Jim Wright (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Jim Wright

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

Jim Wright (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Right-handed pitcher Jim Wright contributed eight wins to the 1978 Red Sox team which took their drive for the American League pennant to the famous one-game tiebreaker. Wright complemented a staff that featured Dennis Eckersley, Bob Stanley, Mike Torrez, Luis Tiant, and Bill Lee. Manager Don Zimmer gave the 27-year-old rookie 16 starts and he performed ably: 8-4 with an earned run average of 3.57 and three shutouts.

Hurt in winter ball following his rookie year, Wright’s big-league career ended in early June 1979. He played on for three more seasons in Triple A.

James Clifton Wright was born in Reed City, Michigan on December 21, 1950. The city’s population that year was recorded as 2,241 in the United States census. It was, and remains, the county seat of Osceola County and is situated about 70 miles due north of Grand Rapids.

When Wright was around four years old, his family moved to Coopersville, Michigan, approximately 18 miles northwest of Grand Rapids. He still resides there as of 2021 with his wife Laura.

“Both my mother and my father were factory workers,” Wright recounted in a December 2020 interview. “They worked 30-plus years before they retired.” His father, Lloyd, ran a metal press for a company that fabricated range hoods and other things. His mother, Evelyn, worked for General Motors, which had a couple of plants in Grand Rapids. She did upholstery work on car seats, working a sewing machine most of the time. Jim had three brothers and one sister.

Wright graduated from Coopersville High School. He had been a star pitcher there, striking out 150 batters in 71 innings.1 At the age of 18, he was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the fourth round of the June 1969 amateur draft and signed by scout Maury DeLoof. Wright was 6-feet-1 and listed at 165 pounds.

He was assigned to the Jamestown (New York) Falcons in the New York-Penn League (short-season Class-A). Under manager Jackie Moore, the Falcons finished sixth in the eight-team league. Only two of the team’s pitchers ever made the majors – left-hander Steve Barr and Wright, who was 2-5 with a 5.33 ERA in 54 innings that first year.2

The Falcons were managed in 1970 by Jackie Jensen. Wright was on the “Military List” for most of the season – from April until reinstatement on August 24, he served in the National Guard. He worked eight innings over three games without a decision. He gave up just one run.

In 1971, Wright got more work. He spent almost the full season with the Class-A Greenville (South Carolina) Red Sox of the Western Carolinas League, starting 13 games and relieving in 11 others for a total of 83 innings. His record was 6-7 for the 62-63 team managed by Rac Slider. From July 24 to August 18, he was again in the National Guard. Late in the season, he appeared for the Winston-Salem Red Sox, another Class-A team, in the Carolina League. In four innings over three games, he got no decisions.

The year 1972 was another with little baseball activity for Wright. He was back in the Western Carolinas League with the Anderson (South Carolina) Giants, and went 0-4 in 42 innings in 15 games. He was on the temporarily inactive list for most of July. For six summers, he had National Guard duty, and it cut into his playing time, but the alternative would have been to lose a full two years in military service. “Once a month, I’d fly home and go to the weekend meetings, and sometime during the summer put in two weeks. I missed time in baseball. That was all I wanted to do. That was my dream and I wanted to play baseball. That was one way that I could still play. It kind of hurt for about six years there. After it was done I was able to play the whole summer and it was all right.” In the fall of 1972, he played in the Florida Winter Instructional League and was named the All-Star starting pitcher.3

Returning to Winston-Salem for the 1973 season. Wright was 7-4 in 126 innings with a 3.07 ERA. He struck out 103 batters and walked 50. Of the time he spent in the service, he said, “When I’m away [in the National Guard] I still throw a lot and work out every day. But it hurts to be away from baseball. It hurts your timing.”4

In 1974, aged 23, Wright advanced to Double-A ball with the Eastern League’s Bristol Red Sox. He appeared in 25 games, starting 21, and pitched 164 innings with a 2.74 ERA. He was 9-8; his best win being a one-hitter on Opening Day against the Thetford Mines Pirates on April 28. He struck out 131 and walked 58. The team, led by league Manager of the Year Stan Williams, finished first in the standings, but was winless in the playoffs.

