December 10, 2019

The Other Wright Brothers: George, Harry and the Team that Made Baseball Famous

June 14, 2019 by · 2 Comments 

It’s almost too much for the senses to absorb: two precedent-setting Hall of Famers and their team that played coast to coast, beat everyone and sold the country on professional baseball.

George Wright was the Babe Ruth of his day in the 1860s and ’70s, and he went on to become arguably the most versatile sportsman in American history. His brother Harry managed the 1869 Red Stockings to an undefeated 57-0 season (you read that right) while inventing much of the baseball strategy we see today. Topping off this treat like a cherry atop a hot fudge sundae, the Red Stockings were one of the first, and certainly the most proudly open and influential professional team of all time. Their sesquicentennial is being celebrated as we speak.

The magic began, oddly, with cricket. A “fancy wood-turner,” father Sam Wright arrived from England in the mid-1830s along with his wife, the former Annie Fraser, and children including son Harry, who was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, on January 10, 1835. (George was born in Manhattan, New York, on January 26, 1847.) Officially, Sam landed a job as a woodcarver. His real interest was cricket.

The Wrights lived on a farm in a Manhattan neighborhood at 110th St. and Third Avenue, or what we today call East Harlem, Spanish Harlem or El Barrio. As resident professional at the nearby St. George Cricket Club, Sam played for its St. George Dragon Slayers from 1837 to the early 60s and accepted a silver drinking mug and $300 upon his retirement. His reputation became a standard. “As honest as old Sam Wright,” cricketers said.

Harry dropped out of the New York school system at 14 to work as an engraver at Tiffany, Young and Ellis. A year later, he was playing for the Dragon Slayers. “Cricket was my first love, commenced as a schoolboy, and I still retain an old love for it,” Harry said decades later. At age 14, George also took to cricket. Soon both brothers were assistant cricket professionals at their father’s club, which had relocated to gorgeous, bucolic Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Much as they adored cricket, Harry and George soon fell in love with playing baseball. After George joined his brother on the New York Gothams at age 17, the New York Dispatch called them “the best exponents of batting as a science in the country.”

The brothers took separate routes toward their reunion with the Red Stockings. En route to his historic dominance of mid-19th century shortstops, George had a telling experience on the field. “First I was their catcher,” he recalled, “but one day a foul tip struck me in the throat and it hurt so much that I never afterward was able to muster up sufficient courage to catch, and so I went to left field, eventually going to second base and then to shortstop.”

With George it was all play and (shh!) some pay. During the nominally amateur era George Wright was the most successful free agent of his time. In the five years before reuniting with Harry in 1869, he starred for different teams in the New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. areas. He was on the national radar, when national meant East Coast.

There was already covert professionalism. While playing with the Washington D.C. Nationals, George was supposedly a Treasury Department clerk whose business address of 238 Pennsylvania Avenue could only have been in a private park. He was well worth whatever he was getting paid. Having won the New York Clipper award as best hitting shortstop with the Nationals in 1867, the following year George repeated, and more, with the 1868 Unions of Morrisania in the Bronx. The Clipper’s Henry Chadwick, a Hall-of-Fame scribe who invented the box score, called George  the best “general player” in baseball. He could be described as baseball’s first superstar.

George was more than a two-way player: he was an inventive one. In 1849 or 1850, baseball pioneer Doc Adams of the New York Knickerbockers had invented the shortstop position as a fourth outfielder closer to the infield than the others, like the “short fielder” used in softball. Brooklyn player Dickey Pearce re-situated the position between second and third base. Called the “King of Shortstops,” George departed from both player locations while playing for Nationals in 1867 and Unions in 1868. He stationed himself almost on the outfield grass — in effect the outfielder-infielder we know shortstop to be today. It was a perfect placement for a fielder with great range and a strong arm.

“There isn’t an infielder in the game today who had anything on George Wright when it came to playing shortstop, and certainly there was none during his time,” Hall of Fame catcher James (Deacon) Wright said. “George fielded hard-hit balls barehanded, gathered them up or speared them when in the air with either hand. He was an expert and accurate thrower, being able to throw with either hand.”

No wonder he was so much in demand.

