Russ Wrightstone (TRADING CARD DB)

Russ Wrightstone

This article was written by Russ Walsh

Russ Wrightstone (TRADING CARD DB)Everyone agreed on one thing about Russ Wrightstone, who played major-league baseball from 1920 to 1928, mostly with the Philadelphia Phillies: He could hit. Former teammate and future Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel once told a national television audience that Wrightstone was “the best left-handed line drive hitter” he ever saw.1 Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander called him “the toughest man to get out in the National League.”2 Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter James C. Isaminger called Wrightstone “one of the most consistent hitters” in the league.3 And that same newspaper’s Gordon Mackay enthused, “He can thump that old apple until it bellows for mercy. He can H-I-T.”4

Wrightstone hit over .300 five times in his nine-year career and finished with a .297 career batting average, but never established himself as a full-time player. He was listed as a “utility player” for most of his career, largely because managers could not find a regular position for him in the field.

Russell Guy Wrightstone was born on March 18, 1893, in Bowmansdale, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg. His father, Jonathan Wrightstone, listed his occupation as “huckster”5 in the 1900 US Census.6 His mother was the former Sarah Fortney. The family included Russell’s older brother, Elmer, and eventually his three sisters, Zelda, Laura, and Ruth.7 Russ attended school through the sixth grade. By 1910 he was living with his brother and working as a shoe cutter.8 In 1915 he married Anna Cookerly and moved into his mother-in-law’s home in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. Russ found work as a machinist on the Pennsylvania Railroad, a position he continued to hold in the offseason even as his major-league baseball career began.9 Russ and Anna had two children, Betty J. Wrightstone, born in 1921, and Robert G. Wrightstone, born in 1927.10

The 5-foot-10, 176-pound Wrightstone honed his baseball skills in the vibrant semipro leagues of central Pennsylvania. Playing for such clubs as the Cassell Athletic Club, New Cumberland, Lemoyne, West End AAC, and the Railroad Motive Power Team, he developed a reputation as one of the finest players in the region.11 That reputation led to his being recruited to play for the Klein Chocolate Company team in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

William Klein, owner of the Klein Chocolate Company, was a former manager of the semipro Hershey Chocolate Company team and a lover of the game.12 In the spirit of, “if you build it, they will come,” he built a ball field adjacent to his factory in Elizabethtown. As a marketing strategy for his growing company, he recruited a team made up of the finest ballplayers in the region; a team that built its reputation by taking on all comers, including major-league teams that passed through Elizabethtown on the Pennsylvania Railroad line on their way west.13

As the manager, Klein hired former Philadelphia Athletics pitcher and Harrisburg native John Brackenridge. Team members in 1919 included shortstop Glenn Killinger, who went on to letter in three sports at Penn State, play professional football, and become a legendary college football coach. George Hunter, who had appeared briefly in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Superbas, played center field. Veteran minor-league slugger Tony Walsh was the first baseman. Former New York Giants hurler Hank Ritter, former minor leaguer Walter Harned, and future Brooklyn Dodger Art Decatur did the pitching. Wrightstone played third base and usually batted third in the order.

The Kleins defeated nearly all comers in the area and then on July 23, 1919, they defeated Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics 4-2 before 4,000 fans at Island Park in Harrisburg.14 The St. Louis Cardinals came through town on August 12 and lost 6-5 to the Kleins, Wrightstone collecting three hits against major-league pitching.15 Also in August, the Kleins lost to the Eastern Independent League team the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, 2-1. The Bacharach Giants included many fine Black segregation-era players like the great shortstop-manager John Henry Lloyd, speedster Spot Poles, first baseman Ben Taylor, and speedball pitcher Dick Redding.16 In September Babe Ruth came to town with the Boston Red Sox, went 0-for-4 and pitched one inning as the Red Sox lost to the Klein team, 4-0, Wrightstone’s double driving in two. The Kleins lost their final game of the season to John McGraw’s New York Giants, 8-2. Klein Chocolate finished the season with a record of 70-14.17 Wrightstone led the team in hitting at .352.18

With all that fine play against top-level teams, the Klein Chocolate Company team was sure to get noticed and its hard-hitting third baseman was sure to get noticed as well. Major-league scouts were frequently in attendance at Klein Chocolate games, and they saw Wrightstone do some of his best hitting against major-league pitching. In January 1920 the Philadelphia Phillies signed Wrightstone to a contract.19 In March, the 27-year-old20 Wrightstone reported to the Phillies spring-training camp in Birmingham. Alabama, and made an immediate impression. In his first spring at-bat, he hit a home run. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jim Nasium called him a “phenom” who would give “some National League twirlers many a heartache.”21

Despite a solid spring, Wrightstone found it hard to find regular playing time with the 1920 Phillies. He was used almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter and had only 15 at-bats before he got his first start on July 5. Another rookie, Ralph Miller, won the third-base job coming out of spring training, but Miller did not hit much and Wrightstone got more playing time as the season went on. His first hit was a pinch single off Joe Oeschger of the Boston Braves on April 26. His first home run came on July 9 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh off the Pirates’ Hal Carlson, a two-run blast in the ninth inning of a 4-1 Phillies victory. Wrightstone ended his rookie season having appeared in 76 games, including 49 starts, and hitting .262.