Wright joined the major-league ballclub early in spring training 1975. He began the season in Bristol, going 7-1 with a 3.52 ERA in 10 starts. He was promoted to Triple-A with the International League’s Pawtucket Red Sox, where he started 17 games (he was used exclusively as a starter in 1975). His won-lost record with the PawSox looked dismal at 1-10, but Pawtucket finished dead last in the IL, and Wright’s ERA at the higher level was an almost identical 3.53. Meanwhile, the big club in Boston was winning the American League pennant,

Wright returned to Pawtucket in 1976 (the team changed its name for one year to the Rhode Island Red Sox.) He was asked to mix starting and relieving once more, starting 18 of his 37 games. His stats show a setback: 6-12 with a 5.03 ERA in 136 innings.

In fact, PawSox manager Joe Morgan later revealed that he had pretty much given up on Wright. “I took him out of my pitching rotation.” Morgan couldn’t recall why he next turned to Wright – he thought it might have been in injury to one of the starters, but when Wright got his next opportunity, Morgan recalled that “he pitched 10 sensational games in a row. In six of those games, he allowed no walks. He was the best pitcher in the league the second half of the season.”5

In 1977, his final record was 12-8 for Pawtucket with another very good 2.94 ERA, good for third in the International League among pitchers with more than 100 innings. The season brought a turnaround in perception. He went to winter ball in Venezuela and pitched for Magallanes. Red Sox manager Don Zimmer said, “Wright wasn’t a prospect last year. But our reports indicate that he threw so well in the final months of last season in Triple A that he is now given a chance of making it.”6 He was out of options, so the Red Sox had a significant decision to make.

The Red Sox staff had to patch a couple of holes on their staff early in the season, with both reliever Bill Campbell and starter Luis Tiant not quite ready from the get-go. Although Campbell appeared in each of Boston’s first two games, he missed the next two weeks. Tiant’s first start came on April 18 in the team’s 10th game. Right at the end of spring training, Boston added Wright to their roster; he made his major-league debut on April 15, 1978 at Fenway Park against the Texas Rangers. The Red Sox led 12-4 heading into the final inning. Wright came on and struck out Kurt Bevacqua, then Juan Beniquez, and got Bump Wills to ground out. He was 27 years old and had finally made the big leagues.

Two days later, he pitched a pair of hitless innings, also in relief. Don Zimmer said, “The more I see of Jimmy, the more I like him.”7 On April 22, though, the Indians bombed him for six runs (five earned) in two innings.

Even so, after nine seasons in the farm system, Wright finally got his opportunity to start in the big leagues when Zimmer selected him over Allen Ripley on May 6 against the White Sox in the second game of a doubleheader. The choice paid off nicely – Wright threw a shutout – the first Red Sox rookie to do so in his first start since Billy Rohr in 1967. He scattered seven hits, walked none, and struck out three. ‘I had good control,” he said afterward, “as good as I could have ever imagined. And not just my curve ball. Actually, I still consider my fastball my best pitch…I’d been trying on the sidelines every other day, And I was getting a little frustrated about not pitching. But I knew sooner or later I’d get a break, and today was it.”8

As a spot starter, Wright didn’t get another shot until May 23, but when he did, he excelled again. Against the Blue Jays in Toronto; he pitched 10 innings, allowing just one run. The Red Sox only scored one run themselves, though, and eventually lost in the 12 th.

On May 28, he pitched the second game of a twin bill against visiting Detroit, leaving after Boston scored the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth. Dick Drago got the save and Wright was 2-0.

