At twenty-five, Joe Wright reached the major leagues, manning center field for Louisville and playing alongside future Hall of Famer Fred Clarke. But after little more than a year in the majors he returned to the minor leagues and soon faded into such obscurity that only recently have the basic facts of his life come to light.
Joel Sherman Wright was born in 1869 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to Willard and Margaret Wright. The choice of his middle name was no doubt intended as a tribute to the famous Civil War general, as his father had served in Wisconsin’s 21st Infantry for nearly three years.
The young man showed an early proficiency for baseball, starring in the Oshkosh City League while still a teenager. (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, July 13, 1928) In 1890 he launched his professional baseball career as an outfielder for Ottawa of the Illinois-Iowa League. His hometown newspaper proudly announced that “Joe Wright” — as he was generally known — was doing very good work for Ottawa. (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, May 2, 1890) Before departing for Ottawa, Joe Wright had made a more permanent engagement when he married a young woman named May Grosse on April 9.
Perhaps that was why he spent the 1891 season closer to home in Appleton of the Wisconsin State League, where he served as team captain and his splendid work in center field earned him praise. (Sporting Life, Volume 16, Nos. 14 and 20) By 1892 the couple was expecting their first child, so it was fortuitous when Oshkosh was granted a franchise in the newly formed Wisconsin-Michigan League. Joe Wright signed on with his hometown team and was on hand on August 23, 1892, when his wife gave birth to a baby girl named Jennie. The newcomer inspired her proud papa, who immediately went on a hitting spree. (Oshkosh Northwestern, September 2, 1892)
Joe Wright spent the 1893 and 1894 seasons in the Pennsylvania State League. He spent 1893 with Easton and helped the club capture the league pennant with a stellar 70-36 record. In 1894 he joined Harrisburg, and enjoyed another successful season as the club finished a close second in the pennant race. By this time word of his abilities was getting around, with his defensive artistry attracting the most notice. According to his Appleton teammate George Hogriever, who was also destined for the major leagues, Wright was “one of the greatest outfielders the game ever had. He could field in either direction, would come in in a way that players do not know now and was a powerful thrower. You could not come home on a single to center on him.” (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, January 30, 1915)
He was drafted by Memphis of the Southern League before the 1895 season. His play caused a Sporting News correspondent to gush, “Joe Wright, the crack center fielder of the Memphis team, is undoubtedly one of the best outfielders in the Southern League. He made a good record with the Harrisburg club last season. Captain [Patsy] Tebeau of the Clevelands saw him play and would like to claim him for next season. He is married and his wife lives with him in Memphis.” (Sporting News, April 20, 1895)
By midseason his work had earned him another promotion, and his contract was assigned to Louisville of the National League in exchange for Walter Preston. (Sporting News, July 20, 1895) He made his major league debut on July 14 and spent the rest of the year with Louisville, playing 43 games in center field and 17 in right field.
Louisville was a sad sack franchise, but the club did have a few things going for it. The team’s starting lineup already featured two young players destined for the Hall of Fame — left fielder Fred Clarke and third baseman Jimmy Collins. Louisville’s other asset was manager Jack McCloskey, well known as an acute judge and developer of talent. McCloskey soon realized that the club could not be competitive that season, so he was pretty much using the rest of the regular season to try out promising youngsters.
Many players were given brief tryouts and released, but Joe Wright’s far more lengthy stay suggests that McCloskey shared the high opinion of his defensive work. Wright’s batting, however, was less impressive. His .276 batting average seems superficially respectable but in fact was subpar — hitters had had the upper hand since the 1893 decision to move the pitcher back to 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate and most National League outfielders easily topped the .300 mark. Worse, he seemed overmatched at times, striking out a team-high 28 times in only 228 at bats.
Joe Wright started the 1896 season with Louisville, but club management had run out of patience. McCloskey was fired after a 2-17 start, while Wright was traded to Pittsburgh after playing only two games. Pittsburgh in turn assigned his contract to Toronto of the Eastern League while retaining his rights, a then-common arrangement often referred to as “keeping a string on” a player.
He played for Toronto from May 5 to August 19 (although the club spent most of July in Albany). Wright’s brilliant defensive play in center field once again attracted comment and helped him become a “warm favorite” in Toronto. (Sporting News, June 13, 1896) He was then recalled to Pittsburgh and spent the rest of the season there and received an extended trial from manager Connie Mack. It appeared that he was making progress against major league pitching, as he batted .308 and struck out only twice in 52 at bats.
