Many people think of Deion Sanders when they hear about two-sport players. However, he was simply the flashiest of this dying breed. Robert “Red” Wilson was stand-out football and baseball player in college at Wisconsin, winning multiple honors on the gridiron and leading his baseball team to the College World Series in 1950. (In high school Wilson also lettered in basketball and track!)
Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns drafted Wilson in the second round, but ultimately Wilson chose baseball to play professionally and carved out a solid, if unspectacular career as a catcher with the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Cleveland Indians from 1951-1960. Never a fulltime starter, Wilson platooned his entire career, putting up a .258 batting average with 24 home runs and 189 RBI over 602 games.
Wilson’s claim to fame was being the second half of the “Yankee Killer” duo with Tigers pitcher Frank Lary. Together as a battery, the pair went 16-3 against the mighty New York team in 21 games. In those contests, Wilson batted an impressive .354 and hit .278 against the Yankees for his career, experiencing success that eluded many against the best team in baseball at the time.
In 1960 Wilson was taken by the Los Angeles Angels in the expansion draft, but decided to retire rather than continue with the new team. Subsequently he spent over 25 years in banking and in 1990 was enshrined in the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.
I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Wilson some questions about his career and he was very gracious in sharing some of his memories.
How did you first get started playing baseball?: Well it was a pretty common thing, playing baseball. I was raised in Milwaukee and they had a kid’s league. It wasn’t Little League at that time, but they had a kid’s league and I started playing baseball and moved from there.
What made you choose baseball over football?: I had some injuries in football in the later part of my football career and I just didn’t think I was going to be able to hold up physically. I was a linebacker and played in the era when you played both ways. I was a center and then my senior year I was moved to the tight end position and I was a linebacker on defense.
What was it like to play for such great managers during your career (Luke Appling, Paul Richards, Bucky Harris, etc…)?: It was fine. I had no problems. Some managers were more to my liking than others. Paul Richards was a great teacher, but his personality was not very warm. They all had their ups and downs, but I go along with all of them.
What accounts for success you had with battery mate Frank Lary against the New York Yankees?: I thought about that quite often and it’s not unusual for a player to have more success against one team than another. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there was anything specific going on. You maybe hit certain pitchers better and so on. I played catcher and I was primarily a platoon against left-handed pitchers and I was a right-handed hitter so that may have helped.
You had a 2 home run and 6 RBI game in 1954 against the Athletics and you also once caught a Jim Bunning no-hitter. Were these some of your favorite moments from your playing career?: Well the two you mentioned were pretty high of course. I always considered it a privilege and an honor to play in the Major Leagues. In those days we had fewer teams and it was a real honor to play in the American League.
Of the organizations you played for, Tigers and White Sox, which was your better experience?: The White Sox were the organization I originally signed with and then worked up with the minor leagues and ultimately played with the White Sox. I enjoyed playing for Detroit because I played more. I was a little more mature as a catcher and was able to play more games than I played for the White Sox.
Did you have a favorite stadium?: Well I liked Detroit; Tiger Stadium was very nice and good place to play. The fans were very gentlemanly and good fans. So, I preferred Detroit very much. It was a fair stadium, though the left field seats were fairly close.
What are your thoughts on the current game?: I think that the game has changed quite a bit in the sense that the pitchers now don’t generally go the full nine innings. They rely much more on relief pitching as the game goes on. Other than that I think there are no major differences. I follow it, but wouldn’t say closely. I don’t go to a lot of games. Television is easier for me to sit in my soft chair and watch and not fight the crowds.