Yesterday, I noted that the average major league ballplayer made over $3.2 million last year. The minimum full-season salary of even the worst-paid major leaguer was $480,000, nearly 10 times the median U.S. annual household income. With so much money in the sport, players don't have to take offseason jobs the way they once did, which deprives us of an element of color when it comes to learning about players' backgrounds.
That wasn't the case even a couple of decades ago. On Tuesday at Baseball Prospectus, Michael Clair rifled through a stack of old baseball cards from the late 1980s and gleaned some insights about players jobs and hobbies from the short bios on the cards' flipsides. The whole piece is worth reading, but a segment on one player in particular stopped me in my tracks: "…Glenn Wilson, the bespectacled traveling outfielder who owned the Hit and Run Gas Station in Montgomery, Texas."
Wilson's gas station was famous enough that it was featured in the May 29, 1989 Sports Illustrated, in a sidebar written by Franz Lidz. Though he was making $750,000 at the time — tied for the third-highest salary on the Pirates, $10,000 more than Bobby Bonilla and more than twice as much as Barry Bonds — Wilson was clearly focused on his other work, and refused even a $2 tip for a routine oil change:
"Baseball is my hobby. This is my job."
…His job during the off-season is running Glenn Wilson's Hit-and-Run Exxon in Montgomery, Texas, the only full-service station between Navasota and Conroe. "We've got everything from a hydraulic lift to a custom wheel changer to a pinup calendar," Wilson says. The only thing missing is a rest-room key chained to a 60-pound log.
"I've dreamed of having my own station ever since I was eight years old," says Wilson, 30, who used to pinch-pump for his older brother Johnie at Bo Simmons's Exxon in Channel-view, Texas. The Tigers fueled Wilson's dream when they drafted him out of Sam Houston State in 1980…
The article continues its excruciating wordplay ("…his super-unleaded arm would suffer fewer knocks and pings…") for a bit longer before revealing that Wilson bought the place after a big 1985 season with the Phillies; a trip to Baseball-Reference.com shows that he drove in 102 runs and earned All-Star honors for the only time in his career despite a meager .275/.311/.424 line. His salary nearly doubled that winter, from $260,000 to $487,500. Known more for his strong right arm than his bat, he led NL in outfielders in assists twice (including 1985) and stuck around the majors for 10 seasons, hitting .265/.306/.398 with 98 homers.
A first-round draft pick by the Tigers in 1980, Wilson was chosen just ahead of Terry Francona, Billy Beane and John Gibbons, none of whom had major league careers approaching his modest level of success. His most notable place in baseball history, however, is as one of the players sent by the Tigers to the Phillies in March 1984 in a four-player deal that brought back reliever Willie Hernandez, who earned both AL MVP and Cy Young honors while helping Detroit to a world championship that October.
By the time SI and Topps told the world of his gas station empire, Wilson was near the end of the line. After hitting just .245/.293/.364 for the Astros in 1990, he spent part of 1991 at the Braves' Triple-A outpost, sat out all of 1992 and played in just 10 more major league games in 1993.
My attempts to figure out via Google whether the station was still in business were ambiguous; at some point it went from being an Exxon station to a Texaco, and as I discovered via a blurb for Wilson's autobiography, Headed Home, along the way, life ceased to be a gas for the station's owner: "Injuries and disappointment shortened Glenn's career, and when investments soured causing business ventures to fail, he found himself living in pain and misery," but then he found religion.