Though The Detroit Press said Harry was “the finest, safest, best, and least showy player in America,” he also had a growing family and financial obligations. In 1865, he joined Cincinnati’s Union Cricket Club as professional instructor and “bowler,” the cricket equivalent of pitcher.

He hadn’t abandoned baseball. Looking around, Harry and club president Aaron B. Champion, a 26-year-old lawyer, quickly agreed that baseball, as a quintessentially American game that didn’t have day-long matches, offered something more sustainable than cricket. They formed the new Cincinnati Base Ball Club and fielded its first team in September of 1866. When they adopted red stockings and knee breeches the following year, a local writer ridiculed them. Unperturbed, the players not only wore that garb but also called themselves the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Other teams adopted similar garb that was maintained until the 20th century.

The team’s best pitcher and hitter, Harry was unanimously chosen captain, a position in his era that also included manager and business manager. When he pitched (he also played centerfield), Harry invented the change of pace (“dew drop”), a straight change in today’s parlance. He was also showing the managerial brilliance he is best known for. Among other things, he would signal to baserunners to steal, reposition fielders depending on the batters and execute double steals.

In 1867 Harry’s club went 16-1, losing 53-10 to George’s Nationals, the first Eastern team traveling “west.” Motivated by that loss, Harry and Champion determined that building national power base would put them on a par with the eastern teams. Cincinnati businessmen and lawyers backed the club, which in Champion’s words, would ideally be “well organized, systematically disciplined, incessantly practiced, temperate, and regular in habits.”

Drawing on the leading players he knew from his days in New York, Harry signed the sartorially splendid pitcher Asa (The Count) Brainard, third baseman Fred Waterman, and infielder-outfielder John Hatfield before the 1868 season. Splitting two games with the Unions of Morrisania (Bronx) were useful, because the Unions’ shortstop was one “Smiling George” Wright, who would soon be Harry’s for a price. The Red Stockings went 10-4 on an eastern tour, losing to the Athletics and Keystones of Philadelphia, the Atlantics of Brooklyn and the Olympics of Washington, the country’s oldest club (founded 1833). But the tour gave the Red Stockings national exposure and respect. Waterman, speedy rightfielder William Johnson and Hatfield were named best in their positions in Clipper awards. And now that the Red Stockings played their home games in an enclosed park, they could charge for admission and afford to pay their players good salaries.

Before the historic 1869 season, Harry kicked Hatfield off the team for allegedly conspiring with gamblers and running up huge debts. The Welsh-born Johnson, a lawyer  and new groom, retired from baseball. Harry and Champion added an 18-year-old with massive forearms, rightfielder Cal McVey, the youngest pro anywhere and a former boxer who could do cartwheels and handsprings. First Baseman Charlie Gould, the only Cincinnatian on the team, was known as “The  Bushel Basket” for his ability to field balls and catch hard throws from his teammates. Handsome Andy Leonard, a swift leftfielder born in County Cavan, Ireland, and second baseman Charlie Sweasy went from the Irvingtons of New Jersey to Cincinnati’s Buckeyes and then to the Red Stockings after they sent the Buckeyes back to amateur status by winning a city series.

Also signed was catcher Doug Allison, who deserves special mention. A brickyard worker catching for the Philadelphia Gearys, he impressed Cincy scouts John Joyce and Alfred Gosham in the one game they saw him play with a long home run and skill behind the plate. Summoned to a hotel room, Allison appeared, tan, freckle-faced and clueless in a straw hat. Joyce and Gosham bought him clothes, treated him to a haircut and imported him to Cincinnati. What a find! Allison was one of the first catchers to stand close to the plate, as opposed to so far back they had to catch pitches on a bounce. He was also known for his moodiness and bad temper.

The Red Stockings’ timing was spot-on. With great relief, since they were formally legalizing something everyone knew existed anyway, on December 9, 1868, the National Association of Base Ball Players granted that for the 1869 campaign, players who competed for paid compensation could be counted legally as professionals.

