Glenn Wright

This article was written by Warren Corbett

A ballplayer can practice his swing, his curveball, or how he charges a bunt. Nobody practices an unassisted triple play. It’s a fluke, rarer than a perfect game.

“That was one of the easiest plays I ever made,” Glenn Wright said. “I couldn’t help it.” Wright’s fluke came on May 7, 1925, when he was playing shortstop for the Pirates. In the top of the ninth with runners on first (Rogers Hornsby) and second (Jimmy Cooney), the Cardinals’ Jim Bottomley smacked a line drive over second base. Wright snared it and stepped on the bag to double Cooney, who had started for third. He looked up to see Hornsby a few feet away, and tagged him. “We were in the dugout before the fans realized they had seen an unassisted triple play.”1

In his second major league season, the 24-year-old Wright was a rising star. He finished in the National League’s top 10 in runs, hits, home runs, and RBIs, and was fourth in the Most Valuable Player voting as Pittsburgh won the World Series. John B. Sheridan, who had been covering baseball for 40 years, wrote, “I thought, in 1925, that Glenn Wright would exceed my all-time shortstops.”2

Sheridan had seen the last of Wright at his best. In the next few years he endured enough injuries to fill a medical textbook. His career as an everyday player was over by the time he was 30.

Forrest Glenn Wright was the youngest of three children of Robert Lee Wright and the former Alberta Musick, born on February 6, 1901, in Archie, Missouri, a farming village about 50 miles south of Kansas City. Robert Wright owned a hardware store and lumber yard where his sons, Walter and Glenn, worked after school. The store provided equipment for the town baseball team, and Glenn was its star. He was an all-around athlete who played football and basketball at the University of Missouri, but failed to make the varsity baseball team.

A scout for the Double-A Kansas City Blues watched Wright playing sandlot ball, and was more impressed than the Mizzou coach. Wright left school in his sophomore year when the Blues offered him $250 a month, an impressive salary for a young man in 1921. He subtracted a year from his age for baseball purposes.

After a season in Class D ball, Wright joined Kansas City, at the highest minor league level, in 1922. He batted .299 with 10 home runs, and his defense was even more impressive. His powerful arm earned him the nickname “Buckshot,” but it was not entirely complimentary. “I could throw hard but no one could tell where,” he said.3 The next year he hit 15 homers and batted .313 as the Blues won the American Association pennant and defeated the International League powerhouse Baltimore Orioles in the Little World Series.

Pittsburgh had secured an option on Wright’s contract. The New York Yankees jumped in with an offer of $100,000, but Kansas City owner George Muehlebach honored his commitment to the Pirates and sold his shortstop for $40,000 plus two players. Wright thought he deserved a share of the purchase price. He refused to sign a contract for 1924 until owner Barney Dreyfuss paid him a $7,500 bonus.

The Pirates had one of the league’s best defensive shortstops, Rabbit Maranville, but manager Bill McKechnie moved Maranville to second base as soon as he saw Wright throw. “You’re my shortstop,” McKechnie told the rookie. “I don’t care if you never pick one up or hit one.”4

Wright was an instant star. After a month he moved into the number-three spot in the batting order, and by midseason he was hitting cleanup. He led the team with 111 RBIs and put up a batting line of .287/.318/.425. Playing every inning of every game, he set a major league record with 601 assists, a mark that lasted more than half a century. (Ozzie Smith broke the record in 1980, playing five more games than Wright.) A poll of players chose Wright as the all-star shortstop for both leagues.

He got batting tips from the Cardinals’ Rogers Hornsby, a three-time .400 hitter. Hornsby lived in the Chase Hotel, where the Pirates stayed when they were in town, and loved to talk about hitting. “The most important thing I learned was to stand deep in the batter’s box,” Wright said. “I didn’t stand as deep as Rogers did, but I stood far enough back so I could see the curve ball break.”5 A right-handed hitter like Hornsby, he used a 42-ounce George Sisler-model bat, a full half-pound heavier than most modern bats, with a thick handle.

The 1925 Pirates battered the rest of the league on their way to the pennant. They were the first National League team in the 20th century to score more than 900 runs, almost six per game. Wright batted in 121 of them. Hitting sixth in the lineup, he had plenty of opportunities; all five men ahead of him posted on-base percentages above .375. Wright finished the season at .308/.341/.480 with 18 home runs.

Pittsburgh faced Washington in the World Series. Wright never forgot the scene before Game One: “Each team was lined up along the foul lines and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was in center field where the flag was being raised. A famous Italian opera star sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ She had a wonderful voice. This may sound a little corny today, but that experience sent chills up and down my spine. That was my biggest thrill.”6 The Pirates won in seven games, with Wright contributing a home run, but he went 1-for-12 against Walter Johnson and batted just .185.

