SABR

Ed Wright

This article was written by Bob Brady.

Midway through the last Saturday afternoon of the 1992 baseball season at Fenway Park, the large electronic scoreboard that sat atop the center-field bleachers flashed a welcoming message to the 73-year-old one-time proprietor of Wright’s Exxon Service Station in Dyersburg, Tennessee, who was among that day’s attendees. The previous time this man had set foot in the ballpark was as a right-handed pitcher for the 1952 Philadelphia Athletics, but some of the 33,223 fans on hand had likely rooted for him even earlier than that. As the between-innings message noted, Henderson “Ed” Wright was back in town to participate in the first player-fan reunion held by the recently established Boston Braves Historical Association (BBHA).

Ed had earned his spot in this fraternity by virtue of taking his turn on the old Braves Field mound for the Tribe from 1945 to 1948. Unfortunately, he missed this Fenway Park tribute, having just left his third base lower box seat to go underneath the stands and grab a hot dog. Upon returning to his seat, Ed reacted incredulously when told of the honor and only became convinced that it had truly occurred when a BBHA member provided the evidence to him several weeks later in the form of a snapshot of the scoreboard message. That incident was representative of the lack of luck that Ed experienced over the course of his five-year major league career. Although on the Opening Day rosters of the National League champion 1948 Braves and the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies, Ed was unable to reap the glory of either first place finish, ending both seasons in the minors.

Ed Wright was born on May 15, 1919, in Dyersburg (population then well under 10,000) and remained a resident of his hometown throughout his life. He grew up in a large family of 10 children - eight boys and two girls. In high school, Ed started out as a catcher but converted to the mound because of a lack of agility behind the plate. It was a good move; playing local semipro ball, he ran up a string of 16 victories against only two defeats. This attracted the attention of a neighbor, Herbert “Dutch” Welch, who was managing the Jackson Generals in the Class D Kitty League. Welch signed the 17-year-old prospect on March 3, 1938, and Ed made the 50-mile trek to Jackson.

His minor league odyssey began on an optimistic note as Ed won his first two games in organized ball. However, bad luck soon struck. During his next start, a losing effort, he fell ill and was rushed to a local hospital with a ruptured appendix. The ailment resulted in a month’s hospital stay and its lingering effects kept him out of the game for the remainder of the season. Making an even briefer professional debut with Jackson that season was 24-year-old righty Ellis Kinder, who had a one-game, three-inning appearance for the Generals. Kinder entered the big leagues with the Browns in 1946, eventually making his way to Boston in time to provide mound help for the Red Sox during the exciting 1948 campaign.1

After receiving his unconditional release from Jackson, Ed hooked on with the Jonesboro White Sox of the Northeast Arkansas League in 1939. Poor fortune once again intervened, however, and he played there only a short time before a severe case of boils caused him to leave the club and return home at July’s end. Unbeknownst to Ed at the time, he briefly crossed paths before his departure with a future Boston Braves mound-mate, Johnny Sain. After toiling for several years in “D” ball, Big John was experiencing his second successful season in the league, winning 18 games for the Newport Tigers and being named to the circuit’s All-Star team. Within three years Sain would be in Boston, and the two would tally 32 wins for the Tribe in 1946 once Big John returned from military service.

Despite being cut loose twice, Ed still received an offer the following winter to sign with the American Association Milwaukee Brewers. Initially assigned to the Brewers’ Class B Madison Blues affiliate in the Three “I” League, he found himself back in the Kitty League after an unsuccessful spring training trial. Restored to health, Ed showed the first signs of his big league potential, winning 17 games while dropping 10 contests for the Paducah Indians during their 1940 campaign. The Indians also possessed another 17-game winner who would go on to the major leagues, lefthander Dave Koslo. Interestingly, one of Ed’s victories came at the expense of his younger brother Roger, who opposed his sibling on the hill for the Hopkinsville Hoppers on August 21.2