In 1921 Wrightstone firmly established himself as a major leaguer. He saw more playing time, appearing in 109 games, mostly at third base and left field. His bat made it hard to keep him out of the lineup as his average jumped 34 points to .296 and his RBIs tripled to 51. By July Wrightstone was among the league leaders in home runs with 9, but a trade with the New York Giants brought in third baseman Goldie Rapp and outfielder Lee King, and Wrightstone saw his playing time reduced. He did not hit another home run after July 5. Despite his limited at-bats, Wrightstone finished the year third on the team in hits behind outfielders Cy Williams and Irish Meusel.

The 1922 season saw Wrightstone break .300 for the first time, finishing at .305, but he still struggled to get regular playing time, appearing in 96 games, but starting in only 70. On August 25 at Cubs Field, the Phillies and Chicago Cubs played the highest-scoring game in baseball history and Wrightstone was right in the middle of it. The Cubs won the game 26-23, but Wrightstone contributed four hits, including a triple, and four RBIs for the Phillies. With two outs in the second inning, Wrightstone, playing third, dropped a foul fly ball for an error that led to 10 unearned runs for the Cubs. This one game is a microcosm of Wrightstone’s career. Described as a “heavy hitter and indifferent fielder,”22 he was prevented from becoming an everyday player by fielding issues.

While 1923 saw Wrightstone’s playing time increase, his average slipped to .273, but he did drive in what was up to then a career-high 57 runs. One highlight was a pinch-hit grand slam on July 5 at the Baker Bowl off the St. Louis Cardinals’ Jeff Pfeffer. He also had three hits, including two triples, and an RBI on May 30 in Boston, but he again dropped a foul fly that led to three Braves runs. This time the Phillies prevailed, 5-3. Balls in the air were a recurring problem for Wrightstone. Once asked to explain a missed fly ball, he opined that the ball “was too damn high.”23

Starting in 1924, Wrightstone embarked on his four most productive offensive seasons, batting over .300 each year and peaking at .346 with a career high 14 home runs in 92 games in 1925. Defensively, he was moved all around the field, logging time at every position except center field and catcher.

In 1924, after starting the season on the bench, Wrightstone soon moved into the lineup as the regular third baseman. He was hitting .269 in late June when he went on a tear that included a five-hit game, a four-hit game, and a stretch of 22 games in which he failed to get a hit only once. He raised his average to .322 in the process. He finished the year at .307

A broken finger at the end of spring training kept Wrightstone out of the first two weeks of the 1925 season.24 His first start of the year came on May 5, and he celebrated his return by going 3-for-5 with two home runs and five RBIs as the Phillies beat the New York Giants, 13-5. In June, he became the regular left fielder and the line drives kept coming. By July 4, he was hitting .373, and he finished the year at .346, second on the team to George Harper’s .349. The defensive lapses, however, continued to haunt. Playing left field on August 5 at Cubs Park in Chicago, with the Phillies leading 6-5 in the bottom of the ninth, Wrightstone dropped an easy fly ball with two out and the bases loaded, allowing the winning runs to score for the Cubs.25

Once again in 1926, Wrightstone started the season on the bench and hit his way into the lineup. On June 11 as the Phillies defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 13-11, he had the finest game of his career. In that game, Wrightstone went 4-for-6 with two doubles, a triple, a home run, three runs scored, and six RBIs in “one of the best exhibitions of free club swinging seen at the old ball orchard at Broad and Huntington Streets [Baker Bowl] in years.”26 Wrightstone split time as the starter at either first base or third base the rest of the year.