The Reds Stockings differed from other teams’ use of semiprofessional players, who shared gate receipts but supposedly had jobs outside of baseball. Harry’s fulltime players for 1869 had a payroll of $9,300, mammoth for the time, if you can believe it. George, his Ruthian skill already well-established, was paid the top salary of $1,400, well ahead of his brother’s second-place $1,200. Brainard made $1,100 and the other regulars $7,000 or $800 apiece. Sub Dick Hurley pocketed $600. To put club finances in perspective, the average American worker made about $550 per year.

Aside from their mutual skill in baseball, George and Harry were polar opposites. An old photo shows Harry with a full beard, glasses and a stern expression. Red Stockings time-travel novelist Darryl (If I Never Get Back) Brock describes Harry: “. . . face firm and deeply tanned, alert eyes seeming at once wise and tolerant; moustache and imperial goatee neatly trimmed, bristling sidewhiskers adding a hint of martial dash; legs and torso well-proportioned.” What struck Brock most were his “eyes: soft deer-brown orbs with startling  depth, incongruous in the strong face.” A church-going Episcopalian who didn’t drink or swear, Harry was so noble that in 1868 he insisted an umpire reverse a decision that would have benefited the Red Stockings.

At 5’10” and 162 pounds, about half an inch taller and five pounds heavier than his brother, George was also much stronger. He could throw a cricket ball more than 300 feet. Darker-complexioned than Harry, George was photographed with a wide mouth, deep eyes, curly brown hair parted near the middle, a prominent hawk nose, flashing teeth (more on this below), unruly sideburns and an impish look about him. People kept showering him with meals and gifts. Before Red Stockings games, George entertained fans with juggling, sleight-of-hand demonstrations, backward somersaults. He was what people today call a “hot dog.”

“Whenever he would ‘pull off’ one of those grand, unexpected plays that were so dazzlingly surprising as to dumbfound his opponents, his prominent teeth would gleam and glisten in an array of white molars that would put our own Teddy Roosevelt and his famed dentistry establishment far in the shadow,”   Sam Crane,  a second baseman and manager in the 1880s, recalled later.

*

Before we let the 1869 games begin, let’s note what kind of baseball they were playing. Would a player from today recognize the national pastime if he were time-traveled to 1869? Yes, although there are significant differences. To be sure, the old game had four bases, nine players and nine innings, a bat and a ball, and three “hands out,” meaning outs per inning. For bases, they used a canvas bag filled with sawdust, drilled into the ground and covered by straps, somewhat similar to today’s bases.

Here’s where there’s variance. Teams used a brown ball about a quarter-inch larger in circumference than the modern ball; it was expected to be used for the entire game and got somewhat softer as the innings progressed. Another big difference: today’s 108 stiches make the ball easier to grip and throw than the smoother sphere used in the 19th century. Back then pitchers had to throw underhand from a 4’ x 6’ chalked box 45 feet from the batter, “with a straight arm, swinging perpendicularly from the body,” although that stricture was violated with impunity. In 1869 batters could order a high (waist to shoulders) or low (knees to waist) pitch. Old-time batters choked up on their three-and-a-half-foot-long, 45-50-ounce, wooden bats they wielded with a slashing motion that “fanned the air in a way that would seem perfectly ridiculous to the average player to-day,” MLB’s official historian John Thorn writes. The lighter, whippier bats in use today would wait until the 20th century.

With the four-balls rule two decades away, the umpire in his silk hat did not have to call every pitch and usually issued a warning first. It was commonplace not to issue a walk for eight or nine pitches. Strikeouts were rare. Even on the third strike, a batsman could reach first if the catcher didn’t catch the ball immediately or after one bounce. Otherwise the batter would be safe if he reached first before the throw from catcher to first baseman.

Almost forgot: they played barehanded! Just try a barehanded game of catch using a hardball. Or better still, don’t, because you might break a hand or finger. Yet 19th-century ballplayers caught flies, picked up groundballs or knocked down line drives, the better to fire them to a fellow fielder with sure if quivering hands. The catcher, charged with handling pitches and foul tips, was by far the most vulnerable fielder. He was the only player who might wear a glove, and generally not until late in the 19th century, when the typical “kid glove” was the kind of thing a woman might wear to a dinner party a century later.

