Who Was George Wright? Part Three
My biographical profile of George Wright, continued from: https://goo.gl/toBNIF.
After Boston went 71–8 in 1875, winning the pennant in a cakewalk, the Chicago White Stockings, upset that such western stars as Al Spalding and Cap Anson were playing for clubs in the east, staged a coup that exploded the National Association. Because Chicago owner William Hulbert entered into surreptitious negotiations with Spalding—as well as White, Barnes, and McVey—during the 1875 season, he feared that revelation of his plan would lead to Chicago’s being expelled from the National Association. Instead, he withdrew from the circuit and enlisted the strongest clubs to join him in a new National League.
The Wrights stayed in town, but Boston’s “Big Four,” along with Anson of the Philadelphia Athletics, were indeed lured back to the region of their youth. After Chicago won the league’s inaugural flag in 1876, Boston resumed its winning ways with pennants in 1877 and ’78. George’s batting began to slip in his National League years, and his range decreased to the extent that he moved to second base in 1877, the year of his father’s death. In 1878 he returned to shortstop and Boston won, but he batted only .225; it looked like the end of a glorious trail.
In his heyday, there wasn’t “an infielder in the game today who had anything on George Wright when it came to playing shortstop, and certainly there was none during his time,” Deacon White later said. “George fielded hard-hit balls bare-handed, gathered them up or speared them when in the air with either hand. He was an expert and accurate thrower, being able to throw with either hand.” Added Sam Crane: “George Wright was about 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed about 160 in his prime. I remember him; he had a thick crop of dark curly hair, a small mustache and a dab on either cheek for a bluff at “siders” [a.k.a. burnsides, today known as sideburns]. He was slightly bowlegged, and I never knew a bowlegged ballplayer who was not a crackerjack—a la Hans Wagner.”
George’s heyday may have been past, yet he had one last hurrah on the playing field. In 1879 he left Boston for Providence, taking with him outfielder Jim O’Rourke, and George’s Grays won the championship by five games over brother Harry’s Red Stockings.
For 1880 George wished to return to Boston to be nearer his now thriving sporting–goods business. But National League owners had instituted a reserve clause in 1879, ostensibly concerned about the annual revolving of players from club to club, and the snatching of players from lower classifications in midseason; in truth the reserve clause was greeted by some players, grateful for the security, and reviled by others, as its effect was to tamp down salaries.
As I wrote in Baseball Garden of Eden:
At first the reserve clause applied only to five players per club, who by and large were pleased to be so designated, for to be reserved meant to be assured of a job. Within four years, however, the reserve clause came to apply to nearly all the players on a roster, binding them to one employer for life and providing management with a cudgel to keep player conduct and salary demands in line…. It did not take long for the problems attendant to the reserve clause to manifest. George Wright, who had been the greatest player in the land for a decade, with the Red Stockings of Cincinnati and then Boston, in 1879 led the Providence Grays to the championship. On April 21, 1880, however, he declined the club’s final contract offer, perhaps preferring to stay in Boston and mind his sporting-goods business. As a reserved player, however, he was obligated to play for Providence and no other; he elected to sit out the season (although he did inexplicably play in a game for Boston on May 29). For 1881, no longer under reserve, he signed to play with Boston.
George did manage to play in seven games for Boston in 1881, but he was clearly finished. When brother Harry became manager of the Grays for 1882, George joined him for one last pennant race, but the Grays finished second to the Chicago White Stockings by three games. After batting .162 in 46 games at shortstop, George left baseball for a return to business life and an occasional game of cricket … or so he thought.
In 1884 he became an owner of the Boston franchise in the Union Association, a rival major league—a second rival, actually, after the founding of the American Association in 1882—that “granted” to Wright & Ditson the supply of its official ball. When the Unions folded after one season, Wright returned his attention to his business, which Albert Spalding purchased in 1892 along with the sporting-goods firm of Al Reach—secretly in each case so as to avoid possible antitrust action under the new (1890) Sherman Antitrust Act. Both of the acquired firms appeared to act independently for years thereafter. Both Wright and Reach retained cordial relations with Spalding, and accepted his offer to serve on the Mills Commission of 1905–1907, which was responsible for determining the origin of baseball.
In 1888 Al Spalding invited George to come along on the baseball world tour of 1888–89, especially for his ability to play cricket, which the baseballists would be expected to play in England. Both of the Wrights and Spalding—indeed, the entire Red Stocking and Athletic clubs—had interrupted the 1874 regular season for two months to make baseball’s first such expedition. Sam Crane observed that “while the introduction of baseball to our English cousins was not a pronounced success, still the ballplayers taught the Britishers some few points about their own game—cricket. It was always eighteen ball-players against eleven cricketers, but the Americans were never defeated at the English game, and George Wright was the crack batter of the American eighteen.”
In 1922 Wright & Ditson issued a booklet celebrating its 50th anniversary, prompting some latter-day historians to claim that Ditson joined the firm in 1872, when he was 16. But the golden jubilee was for George Wright alone, who had conducted his sporting-goods business continuously since 1871. Henry A. Ditson did not join him until sometime in 1879, after four years in a provisions (grocery/general) business in which he became a partner, [Lewis P.] Bird & Ditson. One may understand why George wished to return to Boston in 1880 and did so, despite being compelled to sit out from baseball for a year because of the reserve clause.