He went to 3-0 with another shutout, against the California Angels at Fenway on June 13, this one a two-hitter. Both hits were grounders up the middle that barely eluded second baseman Jerry Remy. Flush with victory, he admitted that if he hadn’t made the team, he’d been prepared to quit baseball.9

Kudos went to Wright’s Pawtucket teammate Rick Kreuger, who “helped him make his fastball sink.” Catcher Carlton Fisk enthused, “he comes with three kinds of fastball – a straight heater, one that runs and one that sails.” Slugger George Scott added, “Jimmy Wright may be just what this team needs. A dark horse, a guy who comes up from the minors…you know who he reminds me of? Ron Guidry.”10

Wright’s first loss came five days later, against Seattle. He worked 7 2/3 innings, giving up three runs, but the Red Sox scored just twice.

“Being a fifth starter is a little like being a spare tire,” wrote the Hartford Courant’s Owen Canfield. “You’re not needed often, but when you are, you’ve got to be ready. It’s a difficult assignment mentally, but one Wright has adapted to.”11

The scores were reversed in Cleveland, the Red Sox winning 3-2 on July 8. Wright worked 8 1/3 innings, giving up just the two runs. Eight days after that, he won another 3-2 game against the visiting Minnesota Twins, working the first seven innings. His record improved to 5-1. That July 16 win put the Red Sox record at 60-28, giving them a lead of 8½ games over the second-place Brewers. They were a full 13 games ahead of the fourth-place Yankees.

On July 29, he faced the Royals at Fenway and fired his third shutout of the season, a six-hitter without a walk, as he made one run stand up.12 It was a morale booster for the Red Sox, who had lost nine of their previous 10 games. Fisk said, “Every win of his seems to be one we really need at the time.”13

On August 12 and August 26, he threw two more complete games, beating the Brewers 3-1 and the Angels 7-1. This ran his record to 8-2 with a 2.95 ERA. The Red Sox still led the second-place Yankees (and Brewers) by 7½ with a little over a month left in the season.

Zimmer said Wright would be his fifth starter, swapping roles with Bill Lee, whose last start was August 19. He was aware, though, that – different from many pitchers – Wright did better when pitching once every 10 or so games. Zimmer asked, “What more can you ask from him? The kid’s been something, hasn’t he? And it seems he does best with a lot of time off between starts.”14

Wright and Boston struggled in September. He started three games in the first half of the month, losing two, and not getting through three innings in any of them. On September 8, versus the Yankees, New York scored eight runs (four charged to starter Wright) in the first two innings. Boston’s lead had dwindled to just two games. This was part of the four-game “Boston Massacre” when the Yankees swept four games at Fenway with a combined score of 42-9, tying the Red Sox for first place. The September 14 game was a 4-3 loss, but Wright was gone before the second inning was done. He relieved on September 20, then didn’t appear again. He ended the season at 8-4, with a 3.57 ERA in 116 innings. He had started 16 games. fifth-most on the team.

Had the Red Sox won the October 2, 1978 playoff game against the Yankees, Wright might have started the American League Championship Series. “It was between me and Bill [Lee], and Bill was in the doghouse. He even told me. He said, ‘You would have been the one to start the next day.’ I don’t know if that was true or not.” There is a good chance that the starter would have been either Tiant, on short rest, or Wright.

In postseason balloting by players, Rich Gale of the Kansas City Royals was named Rookie Pitcher of the Year, with Wright coming in second.15 The Boston Baseball Writers voted him Red Sox Rookie of the Year.

After an excellent first season in the majors, Wright returned to Venezuela for winter ball. Misfortune struck that December in the form of an injury that plagued him for the next couple of years. He suffered a tear in the teres minor muscle. “It’s a small muscle in the back of the rotator cuff,” he explained. “I know the exact time I tore it. I over-extended myself in a game. I went too long. It was only my second start after having six weeks not pitching. I went five innings, and then I told them I would go seven. But when we got to seven, it was a 2-1 or a 2-0 game and he asked, ‘Do you want to win this game?’ At that time, we hadn’t gotten a lot of the Americans over there yet. Our relief pitcher wasn’t there yet. It was pretty much locals and our manager didn’t have a lot of confidence in them. I went back out and I finished the game, but when I went to take my shirt off I knew that something was wrong.” He quit throwing, and took off a couple of months – but the problem had not gone away.

