Rasty Wright is in all probability the first player in the history of baseball to reach 2,000 career hits in the minor leagues.1 He spent 16 seasons (1884-1899) as a professional baseball player but only one in the major leagues. In 1890, he batted .305 as an outfielder for the Syracuse Stars of the American Association, but his one season at the pinnacle of his profession hit a sour note when he was released after playing 88 games. The coda was not any better; he concluded the season batting a paltry .111 in 13 games for the National League's Cleveland Spiders. Wright rebounded to become among the brightest stars of the Western League, the precursor of the American League, in the 1890s, despite a reputation as “willful and disputatious.”2 The fame earned in the Nineteenth Century as a baseball player was squandered by infamy in the Twentieth Century, as he became known as a “man about town” in his adopted home town of Duluth, Minnesota.
William Smith Wright was born on January 31, 1863, in Birmingham, Michigan. He was one of four children born to Aaron and Laura (aka Flora) (McKinnon) Wright, three of which survived to adulthood.3 Aaron Wright was a farm laborer born in Norwich, Ontario, Canada, circa 1830. Laura McKinnon, born circa 1831, was from Argyllshire, Scotland. Aaron and Laura were married on September 21, 1858, in Woodstock, Ontario.4 George W. Wright (1861–1896) and Susan B. Richardson (1865–1929) were William's siblings.5
Wright began his baseball career with the Hungry club in his hometown with fellow Birmingham native and future major-league player John Rainey. From 1882 to 1883, Wright and Rainey played for the Cass semi-pro team of Detroit “that won country-wide prestige through the United States and Canada.”6 Their teammates included other future major-leaguers Tom “Dasher” Kearns and Louis “Jumbo” Schoeneck.7
When the club representing Muskegon, Michigan, was admitted to the Northwestern League in January 1884, Wright was listed among those already signed. He played his first year of professional baseball for Muskegon's first professional team. Muskegon also signed Rainey and Kearns, though Kearns ended up playing for Grand Rapids, Michigan.8
In 1885, Wright and Rainey played for “Hustling” Dan O'Leary's Toledo Avengers of the Western League, but the club folded on June 11. Rainey finished the season with Hamilton, Ontario, and Wright joined him there the following year. The boys from Birmingham were teammates in the Canadian city in both 1886 and 1887.
Wright married Margaret Cecelia Kennedy in her hometown of Port Hope, Ontario, on January 25, 1887.9 Married life must have suited him well as his batting average jumped from .276 in 1886 to .422 in 1887,10 and his stolen bases increased from 23 to a career-high 73.11 The Wrights had four children: William Storrs (1889-1961), John Charles (1891-1949), Francis Vincent (1894-1959), and Margaret F. Green (1901-1961).
The Syracuse Stars signed Wright for $1,500 for 1888.12 Syracuse won the league pennant that year with an 81-30 record, thanks in part to its pair of battery mates who happened to have darker skin color than their teammates: pitcher Robert Higgins and bare-handed catcher Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker. Walker was four years removed from his appearance as the first African-American to play in the major leagues, for Toledo of the American Association. Higgins, who posted a 20-7 record for Syracuse in 1887, and was 17-713 when he tired of the racist culture of professional baseball and returned to his home in Memphis prior to the end of the 1888 season. Meanwhile, Wright led the league in runs scored with 143. Both Wright and Walker returned to Syracuse in 1889. When the Stars made the jump from the International League to the major league American Association in 1890, Wright was among the six holdovers from the 1889 squad. Walker had been released in August 1889; the next black player to appear in the International League was Jackie Robinson for Montreal in 1946.
After Syracuse released Wright on August 16, 1890, an editorial called the transaction a “foolish move” and “the height of folly.” The article went on to tout Wright's offensive production on an otherwise lackluster squad: “Wright is not a great fielder, but gets his bases on balls as often as any man in the Association. Aside from this, he is a hard hitter.” Wright was batting .370 on the Stars' eight-game road trip prior to his release, and scored 10 of the team's 31 runs in that span.14 He was the team's second-best hitter, behind Cupid Childs.
