Willy Wilson

This article was written by Bill Lamb

Including the fondly remembered Mookie and the long-forgotten Mutt, six men christened William Wilson have played major league baseball.1 Our subject is the most obscure of these, a one-game pitcher for the 1906 Washington Senators sometimes called Kiddo or Chink Wilson.2 Given a late-season tryout, Wilson turned in a commendable, albeit losing, performance, throwing an abbreviated seven-inning complete-game three-hitter against the Boston Pilgrims. But handicapped by difficulty controlling his pitches and his thirst, Wilson never got another big-league chance. After languishing in the minors for at least another five seasons, he drifted to the West Coast and died young, the victim of a heart attack at age 40.

William Wilson was born in Columbus, Ohio, on January 7, 1885.3 He was the 10th of 12 children4 born to Charles Harrison Wilson (1846-1929) and his wife, the former Laura McCleary (1848-1913), both originally natives of Zanesville, Ohio. US Census reports list father Charles’s occupation as saloon cook (1870) and gambler (1880, 1900), but a Wilson family post on Ancestry maintains that he was a blacksmith. The early life of son William is similarly indistinct. He appears in the 1900 US Census as 15-year-old school attendee Willie Wilson, living at home with his parents and brothers Arthur, Frank, and Milton. But little else is known. He followed a familiar path in his baseball career, playing ball in local sandlots before graduating to the semipro ranks and thereafter to the fast Columbus city league.5 Described as tall and lanky6 — no physical stats for Wilson survive, but photo evidence suggests that he was in the 6-foot/170-pound range — Wilson was gifted with a strong right arm which, coupled with his complete inability to hit, made him gravitate toward pitching.

Wilson began his professional career in the Class B Central League in 1905. That May the Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Post announced that “Kiddo Wilson, the well known Columbus city league pitcher, has been signed by Mgr. [Frank] Warrender of the Terre Haute team.”7 Days later, Wilson dropped his debut to the Evansville River Rats, 8-3. The final score was deceptive as Wilson had been undermined by poor defensive support. Four of the River Rats’ 10 hits were misplayed sacrifice-bunt attempts, and only one of the Evansville runs was earned. Press reviews of the effort were positive, with the Courier and Post declaring that “outside of his wildness, [Wilson] made a good impression.”8 Sadly, the lack of control exhibited by Wilson in his first pro game would plague him for the remainder of his career. Still, he pitched creditably for the Hottentots until his season was brought to an abrupt halt in early July. A line drive through the box broke a finger on Wilson’s pitching hand, whereupon Terre Haute promptly released him.9 In nine games, he had gone 3-6 for a dismal last-place (44-106) club.

Although short-circuited, Wilson’s tenure with Terre Haute had generated interest in him elsewhere in the Central League, and he was signed for the 1906 season by a circuit rival, the Canton Chinamen.10 Given regular work, the 21-year-old began to blossom. Following a victory over Grand Rapids in which he fanned eight, “big ‘Chink’ Wilson’s most thorough line of shoots and curves” drew applause from the Canton Repository. “When he is right, he is as good as the best,” the paper declared.11 But Wilson was still prone to fits of wildness, and near helpless with the bat. An .092 (6-for-65) batting average led the hometown press to observe acidly that Wilson “cannot hit a balloon.”12 Nevertheless, he showed genuine promise as a moundsman, with Sporting Life designating “William ‘Chink’ Wilson, one of the star pitchers of the Canton club.”13 Despite losing most of August to another finger injury, the young righty went 14-15 in 250 innings pitched for the third-place (85-63) Chinamen. More important, the finger injury had healed in time for Wilson to make a strong impression on an observer from the major leagues.

Toward the close of the 1906 campaign, Washington Senators second baseman Larry Schlafly was sent home to Beach City, Ohio, to recuperate from a bout of malaria. While convalescing, Schlafly took in a couple of Canton games, including a Chink Wilson outing. Schlafly liked what he saw, and based on his recommendation, Senators manager Jake Stahl added Wilson to his late-season collection of pitching prospects, drafting him from Canton for $750.14

Wilson had to wait until the very end of the season to display the speed and “snappy out-drop”15 that were his primary pitching weapons. On October 3, 1906, he made his major-league debut, being handed the ball for the second game of a season-closing twin bill against Boston. The contestants were the American League’s two worst teams, with Washington’s seventh-place (55-95) record bettering only the dismal 49-105 log of the cellar-dwelling Pilgrims. Press accounts suggest that the games were not taken all that seriously by either fans or the players.16 But Wilson and Boston’s Len Swormstedt, a pair of young pitchers anxious to make the most of their major-league auditions, worked in dead earnest.