These encouraging signs were soon forgotten during a tumultuous and fateful off-season. Mack was replaced as the club manager, while Wright became embroiled in a contract dispute with the team. According to his hometown paper, “Last spring he signed with Pittsburg on a two years contract. Late in the season Pittsburg ‘farmed’ him out to Toronto but paid him contract wages. Now Pittsburg wants to farm him to Toronto at a cut of salary. Mr. Wright has received a contract from the manager of the Toronto team, but he refuses to sign it. He wants Pittsburg to fulfill her part of the contract made a year ago or else give him his release. With his release from Pittsburg he feels confident of being able to sign with some good team. Pittsburg does not seem to want to [set] loose as good a player as Wright and the chances are that she will retain him.” (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, March 9, 1897)
Instead his contract was sold to Milwaukee of the Western League, now managed by Connie Mack. (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, April 6, 1897) But his return to his native state and reunion with Mack was not happy. By July, he was “riding the bench” and before the end of the month he had been released. (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, July 17 and August 2, 1897) He then signed with Minneapolis, but does not appear to have played there. (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, August 2, 1897; Sporting News, August 21, 1897)
He spent the off-season in Milwaukee, weighing his future. He was now a free agent — just as he had hoped to be a year earlier — but the market for his services had gone soft. (Sporting News, December 18, 1897) He finally was reported to have signed with Rockford, but if he played with this club at all it was a short stint. (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, February 2, 1898; Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1898)
Wright’s career was now unmistakably in decline. He appears to have played for Rock Island of the Western Association in 1898 and part of 1899. After the league disbanded in June he moved on to Youngstown of the Interstate League for the remainder of 1899 and part of 1900. But by this point his performance was attracting little notice even in his hometown, and it becomes difficult to distinguish his stops from those of another ballplayer named Joe Wright. As a result, while his career may have continued into the twentieth century, it probably ended in 1900.
There are several possible explanations for the precipitous decline in Wright’s career. His hometown newspaper saw it as simply the result of “his failure to hit the ball.” (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, February 2, 1898) His contract dispute may also have played a significant role; it was far from unheard of for a player who rocked the boat to find opportunities in short supply. It is also possible that injuries helped to derail a once-promising career.
But former teammate George Hogriever believed that none of these was the real reason. According to Hogriever, “Had [Wright] taken care of himself there would have been none better.” (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, January 30, 1915)
Joe Wright’s life after baseball and that of his wife are equally shadowy. The 1900 census shows their daughter Jennie living with Joe’s parents, but offered no hint about either of their whereabouts. Joe never again appears in the Oshkosh city directory, and the once-common mentions of his name vanished entirely from his hometown newspaper.
The silence was broken on September 24, 1909, with a sad announcement: “The remains of the late Joel Wright arrived from Omaha this afternoon at 1:35 o’clock on the Chicago & Northwestern train. Mr. Wright’s death occurred Monday night, due to heart trouble. He was a professional ball player years ago, and was once a prominent hero of the baseball diamond in this city. His age was thirty-nine years.” (Oshkosh Northwestern, September 24, 1909) His funeral took place the next afternoon, and he was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Oshkosh.
Even after his death, his wife’s whereabouts cannot be pinpointed. One article about his funeral indicated that she was alive, but no details were provided. Her daughter Jennie continued to live with Joel’s mother, who had been widowed in 1905.
Joe Wright’s story is thus one of early but unfulfilled promise and premature death. It is always tempting to view such tales as parables, but we must be cautious about doing so, especially in a case such as Wright’s where so much remains unknown. Baseball is a game that rewards hard work and dedication, but it does so imperfectly at best: talent often trumps character.
As a result, Joe Wright’s life cannot be reduced to a simple moral. Perhaps his former teammate George Hogriever was correct in his judgment that a great career was short-circuited by bad habits. But the limited evidence that we have does not lead inescapably to that conclusion. It is also possible that physical limitations stalled his progress and were the cause, rather than the result of his failure to “[take] care of himself.”
Contemporary newspapers and sporting publications, as noted; censuses and city directories; Winnebago County, Wisconsin, vital records.