This article was written by Christopher Devine
This article was published in
The Most Important Baseball Figure of the 19th Century?
In 1999 the Society for American Baseball Research completed a poll that ranked Harry Wright as the third largest contributor to 19th-century baseball.
Though hindsight is often said to be 20/20, that is questionable in this case. In fact, the 19th-century perception of that question was quite different. In a November 1893 edition of The Sporting News, Wright was noted as the most remarkable figure in baseball.
His only competition, according to the paper, was neither Henry Chadwick nor Albert Spalding- named first and second in the SABR poll- but longtime player and manager Adrian “Cap” Anson. It is likely that 20th-century achievements and events have changed opinions over time. Chadwick, recognized as America’s original sportswriter, worked in a profession that has gained quite a bit of status in the past 100 years. Sports writing has since been applauded for its use in popularizing baseball across the country with an in-depth coverage of the game, a style originated by Chadwick. This, coupled with his effect on the changes and developments in rules, has given him credit as a founding father of the game. Though Wright failed in brief attempts at sports writing-
“Composition is out of my line,”‘ he explained – he was as knowledgeable of, and as instrumental in the changing of the rulebook as Chadwick. Contemporary sources rank them as equals in this regard.
In Spalding’s case, much of the reverence for him may have come as a result of his 1911 book America’s National Game, regarded as the first history on baseball. This, of course, is a 20th-century achievement, not a contribution to 19th-century baseball. He was also a phenomenal player and powerful but ruthless magnate who established the successful Spalding sporting goods company. Wright tried his hand at the same venture but failed. However, he himself was an acclaimed ballplayer and a powerful executive of sorts in his own right. While with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, he served as captain, center fielder, general manager, traveling secretary, and public relations department- simultaneously.
Harry Wright, if bested by those men in their areas of expertise, was not truly eclipsed. And as an all-around pioneer, he may have no match.
Though Harry Wright is not a household name today, he was a living legend for several decades in the 19th-century. Newspapers frequently referred to him as either “The Father of Baseball” or “The Father of Professional Baseball.” “You make me feel awful old when you say I am looked upon as the father of the game,” he wrote to National League President William Hulbert. “You must look farther and I am certain you will fare better. There is a gentleman in New York, Henry Chadwick Esq. who is richly deserving of the title father of the game, for the pen is mighty and he has invariably used it for the best interests of the game, as we all know.”2
Wright’s ready deference to Chadwick on the matter was graciously returned. After Wright’s death in 1895, Chadwick regarded him as the “most widely known, best respected and most popular of the exponents and representatives of professional baseball, of which he was virtually the founder.” Wright’s former employer, Col. John I. Rogers, who he was often at odds with, went so far as to note, “It has truly been said, that so identified was he with the progress and popularity of the game that its history is his biography.”
Though the complimentary attitudes of these men may have been heightened in the wake of Wright’s death, it was not uncommon to find similar ones during his baseball days. “Harry Wright is undoubtedly the best known baseball man in the country,” declared one paper in 1886.
So how did Wright achieve this status? “Uncle Harry,” as he was often called, was both a visionary and a pioneer. He created or helped implement numerous changes now integrally linked with the baseball fabric, including the doubleheader, platooning of fielders, batting practice, farm system, pitching rotation, sacrificing of outs for runs, positioning of fielders according to hitters’ tendencies, fielders backing up one another, throwing ahead of runners, relieving of the pitcher in order to upset the batter’s timing, first patented scorecard, and the modern baseball uniform including short knickers and stockings. Due to some of these creations and his way of managing, Wright is often credited as “the originator of teamwork.”
Additionally, he was instrumental in the implementation of: spring training, bunting, the hit and run, hand signals for both batters and runners, long-term contracts, and endorsements, when he lent his name to a turnstile manufacturer in the 1880s.
Of course, each of these carries a story that could be expounded upon further. For example, Wright’s development of the idea of a farm system was done quite unintentionally. During his tenure as manager of the Providence Grays, in 1883, for the first time in baseball, Wright put together a second nine for the club with the intention of developing major league talent.
The second nine, the Providence Reserves, would play on the Providence grounds when their parent team was away. Skeptics argued that this system would saturate the already lean Providence fan base and negatively impact economic concerns. But ultimately Wright was lauded for his brainchild and recognized as “the father of the reserve club’ system.” Though the idea of a farm system was not truly implemented until Branch Rickey took it on decades later, Wright’s status as the inventor of the concept is a matter of record.
Despite his heralded successes, Wright suffered his failures as well, most notably the “flat bat.” Wright developed the idea of a new flattened club in 1880 as a way of lessening the frequency of foul balls and danger to catchers while enhancing scientific batting across the league. Wright’s timing was bad, though, for there was a widespread call for offense at the time.
As a result, the National League owners initially opposed the idea, but in 1885 they admitted its usage, as an optional alternative to round bats. To his dismay, reaction to the innovation was unilaterally unenthusiastic; even George Wright, Harry’s Hall of Fame brother, condemned its chances of success. As he predicted, the idea fizzled and died out quickly.