The combination of Wright’s celebrity and Ditson’s backroom skills soon led to an expansion of operations and the location of new retail stores in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, in addition to Providence and Cambridge. The company began to offer not only baseball goods but also uniforms and equipment for lawn tennis, cricket, lacrosse, football, bicycling, polo, camping, and fishing.
Ditson’s particular passion was lawn tennis, which he correctly predicted would be the bellwether of the business. By 1883, the company was manufacturing the sport’s regulation tennis balls and publishing the official rules of the game. Wright & Ditson lawn tennis racquets became the gold standard.
Wright, on the other hand, while continuing an active playing regimen in cricket, attached his company’s efforts to the rising sport of collegiate football. In 1882 the company secured the right to publish the American Intercollegiate Association’s “Foot-Ball Rules” as compiled by Walter Camp, the “Referee’s Book” and the “Foot-Ball Record Book.” Publishing the books for the Association enabled Wright & Ditson to put their catalog in the hands of nearly every football player in the country.
On November 15, 1891 the 35-year-old Ditson died of heart disease. He had been responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company and replacing him would be difficult. By February 1892, Wright had made his decision; he quietly sold the controlling interest in Wright & Ditson (9,997 of the 9,999 company shares) to A.G. Spalding. Spalding brought in John Morrill, Wright’s former Boston Red Stockings teammate, to oversee Wright & Ditson’s retail department. Perhaps the most important acquisition by Spalding in 1892 was control over Wright & Ditson publications. By the mid-1890s, official Spalding guides replaced almost all of the major sports annuals previously produced by Wright & Ditson. A decade later, after the consolidation had fully taken hold—adding the Victor company into the consortium—Spalding would become the primary supplier of football equipment, Reach dominated in baseball offerings, and Wright & Ditson’s tennis and golf lines were considered the best in the nation.
As great a cricketer and baseballist and businessman as he was, George may be best known today for his contributions to golf. On one of his trips abroad in the 1880s he found some golf equipment in a store. He didn’t know what the implements were for, but concluding they were in the sporting line, he purchased a set. In Boston he put the clubs on a shelf and let them gather dust. Soon along came a Scotchman by the name of Findlay who wondered what they were doing there. Wright explained that he was at a loss to know how to use the things. The Scotchman enlightened him. They got their heads together, and not long thereafter, as none is more zealous than the convert, George Wright established, in October 1890, the first public nine-hole golf course in the U.S. at Franklin Park in Boston. (This “first” is challenged by Van Cortlandt Park, a layout in the Bronx, which may have beaten Franklin Park to the proverbial punch by a matter of months.)
The New York Times obituary in 1937 referred to Wright as “the father of the ancient game [of golf] in this country,” having been one of the first to popularize the Scottish sport on American shores. Wright and Ditson imported and sold golf clubs; none other than U.S. Open champion Francis Ouimet worked at the store while pursuing his amateur career. He would later say that George Wright “…did as much toward developing the game of golf in this country as any man,” even if Wright’s greatest gift was to approve of giving Ouimet additional vacation time so he could enter the 1913 Open. The 20-year-old caddie defeated the British “old guard” — Harry Vardon and Ted Ray — in a playoff, becoming the first amateur to win the title.
George left baseball as an active player in 1882 but, still fit from his play at cricket, tennis, and golf, donned a uniform again a couple of times in 1896 and 1897. The first instance was to honor his recently deceased brother Harry, in a National League sponsored “Harry Wright Day,” marked with games in several venues to raise money for a suitable burial monument. For Harry Wright Day at Rockford, Illinois, Al Spalding squeezed into his old uniform and pitched for a team of his Forest City playmates. On the opposing side in a Cincinnati uniform was George Wright.
George’s second and final time in baseball togs was on June 21, 1897, when he played shortstop at the South End Grounds against a touring Australian baseball team. This game was notable as well for an exhibition of Professor Hinton’s new automatic pitching machine. After the game, George Wright organized a banquet in the visitors’ honor.
In 1926 he attended the Golden Jubilee celebration of the founding of the National League. In 1935 when the National League instituted the award of lifetime passes to veterans of long service, he was given pass No. 1. Serving Commissioner Landis, Wright took part in the Centennial Committee that conceptualized the plans for the National Baseball Hall of Fame; in 1937 he was honored as its 12th inductee and the first player whose entire career was in the nineteenth century (Connie Mack, also honored in 1937, could be thus described but he was not inducted on account of his playing credentials).
George Wright died at his home in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on August 21, 1937. His resting place is the Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline. He was preceded in death (1913) by his wife, Abigail, whom he had married in Boston in 1872, and was survived by his three children: sons Irving and Beals and daughter Elizabeth. Both his sons were noted tennis players and Beals, as a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, forms with his father a unique two-sport Hall of Fame tandem.
 Sam Crane.
 John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 172-173.
 Sam Crane.
 W. D. Whitman, “George Wright,” Canton Commercial Advertiser, undated though from 1937.
 Obituary, New York Times, August 22, 1937.
 Francis Ouimet, A Game of Golf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932), 45.