The incomparable mid-19th century pitcher, Jim Creighton, by introducing spin on the ball in 1858, established that the pitcher could be oppositional to rather than collaborative with the batter. That was some consolation, but there was no raised pitching mound or rubber. As a result, baseball was routinely a high-scoring game matching batters against fielders. Complicating a fielder’s challenges, a struck ball that bounced in fair territory and curved foul before first or third base was in play: a potential “fair-foul” hit. Foul flies could be caught on one bounce for an out. Fair flies had to be caught in the air. “Young Jack” Chapman of Brooklyn’s Atlantics had the greatest baseball nickname imaginable: “Death to Flying Things,” a term later revived to describe modern (2005-17) outfielder Franklin Gutiérrez.

The ’69 Red Stockings appeared at a perfect time in history. Earlier in the century and into the Civil War, there were two forms of baseball — the “Massachusetts” or “New England” game and the “New York game.” The Massachusetts version had some interesting if questionable practices like retiring a baserunner by hitting him with a throw, a practice known  as “Indian tagging,” “soaking” and “plugging.” The New York version was similar to what we see today and was widely played, even in parts of New England. It didn’t hurt that more New Yorkers than Bay Staters served in the Union army. So the New York game became the national one.

During the Civil War soldiers played during breaks in the fighting and even in POW camps. On Christmas Day 1862, teams from the New York Volunteer Infantry competed before a reported 40,000 fellow soldiers. After the conflict soldiers took the game home and baseball swept the nation like prairie fire. There were town teams, office teams, factory teams, farm teams. The self-image of a locale was wrapped up in the play of its local nine. This, finally, was an American game that would unite the country. It was everywhere, including California during the gold rush era, and it eventually filled in the rest of the land with post-war migration.

In a weekly publication of the time called Our Boys and Girls, baseball in 1869 was far ahead of the other popular sports of the time, including velocipedes (biking) and pedestrianism (race walking). Called “our national game” by Our Boys and Girls, baseball inspired endless books, magazines and “papers” (articles in publications). An unsigned piece in the postwar Our Boys and Girls gushed, “…there is hardly a town or village where its rules and history are not as fully known as they are in the largest cities of the continent.” In another issue, Our Boys and Girls reported, “And now we see not base ball clubs making tours and visits, but members of the Masonic and Odd Fellows fraternities, military companies, firemen, and others, all with one purpose of meeting and making friends in different sections of the country.” Another favorite periodical, for its name alone if not its content, was Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player.

Now, let’s set the stage for the 1869 season. Legalized or not, the fact that players were professional still made them undesirable to many. So when Harry fielded his pro team, he was widely chastised by gentlemen amateurs in greater Cincinnati. Pre-Harry, “professional” supposedly meant fixed games, unruly fans, corrupt players and umpires, open gambling, fighting, heavy drinking in the stands if not among the players between games. Americans drank three times as much booze per capita in 1869 as they do today.

“Gentlemen” played the amateur style. It took someone with the character and respect of a Harry Wright to sell the idea of everyday Americans playing professional baseball. Image was everything, and Harry projected the best with his Red Stockings. Under wraps were Asa Brainard’s poor motivation, boozing and curfew violations, plus Charlie Sweasy’s alcohol problem. Brainard, 27, and Harry Wright, 34, were the only players over the age of 23. Give Harry some credit for herding cats.

*

Let the games begin! At every stop the Red Stockings put their best public foot forward. It helped that they were winning. After twice beating a local “picked-nine” team of young players who could serve as a kind of farm team, the Red Stockings played their first official game on May 4[1] against an established opponent, beating the local Great Westerns, 45-9. The Red Stockings worked their way East, winning in Cleveland, Rochester and Buffalo, and getting some good press when they edged the respected Haymakers at their park near Troy NY, 37-31. All the while, the Cincinnatians knew they needed a strong showing in the baseball hotbeds of New York City and Philadelphia. After some pit stops in Massachusetts, where many spectators were seeing baseball for the first time, the Red Stockings were underdogs when they visited the Mutuals of New York on June 15.