Ed’s impressive play resulted in a postseason acquisition by the Southern Association Memphis Chicks. He lasted with the Chicks only for the first month of the 1941 season, however, before being farmed to the Greenville Buckshots of the Cotton States League. A strong performance there (15-10 with 152 strikeouts) led to a further spring audition with Memphis the next year, but still more challenges lay ahead. When the team sought to demote him in June of 1942 to the Southeastern League’s Meridian Eagles in Mississippi, Ed balked and demanded to be sent closer to his Dyersburg home where he could continue working as a machinist at a textile mill while playing baseball. After rejecting a compromise offer, a demotion to Hopkinsville in Kentucky, Ed returned home until a deal was struck that transferred him back to Jackson. Despite winning his first four starts there, his happiness was short-lived: the league folded on June 17.

Remaining out of organized baseball through 1943, Ed worked at a war-related job but kept in shape by pitching semipro ball in the Memphis Municipal Baseball Association for the Kroger team, which won the 1943 city championship. In 1944 he sought a spring training invitation from Earl Mann, then general manager of the Atlanta Crackers. Making the squad, he had a 4-3 record in the Sally League before manager Kiki Cuyler requested his option to the Class B Norfolk Tars in the Piedmont League. During his abbreviated stay in Atlanta, Ed was introduced to teammate and first-year pro Billy Goodman. Goodman would later break into the majors with the 1948 Red Sox and claim an AL batting title with the Crimson Hose in 1950.

In Norfolk, Wright received invaluable pitching tips from ex-big league lefty Garland Braxton. Braxton had broken in with the Braves in 1921 and spent parts of 10 seasons in the majors, and the advice he passed down showed immediate dividends. With an 8-3 won-loss total and a 1.69 ERA for the Tars, Ed attracted the attention of Roanoke Red Sox second baseman/manager Eddie Popowski, who recommended him to the Triple A Indianapolis Indians.3 The Indians sought Ed’s rights for the 1945 season from the Crackers but the original deal was aborted when the player traded to Atlanta voluntarily retired, and a straight sale had to be negotiated. The Indiana-based American Association ball club was owned by the Braves through the B-I-H (Boston-Indianapolis-Hartford) Corp., set up by the major league club’s ownership triumvirate -- Lou Perini, Guido Rugo, and Joe Maney (a/k/a the Three Little Steam Shovels) -- to oversee the team’s minor league affiliates. Since the Tribe maintained its farm system office in Indianapolis, Ed would have an immediate opportunity to impress club officials.

In addition to being under the watchful eye of the Braves brain trust at Indianapolis, Ed had the good fortune to come under the tutelage of another ex-major league pitcher-turned-teacher. Indians manager Bill Burwell had returned to the bushes after a coaching stint with the 1944 Red Sox, and Ed credited the ex-Brownie pitcher (1920-21) for his own eventual elevation to Boston. “I never knew how to pitch until I got to Indianapolis. Bill Burwell taught me the tricks which enabled me to use the same stuff which I always had, and to do much better with it than had ever been the case previously.”4 Burwell would lead the Indians to consecutive playoff berths before returning to the majors in 1947 as a Pirates coach.

The combination of Wright (13-5) and southpaw Jim Wallace (17-4) provided Indianapolis with a highly effective one-two punch. At one point Ed ran off a string of nine consecutive victories, and on May 17 he pitched a no-hitter on the road against the Casey Stengel-led Kansas City Blues. In this 2-0 triumph, he struck out seven, walked three, and faced only 30 batters.5 Given wartime player shortages, many of his Indians teammates surfaced in the Hub for trials with the parent club. Ed’s chance came on July 20 when the Braves sent two journeymen, pitcher Ira Hutchinson and infielder Steve Shemo, plus a player to be named later to the Indians for him.