New Phillies manager Stuffy McInnis decided that the now 34-year-old Wrightstone could be coached up to be his regular first baseman for the 1927 season.27 McInnis, a first baseman himself, stuck to his guns and Wrightstone enjoyed his only season as an everyday player, appearing in 141 games. His 533 at-bats eclipsed his previous highest total by more than 140. He responded with a solid season, hitting .306 with 75 RBIs, second on the team to Freddy Leach’s 83. On April 28 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn in the ninth inning, the Phillies tied the Brooklyn Robins, 4-4. What happened next was described by former Phillies pitcher turned sportswriter Stan Baumgartner this way: “This brought up Wrightstone with the sacks clogged with excited Phils. A low outside curve and then a fastball down the middle – there was a report heard in the press box as the ball cannonaded against the brick wall of an automobile showroom opposite the park. Four runs churned through the run separator and the Philadelphia players went wild.”28 Wrightstone had three hits and five RBIs in the game. Two weeks later he hit another grand slam in a 12-3 victory at the Baker Bowl. Playing first base seemed to agree with Wrightstone, too. His fielding percentage was at the league average for the position.

McInnis was replaced as manager for 1928 by Burt Shotton. Shotton announced that the Wrightstone at first base experiment was over. “He plays too much music with his bat to stay on the bench and I believe the outfield is the place he belongs,” Shotton said.29 Shotton was true to his word and Wrightstone was the starting right fielder as the season began, but he got off very slowly with the bat and was hitting just .209 when he was sold to the New York Giants on June 8. Wrightstone was used exclusively as a pinch-hitter for the Giants, who were looking to shore up their bench for a run at the pennant. He got only 28 plate appearances the rest of the season and hit only .160 for the second-place Giants. In December Wrightstone’s contract was sold to the Newark Bears of the International League, and his days as a major-league player ended.

Wrightstone had a fine season in 1929 at Newark, hitting .321 in 131 games. He returned to Newark in 1930 but was sold to Buffalo in midseason. In June of 1931, he sought and received his release from Buffalo to play closer to his home in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. He signed a contract with the local Harrisburg Senators team in the Class B New York Penn League, hitting .363 in 34 games, his play being limited by a serious ankle injury. In November Wrightstone was appointed player-manager of the York (Pennsylvania) White Roses of the NYPL.

Wrightstone’s tenure with York was brief. In August of 1932 he was dismissed and replaced by former York manager Frank Dessau.30 At 39 and not yet ready to hang up his spikes, Wrightstone continued playing semipro ball in the area, notably with the Carlisle White Sox, where he got to play against his former Klein Chocolate team. On September 6 in the playoff series for the Adams-Cumberland League pennant, Wrightstone homered in a game against the Mount Holly Springs team. As he approached home plate, pitcher Maurice “Java” Brehm, ran at Wrightstone and crashed into him. A fight ensued. Enraged fans spilled onto the field; police were called in to quell the rioters and the game and subsequently the playoff series were canceled.31

After leaving major-league baseball, Wrightstone purchased a hardware store in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. He continued to play and manage baseball teams, including the New Cumberland team in the West Shore Twilight League. He also coached American Legion youth teams for a time. Wrightstone was also a skilled bowler and golfer, competing in local tournaments in both. As a prominent local citizen, the popular Wrightstone was active in politics, and ran for Cumberland County sheriff as a Democrat in 1937.32

In the late 1940s, Wrightstone’s attention turned to his son’s pitching career. Robert Wrightstone pitched for the West Chester State Teachers College (now West Chester University) baseball team, managed by Russ’s old Klein Chocolate teammate Glenn Killinger. Later, the younger Wrightstone pitched briefly in the minor leagues for the Lebanon (Pennsylvania) Chix, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate.

Wrightstone’s grandson, Denn Corby, remembered that Wrightstone enjoyed teaching baseball, but was not a fan of Little League. He thought that young players should gather at the sandlot and just play. Wrightstone would often visit the local baseball fields and offer hitting and fielding tips to the youngsters he found playing there. On occasion he would be accompanied by baseball player friends who were visiting. One memorable impromptu clinic occurred when Corby and some friends were playing a pickup game on a local field and Russ and a friend, whom he did not introduce, offered some batting instruction. Later that evening, Corby asked, “Grandpa, who was that guy who was showing us how to hit?”

Wrightstone responded, “Oh, that was Paul Waner.”33 Waner, of course, was the Hall of Fame outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who later served as a hitting coach for the Phillies and other teams.

“Grandpa knew all kinds of major leaguers and they would often come to visit him,” Corby recalled. Corby also recalled that Wrightstone was a regional scout for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers during the 1950s, which brought him into contact with Dodgers players like Tom Lasorda, who were coming through the Dodgers farm system at that time.34 Newspaper accounts confirm that Wrightstone scouted for the Dodgers organization.35

For the last 10 years of his life, Russ Wrightstone suffered from leukemia, which he battled with regular red blood cell injections, before finally succumbing to the disease on February 25, 1969. He is buried at Woodlawn Memorial Gardens in Harrisburg.

Wrightstone was posthumously inducted into the Central Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1974.

