I just finished reading a post called “Looking Back: California’s Negro League“, by Ralph Pearce, written for the San José Public Library.
It was nice, informative, and mentioned in passing, Lionel “Lefty” Wilson, former Mayor of Oakland, California. Lionel was one of the Oakland Larks pitching staff, along with Marion “Sugar” Cain, Wade James, “Wee Willie” Jones, and Charles “Specks” Roberts. Not many people know that Lionel “Lefty” Wilson was part of the Oakland Larks pitching staff, but they know even less about how many years he played the game of baseball as a formidable semi-professional pitcher on multiple teams in the Berkeley Colored League, and other East Bay Area teams in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I’ve always wanted to do a post about Mayor Wilson’s abilities as a baseball wunderkind, utilizing the sporting skills he amassed, which served him well during his three terms in office as Oakland’s first African American mayor, that lasted from 1977 to 1991. Lionel Wilson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was the eldest son of Jules and Louise Wilson, when Lionel’s family moved to Oakland in 1918, and Lionel was just under four years of age. He and his two young brothers, Kermit and Julius, along with Jules’ mother, Mary Wilson, left the South to forge ahead and seek new opportunities in California during the period of the Great Migration. As a boy, he spent a good deal of his time playing sports and delivering newspapers throughout the Oakland and Berkeley proper–on foot.
After graduating with honors from McClymond High School, Lionel’s grades and hard efforts made it possible for him to enroll in the University Of California at Berkeley to study economics. It should be noted, at the same time he was an integral part of the Berkeley Pelicans of the Berkeley Colored League, which would become the Berkeley International League by 1935. I was asked to point him out in this photograph, archived by John Ward, owner and proprietor of Good Old Sandlot Days website, and it was easy enough to do. Lionel Wilson was the sharp dressed young man, wearing the Cal Berkeley letterman’s sweater.
Berkeley Pelicans of the Berkeley International League, formerly the Berkeley Colored League
I do believe the photograph is circa 1930’s, and a further approximation would be between 1933 and 1935. Lionel was one of the pitchers on the roster for the California State Semi-Pro Championship Tournament for 1935, sponsored by the Oakland Tribune and the Northern California Baseball Managers Association. The tournament itself was styled after the Denver Tournament, and after years of correspondence, Charlie Tye, Executive Secretary of the Northern California Baseball Managers Association was able to put together a solid annual event where as many as 35,000 spectators watched their favorite hometown semi-pro players, until the remaining five top five teams competed in the finals for a shared pot of $3,500-and bragging rights.
Editorial from ‘Basehit’, the Official Souvenir Program for the 3rd Annual California State Semi-Pro Baseball Championship Tournament in 1935
By 1939, Lionel had graduated from Cal Berkeley with a B.A. in Economics. He put himself through school by working as a Pullman Porter, a dishwasher, and a factory laborer at the C&H Sugar Refinery in Crockett, and still found time to play semi-professional baseball and basketball. By 1940, he found employment as a maintenance worker at Alameda Naval Air Station, and was part of the recreation staff at the North Oakland Y.M.C.A., which is noted in the 1940 U.S. Census, although it shows him as a “Teacher” for the E.E.P (Emergency Educational Program founded by the Works Progress Administration), which Lionel clarifies in his Bancroft Library Oral History interview with interviewer Gabrielle Morris.
By 1940, Lionel would once again pick up his glove and don his baseball cap to play in the 1940 California State Semi-Pro Championship Tournament for the California Eagles. Except this time, he wasn’t part of the pitching staff. That was left to “Cool Papa” Jackson, Mike “Showboat” Berry, “Speedball” Cranston, and “Schoolboy” Taylor. Lionel was on the team as Lionel Wilson, not “Lefty”, for the tournament. That year, he played Center Field for Ike Thompson, Manager of the California Eagle Champions.
1940 California Eagles, Champions of the California State Semi-Pro Championship Tournament
Working at the Naval Air Station only delayed Lionel Wilson being drafted. At first, it was thought that he might join the Civil Air Corps, but that idea wasn’t for him. Even with his degree and work experience, Lionel made the decision to enlisted in the United States Army in 1943, and served two years during the end period of World War II. After completely three years of service two of them in a combat unit in the U.S European Forces, Lionel was promoted to First Sargent. He left the service shortley after being accepted at Hasting Law School in San Francisco.
In 1946, he would also return to his first love; baseball. In 1946, upon the creation of the West Coast Baseball Association, Lionel tried out for the Oakland Larks and made the team. It should be noted here that Ike Thompson, former Manager of the California Eagle Championship team, would one sit on the Board of Directors for the West Coast Baseball Association and would have known the quality of baseball that was played by Lionel “Lefty” Wilson.
Lionel “Lefty”-“Everything” Wilson, 5 wins 2 Losses, Bats Left, Throws Left
At the age of 31, “Lefty” Wilson would find himself part of the pitching staff of a newly formed, professional ‘Negro League’, based on the West Coast, that was started by Abe Saperstein and Jessie Owens, along with Byron “Speed” O’Reilly acting as the Executive Manager of the WBCA and Dewey Portlock as its Executive Secretary. Lionel would play as often as he could, and playing for the Oakland Larks would always in the forefront of his memories, while the time he spent playing semi-professional baseball was always a conversation that Mayor Wilson avoided, if at all possible. Even if he did play on championship teams in his youth, it was a sore spot that he never quite shook.
Lionel Wilson spent a good portion of his youth hoping the doors of integration would open up in the world of baseball, so he could give it his best shot when he was still relatively a young man. The Oakland Larks would be his last attempt at being noticed by the powers that be in the professional baseball circles; those able to recognize his prowess as a left-handed dynamo and team leader of the men that he played with. The Oakland Larks would be the end of that dream and his professional baseball quest. He went on to become a outstanding lawyer, the first African American Judge of Alameda County appointed to the bench, and eventually the first African American Mayor of the City Of Oakland. The early years he spent playing baseball for the Berkeley Colored League taught him the value of perseverance.
Hats off to one of baseball’s finest men.