Less than two years after being out of organized ball, Ed Wright was in the big leagues. He joined the sixth-place Boston club just as Bob Coleman was being replaced as manager by coach Del Bissonette. The former Dodger first baseman and apple farmer from Winthrop, Maine, was elevated to the post when his predecessor resigned on July 29 on the heels of an eight-game losing streak. Bissonette took an immediate liking to his new righty and added Wright into the club’s shaky starting rotation. Ed moved into the spot vacated by the team’s “ace,” Jim “Abba Dabba” Tobin (9-14), who was sold to the Tigers in August to bolster the Bengals’ push toward the AL pennant. In 15 appearances, the rookie made a terrific impression -- winning eight games while losing only three, placing him second to the departed Tobin in total victories on the club. Wright registered an ERA of 2.51 (tops on the club) and completed seven of his starts, including a 3-1, 11-inning victory over the Reds on September 18 seen by just 512 fans in Boston. His biggest first-season thrill came a week earlier on September 10, when he hurled a complete game shutout at Wrigley Field against the league leading Chicago Cubs -- the eventual NL champs.

The 1945 season represented Ed’s high-water mark as a pro. All told, between the minors and the majors, Wright had gone 21-8 and pitched a no-hitter. Not included in this total was a complete game blanking of the Worcester Nortons semipro team in a night exhibition game played by the Braves in Manchester, New Hampshire, on August 29. And he wasn’t through yet; after the season, Ed barnstormed in the South with other major leaguers and then signed on to a post-Thanksgiving USO tour of the Pacific Theater with Ralph Branca, Buddy Kerr, Bill Voiselle, Billy Jurges, Whitey Kurowski, and skipper Chuck Dressen.

The Braves were dramatically transformed by the time the 1946 season began. The Three Little Steam Shovels lured St. Louis Cardinals manager Billy Southworth to Boston to helm the ball club. The team’s aggregation of moundsmen was significantly improved with the return of the dynamic pitching duo of Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain from the war. And the team inaugurated night baseball in Boston with the addition of eight light towers at Braves Field. Ed’s season started off inauspiciously when he stepped on a ball during a February 20 spring training fielding drill, incurring a severe and nagging ankle injury. His introduction to Fenway Park took place on April 12 for a “City Series” exhibition game against the Red Sox. Ted Williams greeted the big righty with a towering first-inning home run.

Although Southworth came with impeccable credentials (three straight NL pennants and two World Series titles from 1942-44), Wright strained under the direction of the new Braves manager and yearned for former skipper Del Bissonette. After being handed the ball every fourth day the previous season, Ed found his appearances more spread out under Southworth. Wright attributed his treatment to a belief that his new manager played favorites, depriving him of sufficient pitching opportunities to stay sharp enough to replicate his prior season’s success. Ed also bridled at Southworth’s tendency to rigidly dictate how his staff should pitch to opponents, discouraging any input from his hurlers. Nevertheless, while his ERA went up a full run to 3.52, Ed achieved a respectable 12-9 record to finish third on the club in wins during 1946. He was even more proud of his hitting prowess that season; in 59 at-bats, he accumulated 18 hits for a .305 batting average.

Starting against the Giants at the Polo Grounds that May 24, Ed had been on the cusp of big league immortality when he held New York hitless through seven innings. The first Giant safety came in the eighth when centerfielder Babe Young hit a ball to the mound that caromed off Wright’s bare hand to shortstop Dick Culler, who threw too late to first base. Ed still held a 1-0 margin through 8 2/3 innings until Johnny Mize stroked the Ottmen’s first clean hit, a single, and errors by Tommy Holmes and Connie Ryan allowed the tying run to score. The Braves failed to tally any further runs, forcing Ed to pitch through the 11th. In the bottom of that frame, pinch hitting ex-Brave Ernie Lombardi worked the count to 2-2, and then clubbed Ed’s next delivery into the upper left field stands.

There were still bright spots to come that year. Ed recorded two shutouts over the course of the ’46 season, the second of which, on September 16, clinched fourth place, securing a first division finish for the Tribe for the first time since 1934. Club president Lou Perini awarded Ed a $100 bonus on the occasion, and Boston finished with an 81-72 record. Nearly one million fans came out to watch the improved club, easily shattering the franchise’s previous attendance mark. Wright looked set as a key member of a quickly rising team.

