie’s, inform him of the relationship and explain to him who Jimmie Wilson was. This stirred interest in Baker to learn as much as he could about this forgotten ballplayer and family relation. To quote Baker: “In Philadelphia, I have only come across just a few who remember Jimmie and most of them are in their 80’s or older. A Philadelphia sports writer named Stan Hochman who is in his 70’s never heard of him.” iv

Baker says he is writing a book about Jimmie Wilson to at least preserve his legacy within his own family. Appropriately, the title of the proposed book is Jimmie Wilson, The Forgotten Phillie.

 

Sources

Talmage Boston, 1939: Baseball’s Tipping Point (Albany, Texas: Bright Sky Press, 2005).

Leo Durocher, Nice Guys Finish Last (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).

Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2003).

Joseph Reichler, The Baseball Encyclopedia, Ninth Edition (New York: MacMillan, 1993).

Lyle Spatz, The SABR Baseball List & Record Book (New York: Scribner, 2007).

Rich Westcott, Native Sons (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003).

Stan Baumgartner, The Sporting News, February, 1945

Dan Daniel, “Derringer and Wilson Heroes,” Baseball Magazine, October 1940.

Bob Rathgeber, “The Coach Who Caught the Series,” Cincinnati Red Scrapbook, 1982.

Harry Robert, “A Local Boy Makes Good,” Baseball Magazine, March 1934.

Harry Simons, “The New Cub Set-up,” Baseball Magazine, date unknown.

“Life Begins at 40!” The Sporting News, 1940.

“To the Mound by Way of Third Base,” Baseball Magazine, date and author unknown.

Look Magazine, October 1941.

New York Times, obituary for Jimmie Wilson, June 2, 1947

Encyclopedia of Baseball Catchers (www.baseballcatchers.com)

Baseball-Reference.com

Retrosheet.org

Baseball Hall of Fame Library, player file for Jimmie Wilson.

Richard Baker, email correspondence with author, December 2012.

 

Notes

i Look, 1941

iii Baseball Magazine, Daniel Daniel, October 1940

iv Email correspondence with Richard Baker, December 2012.

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