The Boston Herald reported that the two “recruit pitchers … performed in masterly fashion, allowing but three hits apiece.”17 Staked to an early 1-0 lead, Wilson handcuffed Boston batsmen, but the only two walks he issued in the game came back to haunt him. Both walked runners scored. Boston did not threaten otherwise, but with the score Boston 2, Washington 1, the game came to a premature but prearranged end, called after seven innings so that the Boston club could catch a train. Despite the disappointing final score, Wilson had succeeded in making a good impression. “Pitcher Wilson worked well yesterday, notwithstanding his little wildness, which lost the game,” the Washington Evening Star observed. “He has plenty of speed and that is the necessary article in a twirler these days.”18 As he soaked in his complimentary reviews, little did young William Wilson realize that his major-league career was now behind him.19

In 1907 Wilson was among the contingent of Washington signees gathered for spring camp in Galveston, Texas. But with new Senators manager Joe Cantillon strangely enamored of the mediocre pitching staff held over from the previous season, youngsters like Wilson were given little opportunity to show their stuff. Wilson’s chances were further retarded by a spiking injury that put him on the shelf for three weeks. When the club came north to begin the season, Wilson was given a start in an exhibition game played in Springfield, Ohio. Conducted on a muddy field in freezing rain, the game quickly degenerated into a farce, with players struggling to cope with unplayable conditions. With Wilson clinging to a 4-2 lead after four innings, the game was called.20 Soon thereafter, manager Cantillon acted upon his previously stated intention to give Wilson “the chance to get a little more minor league seasoning,”21 and optioned him to the Milwaukee Brewers of the Class A American Association.22

In Milwaukee Wilson alternated flashes of brilliance, like an early-season victory over Indianapolis featuring 12 strikeouts, with frustrating control problems. But it was his immaturity and excessive drinking that landed the young pitcher in the Milwaukee doghouse. In June the club had had enough and obtained waivers on Wilson and outfielder Frank Hemphill, another problem child, from all the other American Association teams.23 Hemphill was then dispatched to Bloomington of the Three-I League, but Wilson, given another chance by Milwaukee, rebounded with solid performances — at least for a while. In early September, however, the Brewers suspended Wilson for the remainder of the season “for failure to keep in condition.”24 Before his dismissal, Wilson had gone 9-11 over 176 innings pitched, surrendering only 149 hits, but with more aggregate walks and wild pitches (87) than strikeouts (83). And with the bat, he had been his customary self, posting an anemic .117 (7-for-60) batting average.

Notwithstanding his deportment in Milwaukee, the Washington Senators retained interest in Wilson. The club had reclaimed his contract the previous August, and sent him to the American Association Minneapolis Millers, managed by Mike Cantillon (Joe’s brother), for the 1908 season.25 As in the preceding year, Wilson’s hurling for the Millers was erratic. But he saved the finest performance of his professional career for his erstwhile employer. On May 23, 1908, Wilson shut out the Milwaukee Brewers, 2-0, on one hit, with only a ninth-inning single spoiling his “magnificent game.”26 After the contest, a voluble Wilson informed the press, “I’d rather beat the Milwaukee team than any other in the American Association. Of course, I know that I was in no condition to pitch for them last season, but just the same it does me good to trim them. Gee, but I was in hopes that I could get away with a no hit game, for Cantillon has promised the first one of us fellows that pitches a no-hit game that we can have a few days off to go fishing and you bet I want that trip. Guess maybe I’ll get another chance at the Brewers and if I do you can bet that I am going after them and that fishing trip at the same time.”27

Sadly for Wilson, he was unable to sustain this level of performance, and for most of the season, he was an in-and-outer, alternating successful outings with losing ones. By year’s end, Wilson’s record stood at 14-17 for the fifth-place (77-77) Minneapolis club. Pitching 236 innings in 36 games, Kiddo Wilson (as the Minneapolis newspapers called him) struck out 103, while walking 83. And his hitting sank to new depths, with a 4-for-77 effort yielding a microscopic .052 batting average.

