Baseball’s Wright Brothers and the Cincinnati Red Stockings
More than thirty years before a pair of brothers named Wright made aviation history, another Wright duo was instrumental in changing baseball from a social-club pastime to a professional game. Baseball’s Wright brothers were George and Harry, cricket players who saw the future in the American game.
A cricket book opens our story. It is Felix on the Bat, a classic cricket instructional manual written and illustrated by the great Kent and All-England batsman of the 1840s, “N. Felix,” which was the pen name for Nicholas Wanostrocht. A copy was presented to Samuel Wright, father of Harry and George in 1858, on his Benefit Day at the St. George Cricket Club, Elysian Fields, Hoboken, where the English-born Sam was the cricket professional and Harry and George two of the key players (Harry by 1854, George beginning in 1861). George was eleven at the time his father received the book, and it is not clear when Sam passed it on to George, who wrote on the flyleaf: “This book I prize very highly as it was given to me by my Father in the year 1865. Often I have viewed its contents when a boy looking forward to some day to play the game of cricket well. G.W.”
Of course, by 1865 young George was not only adept at cricket, he was well on his way to becoming the best baseball player in the land. Harry had begun to divide his time between cricket and baseball in the late 1850s, when he joined the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, whose grounds adjoined those of the St. George Cricket Club. Mirroring the divided loyalties of pre-Civil War America, both continued to play cricket for at least two more years, Harry with the Cincinnati Cricket Club, which had lured him west with the position of cricket professional and an invitation to organize a first-class baseball club. George left the champion Union of Morrisania team after the 1866 campaign to join the covertly professional Washington Nationals as they toured the west. George was supposedly earning his living as a government clerk, but the address of his “employer” as listed in the City Directory was just a public park. They traveled as far as Illinois, where the Nationals were upset by the Forest City of Rockford and their boy pitcher, Albert Spalding. George received a handsome rosewood trophy bat for “best general play.”
By 1869 both were members of baseball’s first openly all-professional team, the celebrated Cincinnati Red Stockings. George was the greatest player of his time, with wonderful batting and fielding skills and an acrobat’s flair. In 1869 he hit .629 with 49 home runs in 57 games. Harry, twelve years older, was a fading player, but he was the organizer, promoter, and father figure of the Red Stockings and professional baseball itself.
In the photo of the Reds above, George stands in the top row, second from the right, and captain Harry stands alongside him at the center. And, following a tradition far older than baseball, both left for a new opportunity when the money beckoned. When the Reds collapsed and the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players formed, Harry moved to Boston as manager and took brother George and other Red Stockings along with him to join former Rockford stars Al Spalding and Ross Barnes and Cleveland’s Deacon White.
The Wrights and Boston rolled over the competition in the National Association, winning four straight pennants by increasingly grotesque margins, thus hastening the demise of the league. In the new National League, Boston continued its winning ways, but after championships in 1877 and 1878, George went to Providence as a playing manager in 1879 and defeated Harry’s Bostons in a close race. In the mid-1930s, National League president Ford Frick gave George Wright, nearing the age of ninety, a lifetime pass to all National League grounds (note that it is #1, the first ever given).
Major-league baseball’s centennial shindig took place not in 1976, nor even in 1971, a century since the first pro league, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, commenced play. The celebration came in 1969, and in 1994 there was a splashy yearlong birthday party for the 125th year of professional baseball.
So what exactly happened in 1869? Wasn’t Jim Creighton paid in 1859 and Al Reach in 1863? Between 1865 and 1869, weren’t there such professional teams as the Atlantics of Brooklyn, the Mutuals of New York, the Athletics of Philadelphia, and more? Sure. But there was something special about 1869: the manly admission of Harry Wright to the press that his Cincinnati Red Stockings were salaried and proud of it. The Reds were thus the first avowedly professional team in baseball history, a distinction that scholars insist on using to separate this mighty team from the under-the-table schemers and gate-receipt communards who had preceded them. Besides, the Reds were the best team ever assembled to that point, and they came from all over.
Harry Wright had come to the banks of the Ohio in 1865 at the behest of the Union Cricket Club. By 1867 he had organized a Red Stockings baseball club, too, though it wasn’t yet strong enough to compete against the best. The arrival of pitcher Asa Brainard, former Brooklyn Excelsior, in 1868, followed by the advent of Harry’s brother George for the 1869 season, made the team literally unbeatable.
The Red Stockings took on all comers, from Maine to California, in 1869, and never tasted defeat. They won 84 consecutive games in 1869-1870 before getting their comeuppance from the venerable Atlantics of Brooklyn, the champions of several earlier 1860s campaigns. The Forest City of Rockford was accounted as one of the strongest nines following their 1867 upset of the touring Washington Nationals, then led by George Wright; those Nationals in turn had defeated Harry’s developing Red Stockings, 53-10. Rockford’s stars included Albert Spalding, Bob Addy, and Ross Barnes (in 1871 they would welcome a young third baseman from Marshalltown, Iowa, named Adrian Anson). In 1870 Spalding’s heady pitching led to a 12-5 victory over Cincinnati, avenging their 34-13 drubbing at the hands of the Reds in ’69.
But that was not the Reds’ first loss. On June 14, 1870, at the Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn, the Reds jumped off to a 2-0 lead in the first, but the Atlantics held a lead of 4-3 after six frames. The Reds regained the lead with two tallies in the seventh, but the Atlantics knotted the contest at 5-5 in the eighth, and there things stood at the conclusion of nine innings. Captain Bob Ferguson of the Atlantics agreed to a draw, as was the custom, but Harry Wright of the Reds insisted that the game be played to a conclusion, “if it took all summer.” Backed up by Reds president Aaron B. Champion, he ordered his men back on the field. Ferguson then did the same for his Atlantics.
After a scoreless tenth, the Reds appeared to settle the issue with two runs in the top of the eleventh. But Brainard’s nerve was wearing thin, according to the New York Clipper report. He allowed a leadoff single to Charlie Smith, then followed with a wild pitch that sent Smith all the way to third. “Old Reliable,” first baseman Joe Start, drove a long fly to right field, where Cal McVey had difficulty extricating the ball from the standing-room-only crowd. Smith scored, and now Start was on third. At this point Ferguson came to the plate and, seeing how his men had been foiled by George Wright’s brilliant plays time and again, the right-handed hitter turned around to bat from the left side, simply to keep the ball away from the Reds’ shortstop.
Ferguson drove the ball past the second baseman. Tie game! When George Zettlein drove a liner toward first base, Charlie Gould blocked it, but threw hurriedly and wildly to second base in an attempt to force Ferguson. The ball skittered into left field, and Ferguson scampered home with the winning run. Additional batters came to the plate, for the rules did not yet call for the game to end until three outs were registered in the final half inning, but no further scoring ensued. After the contest, Champion telegraphed the following message back to Cincinnati: “Atlantics 8, Cincinnatis 7. The finest game ever played. Our boys did nobly, but fortune was against us. Eleven innings played. Though beaten, not disgraced.”
By 1871 Cincincinnati Reds were no more. The club had disbanded, its possessions and trophies were sold at auction, and Harry and George found themselves playing under the old name of Red Stockings but in a new city–Boston, where they were joined by a couple of other Cincinnati teammates, the Rockford stars Spalding and Barnes, and Cleveland’s Deacon White.