Art Wilson was predominantly a backup catcher throughout his 14 major-league seasons, which included being John McGraw’s trusty backup for three New York Giants pennant winners from 1911 to 1913. He jumped to the upstart Federal League for more playing time and became the best catcher in that league’s short history. Playing in 812 major-league games, he is the answer to a trivia question because in one of those games he hit the first home run in the history of Wrigley Field, before the Cubs played there and before it was called Wrigley.
Arthur Earl “Dutch” Wilson was born on December 11, 1886 (or 1885),1 in Macon, Illinois, to Fred and Elva (McDaniel) Wilson. His paternal grandfather had emigrated from Germany, and Art was nicknamed Olaf because of his ability to yodel.2 Fred was listed as a “horse buyer” in the 1900 census, and a love for livestock was passed on to Art. During his major-league career, a stop in St. Louis would lead him to check out the stock yards in East St. Louis, Illinois. He was said to be an expert on mules.3
Wilson learned baseball on the Illinois prairie, playing on Macon’s town team. After high school he attended Millikin University and played first base on its baseball team in 1904-1905. He began his professional career with Bloomington, Illinois, in the Three-I League in 1906. Players often arrived at their new team wearing whatever baseball uniform they had at the time. When Wilson arrived in Bloomington, he “appeared at Lafayette and Main, wearing a pea green suit of the 5 and 10 cent store variety, that held everyone spellbound,” wrote the Bloomington Pantagraph.4 Wilson got into 83 games for Bloomington in 1906, receiving early praise in the Decatur Herald, which wrote, “Wilson’s stock is rising and the youngster from Macon has developed numerous admirers.”5 He played in 94 games for Bloomington in 1907, batting a mere .200. In November of 1907, Wilson was kicked in the stomach by one of those mules he knew so well on the family farm and was feared to have received fatal injuries.6 But, more stubborn than the mule, he recovered and played 84 games in his third season for Bloomington. At same point in his Bloomington career, Wilson was remembered for catching a complete 24-inning game.7
In August 1908, Wilson was showcased in an exhibition game that pitted the New York Giants against Dick Kinsella’sSpringfield club. Kinsella was also a scout for Giants manager John McGraw and Wilson caught four innings for Springfield. McGraw, “violently smitten” with Wilson, “a large, corn-fed youth of considerable bulk and personal pulchritude,” in the words of the New York Mail’s Sid Mercer, took Wilson with him that night, and Art was on to the major leagues.8 In September Wilson was officially sold to the Giants for $1,000. “Not only is he sure death to base-stealers, but he is strong with the stick, and has broken up many games by his batting,” wrote a columnist in a Lewistown, Montana, newspaper.9 He joined the Giants during an intense three-team pennant race with Chicago and Pittsburgh. The Cubs eventually prevailed by one game, in controversial fashion after the Fred Merkle game. Wilson didn’t factor in this, as he barely made an appearance, running for Roger Bresnahan in the second game of a doubleheader on September 29. Wilson did not even stay in the game to catch.
Wilson made the roster as a backup catcher with the Giants in 1909 behind Admiral Schlei and Chief Meyers. He didn’t get into a regular game until he went in as a defensive replacement in the second game of a June 25 doubleheader. Wilson achieved the first two hits of his career in a Giants 23-hit attack and 19-3 romp over St. Louis on August 11. He started his first game on September 23, going 0-for-4. In his best game of the season, he went 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs on September 28 at Pittsburgh in a 13-9 win. Wilson started 10 games in September after the Giants were well out of the race. He batted .238 in 19 games.
Kinsella reported that he had high hopes for Wilson for the 1910 season. “This year McGraw expects to work Arthur Wilson regularly,” he said. “If he does, watch the stolen base averages of opposing teams go down with a rush. Wilson is a natural catcher. He does not fight the ball, has a wonderful whip, handles the pitchers better than any other catcher on the New York payroll … and is right now just ripe for picking.”10 But Wilson did not “ripen” in 1910; he played in just 26 games and started only 13. Nine of those starts came from late September on with the Giants well behind the Cubs in second place. Wilson did throw out 42 percent of basestealers, just under the league average, but Schlei and Meyers both reached 45 percent themselves. Meyers took over the starting job and became one of the best offensive catchers of the Deadball Era. Wilson batted .269; thanks to his patience at the plate, he drew nine walks in 52 at-bats and had a .387 on-base percentage, third highest among Giants position players.