A sore right arm bothered Wright off-and-on during the spring of 1979. He went on the disabled list just before spring training, coming back on April 25. He retired the first 17 Mariners he faced, and gave up just one hit in the six innings he worked, removed after 65 pitches so as not to stress his arm. He earned a win.

That was the last decision of his major-league career. It was also his last start. He worked in 10 other games, all in relief, the last in Boston on June 6 against the Chicago White Sox. He relieved Bob Stanley and worked 3 2/3 innings, giving up three earned runs.

Three days after his June 6 game, Wright was put on the 21-day disabled list and Joel Finch was called up from Pawtucket to take his place. His arm problem was one that wouldn’t go away. “They tell me it’s nothing but an inflammation and give me pills,” Wright said, “but there’s pain there. I’d like to have some tests, so that I know what’s wrong before I go out there and throw. Maybe when we go to California, I’ll go see Dr. [Frank] Jobe.”16

Wright said it was his arm, not his shoulder, that was sore. “I never had a sore arm in my life and didn’t quite know how to cope with this.” He was in considerable pain.17

In mid-July, the team was still hoping for his medical woes to go away, knowing that he “could be an important fifth starter.”18 Two months after Wright went on the DL, Zimmer told reporters on August 6, “The word I get is that the shoulder is very bad.”19

Wright did visit Dr. Jobe’s practice in California. They found that, in compensating for the torn muscle, he had built up other muscles in his shoulder blade area. He was able to maintain much of his velocity but “didn’t have the control that I always had before – I always pitched to contact. I always prided myself on my control…I just didn’t have the pin-point control anymore because of the injury. I’d lost a lot of the range of motion.”

Ray Fitzgerald wrote of Wright: “He is a quiet guy who always does the best he can and makes no alibis when things go badly…He’ll never be a Dennis Eckersley or a Mike Torrez. He’ll never be a big money guy. But Wright had persevered when logic told him he was wasting his time and he made the grade. Jim Wright, who worked so hard to get to the top of his profession, now runs laps at Fenway Park to stay in shape for a future that is shaky at best.”20

As mid-August arrived, the pain seemed to go away. He continued to work out at Fenway and was reactivated on September 1. When he got up to throw on September 9, “Wright’s shoulder went on him…so now he must wait until the spring.”21

In October, he was reassigned to Pawtucket, reportedly (and understandably) “somewhat bitter because he felt he had only aggravated his injury in therapy.”22

In 1980, he was still getting treatment – back in Boston for a couple of weeks in January. In late February, team doctor Arthur Pappas said Wright was throwing 40 or 45 pitches a day. Near the end of March, he was a non-roster player in spring training, continuing to get treatment, and things were progressing. He reflected, “It wasn’t my curveball that hurt me last year. It was my fastball, because I couldn’t extend my arm back. I’d lay on the trainer’s table and couldn’t lift it back over my head. But now I have full range of motion.”23

Wright was assigned back to Pawtucket, where he was 4-8 with a 5.16 ERA in 75 innings. He started a dozen games and relieved in 10 others.

He had a very good spring training with the Red Sox in 1981, and he says he knew he had made the Triple-A team, but on the very last day of spring training, he says he asked farm director Ed Kenney if he was going to have the opportunity to start. “The Red Sox were really honest with me. I knew that Toronto had called them about possibly doing something in a trade. They were very upfront. They said, ‘We’re hoping that we can get you to work with the kids. You will probably be one of the last ones to start, but we’re hoping that you can maybe stick around and work with the kids.’ I asked him if they would release me and he said OK.”