Wilson returned to Minneapolis for the 1909 season, but by now he was no longer a major-league prospect. He started the campaign impressively, with a 1-0 shutout of Columbus (Wilson’s hometown) on May 12 among his early-season victories. But an overall mark of 7-8 in only 23 games pitched suggests that he did not complete the year in Minneapolis. From this point on, however, it is difficult to pinpoint Wilson’s whereabouts and activities with any degree of certainty. Given his youth (still only 24 years old) and the premier minor-league character of the American Association, it seems safe to presume that Wilson continued pitching. He may have been the William Wilson who finished the 1909 season with a 4-3 record in 13 games for the Sioux City Soos of the Class A Western League, and then went 18-13 in 40 games (1910) and 13-12 (1911) for Sioux City the next two seasons — but the respectable mid-.200s batting averages posted by that William Wilson militate against that conclusion. Whatever the case, our William Wilson spent the winter of 1910-1911 living in Columbus with his bartender brothers Harry and Frank,28 and then headed for the Pacific Northwest. A line from his mother’s May 1913 obituary makes it probable that our subject was the William Wilson who posted a 20-16 record for the Victoria Bees of the Class B Northwestern League in 1912.29

Research by Brian Morrison has unearthed the final years of Wilson's professional career. He returned to Victoria for the 1913 campaign, pitched poorly, and was released in late-May.30 The following season, a brief tryout with the NWL Tacoma Tigers ended similarly. Thereafter, the league gave Kiddo Wilson a trial as an umpire, but his unsure grasp of baseball rules led to frequent on-field problems and necessitated his dismissal, the Northwestern League's dire shortage of arbiters notwithstanding.31 For the next several years, he umpired (and pitched occasionally) in local semipro leagues. The last discovered sports page mention of Wilson has him back umpiring in the 1919 Northwestern League.32

There the trail peters out — at least as far as the baseball career of William Wilson is concerned. By this time, Wilson had acquired a young wife named Margaret (maiden name unknown, born about 1896 in Michigan) and had begun a family. In time, he would have three children, James (born 1913 in Oregon), Mildred (1914 in Washington), and Genevieve (1916 in Washington). When he registered for the military draft in early 1918, Wilson was living in Seattle and gave his occupation as shipfitter. Although the family was still together when the 1920 US Census was taken, the Wilsons appear to have separated sometime thereafter, for William and Margaret were living at separate Seattle addresses at the time of his death five years later.

On the morning of October 28, 1925, Wilson took a seat at the breakfast table of the boarding house where he was residing. As later recounted in the press, “When the man with whom Mr. Wilson was seated … gave an order for the meal, Mr. Wilson said, ‘Duplicate’ and fell over dying instantly.”33 Post-mortem examination determined that Wilson had been suffering from “valvular cardiac disease” and had died from a heart attack.34 He was only 40 years old. Wilson’s remains were cremated following funeral services in Seattle.35 A month later, the ashes were transported home to Columbus and interred at Green Lawn Cemetery.

 

Sources

Sources for the biographical information presented herein include the Willy Wilson file maintained at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York, and United States Census data. The file contains much correspondence by SABR genealogical pioneer Bill Haber, written during a largely futile search for Wilson relatives in the late 1980s. Far more revelatory is biographical information posted fairly recently by Wilson descendants on Ancestry.com. Stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference, Sporting Life, various editions of the Reach Guide, and The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds. (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 2nd ed., 1997).

 

Notes

1 Aside from Mookie (William Hayward) Wilson, Mutt (William Clarence) Wilson, and our subject, the major-league William Wilsons include early 1970s reliever Bill (William Harlan) Wilson; light-hitting 1950s outfielder Bill (William Donald) Wilson, and late-19th-century catcher-turned-criminal Bill (William G.) Wilson. The William Wilson list does not include the 1982 American League batting champ born Willie James Wilson.

2 Early baseball encyclopedias like Turkin & Thompson and Macmillan erroneously list him as Howard William “Chink” Wilson. As memorialized in Ohio birth records and elsewhere, our subject was born William Wilson, and may have been named for his paternal grandfather, William Harrison Wilson (1814-1857). At times during his career, Wilson was also called Kiddo. The Willy Wilson caption for this bio is taken from modern baseball reference works. Apart from an entry in the 1900 US Census, the writer found no instance of Wilson being called Willy during his lifetime.