Wilson was a far more active member of the 1911 Giants, who won the National League pennant. He entered 66 games as Meyers’ backup, starting 24, with a strong 45 percent caught stealing. He also impressed at the plate, batting .303/.411/.431. Wilson took advantage of his opportunities, as in his 43 games as a substitute, he batted .370 with a .431 on-base percentage. On August 11 he slammed his first career home run, off Bill Burns of the Philadelphia Phillies. The Giants played the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. Wilson made just one appearance, replacing Meyers in the eighth inning of Game Six. In his only at-bat, he made the final out of the Series when he grounded to third as the A’s won a laugher, 13-2. After the season, Wilson joined the Giants on an exhibition trip to Cuba.11
Wilson had a similar season in 1912, playing in 65 games (31 starts), and had another strong year at the plate (.289/.358/.413) with three home runs. One of those was in a memorable game on April 20 when he replaced Meyers in the ninth after Meyers was ejected for arguing. Wilson’s overthrow during a rundown led to two Brooklyn runners scoring as the Superbas took a 3-2 lead. Wilson atoned for his error in the bottom of the ninth “by landing on a pitched ball so brutally that the reversed missile went kiting into the right wing of the upper grand stand,”12 giving the Giants a 4-3 win. Bill Dahlen, the Brooklyn manager, argued that the ball was foul. “The dauntless Superba skipper was gesticulating angrily as he came close to [umpire Cy] Rigler, waving his hands and pointing.”13 A brief fistfight between manager and umpire ensued, but Wilson’s clout was the biggest punch that mattered.
The Giants were in the midst of a nine-game winning streak at the time. They took over first place for good in May, and never looked back as they returned to the World Series. Meyers suffered an injured toe in late August and Wilson had his chance to shine. He started 24 of 26 games behind the plate and batted .315.
Wilson entered Game Two of the World Series in the 10th inning and was involved in a play which may have totally changed the Series. The Giants had taken the lead, 6-5, in Boston, and Wilson made a nice putout on a little roller in front of the plate for the first out of the inning. But Tris Speaker launched a fly ball over the head of Beals Becker in center. It rolled to the fence, and Speaker made third base. But the relay throw was dropped by Tillie Shafer, so Speaker took off and Shafer’s throw to the plate was dropped by Wilson. The game was tied and ended that way, due to darkness. An eighth game had to be played, and the Red Sox won, 3-2, on the Fred Snodgrass muffed fly ball, and took the Series. Wilson’s only other appearance in the World Series was as a late-inning replacement for Meyers in Game Seven, but he considered the Snodgrass error just part of the game. “It was a mere mechanical error,” he said. “And mechanical errors are excusable. They are likely to be made any time.”14 The Series is remembered for the Snodgrass muff, but the New York Times included Wilson’s miscue as one of the “heartbreaking errors” that cost the Giants Game Two.15
In 1912 Wilson and teammate Fred Merkle co-owned a Stoddard-Dayton automobile with teammate Fred Merkle that seemed to make a huge dent in his wallet. “The first three weeks,” Wilson complained, “my share in the expenses was $168. And it was not only the expenses of breakdowns and tire trouble, but every trip we made meant gasoline, oil, and a lot of supplies. Besides, when we were on the road, it was $25 a month to keep it in New York, and we weren’t getting the benefit.” He sold his share back to Merkle. “It surely was a costly proposition,” he said.16
Besides the World Series, 1912 was eventful for Wilson in another way. He married Addie Mae Jacobs on November 20.
Wilson returned his Giants 1913 contract unsigned. “They gave me a nice little raise,” he said, “But I have been there some time, and I felt that I ought to be drawing some money by this time. I have been holding the contract ever since I got it, and I am going to send it back Monday unsigned.”17 He received a favorable return offer, and signed soon after.
