Born: July 9, 1955
Willie James Wilson was born July 9, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama and from the age of 7 grew up in Summit with his mother and grandmother. Willie excelled on the local youth league teams in football, basketball and baseball, and went on to become one of New Jersey’s most storied prep athletes.
At Summit High, he was an unstoppable running back, racking up more than 3,500 yards as a junior and senior. He also returned kicks and punts, caught passes out of the backfield and made TD throws on options plays. His YouTube highlight reel is ridiculous. Willie’s most celebrated performance came as a senior against New Providence High on Thanksgiving Day, when he led the Hilltoppers to victory and a #1 state ranking. His mother took of work as a security guard to watch him play, and was fired.
Despite his breakaway speed on the gridiron and acrobatics on the hardwood, Willie was a catcher on his Summit baseball teams, right through high school. He was famous for beating bitters to first plate on ground balls. Summit’s baseball coach thought of moving Willie to the outfield, but was afraid he would lose him to the track team. In his final two varsity seasons, Willie batted over .400 and stole 47 bases—all standing up.
Everyone assumed Willie would accept one of the college football scholarships offered to him. He was personally recruited by Joe Paterno, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. Tom Seaver and Frank Gifford tried talking him into attending USC. Personally, Willie preferred the University of Maryland. But after the Kansas City Royals chose him with their top pick in the 1974 draft, Willie and his mom couldn’t resist the $90,000 bonus offering and he decided to switch careers. Every other major league club had contacted him, and he had told them all he wanted to play football. The Royals were the only team that didn’t reach out to him.
Willie played three seasons of minor-league ball before getting a September call-up from the Royals in 1976. A natural right-hander, he taught himself how to switch-hit in the minors during the 1977 season to take advantage of his speed. In a brief stint in KC that fall, he batted .324 and swiped 6 bases in 13 games.
Willie became a starter for the Royals in 1978, and by 1979 was among the most feared players in the game. That season he hit .313 led the majors with 83 stolen bases. In 1980, he led both leagues with 230 hits, 133 runs and 15 triples. Willie won a Gold Glove, was 4th in MVP voting and his 705 official at bats stood as a record for 27 years. The Royals won the pennant but fell to the Phillies in the 1980 World Series. Willie had a terrible time against Philadelphia pitching, setting a record with 12 strikeouts—including the final out in Game 6.
In 1982, Willie led the majors with a .332 average and played in his first of two All-Star Games. He also led the league in triples for the second time. He would earn this honors five times in all during the 1980s. That being said, the 80s weren’t entirely kind to Willie. In 1983, Willie and three teammates pleaded guilty after being caught trying to buy cocaine. All four served 81 days in a Texas prison. Willie was actually suspended for the entire 1984 season, but an appeal was successful and he was back on the field May 15th. The Royals dumped the other three players—Vida Blue, Jerry Martin and Willie Mays Aikens.cWillie gained a measure of redemption in 1985, when he helped the Royals win their first World Series. His put his post-season woes behind him, hitting over .300 in the ALCS and World Series.
In 1990, Willie became a free agent and played out his career with the A’s and Cubs, retiring during the 1994 season just shy of his 40th birthday. His final bit of glory came in the 1992 ALCS against the Blue Jays, when he tied Lou Brock’s record of 7 stolen bases in a postseason series. Willie’s lifetime average was .285, and he finished his career with 2,207 hits, 1,169 runs and 669 stolen bases. Thirteen of his 41 home runs were inside-the-park. He later wrote a book entitled Inside the Park: Running the Base Path of Life.
Willie coached for the Blue Jays in the late-1990s and lived in Canada for many years. He now makes his home in Kansas City, where he started the Willie Wilson Baseball Foundation, which teaches inner-city kids healthy life choices. About a decade ago, Willie re-engaged with New Jersey, hosting celebrity golf tournaments and running baseball camps in his old hometown. He also held free clinics and camps for children in Newark and Irvington.