The team arrived at its Manhattan hotel the day before and retired quietly, anticipating the first of three games that would begin cementing their reputation. At the time it was assumed that the best teams in the East competed for the national championship, other regions be damned, even though the governing National Association of Base Ball Players didn’t recognize or sanction championships. Boss Tweed’s Mutuals of New York and the Athletics of Philadelphia claimed superiority the loudest. Do you think the Red Stockings’ coming dominance made the issue moot?

Horse-drawn coaches provided by the home team conveyed the Red Stockings from the docks to the Mutuals’ field in Brooklyn. The game carried special significance for Harry Wright, who was eager to beat the despised and ousted former teammate John Hatfield.

A crowd estimated from 1,500 to 5,000 — not a great number — appeared in nasty winds and heavy clouds at Union Grounds in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was considered the number one park in the country and certainly the most famous. The first enclosed park, it had been built in 1862. Wouldn’t you know, the sun broke through, and what a game absentee fans missed! As Henry Chadwick of the New York Clipper described it, “never has its equal and probably never will have.”

It was the rarest thing for the time: a bona fide pitching duel with low scores, great fielding, rising tension and drama. Winning the coin toss — there was no automatic home team batting second — the Red Stockings sent the Mutuals up first. Back home, Cincinnatians grouped in stores, telegraph offices and newspaper buildings awaiting the latest bulletin. The Mutuals’ Rynie Wolters allowed only two runs over seven innings. The Reds’ Asa Brainard, throwing “beautiful, easy and true” according to one writeup, had a 2-1 lead going in the ninth. After a double and two singles scored a run and put Mutuals on first and second, Dave Eggler hit a pop fly just fair of third base. “Two, Fred, two!” Harry Wright called from the outfield to third baseman Fred Waterman. Known as “Innocent Fred” for his droopy mustache and hangdog look, Waterman was anything but. Heeding his master’s command, Waterman deliberately let the ball drop and shoveled it over to George Wright covering third. Whereupon George threw to Charlie Sweasy at second to complete the double play. What about the infield fly rule, mandating an automatic out on pop-ups with runners on first and second or all three bases and no more than one out? It hadn’t been invented! So it was 2-2, amid smart fielding, with the Reds getting one more shot in the last half-inning.

Andy Leonard reached first on an error but was picked off. Brainard reached third on an overthrow to first. Mutuals catcher Charlie Mills kept a close eye on Brainard inching down the third-base line — so close he missed a pitch for a passed ball that scored the winning run. But the game wasn’t over! Contemporary rules said no game was complete until the third out was recorded, which meant that in place of a walk-off hit, the winning team had to, perhaps deliberately, make the third out to end the game. The Reds eventually won, 4-2. “What a contest!” Chadwick wrote. “The Red Stockings are popularizing the game in the east like no other club has before!” Specifically, Chadwick and others extolled the game because of the excellent fielding that produced the lowest first-class “match” game on record. Realizing something historic had just occurred, Mutuals fans cheered the winners. And the Red Stockings had some satisfaction beside the win: the despised Hatfield had no hits and scored no runs.

Back in their quarters at Earle’s Hotel in New York, the Red Stockings got a congratulatory telegram from Cincinnati. Apprised of the result from newsman Henry Millar’s game report, one S. S. Davis wrote: “ON BEHALF OF THE CITIZENS OF CINCINNATI WE SEND YOU GREETING. THE STREETS ARE FILLED WITH PEOPLE WHO GIVE CHEER AFTER CHEER FOR THEIR PET CLUB. GO ON WITH THE NOBLE WORK. OUR EXPECTATIONS HAVE BEEN MET.”

The Red Stockings were prepared to celebrate all night, until punctilious Harry reminded them that they had another game the following day, this one with the ballyhooed Brooklyn nine, the Atlantics. Some 10,000-12,000 fans crowded Brooklyn’s Capitoline Grounds, sitting on the grass before amphitheater benches, in carriages, omnibuses, coaches, hanging from church steeples, perched on fences, and roofs. One of them reportedly bet $10,000 on the visitors. It can safely be said that he celebrated all night, because the Red Stockings won, 32-10, with Brainard, George Wright, Waterman and Allison teeing off almost at will. Significantly, the local papers commended the Red Stockings for their behavior as well as their play.