Wilson’s 1913 season was a downer, both at the plate, where his batting average dropped nearly 100 points, and defensively, where his caught-stealing rate fell to 37 percent. The Giants won their third straight pennant and suffered their third straight World Series defeat, at the hands of the A’s again, in five games. Despite an injury to Meyers after Game One, McGraw turned to Larry McLean as his catcher. Wilson got into three games, going 0-for-3 in his last World Series appearance.
Wilson spent the winter in Southern California, where he played with a Snodgrass-led winter league team. He received a telegram from Joe Tinker, the legendary Cubs shortstop and one of a number of stars who had jumped to the new Federal League, an instant rival to the American and National Leagues. Tinker was the Chicago player-manager in the new league, and offered a contract to Wilson to be a part of something new.18 On January 24 Wilson signed with Tinker, citing the opportunity to be a starting catcher as the main reason.19 It was reported as a three-year contract for $5,500 a year with a $4,600 signing bonus.20
Wilson quickly became the star catcher in the new league. He batted .371 in April with six home runs, with a .463 OBP and a .943 slugging percentage. A 15-inning win at Kansas City on April 19 saw Wilson go 4-for-6 with two home runs. “Chicago has not had a favorite since the days of Capt. Anson who has responded to the pleadings of the fans for a long hit as has this light haired backstop,” wrote John O. Seys in the Decatur (Illinois) Herald.21 Wilson etched his name forever in Chicago baseball history on April 23 when, before a packed house on Opening Day, he slammed a home run onto Waveland Avenue, the first home run in the history of Wrigley Field, then known as Weeghman Park. The blast was off Chief Johnson of the Kansas City Packers.22 By the end of the day, Wilson had a second home run in Chicago’s 9-1 win.
Wilson had six home runs in his first 10 games for the ChiFeds. His astounding numbers (.371/.463/.943) at the end of April had Chicago buzzing. His hot hitting continued through May, when he batted .357 before coming back to earth for the rest of the season. His season included four three-hit games and his 56.7 percent caught-stealing percentage was the best in the Federal League. Many of his offensive stats were ranked in the top 10 among Federal League leaders, making his 5.0 Wins Above Replacement for position players the third best in the league. His final numbers (.291 BA/10 HR/64 RBI) powered Chicago to a close pennant fight down the stretch. The Chifeds led Indianapolis by a half-game with three to play, but a doubleheader sweep by Kansas City finished them off.
Wilson had similarly strong numbers in 1915 for the Chifeds, now known as the Whales, but shared catching duties with William Fischer. Wilson did the bulk of his hitting from August on when he batted .352, despite starting only four games in August. He was second in the league in on-base percentage and OPS (.442/.880) and his .980 fielding average was second among catchers. Wilson helped Bill Bailey spin a seven-inning shutout (called due to darkness) over Pittsburgh on October 3 as Chicago won the pennant by .0001 over St. Louis, thanks to two rainouts not made up.
The brief existence of the Federal League came to a close after the season, and the Whales were absorbed into the Chicago Cubs, including their ballpark, which is considered hallowed ground for Cubs fans to this day. But there is little argument that Wilson was the best catcher in the Federal League’s short history, which sabermetrics guru Bill James has discussed on his website. How do we interpret the success of Wilson? One interpretation James gives is: “Wilson was a talented player who just needed a chance to play, and who proved to be outstanding when the Federal League gave him a chance to play.”23 Wilson could be placed in a category of other major leaguers who suddenly became stars because they now had a new opportunity and new playing time. James notes that Wilson was the backup to the best catcher in baseball at the time (Meyers) and had strong years at the plate regardless. The Federal League, James believes, “was actually pretty comparable to the other leagues, and that Wilson and others just needed to a chance to play.”24 Another interpretation, however, is that “Wilson wasn’t really that good, but posted good stats in an inferior league.”25 No matter the interpretation, it is probably fair to say Wilson was the best catcher in the Federal League.