3 Baseball-Reference, Retrosheet, Total Baseball, and other reference works list the Wilson birth year as 1884. So does the Wilson death certificate, compiled in Seattle decades later. The 1885 birth year proffered herein is grounded in contemporaneous records, including on-file birth records of the State of Ohio. January 7, 1885, is also the birth date supplied under oath by Wilson himself when he registered for World War I military service.

4 Wilson’s siblings were Henry (Harry, 1869-1910), Maude (1871-1958), Calender (born 1873), Arthur (1875-1911), Lucy (1876-1959), Anna (1879-1971), Charles (b. 1879), Isaac Alfred (1881-1949), Frank (1882-1966), Milton (1887-1904), and James (1889-1890).

5 As per the Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Post, May 26, 1905.

6 See, e.g., the Canton (Ohio) Repository, July 31, 1906. See also, the Washington Post, October 4, 1906: “Wilson is a tall, slender kid with a boyish face and a kinky delivery which seems to pull the child apart every time he pegs.”

7 Evansville Courier and Post, May 26, 1905.

8 Evansville Courier and Post, May 30, 1905.

9 As per Sporting Life, July 22, 1905. See also, the Canton Repository, March 6, 1906.

10 As noted in Sporting Life, March 31 and April 6, 1906.

11 Canton Repository, July 7, 1906. The basis for the nickname “Chink” is unknown. But photos of Wilson refute the idea that it was based on his visage. Nor is it likely derived from the Chinamen nickname of the Canton club. The nickname was not employed by the local press, which called the team the Reds.

12 Canton Repository, September 17, 1906.

13 See Sporting Life, September 29, 1906.

14 As reported in the Canton Repository, September 18 and 21, 1906. See also, Sporting Life, September 29, 1906.

15 Canton Repository, September 18, 1906.

16 According to the Washington Post, October 4, 1906, the game “developed into a good natured fray with all the players having their little laughs.”

17 Boston Herald, October 4, 1906.

18 Washington Evening Star, October 4, 1906.

19 For Len Swormstedt, who had previously had brief trials in the National League with Chicago, the pitching duel with Wilson was the jewel of his eight-game major-league career.

20 As per Mark Lecuru, “Willy Wilson: Columbus Ohio’s Own Moonlight Graham,” a circa 2007 blog posting contained in the Wilson file at the Giamatti Research Center.

21 Sporting Life, March 30, 1907.

22 As reported in Sporting Life, April 6 and 20, 1907.

23 As per the Milwaukee Sentinel, June 11, 1907. See also, Sporting Life, June 8 and July 6, 1907.

24 As reported in the Milwaukee Journal, September 6, 1907, and Sporting Life, September 14, 1907. The Milwaukee paper later stated that Wilson was “a good man when in condition, but found the hop juice too strong,” Milwaukee Journal, January 7, 1908.

25 See the Milwaukee Journal, August 29 and September 2, 1907. The repurchase price of the Wilson contract was estimated at $1,250. Thanks to early Milwaukee baseball expert Dennis Pajot for passing along this and other info about Wilson’s stay with the Brewers.

26 As per the Duluth (Minnesota) News-Tribune, May 24, 1908.

27 Milwaukee Journal, May 28, 1908.

28 As per letter of James L. Murphy, Ohio Historical Society, to Bill Haber, dated December 12, 1987, contained in the Wilson file at the Giamatti Research Center.

29 The obituary noted that Mrs. Wilson’s survivors included her “son William of the Victoria ball club of British Columbia,” Columbus Dispatch, May 29, 1913.

30 Victoria (British Columbia) Times, May 23, 1913.

31  (Boise) Idaho Statesman, The (Portland) Oregonian, and Salem (Oregon) Capital Journal, July 9, 1914.

32 Seattle Times, May 12, 1919.

33 Logan (Ohio) Democrat-Sentinel, November 19, 1925.

34 As per the death certificate for William Wilson, dated October 30, 1925, contained in the Wilson file at the Giamatti Research Center.

35 As per the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 31, 1925, which listed his sister Lucy Wilson Wade of Logan, Ohio, as the deceased’s only survivor. No mention was made of Wilson’s wife or children.