Next day, the teams returned to Brooklyn, and the Red Stockings beat the Eckfords, 24-5, at the Union Grounds. En route to Philly, the Red Stockings arranged a game in Irvington, New Jersey, the past club of Andy Leonard and Charlie Sweasy. They beat the Irvingtons, 20-4, in a game shortened to seven innings so the winners could get to Jersey City in time to make the train to Philadelphia.

The lads began their Philadelphia stay by beating the Olympic Club, 22-11. With a Sunday off, Harry impressed the Philadelphia and out-of-town newspaper reporters when he brought the whole team to church. Then another titan loomed. That would be the Athletics, at their grounds on 15th and Columbia. On Monday, with three of the Red Stockings regulars out, the A’s won a 30-minute, game-delaying debate, and got to use a dead ball because they had used lively balls in their 1868 game with the Red Stockings. Yes, there were two kinds of balls used and negotiated over! Liveliness and stitching varied depending on the manufacturer.

In all probability, the game drew the largest crowd for an official league game in baseball’s young history. Two hours before game time, streetcars were packed with fans heading for Athletics Park. According to Cincinnati papers, 18,000-20,000 were in attendance; another estimate was 25,000; the local papers toned it down to at most 10,000. The stands were filled, and even more people watched from embankments, trees, roofs, carriages, and unfinished houses, to the dismay of workers there. Benefiting from A’s errors, the Red Stockings led 8-3, and notwithstanding Brainard’s exhausted arm held on to win, 28-17. Catcher Allison deserved credit for toughing it out with bruised fingers.

Before playing the lesser Keystones on June 22, Harry had to reshuffle the order with Allison out. Incredibly, Harry risked brother George’s health behind the plate. The A’s leftfielder Ed Cuthbert, no doubt peeved over the previous day’s loss to the Reds, was allowed to umpire. Yes, they negotiated over umpires! According to Cincinnati newsman Millar, Cuthbert’s judgments favored the home team, and he even stopped balls with his feet, to the benefit of the Keystones.

The Red Stockings were exhausted, and no doubt annoyed by the hour-long delay at the wet field. Cincinnati’s resulting 45-30, seven-inning win (stopped by darkness) was notable for the respectable showing the losers provided. H. Wright   ( 6 runs) and G. Wright (7) more than atoned. The Keystones didn’t deserve to win because they “were very disorderly, continuously giving vent to unearthly yells,” in Cincinnati newsman Henry Millar’s words. But the news from the Philadelphia sweep was bigger than that. There was no longer any doubt: The Red Stockings were now established as America’s best team, even in the absence of postseason playoffs. More telegrams greeted them back at their hotel. Eastern wags cited Sherman’s march and compared Red Stocking fielding to the work of a Chinese magician. Philadelphia women, walking past the team’s hotel, raised their skirts to show red stockings underneath.

Now Our Boys and Girls was all but ashamed of Eastern claims to title holding: “There is no doubt but that, if fair play be shown, the Red Stockings will hold the championship at the close of the season; but, from appearances, some of the eastern clubs will be allowed to win it, in order to save [them] from going out west.” Oh, the indignity of traveling to the Queen City of the West to decide a championship that surely belonged back home!

The season played out as a happy dream. The Red Stockings met with President Grant and got a group portrait shot by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady bookending wins in the nation’s capital. Harper’s Weekly canonized them. The players enjoyed a hometown banquet in which a businessman presented them with a 27-foot, 1,600 pound bat. By stagecoach and train the club traveled to Omaha, Nebraska. Then, the Transcontinental Railroad having just been completed, the team headed to the San Francisco and Sacramento. En route, scared of a possible Sioux attack, the players had guns. No worry: they thrilled to the sight of buffalo, antelope, deer and prairie dog.

Once arrived, the Red Stockings trounced California nines who were grateful to learn skills from the best. Cincinnati was the first team to play on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, spreading the gospel of baseball everywhere. Back home, the players rode open carriages to their games, singing the team song that began, “We are a band of ballplayers” and referenced all of them.