Wilson’s stardom was brief, and he returned to his role as a backup. His 1916 season was a forgotten one on and off the field. His home in Decatur was broken into in February and then he found out that same month that he had been sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates.26 “I hope to give the Pirates my best,” Wilson said, “even better than I gave the Chicago Feds. I will be on hand when wanted and hope you get the trainer to secure for me an old uniform.”27 It was a forgettable tenure with the Pirates as Wilson started only two games in April and was bothered with a sore arm.28 He recovered and batted .333 in May and .289 in June. His only home run of the season helped the Pirates win an 18-inning contest in Chicago on June 28. A month later Wilson was traded back to the Cubs with Otto Knabe for Wilson’s former Whales teammate, William Fischer, and outfielder Frank Schulte. “Wilson was popular with the Pirates,” Ed. F. Balinger wrote in the Pittsburgh Post. “He is an ideal member to have with a team, always ready to work and a gentleman both on and off the field.”29 Both the Pirates and Cubs were second-division clubs having poor seasons.
After playing just a few games for the Cubs, Wilson took a foul tip off a finger and was sidelined for a couple of weeks in August. “I can go fishing now,” he said, having unexpected time off in the summer and making the most of it. He also had time to visit a Lexington automobile factory and zip around in a new Minute Man Six.30 He batted a meager .193 in 36 games for the Cubs and led the NL in passed balls (16).
Wilson returned to the Cubs for 1917 but missed time in spring training because he was ill in Decatur with blood poisoning. Then he injured a finger and missed the first week of the season.31 He recovered to bat .304 in April. Wilson was a part of baseball history on May 2: He was the catcher for Hippo Vaughn in the Vaughn-Fred Toney double no-hitter, the only time in the major leagues that both pitchers didn’t allow a hit in nine innings. (The Reds eventually beat Vaughn, who gave up two hits in the 10th.) On July 28 Wilson’s walk-off double beat the Giants, 6-5, but at the end of the month his average had sunk to .197 and the Cubs were well out of the pennant race. He finished with disappointing numbers at the plate (.213/.322/.303). Needing pitching, the Cubs sent Wilson to the Boston Braves with second baseman Larry Doyle and $15,000 for Lefty Tyler.
Wilson was the seventh-place Braves’ starting catcher in 1918, batting .246 with 19 RBIs, while the crosstown Red Sox would go on to win the World Series against Wilson’s former mates in Chicago. In spring training that season Wilson took part in a seldom-tried stunt. An aviator friend flew over the Braves home park in Miami and dropped a baseball from near 200 feet altitude, whereupon it settled into Wilson’s mitt.32
The 1918 season was cut short after the United States entered the World War. Wilson had registered for the draft despite not being required to do so, since he was over 30. “I’m no better than anyone else and if called to fight, I’m going,” he said in July.33 There was no need, as the war ended shortly thereafter. Wilson reached a steady 43 percent caught-stealing rate, and his .977 fielding percentage ranked fourth in the NL.
Wilson returned to Boston in 1919, but so did Hank Gowdy, from war service, so Wilson assumed a backup role once again. He started 56 games, batting .257/.346/.309. As Wilson had once been a backup with the Giants and saw three straight pennants, he now started his third year for a Braves team that finished sixth or seventh in each of those years. The 1920 Braves finished a woeful 62-90 and Wilson started just two games, appearing in 14 others, as Gowdy was now the key backup to Mickey O’Neil. Art batted .053 in 19 at bats. He was sold to Columbus of the American Association, where he played in 93 games in 1921 before being sold in June to the Cleveland Indians, who were short of catching help.34 Wilson played in only two games. At 35 he was the fourth-oldest player in the American League.
Wilson’s major-league days were behind him, but he stayed in the game in the minors through the 1923 season. He played a few games for Columbus in 1922 and then became the player-manager of the Hopkinsville, Kentucky, club of the Class-D Kitty League. One newspaper article headline boasted that Wilson, “may have found himself at last,” in trying his hand at managing. “He made that Class D ball club do tricks it never before had heard of and he rushed it to the front like a cyclone. As a result, Wilson is now sought as manager by clubs in higher class leagues.”35 He finished in 1923 as the player-manager of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, team in the Eastern League.
In later years Wilson lived in Chicago, where he worked as a tobacconist, for the Hudson Screw Machine Products Company, and also for Zenith Radio Corporation. The 1940 census lists him as working as a broker.
Art Wilson died in Chicago of heart disease on June 12, 1960, and was survived by his only daughter, Jean.36
Special thanks to Cassidy Lent, research librarian at the Giamatti Research Center at the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York, for access to Wilson’s file and questionnaire.
