Who Was George Wright? Part Two

George Wright with Union of Morrisania, 1866

George Wright with Union of Morrisania, 1866

My biographical profile of George Wright, continued from yesterday: https://goo.gl/B2fxp3.

In 1866 George returned to New York City and assumed his first (covertly) paid baseball position as shortstop and sometime third baseman of the Union Club of Morrisania. This was a celebrated early team, of interest for such other professionals as Dave Birdsall, who went on to play with George for Boston in the National Association, and Charlie Pabor, longtime pitcher and outfielder with the most inexplicable of all baseball nicknames: “The Old Woman with the Red Cap.”

But peripatetic George left the champion Unions after the 1866 campaign to join the subsidized Washington Nationals as they planned their tour of the West (what is today termed the Midwest). George was supposedly earning his living as a government clerk, but the address of his “employer” as listed in the City Directory was a public park. Below are the Nationals and their nominal occupations and places of employ. No one seemed to mind their extended absence from their desks during the tour.[9]

W.F. Williams, law student

F.P. Norton, clerk in Treasury.

G.H.E. Fletcher, clerk in Third Auditor’s Office.

E.A. Parker, clerk in Internal Revenue Department.

E.G. Smith, clerk in Fourth Auditor’s Office.

Geo. H. Fox, graduate (July 3), Georgetown College.

S.L. Studley, clerk in Treasury.

H.W. Berthrong, clerk for Comptroller of the Currency.

George Wright, clerk, 238 Pennsylvania Avenue.

H.C. McLean, clerk in Third Auditor’s Office.

A.N. Robinson, clerk, Washington D.C.

The Nationals traveled as far as Illinois, where they were upset—in their only loss of the tour—by the Forest City of Rockford and their boy pitcher, Albert Spalding. George “played short, and his style of meeting a ground ball with his heels, brought together as the ball came within handling distance, and meeting it well in front to deaden it by giving with it, was something new, and, as described in 1897, “has never been improved on to this day.”[10]

Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1868

Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1868; Harry Wright seated at left

In a game against the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Harry’s expected pleasure in playing against his brother’s club soon was dashed: After initially holding their own against the Nationals, tied at 6–6 into the fourth inning, the Reds ultimately were humiliated by a count of 53–10. Although this would be their only loss of the year, it came against their lone opponent from outside the tristate area, and so a lesson was there to be drawn. At the end of the season, the Red Stocking club directors instructed Harry to follow the Nationals’ model and begin recruiting professionals from distant places.

Wright Bros. Sporting Goods; Clipper, April 18, 1868

Wright Brothers Sporting Goods; Clipper, April 18, 1868

Returning to New York in 1868, George was welcomed back by the Unions of Morrisania. In a little noted sidelight, the return to New York enabled George, with the distant participation of brother Harry, to establish a “base ball and cricket depot.”[11] In the 1869 New York city directory, George Wright is listed as being in the business of “balls,” at 615 Broadway, residing at 300 Willow in Hoboken. Harry is listed in the same place of business, though with an unlisted residence; we of course know he resided in Cincinnati.[12] The venture lasted only this one year, but would be resumed in Boston in 1871 as [George] Wright & [Charles] Gould at 18 Boylston Street and, later on, as the long-lived [George] Wright & [Henry A.] Ditson firm. In between, George had a solo operation, selling “cigars and base ball goods,” at, first, 18 Boylston; then, 591 Washington Street; and, next, 39 Eliot Street. Harry Wright’s later partners in Boston-based sporting goods would be George Howland and Louis Mahn.

We have seen that Harry felt the need to improve his Red Stockings after their thrashing by the Nationals. The arrival in 1868 of pitcher Asa Brainard from the 1867 Nationals—he had been the successor to Jim Creighton with the Excelsior of Brooklyn—and local first baseman Charlie Gould strengthened the club. He also signed New Yorkers John Van Buskirk Hatfield and Fred Waterman, and brought in catcher Doug Allison from Philadelphia. For 1869, he embraced the Nationals’ model of total professionalism. In short order Harry turned away all the club’s local lads except for Gould; relinquished the revolver Hatfield back to the Mutuals, his former club; and signed Cal McVey from Indianapolis. He also reached terms with Charlie Sweasy, Andy Leonard, and Dick Hurley from the local Buckeyes, the first two having come to Cincinnati by way of their former club, the Irvingtons of New Jersey, the last named by way of Columbia College in New York.