The Bradford, Pennsylvania, club of the New York-Pennsylvania League signed Wright to a $15-a-day agreement.15 Wright was playing center field one day against Olean (NY) in a 14-inning game that ended when a dog ran around the field with the ball in its mouth long enough to allow Olean to score the winning run. An estimated $10,000 had been wagered by the spectators. Those betting on Bradford were less than pleased by the umpire's decision to allow the run and again when the ruling was sustained by the league office.16
The Cleveland Spiders then signed Wright to finish the season. He hit a double in his first at-bat in the National League, but sputtered in the final weeks and was released.17
The Detroit Wolverines of the Northwestern League hired Wright for his first turn as a playing manager in 1891. There he was reunited with shortstop John Rainey. “Wright is a kicker,” claimed the Bay City Times (Bay City, Michigan) on June 8. The Times did not pull any punches: “Tug (Arundel) and Wright ought to be yoked together and driven under a street sprinkler,” for their arguing with umpires. “It was Wright and the Detroits who gave the national game a black eye in Bay City. They disgusted all the friends the game had here.” Wright interrupted his playing to return to Syracuse in early June “as witness in an Italian murder trial.”18 The Detroit club folded after just 29 games.
Duluth of the Western Association signed Wright, along with Joe Miller and Milt Whitehead, on June 17.19 The club had been transferred from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Duluth in early June but did not play in its new home city until July 5. The Western Association reorganized on August 20, and dropped Duluth, Lincoln (Nebraska), and Minneapolis from the circuit. Wright joined Omaha (Nebraska), one of the four remaining clubs, for the remainder of the season.20
Wright traveled to Toronto with Rainey and Chub Collins in Feb. 1892. The trio were “willing to invest $2,500” to enter a club in the Eastern League. “They were, however, disappointed in securing the necessary support, and they had to abandon the scheme. Wright...signed with Los Angeles...”21
The Los Angeles Herald sang Wright's praises as he was set to play for that city's first professional club,22 where he played two seasons—1892 and 1893—in the California League. “Wright is a great batter,” the Herald boasted. “He never drinks or uses tobacco. Altogether, Wright is a model player, and will aid materially in landing the flag for Los Angeles.”23 (Los Angeles won the pennant in 1892 and finished second in 1893). Wright led the league in runs scored with 166 in 1892 and in batting in 1893, at .350.
The Los Angeles Herald of May 19, 1893, tells of an eyewitness's account in the trial of E. F. “Buck” Holliday, a gambler who allegedly assaulted and fired five shots at another gambler by the name of J. B. Burton in Los Angeles in November 1892. The witness, a “young barkeeper named Linston,” reported he and others were sitting at a table in a poker room “on Second street, between Main and Spring streets, run by Rasty Wright the ball player,” when Holliday entered and “requested them to vacate as he had some business with Burton.” Linston went on to say he saw Holliday strike Burton on the head with an object before Wright “shoved the men out on the street,” where Holliday “fired two shots at Burton and then retreated toward Mott alley, firing as he went.” Burton retaliated by shooting twice at Holliday.
Back in Michigan for the 1894 campaign, Wright's second stint as a playing manager, this time for Grand Rapids, was also brief. Shortstop Bobby Wheelock replaced him in May 1894. “This was done to have an infielder handle the club.”24 Wright led the Western League in batting in 1894. On October 16, the Kansas City Star reported his final batting average as .476. The following year, the Grand Rapids Press reported that Minneapolis's Charlie Frank won the 1895 league batting championship with a .478 average, “twenty-two points better than Rasty Wright's record the preceding season,” which puts it at .456. Baseball-reference.com lists it as .423, which, if true, would mean Minneapolis's Hunkey Hines (.427) retroactively edged him out for the batting title, if Hines's average is accurate. In The Western League: A Baseball History, 1885 through 1999, authors W. C. Madden and Patrick J. Stewart list Wright as the 1894 league leader in batting (.476), runs (217) and hits (253).25
“Rasty Wright, a lusty gentleman with a pair of shins that would beautify the front row of a burlesque show, is a dangerous man with a bat,” reported the Kansas City Times on June 9, 1895, while Wright's Grand Rapids team was in town playing against the Blues.
