Willie Wilson—does anyone outside of Kansas City remember him? I do. He certainly wasn’t the greatest player of his era or even the best Kansas City Royal (George Brett or even Amos Otis would probably get the nod) but when I think back to the late 70s, early 80s and the games I watched as a kid, I remember no one more exciting than Willie Wilson, a perennial speedster who was a menace on the basepaths. In his prime the guy was just mercurial and I absolutely loved watching him on television (at least as many games as we could get in southern New Jersey).
Willie James Wilson was born on July 9, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama and made his major league debut the same year America celebrated its bicentennial birthday, 1976 (September 4th). No great shakes happened that year for Willie, though. He played in 12 games, and went 1 for 6. A mere three years later, in 1979, Wilson’s game began to come around when he hit .315 with 185 hits, 113 runs scored, 13 triples and 49 stolen bases. As mentioned previously, the guy could simply tear and he has more inside-the-park home runs than any other player in major league history post 1950 (13).
At 6’ 3” and 195 pounds he was a big, aggressive player and definitely big for a base stealer. The Royals team was getting better and better with the previously mentioned George Brett, Hal McRae, Amos Otis (one of the best names in major league history—in fact the Royals had a whole bunch of great names back then: Pete LaCock, Jamie Quirk, Bob Detherage, and of course, Dave Chalk) while on the mound they had 20-game winner Dennis Leonard plus Paul Splittorff. And out of the bullpen, king of the submarine pitch, Dan Quisenberry (r.i.p.). 1980 was the year Wilson put it all together. He had 230 hits in an unheard of 705 freakin’ at bats (a figure which boggled my 16-year-old mind and even now, in the era of Ichiro, still sort of does). He hit .326 and had 15 triples. With a year like that (and the Royals powerful lineup) the team was ripe for a strong post season. They pounded the Yankees in the ALCS and eventually went on to the World Series, losing to the Phillies (where Wilson struck out 12 times—is that a World Series record?). Man, what could have been.
Wilson had a solid run after that (and the Royals won that elusive World Series crown in 1985 defeating the St. Louis Cardinals) but his batting average continued to decline (even though he was always near the top of the heap in triples and stolen bases). In 1983, he hit .276 but his off the field exploits caught up with him. At the end of that year Wilson, along with teammates Willie Mays Aikens, Jerry Martin and Vida Blue pled guilty to use of cocaine and on December 15, 1984 commissioner Bowie Kuhn (speaking of nutty names) suspended these players for a year without pay (though later the suspension would be lifted by an arbitrator and they would be back in action by May 15 the following year). Keep in mind that even though this was the 80s and cocaine use was rampant, a lot of people still thought athletes were invincible and turned a blind eye to such things. It was the drug problem, more than anything, that had shattered the belief of the athlete as a larger-than-life hero in America (even Willie Stargell, my all-time favorite player, was accused in 1985 during the Pirates drug trial of that year of handing out amphetamines to his teammates ).
The most intelligent thing Willie Wilson could say during all of this (as quoted in Dan Gutman's Baseball Babylon) was, “All I signed a contract to do is play baseball and that’s my job. I didn’t sign a contract to take care of anyone else’s kids or to be a role model for anyone else." In a sense he’s right but Jesus dude, can’t you at least sound grateful. When I was younger I appreciated his attitude as punk rock (not that Wilson listened to the Sex Pistols or Ramones; Lou Rawls (r.i.p.) and The Commodores was more like it) but I guess as I’ve gotten older, I get a sense of these over-paid spoiled brats not having a bit of gratitude (hello Barry Bonds) and thus my diminished interest in pro sports. In Wilson’s day the douchebags were guys like Dave Kingman, Rick Bosetti, Bert Blyleven and, of course, his royal ass-holiness, George Brett. (Ol’ Georgie was known for mashing trash cans with his bat if things didn’t go his way and one time, after losing a game at Yankee Stadium, he threw a gallon can of paint against the wall and relished the sight of the subsequent explosion. I’m sure the maintenance crew didn’t appreciate that one.)
In the late 80s Wilson’s career sputtered out and he was traded to the A’s in 1991 and, eventually, to the Chicago Cubs. His final home run came in 1993 as part of a back-to-back-to-back (9/6/93 vs. Phillies). That’s a pretty freaky statistic in a career full of such anecdotes. In Chicago he played for two years before finally hanging up his cleats for good at the end of the 1994 season. After retirement Willie made my home state of New Jersey proud by becoming the owner of the King George Inn in Warren. If any of you are in the area stop in and shoot the breeze with a guy who was once the fastest and most feared man on the basepaths.
Tim Hinely has been publishing his own ’zine, Dagger, for 18 years. To see a copy drop him a line at: P.O Box 820102, Portland, OR 97282-1102 or via email at email@example.com.