Perhaps Wright’s most intriguing, enduring, and confusing innovation was spring training. Did he invent it? That is difficult to say. Wright did not originate the idea of traveling below the Mason-Dixon line as spring approached, but he seems to be the first to regard it with the modern perspective. Teams such as the Chicago White Stockings, New York Mutuals, and even Wright’s Cincinnati Red Stockings frequented the South for springtime baseball in the late 1860s to 1870s. But their intention was different. Though the teams were there to get out the winter rust, the true objective of their venture South was for the money, which they could not get playing ball up in the Northern climate at that point. However, Wright saw a different benefit to the “Southern trip,” as spring training was referred to in those days. “I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like it” he said in 1890. “Besides getting in good training, the men all learn each other’s play-get into each other, as it were. In this way they don’t lose the first six weeks of the regular season, as in the case with the teams which began the circuit with raw’ men. I’m satisfied that by another year all the League clubs will play a six or eight weeks’ Florida in February and March.”
In fact, other nines had begun to follow his Philadelphia club’s lead by 1890, including Chicago, New York, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia of the Players League. Wright’s Philadelphians first made the trek to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1886. (The Cleveland and Detroit nines opted for Savannah, Georgia, while Pittsburgh practiced in Nashville, Tennessee.) Wright was tempted to venture farther to Florida the next spring, but settled for Savannah. He was hesitant to travel that far a distance.
The competition in these trips was mostly against. local nines that often included professional talent such as Mike “King” Kelly, who could use the trips as much for profit as training. Practice was daily and games were played a minimum of five times per week.
Players were under no obligation -but a great deal of pressure- to attend. Wright would solicit each player to come along, and each had the option of responding with a letter indicating his willingness to go. In 1887, four Philadelphia players resisted the trip as a reaction to salary disputes. Wright tried to convince his club’s pitcher/second baseman Charley Ferguson to come South, but Ferguson held firm and the club trained without their star player.
While there, each player was constantly occupied.
At 6:00 he awakened to a saltwater bath and a vigorous rub with coarse towels. A half hour later, the team took a brisk three-mile walk along the beach until
7:00. As the sun rose, a large, full breakfast was served. Afterward, they headed to a large hall for indoor practice that Wright had procured. The players exercised by working with “Indian clubs” and dumb bells, as well as their defense on grounders and line drives. After eating lunch, the men took a walk from
3:00 to 4:00. Once supper was eaten, the players sat in their quarters playing checkers and “swapping lies” before bedtime at 10:00.
After an unsuccessful spring in Cape May, New Jersey, Wright accepted Florida as an accessible site in 1889 due to a better financial enticement. “In former years it was rather expensive [to train in Florida], but now the twelve-club Southern League will offer good guarantees to the League team, and I think the trip will be taken by most of the league teams.” Quickly Florida, Jacksonville specifically, became recognized as the “headquarters for winter baseball.” Wright, with his shrewd business sense, readily embraced the city.
“I want the people [of Jacksonville] to understand that the Philadelphians are here to identify themselves with Jacksonville. They mean to uphold the reputation and honor of the city as far as baseball is concerned. For the present, therefore, my team is practically a Jacksonville club.”9
The Southern trip quickly began drawing attention.
As Philadelphia sailed out of a New York port toward Jacksonville in 1889, a cheering assemblage, including Brooklyn club president Byrne, New York manager Jim Mutrie, star pitcher Tim Keefe, and Henry Chadwick, stood on the docks. Two years earlier, the Philadelphia Record had employed Wright to cover Southern trip exhibitions on a freelance basis for $3 a day. Wright could not hide his doubt that people would be interested in a game that essentially meant “nothing” but nevertheless predicted that “the score of each fine winning practice game will be greedily scanned by the enthusiasts here. 10
Hoping to capitalize on the success of these exhibitions, the Philadelphia management-which had been reluctant to permit Wright to take the Southern trip-set up a visit to Los Angeles in November 1887.
Wright opposed the idea from the onset. The players would be drained, he argued, and unfit to play well in
- Additionally, he feared–correctly- that players would enjoy the California atmosphere so much that they would settle there and leave Philadelphia behind.
The upshot of the trips was a disaster. The players were drained, some did desert, their lackluster play was criticized heavily in the press, and Charley Ferguson left with a lame arm.
Wright’s instinct for success was evidently keen. He excelled in a wide range of areas, from all spectrums of the baseball operation. As a manager he was heralded as the “best captain that ever took a baseball organization in hand.’” As an athlete, he “gave a superior performance in any kind of physical activity,” according to Harry Wright, Jr., his third son. This included cricket-his first love-baseball, skating, track, hunting, and fishing. In 1872, Wright and his brother George were described as “the best exponents of batting as a science in the country. These players know when to strike, how to strike, and where to put the ball.”13
Wright’s rapid development as a baseball player was quite remarkable. He began as a professional cricketer with the St. George’s Dragonslayers of Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1850 at the age of 15. His father, Sam St., was already a member and one of the best cricketers in the country. Harry discovered baseball in 1858 and quickly honed his skill as a member of the New York Knickerbockers, a club that participated in the first recorded baseball game 12 years earlier. Just 12 days after his debut with the Knicks, Wright headed a New York nine in the famed Fashion Course Matches. The Matches were a three-game series stretched over the summer of 1858 between picked nines of New York and Brooklyn, perhaps best thought of as a vintage All-Star Game. At the time the series was revered for its conversion of many spectators to die-hard baseball fans, but today it is more significant for the unprecedented act of charging an admission fee. The money went not to any players since professionalism was taboo at the time- but instead for groundskeeping.