The 1894 and ‘95 seasons for Grand Rapids were the best of Wright's career. He batted over .400 both years and accumulated a combined total of 389 runs, 457 hits, 89 doubles, 35 triples, 11 home runs, and 67 stolen bases.26 He served as playing manager in both seasons, and the club was called “Rasty Wright's Rustlers” or “Rasty Wright's Rippers.”27
After working at a cigar factory in Birmingham over the winter,28 Wright was listed among the managers in attendance at the February 1896 meeting of the “National league and of the national board of arbitration” in New York City as representing the Paterson, New Jersey, club.29 The Boston Herald may have been misinformed regarding which team Wright was associated with, as he was the playing manager of the Newark club in 1896. He played for Newark for the majority of the season but lost his role as playing manager to shortstop Leo Smith in May when he clashed with management.30 He wrapped up the season with Grand Rapids.
After staying with Newark—where he was part owner of the club—for the 1897 season, Wright attended the International League meeting in Port Huron, Michigan, on February 16, 1898, with a petition for Grand Rapids to join the league. St. Thomas, Ontario, was selected instead;31 Wright signed with Wilkes-Barre for 1898 season, but left the club after 58 games when his salary was reduced. He once again finished with Grand Rapids.
A writer for Sporting Life commented on Wright's ability to eat copious amounts of food: “Although I already have by heart the squib about 'Rasty' Wright's gastronomic feats rivaling a tale from 'Rabelais.' I just have unwittingly read it again. Who is this man Rabelais, anyhow? Why don't (baseball magnates) Brush, Krautoff, Kramer, and Co. squelch and abate him?”32
Wright was released as the playing manager of the Paterson Giants by owner A. S. Parsons on May 10, 1899, after Wright had taken the Giants' share of the game receipts in Wilkes-Barre without Parsons' knowledge and refused to give the money back to Parsons, claiming he was owed it and he had a note to meet. Parsons said whatever debt Wright owed was not relative to the club and Wright was not the proper claimant for the cash, but did not blame the Wilkes-Barre club for mistakenly handing it over to Wright.33 He concluded his playing career by playing for Buffalo for one week in June.
In 1,454 minor-league games, Wright had a career batting average of .351, and accumulated 2,111 hits, 1,655 runs, 336 doubles, 137 triples, 42 home runs, and 388 stolen bases.34
The Muskegon Chronicle of January 16, 1900, stated Wright had “opened a stock exchange in Grand Rapids, representing a Buffalo firm.” It quoted a clairvoyant Wright as predicting that the Grand Rapids club would be dropped when the Western League changed its name to the American League. The franchise did indeed move; it has been Cleveland's entry in the American League since 1900.
Wright was among the suitors for the city of Sparta, Michigan's coveted singular saloon license in 1902. He offered to bring a baseball club to the town but the city fathers were more interested in a hotel and opera house as a part of the deal.35
A warrant was issued for Wright's arrest on December 2, 1903, for “running a gambling room in what is known as the Atlas club, located in rooms above Charles A. Kelly's saloon on North Market Street” in Grand Rapids. The warrant stemmed from William Ramey's suit to recover $250 he said he lost playing poker at the club. Because of a prior offense, Wright would be subject to imprisonment if convicted.36 Wright skipped town. A boxing match he was promoting between Jack O'Keefe and Gus Gardner scheduled for December 10 was canceled by the Grand Rapids Board of Police and Fire Commissioners. The board declared Wright unable to be a fight promoter on account of the warrant for his arrest and the fact he had disappeared.37
Wright next showed up back in Duluth.
Margaret filed for divorce in early 1908, while Wright was cooling in Duluth's St. Louis County jail for non-support of his family. She was awarded temporary alimony of $6 per week and $50 for attorney fees. “There is a woman in the case,” stated the Duluth News Tribune. Wright had been arrested several months previous in a Duluth hotel on a statutory charge while with a young woman, who, according to Margaret, “was driven out of town” by the police and followed to St. Paul, by Wright.38 Margaret was granted a divorce on February 25, 1908.39
On December 2, 1909, Wright was found guilty of “conducting a gambling establishment” in Duluth and was forced to choose between paying a $100 fine or spending 60 days in the jailhouse. He opted to pay the penalty.40
Wright was arrested on May 4, 1910, in his room at Duluth's Lincoln Hotel, “on a state warrant sworn out by John Salo, accusing Wright of having gambling paraphernalia, namely poker chips and cards, in his possession.” Wright stated he believed Salo was “sore” over losing “$18 or $20” in a poker game played at Wright's room an evening prior to the arrest. He posted $100 bail and was arraigned the following morning.41
Wright was in the news in December 1910 for a five-night one-on-one series of pool matches against C. D. Thomas at Cook's billiard hall in Duluth. Although no impropriety was reported, one may assume healthy wagers were placed on the series.
