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25TH ANNUAL ALBANY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Albany's Wilson blazed trail

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Buck O'Neil wanted him, the San Diego Padres needed him, and anyone who followed his baseball career missed him when he left the diamond.

Albany has always had Ulysses Wilson, who was the first African-American athlete from Albany to sign a professional sports contract.

This was home when Wilson was a kid, leading Monroe High School to the state baseball championship in 1967, and it was home after Wilson said goodbye to a life in baseball that took him to college and to the pros, to Hawaii and back again, and to the doorstep of the big leagues.

And now Wilson's home is saying thank you, telling him just what he means to this city's sports fabric -- what he means to Albany.

That's why Wilson will be inducted into the Albany Sports Hall of Fame on Monday night at the Albany Civic Center along with four other inspirational athletes.

'This is home,'' Wilson said Friday. "And that makes this more exciting. Albany has always been my home, and that's what makes going into the Hall of Fame here special.''

It's been a big year for Wilson, who was inducted into Florida A&M's Hall of Fame in October.

"Going into the FAMU Hall of Fame first and now this,'' Wilson said. "It's kind of steamrolled for me.''

The man they affectionately called "Uly" has seen it all on the diamond, and he played the game the old-school way -- hard and fast and to the final out.

"He was a super ball player and a super student-athlete,'' said Dr. Joseph Ramsey, the chairman of FAMU's Hall of Fame committee at the time of Wilson's induction. "He led the team in hitting and stolen bases. If he played (in this era), he probably would have played in the majors. Timing is everything.''

Wilson just missed a spot on a major-league roster, and if the Padres could do it over again, they probably would have gone with the kid from Albany.

Wilson was one of those players every team needs, a rabbit on the basepaths, a silky smooth fielder with a rocket for an arm and the consummate No. 2 hitter -- a hard-swinging, smart player who knew how to go deep or take the ball the other way.

O'Neil, who was a scout for the Cubs, tried to sign Wilson out of high school, and George Scott and the Red Sox told Wilson they felt he was ready for the pros straight from Monroe High, where he led the team in every offensive category and hit .580 for the season.

"If I went 3-for-4, that was a normal day in high school,'' Wilson said. "If I went 2-for-4, I felt bad.''

The pros came calling, but Wilson wanted to go to college. He accepted a scholarship and quickly made a name for himself at FAMU, where he led the team in hitting for three years and batted .360 and stole 43 bases as a sophomore. Then, as a junior, he hit .380 and stole 49 bases. He was an all-conference player twice (FAMU was a part of the SIAC back then, but now belongs to the MEAC) and named a Second-Team All-American.

Wilson played for the national College All-Star team that was coached by the legendary Ron Fraser, who moved Wilson from shortstop to second base. The shortstop on the team was Bucky Dent.

Wilson was drafted in the fifth round by the Padres after his junior year at FAMU, but it turned out to be a tough road for a young player because the Padres, an expansion club, had a philosophy that would be unheard of today. Instead of building the franchise on young players, the early Padres signed veteran players who were past their prime in an effort to try to build a fan base in San Diego.

Wilson spent five years in the minors and was the leading hitter and leading base stealer at every level, including Double A Alexandria, where he was managed by Duke Snyder, and Triple A Hawaii, where he hit .292 and led the team in runs scored, batting and stolen bases.

The Padres invited him to spring training in 1972 and again in '73, and San Diego manager Don Zimmer wanted to promote Wilson to the big league club. He told Wilson to bring his car to camp because he would be breaking camp with the big league club.

"I drove my car from Albany to San Diego,'' Wilson remembers.

Zimmer wanted Wilson, but after spring training of '73, the front office vetoed Zimmer and kept veteran Glenn Beckert instead.

"When I was in Triple A, fans would tell me I was the best they had seen in years,'' said Wilson, who hit .292 in Triple A and led his team in hits, runs and stolen bases. "And a lot of major league players were telling me that I should be playing in the majors. In '74, I remember Cito Gaston and Dave Winfield, who were playing for the Padres at the time, told me that Zimmer wanted to call me up during the season, but I guess (the front office) didn't want to do it. I never got the phone call.''

He finally walked away from baseball, knowing he was good enough to play in the big leagues.

"I know I could have been up there,'' he said. "I don't feel bad now. It's been so long. The first couple of years it was kind of hard.''

There's little doubt that if Wilson, 61, played today he would have landed on a big league club.

"I see guys making plays at shortstop today, and (the announcers) make a big deal about them going in the hole and (making the long throw to first). But that play was routine for me. I could throw them out from behind third base. I would fire the ball across the diamond.''

It's a little bittersweet.

"It was tough,'' Wilson said. "I do have some great memories. I went to spring training and met and played against Willie Mays. That was a thrill. His first time up, he grounded out to me. And I met him in the clubhouse. That was my best memory. I grew up wanting to be Willie Mays. I wanted two things from baseball: To be like Willie Mays or to play against him. One out of two isn't bad.''

Wilson eventually came home to Albany after his final year at Triple A Hawaii and got a job with Procter & Gamble. He played semi-pro ball for eight more years with the Albany Hawks, a weekend team.

"He was such a great baseball player and led Monroe High to the state championship, and he had a great career,'' said Bob Fowler, the president of the Albany Sports Hall of Fame.

Wilson will look back on all that and more Monday.

"I will never forget getting my beginning in Albany. This is where my baseball career began,'' Wilson said. "I was 15 and playing for American Legion Post 512. Most of those guys were 17 on the team.

"I remember we were in Cairo for our first game and my coach, Bob Towns, came over to me and looked me in the eye and said: 'you are my starting shortstop.' That changed my life, my career. It was a confidence builder, a momentum builder. It gave me confidence.''

He was a starting shortstop at Monroe that same year as a sophomore.

"My coach was Lewis C. Smith, and he did the same thing,'' Wilson said. "He looked me in the eye and said: 'You are my starting shortstop.' I had great coaches. Rev. Willie Jenkins was my coach my junior year and coach Walter Stubbs my senior year. I will never forget them, especially Bob Towns.

"I want to thank him on Monday night. It's not the big-name coaches who make a player. It's the coaches you have when you are young. Those are the coaches who change your life.

"I had a lot of fun playing baseball, and I want to thank them. It's a great honor to be in the (Albany Sports Hall of Fame).

"This is home.''