When money first did-at least openly reach the hands of a player but a few years later, the recipient was Harry Wright, when he earned $29.65 for a benefit game to honor his family.
Wright’s name is perhaps the one most deservedly linked to professionalism. He was, after all, the manager and figurehead of the first openly all-profession-al baseball club, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings.
Though Wright and the Cincinnati’s were initially condemned in the newspapers for their transition, by the end of their year-and-a-half-long undefeated streak, professional nines had sprung up all over the country.
In that span of time, the Red Stockings traveled from coast to coast, first led by Wright to face all the main competition in the Northeast before taking the revolutionary step of venturing out to California for a Western tour.
Historians note that Wright’s leadership of the professional movement lent a good name to its cause that, if lacking, might have jeopardized, or delayed its existence. A sense of distrust had overtaken the perception of money and baseball working alongside, in light. of frequent scandals and player corruption. Wright’s scrupulous character and reputation helped spur professionalism as an acceptable element of baseball. For the first time it was disassociated from hoodlums and crooks, and instead represented by a man as respect ed as any amateur involved with the game. Wright was far from the archetypal money-hungry professional.
He had no tolerance for gambling; in fact, Wright’s idea of a bet was to “name as a ‘wager’ the pride and superiority in the manly exhibition of our National Game. * In 1882, he upped the ante to a leather medal from Mutrie, hardly incriminating evidence.
Wright was a man of temperate habits who did not swear, smoke, or drink. In fact, he went so far as to station a police officer in the ballpark while with Philadelphia to put a stop to smoking and insults.
Nevertheless, peers admired him for his manner of acting morally without condescension.
Wright was also renowned for his honesty, which he carried onto the ball field even when detrimental to his team’s cause. In an 1868 game between Cincinnati and the Unions of Morrisania, the umpire made an erroneous decision to favor the hometown Red Stockings. Wright knew the call was an effort to appease the crowd, and so he stepped onto the field and overruled the umpire, in what proved to be a Cincinnati loss.
Years later, with Philadelphia, outfielder Ed Andrews took a 20-foot shortcut inside third base en route to a run. To most onlookers, getting this by the umpire-there was only one on the field in those days-was a sign of cleverness. Wright did not have that reaction. When Andrews returned to the bench, his manager was pale. “Ed, he said, staring intently into Andrews’ eyes, “don’t ever let me see you do that again. I don’t want any games won that way. 15
Trust for Wright was so strong that he occasionally umpired National League games–while managing other league teams. As The Sporting News put it,
“There was no figure in baseball more creditable to the game than dear old Harry.” 16
In 1896, the Reach Guide wrote, “Every magnate in the country is indebted to [Harry Wright] for the establishment of baseball as a business, and every patron for fulfilling him with a systematic recreation.
Every player is indebted to him for inaugurating an occupation in which he gains a livelihood, and the country at large for adding one more industry . . . to furnish employment. 17
Wright’s contributions to 19th-century baseball included both specific and general breakthroughs that have been vital to the development of baseball and to its establishment as the national pastime. His achievements as a player, manager, and visionary can still be seen in the game today. Was Harry Wright the most important baseball figure of the 19th century?
“An opinion settles nothing unless the truth of the assertion is either self-evident or demonstrated,” he once said.
“Have I put this so you can understand me? and if so, how does it strike you? 18
1 The Chadwick Scrapbooks
2 December 29, 1874, letter to William Hulbert
3 The Chadwick Diaries
5 The Chadrick Scrapbooks
6 The Sporting Life, December 12, 1883
7 The Chadwick Scrapbooks
8 The Sporting News, January 13, 1893
9 The Chadrick Scrapbooks
10 Voight, p. 194
11 The Chadwick Scrapbooks
12 The Sporting Heritage, March/April 1987
13 The Chadrick Scrapbooks
14 October 12, 1878, letter to Robert Morrow
15Ryczek, p. 178
16 The Sporting News, October 12, 1895
17 The Chadwick Scrapbooks
18 March 26, 1875, letter to the New York Clipper
Ryczek, William J. When Johnny Came Sliding Home. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.
Voight, David Quentin. American Baseball: From Gentleman’s Sport to the Commissioner’s System.
Norman, OK: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1966.
The Chadwick Diaries
The Chadwick Scrapbooks
The Harry Wright Correspondence
The Sporting Heritage
The Sporting Life
The Sporting News