Who Was George Wright?

George Wright, by Graig Kreindler

George Wright, by Graig Kreindler

I wrote this profile of George Wright, one of my handful of favorite players, as part of SABR’s effort to tell the story of the first great team in baseball’s first professional league. The book in which this essay appears is Boston’s First Nine: The 1871-75 Boston Red Stockings, edited by Bob LeMoine, Bill Nowlin, and Len Levin. The ebook and paperbound versions may be ordered (https://goo.gl/xLOdI1). But I heartily recommend that you get it, along with so many other splendid books, for free by joining SABR (http://sabr.org). Finally in this prefatory line, I’d like to thank artist Graig Kreindler for his permission to reproduce his fine portrait of Our Hero, and for his many kindnesses in support of baseball history. Now, here’s George, whose long and fabulous career commands a full-length biography.

“Whenever he would pull off one of those grand, unexpected plays that were so dazzlingly surprising as to dumbfound his opponents, his prominent teeth would gleam and glisten in an array of white molars that would put our own Teddy Roosevelt and his famed dentistry establishment far in the shadow.”––Sam Crane[1]

Who was George Wright? That fans should ask such a question today is unfathomable, but fame can be fleeting, even when memorialized in a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Wright was elected in 1937, did not live to see his plaque installed, and after all these years has been the subject of no book-length biography. Yet he was honored in his generation, and was the glory of his times.

As the greatest player of the period before professional league play, he was the game’s first revolving free agent, selling his services to the highest bidder in each of five successive seasons following the Civil War. In 1869 he was the shortstop and batting star of the undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings, who took on all comers coast to coast. In 57 contests that the Red Stockings played against National Association clubs—established amateur and professional teams—George Wright’s bat produced an average of five hits and 10 total bases per game, with 49 home runs among his 304 hits and a batting average of .629. (To the argument that the opposition was frequently soft: in the club’s 19 games against fellow professionals—the Reds won all, of course—he hit 13 home runs and batted .587.)

From Seymour Church, Base Ball: George Wright and the Golden Gate

From Seymour Church, Base Ball: George Wright and the Golden Gate

Wright revolutionized the style of playing shortstop, taking advantage of his magnificent arm to play beyond the baselines, an innovation. He led the Boston Red Stockings to six championships in the 1870s, then moseyed down the road to Providence at decade’s end and won another. He began a sporting-goods empire that involved him his whole life long; championed the new sports of golf and tennis in this country; played top-rank cricket in baseball’s two first international tours (1874 and 1888–1889) and remained active in that sport well into his fifties. He was an enthusiastic golfer in his twilight years and remained a lifelong proponent of exercise and competition.

There’s the summary, for he who must run as he reads. But the details of George Wright’s epic life are certainly not as well-known as those of Babe Ruth, and he may fairly be called the Babe Ruth of his time. Chronology is God’s way of telling a story, so let’s begin at the beginning.

As with Ruth, who believed that he was born in 1894 until it was revealed to him, 40 years later, that he was one year younger, George Wright has had his debut botched to this very day. Most sources (including the Hall of Fame) assert that he was born in the Westchester County city of Yonkers, New York on January 28, 1847.

But in fact George was born in the northern region of New York City known as Yorkville or Harlem.[2] More specifically, he was born into a cricket family whose home was at Third Avenue and 110th Street, easy walking distance to the Red House Grounds, where his father Samuel was the resident professional for the St. George Cricket Club (SGCC), which welcomed British expatriates but not players of American birth.

Cricket at Red House, grounds, Harlem, 1851

Cricket at Red House Grounds, Harlem, 1851

Samuel had been born in Sheffield, Yorkshire in 1812 and with his wife Ann (Tone) Wright and young son Harry (born in 1835), he came to the United States via Liverpool in 1836, lured by an offer from the Dragon Slayers. The other Wright children were all born in New York, including George’s older brother Daniel and younger brothers William and Samuel Jr. Harry trained as a silversmith (and George as an engraver) but, like his brothers in turn took to cricket under their father’s tutelage and, in the case of Harry and George, went on to become assistant professionals with the SGCC.

Samuel Wright

Samuel Wright

In 1854 the St. George Cricket Club—which had begun life in the 1830s with grounds at Manhattan’s Bloomingdale Road (today’s Broadway) and 30th Street before relocating to the Red House Grounds—accepted the invitation of the New York Cricket Club, whose players were all American-born, to share their space at the Elysian Fields across the Hudson River.[3] The Wright household relocated to Hoboken and Sam Sr. continued as instructor, groundskeeper, and principal bowler. Harry became a formidable cricketer, playing his first contest with the SGCC in 1850.[4]

Little Georgie, “when scarcely taller than a wicket,” also displayed a great aptitude for the game, and by his own account began play with the junior club in 1857, at the age of 10. By the time he turned thirteen, in 1860, he began to play alongside the men of St. George.[5] When he was 16 years old, in 1863, he played in first-eleven matches with men twice his own age. Let George tell his own cricket story:

I first commenced playing cricket when about ten years of age in the rear of the house where I lived at Hoboken, N.J. Under a long grape arbor my father first placed a cricket bat in my hands and taught me the way to handle it, as well as the way to bowl. The first match I played in was at the age of thirteen, as one of the St. George’s junior eleven against the Newark Juniors, at Newark (I then being not much higher than the wickets). I bowled well in this match, taking five wickets, for which the president of the St. George Club gave me a silver quarter dollar for each wicket captured. During that season I also played in several second eleven matches, after which I commenced to play on the first eleven at different times, and when sixteen years old I became a regular first eleven man. I visited Boston with the club, and no doubt many of the old cricket members of the Boston Club will remember me as little Georgie, as I was then called. In this match, against the Boston Club, I made double figures and bowled well, for which I was presented with a silver mug. After the match I threw a cricket ball one hundred and fifteen yards, which was considered a very long throw in those days. The Boston cricketers took my cap and placed in it many silver dollars…. During the two seasons I was with the Cincinnati Reds, I played one cricket match, that was when the club visited California, we playing a picked eleven of San Francisco, defeating the cricketers easily. I made 50 runs in this match. During the time I was a member of the Boston Baseball Club, the team played three or four matches a season, generally defeating all comers, owing to the good fielding of our ball players, and the bowling of my brother, Harry, and myself. In 1872 I was selected as one of the Massachusetts Twenty-two to play against Grace’s Eleven, which game was played on the baseball grounds…. After retiring from baseball in 1880, I became a regular member of the Longwood Club, of Boston, playing with them ever since. Cricket was my first game, and I always enjoyed playing it, and I look forward to continue playing it for a number of years to come.[6]

St. George Cricket Club, 1861, with George Wright at 14

St. George Cricket Club, 1861, with George Wright at 14

The Wright brothers had become infatuated with baseball, too. Both had been exposed to the American game and played with verve on fields adjoining the cricket grounds at the Elysian Fields. “There were, of course,” George recalled in 1888, “other base ball dubs in existence in Brooklyn, notably the old Atlantics, Stars, Excelsiors, Enterprise, etc., but the real center of base ball was at Hoboken. Here there were located three grounds, where from six to eight clubs would play practice games on various afternoons of the week, and it was here, while a member of the Gotham club, that I first learned to play ball.”[7]

Harry Wright, cricketer, 1863

Harry Wright, cricketer, 1863

Harry had become a member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1858 and was instantly deemed so proficient that he was named to play in the first of the summer’s Fashion Race Course all-star games, a three-game series pitting the best of New York clubs against their counterparts from Brooklyn. Continuing to divide his attentions with cricket, Harry remained with the Knickerbocker club until 1863, when he joined the equally venerable but by that time more competitive Gotham club. Sixteen-year-old George played catcher and outfield for the Gotham Juniors but by midseason he also played with the first-class club. On September 11, against the Star of Brooklyn, both played in a match game for the Gothams: according to the published box score, Harry at catcher and George in left field but it is possible that their positions were in fact reversed.[8]

For 1864 the Wrights returned to the Gotham club but by the following year both were on the move. George accepted a position as the professional of the Philadelphia Cricket Club. He took part in baseball games, too, with the Olympic Club, which had been founded as a town-ball club in 1833 but recently converted to the new game of baseball. Harry, too, left the Gothams for a job as a cricket pro—fatefully, as events would unfold—with the Union Cricket Club of Cincinnati; he had seen no way to earn a living in baseball. But the cricket post he would soon exchange for an opportunity to manage and captain, at the same salary, the Cincinnati Base Ball Club. Oddly, Philadelphia and Cincinnati had been the two enduring hotbeds of town ball and had taken to baseball with a near frenzy.

Felix on the Bat

Felix on the Bat

A book in the Hall of Fame’s collection, Felix on the Bat, supplies a fine memento of the Wright family’s cricket heritage. Beautifully illustrated, the book was a classic instructional written and illustrated by the great Kent and All–England batsman of the 1840s, Nicholas Wanostrocht, whose pen name was “N. Felix.” Sam gave the book to George when the boy was 18, but George had long studied it at his father’s knee. In later years he 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.”

Though employed in Philadelphia in 1865, George returned to the Elysian Fields of Hoboken for a benefit game staged for his father on September 20. Advanced in years, Sam Sr. nonetheless would continue to play cricket even after his departure to Boston in the 1870s, where Harry and George would make their fortunes.

Part 2 tomorrow!

Notes

[1] Undated clip, part of a series on “The Fifty Greatest Ball Players in History” by Sam Crane that ran in the New York Evening Journal in 1911-12.

[2] Wright’s marriage record and passport, available on Ancestry.com, say he was born in New York City. See also Bill King, Lewiston Daily Sun, January 27, 1937.

[3] “NYCC lets St. George Come to Hoboken,” classified advertisement in New York Herald, May 9, 1854.

[4] Lindsey Flewelling, “The Wright Family, Cricket in America, and the First Professional Baseball Team,” https://britishandirishhistory.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/THE-WRIGHT-FAMILY-CRICKET-IN-AMERICA-AND-THE-FIRST-PROFESSIONAL-BASEBALL-TEAM/

[5] George Wright, Record of the Boston Base Ball Club, Since Its Organization: With a Sketch of All Its Players For 1871, ’72, ’73, and ’74 and other items of interest (Boston: B.B.B.C., Rockwell & Churchill, 1874).

[6] New York Clipper, April 25, 1891.

[7] Boston Herald, June 18, 1888.

[8] New York Clipper, September 19, 1863.

 

 

4 Comments

Broadway and 30th also has a connection to Wallack’s theater of a former thread.

That Wallack’s (opposite the founding site of the National Association in March 1871) was at Broadway and 13th Street; a later Wallack’s was at 30th Street, and a still later one at 42nd Street.

The 1850 and 1860 US Census records indicate that George was born in New York.
Details here.

Yes, fine work, Mark.

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