Russ Wrightstone loved hitting at the Baker Bowl. His career average at that quirky ballpark was .322 and he hit 42 of his career total 60 home runs there. He hit some very good pitchers very well, batting .318 against Burleigh Grimes and .288 against Pete Alexander. He was a superior contact hitter who struck out in only 4.6 percent of his plate appearances. As sportswriter S.O. Grauley put it, he was “a mighty good man to have around”36 on those struggling Phillies teams of the 1920s. And though he might have had his difficulties in the field, Russ Wrightstone could hit.

 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Russ Wrightstone’s grandson, Denn Corby, for his gracious willingness to share insights into Russ Wrightstone’s life after his time in the major leagues.

This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Len Levin and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the notes, the author consulted www.retrosheet.org and www.baseball-reference.com.

 

Notes

1 Dennis Corby, “Letter to Lee Allen, Historian, Baseball Hall of Fame,” February 27, 1969. In the Wrightstone file in the National Baseball Hall of Fame library.

2 John Finnegan, “Wrightstone Posted Great Record with ’20-28 Phillies,” Lebanon (Pennsylvania) Sunday News, May 31, 1953: 25.

3 James C. Isaminger, “Pithy Tips from the Sports Ticker,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 14, 1926: 52.

4 Gordon Mackay, “Doubleheaders Are Piling Up Early,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 19, 1921: 14.

5 A huckster in this sense was a man who traveled the streets of town in a truck or horse-drawn wagon selling fruits and vegetables door-to-door, likely grown on their own truck farm.

6 1900 US Census.

7 1910 US Census.

8 1910 US Census.

9 1920 US Census.

10 1930 US Census.

11 Wrightstone to Join Phillies,” Harrisburg Telegraph, January 23, 1920: 19.

12 “William Klein,” Immigrant Entrepreneurship, https://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entries/william-klein/, accessed on July 19, 2021.

13 “William Klein.”

14 “Athletics Lose to Klein Squad,” Harrisburg Evening News, July 24, 1919: 13.

15 “St. Louis Loses Game to Klein,” Harrisburg Telegraph, August 13, 1919: 13.

16 “Colored Champs Win Over Klein,” Harrisburg Telegraph, August 19, 1919: 13.

17 “Klein Team Is Given Farewell,” Harrisburg Telegraph, October 8, 1919: 16.

18 “Wrightstone to Join Phillies.”

19 “Wrightstone to Join Phillies.”

20 Wrightstone told the Phillies he was born in 1895, shaving two years off his actual birthdate. Wrightstone’s file in the National Baseball Hall of Fame shows he repeated this fiction to reporter C. Ford Sawyer of Baseball Magazine in 1923. An article by Joe Vila in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 15, 1928, lists his age as 33, when he was about to turn 35.

21 Jim Nasium, “Phils Have Many a Clean-Up Crowd,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 23, 1920: 14. Jim Nasium was the pen name of sportswriter and illustrator Edgar Forrest Wolfe.

22 James C. Isaminger, “Pithy Tips from the Sports Ticker,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 27, 1927: 28.

23 Rich Westcott, “History of Phillies spiced by Odd Characters, Events,” Baseball Digest, July 1988: 56.

24 S.O. Grauley, “Wrightstone, of Phils, Out for Two Weeks with Broken Finger, Team Plays Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 10, 1925: 22.

25 “Terrible Muff Robs Phillies of Game,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 6, 1925: 20.

26 S.O. Grauley, “Storm of Hits and Orgy of Runs Marks Phils Victory,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 11, 1926: 18.

27 James C. Isaminger, “Pithy Tips from the Sports Ticker,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 27, 1927: 28.

28 Stan Baumgartner, Phils Uphill Fight Carries Them to Sensational Triumph Over Brooklyn Foes,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 29, 1927: 23.

29 James C. Isaminger, “Burt Shotton Confident His Team Will Pack More than Tailend Punch,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 7, 1928: 20.

30 “Grabowski Allows One-Hit to Foes; Wrightstone Let Go,” Harrisburg Evening News, August 11. 1932: 15.

31 “Baseball Riot Tangles Series in Valley Loop,” Harrisburg Telegraph, September 6, 1932: 11.

32 “West Shore Athlete Runs for Sheriff,” Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Sentinel, July 24, 1937: 2.

33 Denn Corby, personal correspondence with author, July 17, 2021.

34 Denn Corby.

35 “Pottios to Play in Legion Classic,” Monongahela (Pennsylvania) Daily Republican, July 30, 1956: 2.

36 S.O. Grauley, “Ring and Harris to Pitch First Games,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1924: 22.

Full Name

Russell Guy Wrightstone

Born

March 18, 1893 at Bowmansdale, PA (USA)

Died

February 25, 1969 at Harrisburg, PA (USA)

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