In his first two seasons Wright had stamped himself as an elite player. Along with his fourth-place finish in the MVP vote, The Sporting News named him the majors’ all-star shortstop. Some writers and fans paid him the highest compliment, comparing him to the Pittsburgh icon Honus Wagner. Like Wagner, Wright was big for a shortstop at 5-foot-11 and 170 to 180 pounds, and had speed to go with extra-base power. He won praise from Fred Clarke, Wagner’s teammate and manager: “I consider Glenn Wright just as good a defensive player as Wagner. He isn’t Wagner on the bases or at bat, but in the field he is the best shortstop in the game today.”7

Wright was batting .324 on August 6, 1926, when the first of his many injuries struck. A sprained right ankle knocked him out of the lineup for four weeks. He wasn’t his usual self when he came back; he hit just .238 with two extra-base hits in his last 25 games, and the ankle was never again at full strength. He left the team in mid-September because his father was sick, but Robert Wright died before Glenn got home to Missouri.

The Pirates sailed to another pennant in 1927 aboard an unhappy ship. New manager Donie Bush benched one of his top hitters, Kiki Cuyler, for much of the season because he thought Cuyler was loafing. Wright clashed with the manager over his play at short and his after-hours habits. Pittsburgh sportswriter Ralph S. Davis wrote primly, “Glenn was inclined to pursue the pathways of pleasure rather than the rough road of business.”8 That reputation would stick with Wright for the rest of his career.

On June 28 a pitch from St. Louis’s Vic Keen broke Wright’s cheekbone and knocked him cold. He was unconscious for 32 hours. Although he returned to the lineup two weeks later, he had not recovered. His batting average plunged 50 points by the end of the season. He batted in 105 runs, but his .281/.328/.388 line was below league-average. The Yankees swept Pittsburgh in the World Series as Wright managed just two singles in 13 at-bats.

A bout of flu — a life-threatening illness at the time — and a spiking that sliced open his knee limited Wright to just 108 games in 1928. His .310 batting average was a career best to that point, but his range in the field diminished dramatically. Some fans, egged on by sportswriters and perhaps by Donie Bush, thought he was malingering.

Twenty-year-old Dick Bartell filled in at shortstop. Bartell said Wright helped him with fielding tips. With the new man ready to take over, the Pirates swapped Wright to Brooklyn in December for 33-year-old pitcher Jess Petty, a favorite of Bush’s, and infielder Harry Riconda. Brooklyn Eagle writer Tommy Holmes commented, “Rumors are responsible for Wright’s passing from Pittsburg,” and bet his readers that the shortstop would bounce back in new surroundings.9

When Wright reported to Clearwater, Florida, for spring training, manager Wilbert Robinson named him team captain. But the Robins quickly learned that they had received damaged goods. Wright couldn’t throw. He had slammed into a concrete wall while playing handball during the offseason and wrecked his right shoulder. A Florida doctor diagnosed torn tendons.

The injury raised the obvious question: What did the Pirates know and when did they know it? Wright had been hurt in November, before the trade, but Donie Bush insisted the club had not heard about it. National League President John Heydler found no evidence to contradict him.

While waiting for his arm to recover, Wright worked out at first base left-handed. When the 1929 season opened he could only pinch-hit. He went into the lineup at short on May 5 and hit a home run, but had no fielding chances. The first time a ground ball was hit to him the next day, he lobbed an underhand throw to first. The day after that he fumbled two grounders. Robinson thought he was rushing so he could get rid of the ball quickly. Wright’s two errors and two other misplays led to five Cubs runs. Robinson said, “So far as I can see there is nothing more to do than wait and pray for improvement.”10 Wright didn’t play in the field again all year.

On doctor’s orders, he went home to Missouri to rest his arm for several weeks. Robinson was despondent: “They don’t allow poker on most ball clubs, but come to think of it, I never heard of a guy ruining his arm in a poker game. And nobody that I know ever lost as much in a poker game as we lost — the whole ball club — in that handball game Wright played.”11

While convalescing, on June 14 he married a local girl, 18-year-old Margaret Josephine Benn. When he returned to action, still confined to pinch-hitting, he went 0-for-June and July. At last he underwent surgery at the Crippled and Ruptured Hospital in New York and missed the rest of the season. Doctors reattached the muscles and tendons by inserting pins in his collarbone and shoulder blade. It was every bit as serious as it sounds. Wright’s shotgun arm was never the same.