The Blue Jays were interested right away. On May 6, Wright was signed by the Syracuse Chiefs, Toronto’s Triple-A club, perhaps at the recommendation of catcher Ernie Whitt, a former teammate with Bristol who had joined Toronto in the 1977 expansion draft. Whitt had been impressed by Wright for a few years. In 1978, he suggested that Wright was one of the hardest-throwing pitchers he knew.24

Wright put in a fairly full season in 1981, pitching 127 innings for the Chiefs. He got off to a very good start and had a 1.60 ERA (and a 5-3 record) near the end of June, hoping for a callup. But that year’s strike shut down the major leagues for six weeks. He remained in the IL and ended the season at 8-9 with a 3.76 ERA).

Wright appeared in just five games in 1982 with no decisions and a discouraging 6.75 ERA. The team was starting a “youth movement” and was ready to move on from some of their older players who had major-league experience but were in the minor leagues for one reason or another. Wright was released by Syracuse on May 8.

Looking back, he believes he might have made a mistake leaving the Red Sox when he did. “We had some great coaches in that organization, some great people. I enjoyed it. I really hated asking for my release when I did, but it was the only opportunity I could see where I was going to be able to get back up. I burned a bridge there. I know I could have had…I would have loved to have been in baseball, coaching somewhere. That was the only place where I really got to know all the people in the organization. I probably would have stuck around for a long time in that organization if I would have just bided my time and went to the coaching thing instead of playing.”

Having enjoyed the one solid year in 1978 and wanting nothing more than to get another shot in the big leagues won out over the perhaps more considered idea of building a post-playing career.

It’s water under the bridge, of course, and from hindsight in 2020, he says, “I consider myself very blessed. We’ve had a good life.” He had married in 1974 and he and his wife Laura have four children – daughters Danielle and Carey and sons Aaron and James Jr. They have seven grandchildren. He adds, “We’re fortunate enough that they all live within 20 minutes to a half-hour from us.”

Laura Wright became an accountant, a profession in which she was still engaged at the time this article was written. It took her 10 years of studies to gain her CPA designation. She accomplished this while Jim was still playing baseball, and she was caring for their two young children.

After Wright was released in May 1982, it took him until that December to find employment. He landed a job in a bread manufacturing business “and worked my tail off. My job was lifting 100-pound bags all night long, scaling them out, and hauling them over to the mixers.” He did that work for about 2½ years, but persistence paid off and he finally got a job with General Motors. He worked with them for 31 years. “For 20 years our job was manufacturing fuel injectors. Right here in Coopersville. We put them together, assembled them, tested them, and sent them out. Assembly line work.”

After 22 years, GM closed the plant in Coopersville and he ended up commuting to the plant in Grand Rapids. Then that plant was closed, too, but he was still five years shy of the 30 that he needed to be able to retire with a full pension. “So I ended up going to Lansing, which is almost 90 miles, for work every day. I did that for the last eight years. We had several of us that were in the same situation. We car-pooled. I had great people to ride with, so it worked out really well.”

There is one thing that nags him a bit. His major-league service time ended on the final day of the 1979 season. Wright says, “The only regret I have is that I wish I would have played at least one day in the major leagues after 1980. I’m one of those who they kind of forgot about.”

As Bill Madden of the New York Daily News explained, under the pension plan agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players Association, pre-1980 players are not vested. “The problem is, because they’re not vested, the union has no obligation to do anything for pre-1980 players — and so they don’t — even though it currently has some $3.5 billion in the pension fund.”25 Wright says, “If I had gotten one more day, we definitely would have been a lot better off. I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about that, but that’s one of the few regrets that I have.”

Per the terms of the 1980 agreement, any player on a big-league roster for at least one day after the beginning of the 1980 season needed one day of service credit for health benefits and 43 days of service credit to be eligible for a retirement allowance. Before that, players needed a cumulative four years of roster time to become vested in the pension plan. Only in 2011 were provisions made to give a stipend to pre-1980 players, such as Wright, who had not qualified under the terms in effect when they played.26

Wright knows he was fortunate to find lasting steady employment with General Motors that provided insurance and later a good pension. He looks back with pleasure in the time he had in baseball. In December 2020, he remarked, “I’ve been blessed.”

