George Wilson: Set area record for minor league service in addition to major league and overseas career that includes World Series title
By Richard Walker
George Wilson may have had the most unique professional baseball career of anybody in the area.
A 1942 Cherryville High graduate who played for Gastonia’s Post 23 1941 American Legion state championship team, Wilson set a local record for years of minor league service, won a major league World Series for the most celebrated franchise in history in addition to playing overseas.
Wilson first burst onto to local sports scene during the summer of 1941 when he and fellow pro baseball signees Vernon Petty and John Grice led coach Porter Sheppard’s team to a 38-10 record, a N.C. state title and a sectional runner-up finish to Flint, Mich.
Wilson, a left-handed hitter and right-handed thrower, batted .344 and had a 6-3 pitching record that summer for Post 23. Petty hit .451 and had a 15-4 record and Grice his .373.
Wilson and Petty signed free agent contracts the next year with the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds, respectively, and Grice signed in 1946 with the Detroit Tigers.
Wilson’s career started in 1942 for Statesville and he would spend all or parts of 16 seasons in the minor leagues to set a record later tied by Gastonia’s Kenneth Deal. Petty spent 10 years in the minor leagues and Grice 11 years.
Like many of his generation, Wilson’s pro career was interrupted by military service – he served from 1943 to 1945 in the U.S. Army.
Enlisting at Camp Croft, S.C., Wilson arrived in Scotland in 1944 where he met his future wife Nancy Lyon. He spent 14 months serving in Europe and saw combat in France and Germany.
Upon his return home, he hit .300 or better in the minor leagues in four of the next six seasons – .327 for Durham in 1946, .357 for Roanoke, Va., in 1948, .335 for Birmingham, Ala., in 1948 and .325 for Birmingham in 1951.
The 1951 season drew the interest of the Chicago White Sox, as they selected Wilson in the rule 5 draft. Wilson would break into the majors in 1952 with that organization and later played in the majors for the New York Giants and New York Yankees. He also played minor league baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers organizations.
A career highlight came in 1956 when he was released in May 8 by the Giants but was picked up by a Yankees team that featured future Hall of Famers like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford.
Wilson would pick up a World Series title as the Yankees downed the Brooklyn Dodgers four games to three in that year’s World Series with him making a Game One pinch-hitting appearance.
Ironically, Wilson would never again play in the major leagues but played six more seasons in the minor leagues, including hitting a career-best .382 for Shelby in 1960, and as a player-manager for Statesville in 1961 before eventually heading overseas in 1963.
He hit .258 with 27 home runs and 107 RBIs in 225 career games playing for the Nishitetsu Lions in 1963 and 1964. In 1963, he and fellow Americans Jim Baumer and Tony Roig helped Nishitetsu win the Japanese Pacific League title.
Upon his return to the United States, Wilson lived in Cherryville, worked for Klutz Machine and Foundry company while also scouting for the New York Yankees and mentoring minor league hitters for the Gastonia Pirates.
Wilson’s last hurrah came when he was a manager and first baseman in the 14th Annual Old Timers’ game at Gastonia’s Sims Legion Park on June 14, 1974. Wright managed his team to a 3-1 victory in a game where he played with local former major leaguers Ted Abernathy (Stanley), Buddy Lewis (Gastonia) and Tom Wright (Shelby).
Just 4 1-2 months later – on Oct. 29, 1974 – Wilson died at a Gastonia hospital at 49.