There were some close games in the season, one involving a ninth-inning come-from-behind win using a double steal, 15-14, over Forest City of Rockford IL, another a forfeit victory over a tie game when the Troy Haymakers walked off the field to protest the umpiring. The Athletics of Philadelphia lurched into Cincinnati for a game and were sent home on the short side of 17-12. The official season ended with a 17-8 win on November 6 over the visiting Mutuals of New York, giving the Red Stockings a 57-0 record against National Association teams and other established nines. Their record swelled with seven unofficial wins over “picked” nines, making Cincinnati 64-0 overall.[2] George Wright’s .633 hitting and fielding above the .900 mark (extraordinary in the barehanded era) especially stood out.

What made the Red Stockings so successful, so cool in heated competition? Baseball historian Richard Hershberger cites their manager above all else: “. . . he more or less invented the position of ball club manager, and in that capacity, he revolutionized fielding.  He bullied his players into hustling to back each other up, which was a revolutionary concept, and he devised schemes for where the various fielders should go in any given situation. This goes a long ways toward explaining how he took a team that on paper looked good but not great and went on to tear through the best clubs in the country.”

Would the Red Stockings ever lose a game? After 81 (or 84, à la Darryl Brock) straight wins, they lost spectacularly in extra innings, 8-7, to the host Atlantics in Brooklyn on June 14, 1870. Despite another terrific season in which they were beaten just six times, the Red Stockings, who had barely broken even in 1869 and probably had only a few thousand dollars in the bank after the 1870 season, were abandoned by their fans, media and club members. Live fast, die young.

And the Wright brothers? They were hardly through. Harry became manager, captain, general manager and for all we know head groundskeeper, for the Boston club of the new National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (italics added) and immediately created a contender by signing seven worthies: brother George, Al Spalding, Charlie Gould, Cal McVey, Ross Barnes, Jim White and Fred Cone.

But for George’s knee injury, which limited him to 16 games, the Boston Red Stockings might have finished first instead of third in 1871. With him back in form, the team won four straight titles. Boston dominated so thoroughly in 1872-5 that pennant races lacked interest and fans. People called it “Harry Wright’s League.” It was too bad that people couldn’t thrill to the 1875 team that went 71-8. The Red Stockings, in effect, doomed the National Association by being too successful! The National League we know today kicked off in 1876. Wouldn’t you know, the omnipresent George Wright was the first player coming to bat. How he fared is uncertain, but his Boston team beat host Philadelphia, 6-5, on April 22, 1876. Note that teams often batted their best hitter first in the order.

The Harry and George story eventually played itself out, with Harry going down much too fast. He won National League titles in 1877 and 1878 but couldn’t repeat over the next 15 years with Boston, Providence and Philadelphia. Harry outlived two wives, and the three and seven kids from their respective marriages didn’t always get along well. When a cold got into his eyes, he suffered a freak one-year bout of blindness. On October 3, 1895, with his wife, son Harry, Jr., and four daughters by his bed, Harry raised two fingers, said, “Two men out,” and 10 minutes later died. At least that’s what The Sporting News’s E.J. Lanigan reported. Harry was only 60.

His contributions to game strategy include changeups, repositioning fielders, infielders wandering far off their bags; signaling for baserunners to steal, hit-and-runs, double steals, calling which players to catch — or deliberately drop — popups, fielders backing up fielders, tagging up and advancing on catches, platooning, relays, rundowns, spring training and split-admission doubleheaders. He was an “originator of teamwork,” in the words of Tim Murnane, the old ballplayer and sportswriter.

George could do no wrong. Playing for his brother, he participated on six championship teams over a seven-year period (1872-5, 1877-78. George played for and managed the Providence team in 1879, winning a title over Harry’s Boston club and scoring the winning run himself in a crucial game. No other 19th-century National League manager won a title in his only year at the helm.

George was the first player to write (or have his name used) in a little book called Record of the Boston Base Ball Club, Since Its Organization, With a Sketch of All Its Players for 1871, ’72, ’73, and ’74, and Other Items of Interest. George received the #1 lifetime pass to National League games. He also had extraordinary success in business. Co-founded with Henry Ditson in 1871, George’s Wright & Ditson sporting-goods company at one time had stores in New York, Chicago and San Francisco as well as Boston and Providence. As it happened, George ordered a set of golf clubs from Scotland without knowing their purpose. A Scotsman stopped in to the Boston store, explained the game and promised to send George a rulebook after he returned to Europe. Once he read the document and understood the game, George and friends completed construction of the first course in New England, in 1890, at Franklin Park in Boston. Francis Ouimet worked for George before winning the 1913 U.S. Open. Many call George the “Father of American Golf.”