The next spring’s annual preseason City Series once again brought an Ed Wright-Ted Williams confrontation. On April 12, 1947, at Braves Field, Ed was on the hill in the ninth when Williams entered the batter’s box. Manager Southworth positioned all his fielders to the extreme right of the field akin to the Williams Shift, first devised by the White Sox in 1941 and practiced with regularity during the ’46 season by Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau. Wright, who considered Williams the best hitter he ever faced, got a quick strike past the Splendid Splinter. On the next pitch, however, Williams lined Ed’s offering into left field where it rolled to the wall for two bases. As Ed later told the tale, “Williams hit the ball through where the shortstop usually played, but the shortstop was over behind second base!”

When the 1947 season began, Wright followed Sain and Spahn in the starting rotation. On April 19, he scattered eight hits and hurled a complete game victory in the opener of a Patriots Day doubleheader at Braves Field against the Phillies. It would, however, be his only complete-game performance of the year. Unfortunately, severe bouts with tonsillitis disabled Ed a number of times, and adversely affected his performance throughout the season. The illness resulted in a loss of weight and arm strength, and his innings pitched dropped from 175 to 64 2/3.

Relegated to exhibition duty, Wright was awarded a win in relief on July 21 in Cooperstown, New York, at the annual Hall of Fame game, a 10-inning contest that ended with a 4-3 Tribe triumph over the Yankees. Despite Ed’s ongoing pleas, the Braves declined to consent to surgery until near the end of the season. As a result of his debilitating condition, he started only six times in 23 appearances. In one of those rare starts, on the evening of June 18 at Crosley Field, Wright took the loss when the Reds’ Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell no-hit the Tribe. Ed finished with a record of three wins, three losses and a lofty 6.40 ERA, but the Braves took another step up to third place with an 86-68 won-loss record.

Now Wright was hard-pressed just to make the 1948 squad before he could even consider grabbing a spot in the rotation. As part of this quest he participated in one of the more notorious incidents in the history of the Hub’s City Series. The third game of the ’48 spring exhibition series between the Braves and Red Sox, and the first of the year in Boston, took place on April 16 at the Wigwam before 12,630 spectators. By the time Ed took the mound in the fourth inning, the Braves were behind 11-1 and would eventually be humiliated by a 19-6 whipping.

The Bosox’s Billy Hitchcock, pinch-hitting for starter Joe Dobson, grounded to Ed, who fired to shortstop Al Dark. Dark tagged the lead runner, who was trapped between second and third base. Blackie then threw to Earl Torgeson in hopes of catching Hitchcock, who had turned the corner. The throw was low and struck the sliding runner. Torgy fell on top of Hitchcock, preventing his advancement; Hitchcock, meanwhile, grabbed the first baseman’s ankles, hindering any attempt to retrieve the errant ball. The pugnacious Torgeson immediately took offense and commenced to pummel his opponent. Both benches cleared and a free-for-all nearly erupted. The origin of this animosity could be traced back to an earlier incident between the pair in Florida. Both of the antagonists were banished and the encounter was said to have created such ill will on the part of the National Leaguers that it served as one of the reasons (besides much bigger bonus checks due to the crowds at Cleveland Stadium) why the Braves later openly rooted for the Indians to capture the American League pennant rather than the Red Sox.

While Ed did secure a spot on the Opening Day roster of the prospective senior circuit champs, his stay was relatively brief. He relieved Spahn in the eighth inning of the latter’s 3-1 losing effort during the Braves’ home debut on April 23 against the Giants, and pitched scoreless ball for the final two innings. After this Wright made only two other relief appearances, achieving a 1.93 ERA in 4 2/3 innings before being dispensed to the American Association Milwaukee Brewers in May. Now performing for the city that would shortly become the home of the Braves, Ed appeared in 30 games -- winning 9 while losing 12 and logging a 5.37 ERA. Unlike today’s tradition, where pennant-winning teams tend to honor all contributors with a ring and a representative World Series share, Ed was not included in any such largess in ’48. Come October, in fact, all his ties with the Tribe were cut when his contract was sold to the Brewers.