On February 24, 1913, Wright was discharged in municipal court after proving he had sold his interest in the property located at 124 West Superior Street to Charles S. McCord prior to a police raid in which three doors were “battered down” in an attempt to find the vault where gambling games were in progress. The charge of “keeping gambling devices” was dropped against Wright, but his son “Storris” (sic) was fined $27 for a similar charge. McCord was fined $100 for his involvement. The junior Wright claimed to be an employee of McCord's, not a partner.42
Eight men, including Wright, were arrested on March 30, 1918, in a raid at 510 West Superior Street, after the police received multiple complaints. Seven men were charged with gambling and Wright was accused of “being the keeper of a gambling house.”43
Perhaps the ultimate nefarious episode of Wright's life involved an armed robbery that reads like a crime novel. In the early morning of February 13, 1921, a crap game at Wright's apartment located at 224 West Third Street was interrupted by a lone gunman, masked by a handkerchief and wearing a wig, who stole a reported $2,000 worth of cash and jewelry (later estimated at $400) from the 15 victims present. Three shots were fired—two at fleeing participants who presumably thought it was a police raid, and one at Wright's feet when he did not move fast enough to the gunman's instruction to place his hands up and face the wall with the others. The robber taunted and teased the men as he stripped them of their valuables. Duluth plain clothes officers later stopped known gamblers on the street and asked for the time; nine who could not produce their pocket watches were suspected of being among the victims and booked on gambling charges. Wright was arrested for keeping a gambling place.44 Cuban boxer William Reddy “Batting” Bowens was tied to the crime when it was discovered he had purchased his disguise from a local masquerade dealer.45
Wright died at his home from a cerebral hemorrhage on October 14, 1922, at age 59.46 William and Margaret may have reconciled at some point as his Duluth News Tribune obituary lists a surviving wife, and Margaret's name is affixed to the line corresponding to his spouse on his death certificate. Funeral services were held at the Sacred Heart Cathedral, which is listed on the U. S. National Register of Historic Places. He is interred in an unmarked grave at Calvary Cemetery in Duluth.
Margaret died at her daughter's home in Los Angeles in 1947. She lived in Duluth for 43 years but spent her final four years in L.A. She is also buried at Duluth's Calvary Cemetery.47
“Say, how many more 'Rasty' Wrights are there?” asked the Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky) on June 11, 1921, in its “Sport Chat” column. The Herald listed “our own primeval Rasty here in Lexington,” along with two others: a pitcher for the Louisville Colonels and a pitcher for Richmond, Kentucky's semi-pro team. The Herald asked, “Any more?”
Besides the unmentioned William, there was also Clarence Eugene “Rasty” Wright (1878-1930). He played in the major leagues from 1901 to 1904 for Brooklyn, Cleveland, and the St. Louis Browns, and was later an umpire in the Northwestern League.
Lexington's Rasty (Floyd H. Wright, 1892-1985) played minor league baseball for Lexington of the Ohio State League in 1915.
The Colonels' Rasty was Wayne Bromley Wright (1895-1948), a pitcher for Louisville in 1920 and ‘21 between stints with the St. Louis Browns (1917-1919 and 1922-1923). In Baseball Nicknames: A Dictionary of Origins and Meanings, James K. Skipper tells of Wayne “Rasty” Wright being nicknamed after William. William, who was perhaps the dean of the “Rastys,” has an unfortunately ambiguous entry in Skipper's book, which states, “nickname origin unknown.”48
1 Minor League Baseball Stars Volume II. The Society For American Baseball Research. Ag Press. Manhattan, Kan. 1985. p. 128.
2 Nemec, David. Major League Baseball Profiles 1871-1900, Volume 2. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, Neb. 2011. p. 501.
3 Death Certificate for Mrs. Aaron Wright. 27 March 1899. File No. 1095. Michigan Department of State – Division of Vital Statistics. Accessed via Ancestry.com on 19 February 2014.