First Nine of the Cincinnati Red Stockings

First Nine of the Red Stockings

But Harry’s great coup was to secure the perpetually available services brother George, unbound by long-term contract or a not yet dreamed reserve clause. Thus were the 1869 Red Stockings set to become the most accomplished club in the land and, at $9,300 in salaries alone, the most profligate. George was paid $1,400, even more than Harry, whose $1,200 salary was second highest. The money made the team powerful, but no one could have imagined that they would be literally unbeatable. George Wright became baseball’s first nationwide hero.

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.

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.”[13] 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 10th, the Reds appeared to settle the issue with two runs in the top of the 11th. But Brainard’s nerve was wearing thin, according to the New York Clipper report.[14] 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—thus becoming the game’s first documented switch hitter.

June 14, 1870, Reds vs Atlantics; Harper's Weekly

June 14, 1870, Reds vs Atlantics; Harper’s Weekly

Ferguson drove the ball past the second baseman to tie the score. 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.”[15]

Interest in the Red Stockings waned in the second half of the 1870 season as they had the temerity to lose six of that season’s 74 contests. Cincinnati fans, their passions stoked by the club’s directors, accused the players—the Wrights in particular—of sabotage.[16]

During the various tours our club made through the country the past season, these players [the Wrights], it is said, convened councils of the best and most prominent members of opposing nines. In these councils they took pains to impress upon the minds of their fellow professionals the great value of their services, and the limited compensation they were receiving…. The result of all this maneuvering has been that the players whose services are desirable hold themselves at such enormous figures as to preclude the possibility of engaging them with any hope of meeting expenses with the receipts of games…. The officers of the Cincinnati club are, of course, highly indignant at this procedure upon the part of the Wrights, and with characteristic independence, will not submit to be dictated to…. The members of the late first nine, with their inflated ideas of their market value, will be permitted to drift wherever chance or self-interest may lead them.[17] 

Has it not been ever thus? The Cincinnati directors withdrew their support, the club disbanded, and the ballpark was razed, with the lumber and the Red Stocking trophy bats and balls hammered down at auction.

Boston 1871

Boston 1871

Harry “drifted on” on to form the Boston Red Stockings as a charter member of the newly formed National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, bringing along fellow Cincinnati alumni McVey, Gould, Sweasy, and brother George. To this nucleus he added Rockford stars Al Spalding and Ross Barnes and Cleveland’s Deacon White. The rest of the 1870 Reds—Brainard, Leonard, Waterman, and Allison—went to Washington to play with the Olympics.

Despite its imposing lineup, Boston fell short of the winning the flag in 1871 as George suffered a leg injury in an outfield collision that kept him out of all but 16 of the club’s 31 games. Second baseman Barnes was compelled to play shortstop, with the light-hitting Sam Jackson taking over at the keystone sack.

The league provided no mandated slate of games, but instead left it to the clubs to schedule five games with each competitor with three victories ending the series—so the teams played varying numbers of games. Winning percentage did not determine the champion. But the major innovation of the National Association, besides its very existence, was the establishment of a pennant race. The Philadelphia Athletics captured the flag in that inaugural season, by virtue of a defeat on October 30 of the demoralized Chicago White Stockings, playing in borrowed uniforms of various hues and styles because their equipment (and their ballpark) had been destroyed in the Great Fire three weeks earlier.

The Wrights and Boston, however, rolled over the competition in the next four years, winning by increasingly grotesque margins, thus hastening the demise of the National Association. George, who hit .413 in his curtailed season of 1871, went on to hit .337, .387, .329, and .333 while fielding his position brilliantly.

Part Three, in conclusion, tomorrow!

Notes

[9] Ball Players’ Chronicle, August 8, 1867, 2, in letter from Frank Jones, club president.

[10]  George V. Tuohey, A History of the Boston Base Ball Club (Boston: M.F. Quinn, 1897), 198.

[11] Ball Players’ Chronicle, March 3, 1868, 77.

[12] New York City Directory, 1869 directory listing.

[13] Harry Ellard, Base Ball in Cincinnati: A History (Cincinnati: Privately published, 1907), 188.

[14] New York Clipper, June 25, 1870.

[15] Ellard, 189.

[16] Cincinnati Daily Gazette, November 23, 1870.

[17] Ibid.

2 Comments

I’m intrigued by the Nationals team of 1866. I see that most of the claimed “occupations” of the team members pertained to the Treasury Department or other positions of accounting type offices. If I remember correctly, Nicholas Young was employed by the Treasury Department. Was he involved with the Nationals and was able to find the players government positions? I don’t remember when Young was mustered out of Army service after the Civil War, but I recall that he was involved with the Olympic club in the 1870s.

The Nationals’ big recruitment of exogenous players came in 1867, not 1866. But the 1866 club was developing an outsider presence. See: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/06/02/sketch-of-national-game-of-baseball-by-george-wright/

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