He staged a stunning comeback in 1930 that helped boost Brooklyn into a pennant race. In the biggest day of his career, on July 14 against Pittsburgh, he went 4 for 4 with two homers and seven RBIs. He saved his best for the stretch run. Over the final six weeks he hit .381 with eight homers and 36 RBIs in 40 games. The Robins, laughingstocks for half a decade, held onto first place through almost all of June and July before falling back to fourth, just six games behind the pennant-winning Cardinals. It was Brooklyn’s first finish in the first division since 1924.

Playing 135 games, Wright slugged 22 home runs, a record for a shortstop, and batted in 126 runs with a line of .321/.360/.543 — all career highs. Granted, it was the year of the hitter, but Wright’s was a remarkable performance by a man whose career had been given up for dead. Even with the bad arm, his defensive stats were just about league-average, though well below his earlier standard.

That was Wright’s last gasp. Turning 30 before the 1931 season, he came down with flu in April and missed a week. He began wearing a brace on his troublesome right ankle. In July he sprained his left ankle in a slide and sat out for a month. After he batted a respectable .284/.324/.448 in only 77 games, the Eagle’s Holmes wrote, “There is no telling whether or not Wright will be able to play regularly in the major leagues again.”12

His weak arm was a permanent handicap. “I could throw just as hard,” he said years later. “That is, I would go through the same motion and everything, but it took the ball longer to get there.”13 On a hit to deep left field the Robins needed two relay men to get the ball back to the infield, because left fielder Lefty O’Doul, a dead-armed former pitcher, couldn’t throw any better than Wright.

During the winter Wright devised an exercise to strengthen his ankles. He built a miniature roof in his backyard, straddled the ridgepole, and walked along the slopes on either side. Wilbert Robinson was forced into retirement, and the new manager, Wright’s Pittsburgh and Brooklyn teammate Max Carey, realized that his future might depend on his gimpy shortstop: “Wright is the spark plug of our infield, if not of the whole team.”14

Wright took a huge pay cut, from $16,000 to a reported $9,000 for 1932. Teams were chopping salaries across the board as the Depression hurt attendance. The injuries to Wright’s ankles and his throwing arm caught up with him. He was able to start just 116 games, batting .274/.293/.439. Tommy Holmes wrote, “He acted as though he had forgotten how to hit.”15

The next spring Wright missed the first week of the season with a spike wound in his hand. His arm was not buckshot, but shot. He was throwing underhand to first base. The team offered him for trade or sale, but found no takers.

As Brooklyn’s captain, Wright was responsible for changing pitchers on a signal from the bench. One day in Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, pitcher Walter Beck didn’t want to come out. Rather than handing over the ball, Beck heaved it against the left-field fence, which was made of tin. The ringing noise roused Brooklyn’s left fielder, Hack Wilson. (He “was daydreaming,” according to Wright, but hung over according to legend and likelihood.) Wilson, thinking the ball had been hit over his head while he wasn’t looking, grabbed it and fired to second base. “When he learned what had happened, he was ready to murder Beck. I had to keep them apart. From that time on, it was ‘Boom-Boom’ Beck.”16

Wright was in and out of the lineup all season while showing no sign of remembering how to hit. Manager Carey was criticized for sticking with his fallen star too long. Wright finished at .255/.299/.339 in 71 games. And “finished” is the apt word. Brooklyn’s new manager, Casey Stengel, released the 33-year-old in February 1934. The New York Times’s Roscoe McGowen called him “one of the greatest shortstops and most admired personalities in the game.”17

Several teams invited him to spring training, with no guarantee of a job. Instead, Wright went back to Kansas City when the Blues offered him a contract. Playing first base, he batted .281 in Double A, but his season ended with a broken ankle in August.

The Chicago White Sox brought him back to the majors in 1935. The last-place club had little to lose by taking a look at a has-been. After a brief trial at second base, going 3-for-25 in nine games, Wright was released in June. He finished the season in the International League with Syracuse, and played for Seattle in the Pacific Coast League in 1936.

Wright turned to managing in 1937 with Wenatchee, Washington, in the newly reorganized Western International League, a Class B circuit. He led the Chiefs to the league championship in 1939, then signed on as a coach for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League in 1940. He and Margaret divorced that year. They had two children: son Forrest Glenn Jr., who was called Robin, and daughter Jennifer. The Stars fired Wright in 1941, reportedly after he showed up late once too often.

He stayed on the West Coast, managing a shipyard baseball team in 1942 and appearing as an extra in the movie story of Lou Gehrig’s life, The Pride of the Yankees. That fall he joined the navy at age 41. Although other retired ballplayers were being commissioned as physical training officers, Wright enlisted as an apprentice seaman. He never went to sea; he served as a quartermaster instructor at Camp Farragut, Idaho. He remarried in 1943 to Velma Roark.