4 Archives of Ontario; Series MS248; Reel:12. Accessed via Ancestry.com on 19 February 2014.
5 1880 United States Federal Census. Birmingham, Oakland, Michigan. Roll: 598. Family History Film: 1254598. Page: 48B. Enumeration District: 249. Image: 0538. Accessed via Ancestry.com on 19 February 2014.
6 Rainey Dead. Sporting Life. 23 November 1912. p. 15.
7 Los Angeles Herald, Volume 37, Number 155, 24 March 1892.
8 The Recent League Meeting. Muskegon Chronicle (Muskegon, Michigan). 12 January 1884. p. 3.
9 Marriage License for William and Margaret Wright. 25 January 1887. File No. 008752. Durham County, Division of Port Hope, Ontario, Canada. Accessed via Ancestry.com on 26 September 2013.
10 Ibid 5.
11 Ibid 1.
12 Local Events. Muskegon Chronicle. 17 April 1888.
14 Wright's Release Not Altogether Relished. Clipping from Unknown Source. 21 Aug. 1890. Courtesy of The National Baseball Hall of Fame.
15 Diamond Dust. Bay City Times (Bay City, Mich.). 24 September 1890. p.8.
16 Fullerton, Hugh S. “Punk Brand of Baseball Rule in Big League Circles So Far.” Denver Rocky Mountain News. 3 June 1912. p. 7.
17 Ibid 2.
18 Sporting Life. 6 June 1891. Vol. 17. No. 10. p. 2.
19 New Talent Signed. Duluth News Tribune. 18 June 1891.
21 “Not In It.” Sporting Life. 27 February 1892. Vol. 18 No. 22. p. 1.
22 Nelson, Kevin. The Golden Game: The Story of California Baseball. Heyday Books. Berkeley, Cal. 2004.
23 Ibid 5.
24 Boston Herald. 29 May 1894.
25 Madden, W.C., and Stewart, Patrick J. The Western League: A Baseball History, 1885 through 1999. McFarland and Company. Jefferson, North Carolina. 2002. p. 39.
27 Worth, Richard. Baseball Team Names: A Worldwide Dictionary 1869-2011. McFarland & Co. Jefferson, N.C. p. 117.
28 Baseball Brevities. Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.). 8 December 1895. p. 10.
29 Ward Released. Boston Herald. 25 February 1896. p. 1.
30 “Baseball News and Comment.” Sporting Life. 16 May 1896. p. 5.
31 Even Rasty Wright Yearns to be a Grand Rapids Base Ball Magnate. Grand Rapids Press. 17 February 1898.
32 Sporting Life. 27 August 1898.Vol. 31. No. 23. p. 13.
33 “Rasty” Wright is Released. Wilkes-Barre Times. 11 May 1899.
34 Ibid 1.
35 Must Pay For It. Grand Rapids Press. 25 March 1902.
36 Rasty In Trouble. Grand Rapids Press. 3 December 1903.
37 Fight Called Off. Grand Rapids Press. 5 December 1903.
38 Rasty Wright is Sued for Divorce. Duluth News Tribune. 2 January 1908.
39 Seven Actions For Divorce. Duluth News Tribune. 26 February 1908.
40 'Rasty' Wright Pays Fine; Companions Forfeit Bail. Duluth News Tribune. 3 December 1909.
41 “Rasty” Wright Again in the Police Toils; Accused of Gambling. Duluth News Tribune. 5 May 1910.
42 Proves He Holds No Interest in Layout. Duluth News Tribune. 25 February 1913.
43 Rasty Wright Arrested in Superior Street Raid. Duluth News Tribune. 31 March 1918.
44 Police Take Ten In Gambling Net; Holdup Sequel. Duluth News Tribune. 16 February 1921.
45 Suspect in Gambling Holdup Denies Guilt. Duluth News Tribune. 23 February 1921.
46 Death Certificate for William S. Wright. 14 October 1922. File No. 25083. State of Minnesota Division of Vital Statistics. Copy obtained by author from St. Louis County Courthouse, Duluth, Minn., October 2013.
47 Obituary for Mrs. Margaret C. Wright. Duluth News Tribune. 10 October 1947.
48 Skipper, James K. Baseball Nicknames: A Dictionary of Origins and Meanings. McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C. 1992. p. 308