Seeking to enhance his chances for a return to the big leagues, Wright joined the Almendares Scorpions of the Cuban Winter League during the latter part of 1948. Bolstered with American minor league stars such as Chuck “The Rifleman” Connors, Sam Jethroe, and Monte Irvin, Almendares captured the Cuban championship and swept the inaugural Caribbean Series against teams from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Panama.

Wright was still just 29 years old entering 1949. Based on a recommendation from his trusted old Braves manager, Del Bissonette, he got another shot at regular pitching work. Now piloting the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Triple A International League, Bissonette convinced the Maple Leafs to purchase Ed from the Brewers for $10,000. Ed headed across the border for the 1949 season and regained a chunk of his old form. An 11-11 record and a 3.97 ERA, compiled over 39 games, drew sufficient interest from the parent Phillies that Ed’s contract was purchased upon conclusion of the season. Again he sought to sharpen his skills by venturing to Cuba to play Winter League ball for Almendares.

Ed performed well during spring training, and Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer added him to Philadelphia’s roster. Before heading north, however, bad luck struck Wright once again. In a Florida tune-up game against Washington on March 24, he attempted a sidearm pitch and felt a pop in his elbow after completing the throw. Despite a burning sensation that ran down to his wrist, he continued to pitch. And although he spent the first month of the 1950 campaign with the Phillies, he failed to appear in a game due to his elbow woes. He did, however, achieve a degree of fame with the eventual NL champs, appearing in the club’s official team photo that was used in newspapers and publications throughout the season. Ed stood in the back row between Richie Ashburn and Blix Donnelly in the picture, but he was soon relegated again to Toronto.

Once more, Wright would have to work his way back to the majors. Cold spring weather up in the far north had retarded his recovery in the spring of ’50, as in order to throw he had to apply heat to his troubled elbow for 20 minutes. In July, a swap with the Minneapolis Millers, the New York Giants’ top minor league affiliate, transported Ed back to the American Association. Beginning the 1951 season with the Millers, Ed marveled at the batting and fielding prowess of the team’s new center fielder, a 19-year-old lad by the name of Willie Howard Mays, Jr. In old Nicollet Park, Ed observed the “Say Hey Kid” perform heroics that would eventually lead to the latter’s enshrinement in Cooperstown. However, neither Ed nor Willie was destined for a prolonged stay in Minneapolis. Mays departed for New York City after 35 games (and a .477 average) while Wright returned to the International League when he was sold to the Ottawa Athletics. Despite a lackluster 5-6, 3.54 performance there, the pitching-hungry Philadelphia Athletics secured Ed’s services from the Giants.

In a last-hurrah effort, Ed made Jimmy Dykes’ 1952 Athletics squad and spent the entire season in the bullpen. In 24 games, Wright won two while losing one, but his effectiveness was more accurately gauged by his 6.53 ERA, his 20/9 walks to strikeouts ratio, and his allowing 55 hits in 41 1/3 innings. His final official appearance at Fenway Park occurred on April 19 of that year after a memorable event. In the first game of the Patriots Day doubleheader, Ed came in after seven Red Sox runs had been scored off starter Dick Fowler in the fourth inning, the majority as the result of Don Lenhardt’s inside-the-park grand slam.

His second turn in the City of Brotherly Love resulted in another pictorial honor for Wright. Ed was included in the Topps Chewing Gum Co.’s legendary 407-card 1952 baseball set that ushered in the modern era of cardboard collectibles. The set was issued in series over the course of the season and Ed’s #368 pasteboard currently commands a hefty premium. This is due, however, to its relative scarcity rather than as a reflection of the achievements of the journeyman right-hander pictured on its front. That year’s performance completed his final major league statistics: a 25-16 record over 101 games, 16 complete games in 39 starts, and a 4.00 ERA.