After the war Wright returned to baseball, and to the Western International League, as manager of Spokane, a Brooklyn farm club, but he either resigned or was fired the day before the 1946 season opened. Newspaper stories hinted that he may have gotten drunk. Whatever the reason, it probably saved his life.

On June 24 the Spokane team bus veered off a mountain road and caught fire, killing nine players and injuring most of the others. Wright’s successor as manager, Mel Cole, was among the dead. Wright took over as interim manager when the team resumed play with a roster begged and borrowed from other organizations. Around that time he quit drinking and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Boston Red Sox hired Wright as a scout after the 1946 season. Boston manager Joe Cronin had been his teammate briefly 20 years earlier, when Cronin was a young shortstop stuck behind Wright and Bartell on the Pirates’ depth chart. In 1957, while Wright was a coach with Boston’s PCL farm club in San Francisco, he was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw. The team passed the hat in the stands, and fans and players donated about $7,000 for his medical expenses.

Wright stayed with the Red Sox, scouting in the Midwest and then in California, until he retired in the 1970s. His son, Robin, was an all-state quarterback in Missouri and went to the University of Missouri on a football scholarship. His daughter, Jennifer, was a high school basketball star.

In retirement Wright was living in Fresno, California, when a stroke in 1982 left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. His second wife had died; his children moved him to a nursing home near them in Olathe, Kansas. He recovered some function after months of therapy, but died of throat cancer at 83 on April 6, 1984.

Wright received a handful of votes for the Hall of Fame for many years, peaking at 3 percent. His former roommate Al Lopez, a member of the Hall’s veterans committee, boosted him for induction, but he never came close.

At first glance, Wright’s .294/.328/.447 career batting line looks like a Hall of Fame shortstop. His gaudy RBI totals, a product of his position in some hard-hitting lineups, impressed sportswriters, but he was only a little better than an average hitter in the high-scoring climate of the 1920s and 1930s. Slightly above-average offense plus exceptional defense made him an outstanding shortstop — when healthy. He played more than 100 games in only seven seasons. Injuries may have robbed Wright of a plaque in Cooperstown.

 

Additional sources

Langford, Walter M. Legends of Baseball. South Bend, Indiana: Diamond, 1987.

Murdock, Eugene. “Wright, Forrest Glenn ‘Buckshot.’” The Biographical Dictionary of American Sports. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2001.

Neff, Deborah. “Ex-major leaguer stars again in toughest inning.” Kansas City Star, August 7, 1983: 29A.

Unidentified newspaper clippings in Wright’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, Cooperstown, New York.

Wright, Forrest Glenn. Player questionnaire (1959) in his HOF file.

 

Notes

1 # Eugene Murdock, Baseball Players and Their Times (Westport, Connecticut: Meckler, 1991), 242. A slightly different version of Murdock’s article was published in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal #8, 1979.

2 John B. Sheridan, “Back of the Home Plate,” The Sporting News (hereafter TSN), September 16, 1926: 4.

3 Murdock, 243.

4 Glenn Wright interview by Walter Langford, May 6, 1982, in Fresno, California. SABR Oral History Committee collection.

5 Murdock, 242-243.

6 Murdock, 242.

7 Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2001), 630. James was quoting a 1925 interview in Baseball Magazine. Wright and Clarke became good friends who hunted quail together at Clarke’s Kansas ranch and Wright’s Missouri home.

8 Ralph S. Davis, “Pirates Win So Bush Regains Favor,” TSN, July 26, 1928: 3.

9 Thomas Holmes, “Wright’s Pluck Assures His Comeback in Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Eagle, December 14, 1928: 30.

10 Holmes, “First Real Test of Glenn Wright’s Arm Has Most Discouraging Results,” Eagle, May 8, 1929: 28.

11 Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, May 17, 1929: 38.

12 Holmes, “Brooklyn Outfit Has Problem on its Hands with Veteran Players,” Eagle, October 21, 1931: 27.

13 Langford interview.

14 Harold C. Burr, “Max Carey Cheered by News of Wright,” TSN, November 26, 1931: 3.

15 Holmes, “Contract of Wright, Mystery Man of Dodgers, Arrives at Ebbets Field,” Eagle, January 31, 1933: 20.

16 Murdock, 246. If Wright’s version is true, it could only have happened on July 29, 1933, the only time Beck, Wright, and Wilson were in the lineup together at Philadelphia, and Beck was relieved.

17 Roscoe McGowen, “Wright Is Released by Dodgers; Once Great Shortstop Passes from the Majors,” New York Times, February 18, 1934: S1.