Royals Legend Willie Wilson talks Cuba, Jackie Robinson, Rule Changes

During a Grapefruit League game between the Cubs and the Rangers, there was a signing booth was set up with several Hall of Famers and legends. George Foster, Gaylord Perry, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Bert Campaneris, Willie Wilson, and Fergie Jenkins were hanging out, taking pictures, and signing memorabilia for the fans, all in support of the Fergie Jenkins Foundation. Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins (played 1965-1983) and Royals legend Willie Wilson (played 1976-1994) very generously took some time to answer a few questions for the blog. You can find the Fergie Jenkins Q&A here.

Shortly after I’d finished interviewing Mr. Jenkins, Willie Wilson stepped away from the signing booth, and gave me a few minutes of his time.

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Those who’ve seen the movie “42” got a glimpse of what African American ballplayers had to go through during the ‘50s, ‘60s and so on. Would you say you’ve had similar experiences in your career? Did it feel harder for you, as an African American, playing in the U.S.?

It was a little easier for me because of what they went through, but it wasn’t easy, you know. There were some things being said to me in the minor leagues…the Southern league and the Midwest league, but it was only minute to what those guys went through. I just appreciate them, making the way for us. Because without them, we’d be doing something else.

Absolutely. Guys like Jackie Robinson really paved the way.

Well they did, you know. We talk about Jackie, but there’s a lot more guys that went through a lot more than Jackie, but he was the one that was the face and so we really appreciate him.

The recent news regarding Cuba should mean great things for the league moving forward. What do you see as the next step in that process, specifically for the inclusion of minorities in the U.S.?

Well, I mean, they were the only ones that were exempt from a lot of things: the Cubans. They had to go through, well I would say, hell, to get here…Going through the water, trying to survive. That was hard enough. And then when they get here, not speaking the language, and going through basically what a black person in the U.S. would go through is very difficult. But I think that Sunday’s game was historic in the fact that, you know, when’s the last time a U.S. President was over in Cuba, let alone watching a baseball game between the United States and Cuba? So it was a step in the right direction I feel, for the people of Cuba. The U.S., I think, has opened up the door and said to Cuba, “Okay, this is what we want to do. Let’s see if we can come to an agreement.”, and have some of these players come over here without fearing that they’re gonna die trying to get here.

Comparing today’s game to when you were playing, would you say it’s easier for African Americans to play in the Major Leagues now than it used to be? Or rather the same? Possibly harder?

No [laughs] I would not say it’s the same. I mean, it was easier for me because of Jackie and his peers. So I imagine that it’s easier for an African American nowadays, especially with the money they’re making, and the amount of time that they don’t have to participate in the game. When I was coming up, a black man didn’t sit on the bench. You either started, or you went home. They weren’t going to pay you for sitting on the bench. There’s some guys that play in this game today that sit on the bench, make a great living, and come in when they’re needed. That was very rare back in my day and especially back in Jackie Robinson’s day. So yeah, I think they got it a little bit easier, but there’s some things that are always going to be there. There’s always going to be prejudice, not as many people, but there’s always going to be some. So, yeah, they’re going through it, but not half as what I did, and not really minute to what Jackie was going through.

Guys like Jimmy Rollins, Gary Sheffield, and other big name, African American players have spoken out, saying that it’s still not fair for minorities in today’s game. Maybe not that it’s unfair, but that the game is still skewed. However you see it, there are way fewer African Americans than there are Latinos, or Caucasians, in America’s game.

Well to me, I don’t blame it on that it’s “not fair”. I blame it on the fact that the kids don’t necessarily go out and play the game. Like the kids over in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba…they’re hungry, and they don’t have video games that they can go play. So that’s why I feel like there’s not enough African Americans in this game. Plus, baseball is going over to different countries and going after players there, so there’s not as many African Americans that they’re looking at in The States. But if you’re a good athlete, and you love the game of baseball, I’m sure they will find a place for an African American that can play this game.

Would you entertain the idea of teaming up with others that have expressed their opinion? Not necessarily strictly within the baseball community, but as a nation, to bring attention to why baseball is not seen as a sport for African Americans? It’s the highest paid sport, and there are tons of role models, would you ever consider campaigning for awareness on this subject?

Well, you can always entertain the idea, but the thing is, it’s an idea. It’s not about people going out and trying to get African Americans if they’re not playing. The thing is, there is a lot more detail than that, and I think the guys that do play…they’ll find a position for you. But, you know, for me, I’m not a Hall of Famer, but I can still go out with them, behind them, because the Hall of Famers are going to have more of a voice than me. [A big smile comes across his face] But, if I’m called upon, I can say a few words.

Goose Gossage made some comments recently about the nature of the game. He talked about a lot of things, but he specifically brought up the “Chase Utley Rule” (forbidding takeout slides) and the “Buster Posey Rule” (banning home-plate collisions). Do feel these changes slow the game down? Is it good for the game to be making these rules?

Obviously, MLB thinks that it’s a good change. It’s just the way that the players are being brought up in today’s game. In our game, we tried to take the guy out at second. We didn’t try to hurt him, but we tried to take him out to break up a double play. As far as catchers are concerned: you block the plate, that’s your own discretion. Back in our day, if you were any kind of a player and you wanted to win a game, you would probably do anything possible to win that game. And if you had to block the plate and get injured a little bit, you were going to do that. A lot of players nowadays are looking at longevity, and they’re looking at what they can do 10 years from now, 15 years from now, whereas when we were playing, you wanted longevity too. But we knew that being hurt and not playing was a sure-fire way to get released. So, it’s a different game, it’s a different bunch of people but all-in-all I think MLB is trying to make the players healthier and have less injuries.

So you support the decisions overall?

Well I have to, I mean it’s not going to change. My opinion is, I played in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so it was a different ballgame. If I played today, I would grow up playing like you guys play today. So it all just depends on how you can adapt.

So who’s your favorite active player?

I mean, I’m looking at center fielders, I like Trout. He’s a New Jersey guy, I’m from New Jersey, so I like Trout.

Your pick to win it all this year?

I’m picking the Royals to repeat. If they don’t, I’ll be disappointed, and I’m sure they will be too.

A big thanks to Willie for answering all my questions and taking the time, it was truly a pleasure. Be sure to check out my interview with Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins, if you haven’t already.

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