Sensing that the end was near, Ed welcomed his sale to the Memphis Chicks upon the conclusion of the ’52 season, given the minor league team’s relative closeness to his Dyersburg home. He spent the first part of the 1953 Southern Association campaign with the Chicks and the Chattanooga Lookouts before returning to the Kitty League as the player/manager of the Hopkinsville Hoppers in late July, winning five games and steering them to the playoffs. He stayed in that capacity with the Kentucky franchise until June of the following season, when he sought his release in the face of the league’s instability. Fittingly, Ed wrapped up his professional playing career in 1954 with a two-game stint with the Lincoln Chiefs of the Western League. There, for the first time as a pro, he teamed up with younger brother Roger, who was in his second season with the Nebraska-based ball club. Released in July, Ed returned to Dyersburg and entered the service station business.

In retirement, in addition to running his gas station, Wright served as an alderman in Dyersburg and coached Dixie Youth Baseball. Known as “Mr. Baseball of Dyersburg,” he guided his 1964 Connie Mack team to the state championship. Also affectionately called “Big Ed,” he was much admired for his humility and gentle, caring nature. When asked about his big league exploits by his young players, he would relate that he had once been a part of a starting rotation that included Hall of Famer Warren Spahn and the great Johnny Sain. “The sportswriters called our rotation Spahn, Sain, and pray for rain,” he’d then attest. “I guess I was the pray for rain.”6 Reflecting back on his life, Ed always remarked that he would “do it all over again” if given a chance. Acknowledging the changes in baseball’s salary structure, he would then add that his only regret was that he “was born 50 years too soon.” Imagine the cash he could command today after starting his career 20-12?

Ed died of cancer on November 19, 1995, at 76 years of age and was buried in Dyersburg’s Fairview Cemetery. On May 15, 1998, on what would have been his 79th birthday, the beloved local coach was honored posthumously when a 40-acre baseball complex north of town was named Ed Wright Baseball Park.

Note

This biography originally appeared in the book Spahn, Sain, and Teddy Ballgame: Boston's (almost) Perfect Baseball Summer of 1948, edited by Bill Nowlin and published by Rounder Books in 2008.

Notes

1. The pair’s paths crossed momentarily in 1948 while respectively performing for Boston’s National and American League clubs. On March 31 at Bradenton, Florida, Ed triumphed over Ellis in a 4-1 exhibition tilt.

2. Like his brother, Roger has a link to Boston baseball and the 1948 season. A career minor leaguer, he spent several seasons as a Red Sox chattel, experiencing his finest year (17-6, 2.08) with the Lynn Red Sox of the New England League in 1946. Among his bush league mates who performed at Fenway Park in 1948 were Boo Ferriss (Greensboro, 1942) and Mickey McDermott (Scranton, 1947). Scranton teammates Fred Hatfield and Walt Dropo joined the parent club a bit later.

3. Popowski’s association with the Wright family also extended to brother Roger. In 1947, Roger was a member of Popowski’s pitching staff at Scranton as Pop ascended the Red Sox minor league managerial ladder.

4. Boston Braves Sketch Book (1946)

5. On April 18, 1949, Ed’s brother Roger chalked up a 7-0 no-hitter against the St. Petersburg Saints while performing for the Tampa Smokers in the Florida International League, thus adding the Wright brothers to an elite group of siblings who have hurled hitless games in professional baseball.

6. Warner Agee, Dyersburg State Gazette, May 17, 1998, p. 11

Sources:

Conversations with Ed Wright on a sunny October 3, 1992, at Fenway Park over the course of a Red Sox 7-5 victory over the New York Yankees. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Correspondence with Ed Wright during 1993

Correspondence with Mrs. Ed (Florence) Wright in 1998

Brent Kelley, “Ex-Boston Braves’ hurler Ed Wright interviewed,” Sports Collectors Digest, September 4, 1992

Photo Credit

The Topps Company

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.