“Old Time Cub Art Wilson is Dead at 75,” Chicago Tribune, June 13, 1960: F4.
The Millidek (1906), 164. archive.org/stream/millidek00mill_0#page/164/mode/2up/search/Wilson.
1 Wilson’s death certificate states 1886; other records report 1885.
2 Article of unknown origin in Wilson’s Hall of Fame file.
3 “Art Wilson Put Bloomington on Map,” Bloomington (Illinois) Pantagraph, July 3, 1911: 11.
4 “Young’s Yarns,” Bloomington Pantagraph, June 15, 1960: 15.
5 “Three I Teams Make Good,” Decatur (Illinois) Herald, April 10, 1906: 5.
6 “Star Catcher Badly Injured,” Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1907: 6.
7 Sid Mercer, “Little Journeys Into the Lives of the Truly Great— Arthur Wilson,” New York Mail. Article was reprinted in the Decatur Herald, July 2, 1911: 8.
8 Mercer; “Giants Buy Art Wilson,” Decatur Herald, August 19, 1908: 3.
9 “Come Home Tomorrow for Their Last Stand,” Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908: 3; “The World of Sport,” Fergus County Democrat(Lewistown, Montana), September 1, 1908: 6.
10 “Kinsella Hopes for Men’s Return,” Decatur Herald, April 18, 1910: 4.
11 “Wilson Returns from Cuban Trip,” Decatur Herald, December 26, 1911: 3.
12 “Dahlen and Rigler Fight on the Field,” New York Sun, April 21, 1912: 15.
14 “Wilson Gave Up the Cuban Trip,” Decatur Herald, October 24, 1912: 4.
15 “11-Inning Tie, 6-6, in Hard-Fought Game in Boston,” New York Times, October 10, 1912: 1.
16 “Wilson Gave Up the Cuban Trip.”
17 “Wilson Joins Ranks of Giant Holdouts,” Decatur Herald, January 27, 1913: 4.
18 “Arthur Wilson Goes to California,” Decatur Daily Review, November 7, 1913: 13; “Tinker After N.Y. Catcher,” Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1914: 14.
19 “Joe Tinker Lands Wilson for Chicago Federal Team,” Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1914: 21.
20 “Arthur Wilson Is with Chicago Feds,” Decatur Herald, February 14, 1914: 4.
21 John O. Seys, “Arthur Wilson Sets Pace as a Federal League Slugger,” Decatur Herald, May 22, 1914: 4.
22 Johnson pitched only two innings before being taken into custody and served legal papers alleging that since his participation in the Federal League was a violation of his contract with the Cincinnati Reds. “Enjoins Johnson and K.C. Federals,” Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1914: 15.
23 Bill James, “The Top Ten Catchers of Whenever,” Bill James Online. Retrieved May 10, 2018. Billjamesonline.com/the_top_ten_catchers_of_whenever/.
26 “Robbers Nick Art Wilson,” Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1916: 10.
27 James Jerpe, “Callahan Will Mobilize Buccos,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 1, 1916: 10.
28 “Arthur Wilson Soon Back in the Game,” Decatur Daily Review, May 4, 1916: 5.
29 Ed F. Balinger, “‘Bolstering Move,’ Cal,” Pittsburgh Post, July 30, 1916: 16.
30 “ ‘Can Fish Now’ Says A. Wilson,” Decatur Daily Review, August 18, 1916: 14; “Baseball Player Enthusiastic Motorist,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 1916: 42.
31 “Arthur Wilson Seriously Sick,” Decatur Daily Review, February 15, 1917: 5.
32 “Aero Baseball,” Chicago Tribune, April 2, 1918: 13.
33 “Arthur Wilson Is Not a Slacker,” Decatur Daily Review, August 1, 1918: 5.
34 “Cleveland Buys Arthur Wilson,” Decatur Herald, June 3, 1921: 5.
35 “May Have Found Himself at Last,” article of unknown origin marked “1922” in Wilson’s Hall of Fame file.
36 “Young’s Yarns,” Bloomington Pantagraph, September 2, 1937: 16; Fred Young, “Art Wilson Recalls Day He Hit Ahead of Runner to Save Scalp,” Bloomington Pantagraph, May 25, 1953: 12.