“Whenever he would pull off one of those grand, unexpected plays that were so dazzlingly surprising as to dumfound 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 Crane1
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.)
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 first two international tours (1874 and 1888-1889) and remained active in that sport well into his 50s. He was an enthusiastic golfer in his twilight years and remained a lifelong proponent of exercise and competition.
There’s the summary, for one 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.
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.
In 1854 the St. George’s 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 13, 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 [played] 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
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 clubs 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 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.
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.
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 employment. 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
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.
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. Harry 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.
But Harry’s great coup was to secure the perpetually available services of his brother George, unbound by long-term contract or a not-yet-dreamed-of 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.
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 an established club 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.
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, and brother George. To this nucleus he added Rockford stars Al Spalding and Ross Barnes and, in 1873, Cleveland’s Deacon White. The rest of the 1870 Reds – Brainard, Leonard, Sweasy, 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. The collision was due to Fred Cone not hearing George call him off, because of a train whistle; the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad tracks ran along the third-base stands. 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. Although all games played were recorded in the standings, 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.
After Boston went 71-8 in 1875, winning the pennant in a cakewalk, the Chicago White Stockings, upset that such Western stars as 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.”18 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.”19
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.
In 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 in the 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.20
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 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.”21
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, 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 United States 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.)22
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.23 Wright and Ditson imported and sold golf clubs; none other than US 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.24 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 Boston 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 1925 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 number 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.
This biography appears in "Boston's First Nine: The 1871-75 Boston Red Stockings" (SABR, 2016), edited by Bob LeMoine and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to order the book in e-book or paperback, click here.
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,” http://britishandirishhistory.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/THE-WRIGHT-FAMILY....
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.
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; also, advertisement in Clipper, April 18, 1868.
12 New York City Directory, 1869 directory listing.
13 Harry Ellard, Base Ball in Cincinnati: A History (Cincinnati: self-published, 1907), 188.
14 New York Clipper, June 25, 1870.
15 Ellard, 189.
16 Cincinnati Daily Gazette, November 23, 1870.
19 Sam Crane.
20 John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 172-173.
21 Sam Crane.
22 W.D. Whitman, “George Wright,” Canton Commercial Advertiser, September 14, 1937; http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn85054395/1937-09-14/ed-1/seq-3/
23 Obituary, New York Times, August 22, 1937.
24 Francis Ouimet, A Game of Golf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932), 45.