George imported tennis equipment from the 1874 trip that he, Harry and two squads of players took to England to promote baseball. George was most visible at Boston’s Longwood Cricket Club, also a tennis emporium. He and his wife Abby had two sons and two daughters. One son, Beals, a Harvard graduate coached by his father, won national tennis championships in singles and doubles at the 1904 Olympic Games. Three U.S. titles in doubles and one in singles followed, earning him a spot in the Tennis Hall of Fame. Another son, Irving, was a European doubles and U.S. mixed-doubles champ who won the Canadian doubles championship three times. No wonder many tennis cognoscenti call George the “Father of American Tennis.”

1n 1894 the indefatigable fellow went into winter pastimes. George got his company to manufacture Canadian-style hockey equipment and speed the game’s growth in the United States. He  published the rules of football, which was gaining traction in American colleges. In his prime, George played cricket better than any other American, and he kept playing it into his mid-50s. He even played briefly with the U.S. curling team in 1907. If there’s been a more versatile athlete and sportsman in this country’s history, name him.

Living more than four decades longer than his brother, George became a popular interview, a veritable Shakespearean sage expected to “tell old tales and laugh at gilded butterflies” in LearSpeak. He held forth on old uniforms and bats and barehanded play, but also on contemporary baseball problems. In the October 15, 1889, Chicago Daily Tribune, an unnamed journalist wrote, “George Wright — not Harry Wright, who is dead — recently declared that women and men with any self-respect no longer attended baseball games because of the brawls and rowdyism on the league diamond. . . . Respectable men would rather go to a prize fight than to a professional ball game, because there is more order and decency in the ring than on the diamond.”

In a 1936 survey among veteran baseball writers ordered by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, George was one of the five 19th-century figures elected to the Hall “for outstanding service to baseball apart from playing the game.” (The others were managers John McGraw and Connie Mack and league presidents Morgan Bulkeley and Ban Johnson.) George’s election wasn’t announced until December 7, 1937, four months after he died at age 90. Harry joined the Hall posthumously in 1953, following a delay his son Harry Jr. blamed on the voters’ emphasis on brawn over scientific baseball. Unlike his brother, however, Harry is the subject of a full-length biography using the punctuation of the time, Harry Wright: The Father of Professional Base Ball by teen-age wunderkind Christopher Devine.

Two other brothers, Paul and Lloyd Waner, earned plaques in Cooperstown. With all due respect to Big Poison and Little Poison, baseball’s official historian John Thorn writes, “George and Harry Wright were as important to baseball as Orville and Wilbur Wright were to aviation.”

 

Jim Kaplan covered baseball for 16 years at Sports Illustrated and is the author of 14 books on the game, most recently Clearing the Bases: A Veteran Sportswriter on the National Pastime. He can be reached at jkaplan105@gmail.com.

Notes:

[1] The 2019 Cincinnati Reds are staging a season-long celebration of the 1869 Red Stockings that includes probably the first pavilion built in a major league city to honor a team. Technically, the old Red Stockings were not even a distant relative of today’s Reds, but give the club credit for honoring a historical icon from the Queen City.

[2] Novelist Brock believes that three of the California teams the Red Stockings beat were legitimate nines whose losses to Cincinnati weren’t counted as official. That would make the Red Stockings’ 1869 record against legitimate opponents 60-0.

Comments

2 Responses to “The Other Wright Brothers: George, Harry and the Team that Made Baseball Famous”
  1. Howard Nenner says:

    Stunningly impressive to this fan who’s been following major league baseball for nearly 75 years, and who knew next to nothing about its pre-20th century past. Kudos to Jim Kaplan for his command of so much baseball history.

  2. Cliff Blau says:

    The Red Stockings didn’t evolve into the Braves. They reverted to being an amateur club, while the Braves were a new club started from scratch in 1871.

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