Last revised: May 21, 2021

 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Jim Wright for his memories. Unless otherwise attributed, all quotations from Wright come from the author’s interview with Wright on December 19, 2020.

This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Evan Katz.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retosheeet.org, and The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball.

 

Notes

1 “Ottawa’s 2d State Cage Title Tops Local Sports Year,” Grand Rapids (Michigan) Press, December 28, 1969: 3F.

2 Barr made the majors well before Wright. He broke in with Boston in 1974 and was 1-0 in the one game he worked, and the 0-1 in 1975 when he worked in three games. The Red Sox traded him to the Texas Rangers in November and he went 2-6 with the Rangers in 1976, his final year in the big leagues.

3 Dick Dew, “7 Red Sox Farm Players Make Star Team,” Boston Herald, November 15, 1972: 48.

4 Owen Canfield, “Wright Was Right, But No-Hitter Foiled,” Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, April 30, 1974: 27.

5 Larry Claflin, “Jim Wright – Rookie’s escape from minors just beginning to pay dividends,” Boston Herald, June 25, 1978: 36.

6 Larry Whiteside, “Sox weights ignored…,” Boston Globe, February 26, 1978: 63.

7 Larry Whiteside, “Sox rack Brewers, 9-2…decision on cut gets tougher,” Boston Globe, April 18, 1978: 38.

8 Larry Whiteside, “Evans and Wright all right, Sox sweep Chicago, 6-4, 3-0,” Boston Globe, May 7, 1978: 77,78.

9 Bill Liston, “Wright does no wrong in Red Sox win,” Boston Herald, June 14, 1978: 23.

10 Peter Gammons, “Red Sox are Wright-on, 5-0, after rookie hurls two-hitter,” Boston Globe, June 14, 1978: 21.

11 Owen Canfield, “Wright Ready for His Turn,” Hartford Courant, June 28, 1978: 73a.

12 In 1978, Luis Tiant pitched five shutouts for the Red Sox, Dennis Eckersley pitched three, and Wright pitched three.

13 Bob Ryan, “Mr. Wright does it for Sox, 1-0,” Boston Globe, July 30, 1979: 73.

14 Kevin Dupont, “Wright, Sox keep Angels off guard, 7-1,” Boston Herald, August 27, 1978: 25.

15 “Sports People,” Boston Herald, November 1, 1978: 38.

16 Peter Gammons, “Monty behind plate; O’Berry cut,” Boston Globe, June 30, 1979: 23.

17 Joe Giuliotti, “Wright’s wait has been painful,” Boston Herald, July 14,1979: 16.

18 Peter Gammons, “Red Sox – halfway to what?,” Boston Globe, July 17, 1979: 1.

19 Ray Fitzgerald, “A tale of two pitchers…not the best time for either,” Boston Globe, August 7, 1979: 33.

20 Ray Fitzgerald, “A tale of two pitchers…not the best time for either.”

21 Peter Gammons, “Lynn hurting,” Boston Globe, September 12, 1979: 30.

22 Peter Gammons, “O’Berry to Cubs, Wright to Paw Sox,” Boston Globe, October 24, 1979: 62.

23 Peter Gammons, “Wright Looks, Feels Sharp,” Boston Globe, March 25, 1980: 39.

24 Owen Canfield, “Wright Ready for His Turn.”

25 Bill Madden, “Time for Tony Clark, MLB to do right by the former players excluded from pension benefits,” New York Daily News, February 8, 2020. https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/ny-mlb-pension-plan-20200208-3rbck4ccmrfd3ievvb4ls5w3ym-story.html

26 For a discussion of the impact of the failure of big-league baseball to provide anything for the non-vested pre-1980 ballplayers, see Douglas J. Gladstone, A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve (Tarentum, Pennsylvania, Word Association Publishers, 2010).

Full Name

James Clifton Wright

Born

December 21, 1950 at Reed City, MI (USA)

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