NEW ORLEANS—Jackie Robinson has rightly assumed a place as one of the most significant figures in American sports, and the anticipated movie “42” opens today as a further tribute to his legacy.
But within weeks of Robinson becoming the first African-American player in modern baseball history to sign in Organized Baseball in the fall of 1945, lanky New Orleans native John Wright became the second. A righthander with a solid array of pitches who had a decade of success in the Negro Leagues, Wright also signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, with both Robinson and Wright set to report to Dodgers spring training in Florida for the 1946 season.
"(T)he baseball world again vibrated as the announcement flashed across the Nation," wrote Hall of Fame sportswriter Wendell Smith in the Pittsburgh Courier.
Wright flamed out in Organized Ball, however, and by the beginning of the 1947 season, as Robinson was stepping onto the diamond at Ebbets Field, Wright was back in the Negro Leagues, hurling for the Homestead Grays, with any hopes of becoming a big leaguer dashed. And while Robinson has become a household name, Wright has been largely lost to history, a footnote in Branch Rickey's crusade to integrate the game.
Aside from the obvious question of what happened to Wright, in the intervening years historians have also debated why exactly the Dodgers signed him. Did the trailblazing organization view him as a legitimate prospect, or was Wright simply viewed as a companion for Robinson, who was clearly Rickey's chosen one to make history?
Biographies of Robinson and Rickey have reflected different attitudes. Some authors, like Lee Lowenfish and David Falkner, asserted that the latter was true. But Jules Tygiel, in his landmark book, "Baseball's Great Experiment," equivocated. "It is unclear where Wright fit into Rickey's grand scheme," Tygiel wrote simply, adding that several players who had squared off against both Robinson and Wright considered Wright the better prospect.
Many of the African-American sportswriters of the day, who had followed Wright's career in black baseball, asserted at the time that the righthander did, in fact, have the goods.
"When the New Orleans-bred hurler is ready, though, you're going to hear from him," Cleveland Call and Post correspondent Bill Mardo wrote from Dodgers spring training camp in Daytona Beach in 1946. "Actually Wright stands a far better chance than Robinson to make the jump into big league baseball. The Dodgers are terribly low on good pitchers, and by gosh that Wright is one helluva moundsman."
That opinion was shared by those who had earned their stripes with Wright on the sandlots and scrub grass of New Orleans. As Herbert Simpson, a local Crescent City folk hero, told Gerald Ensley of the Tallahassee Democrat shortly after Wright's death in 1990, "He dominated batters."
On top of that, in the same story, longtime New Orleans baseball man Walter Wright (no relation to John), dismissed the notion that Wright would have eased Robinson's introduction to the segregated South in Florida.
"John would not have been any help to Jackie," Walter Wright said. "John had grown up under Jim Crow laws. Jackie came from a different background, and if anything, would have been more help to John."
Jim Crow laws were those strictures that maintained segregation and so-called “separate but equal” status for blacks in the South well into the 1960s. So a more credible theory, and one espoused by many people who played with Wright, is that he was overwhelmed at suddenly being plunged into an integrated world, where he was on equal footing with white players on the field but had to face bigotry head-on away the field and in the stands.
At 27, Wright was a year younger than Robinson but had significantly more baseball experience, which prompted some to predict that he would handle the challenge of integrating baseball better than Robinson. Influential black sports writer Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American wrote: “Wright doesn’t boast the college background that is Jackie’s, but he possesses something equally valuable—a level head and the knack of seeing things objectively. He is a realist in a role which demands divorce from sentimentality.”
Wright himself said: “I am a Southerner. I have always lived in the South, so I know what is coming. I have been black for 27 years, and I will remain like that for a long time.”
Whatever the reasons, Wright did not perform on the field, beginning with a disastrous showing in a Dodgers-Montreal Royals exhibition game midway through spring training. He did manage to win a spot on the Triple-A Montreal roster, but he apparently made an immediate bad impression on Royals manager Clay Hopper, a Mississippian who wasn't a fan of integration. In addition, from the very beginning, the media and popular spotlight focused squarely on Robinson, perhaps triggering Wright's slide into the shadows of history.
"Publicity's heaviest guns have been leveled on Jackie Robinson," wrote the Amsterdam News' Dan Burley on April 27, 1946. "Little has been said of his colored team-mate, long John Wright . . . The Montreal Royals have in John Wright a man who has pitched three no-hit games, a fact consistently unstressed in the reams of publicity that have been released on the player."
Wright got his first significant work in Montreal in the first week of May, when he pitched 3 1/3 solid innings against Syracuse. That was followed by a brilliant performance against Baltimore a few days later, when he pitched four innings of hitless relief. But that showing might not have been enough to make up for his poor performances in spring training, and he battled control problems and sporadic use in his six weeks in Montreal.
In late May, the Dodgers sent Wright to Class C Trois Rivieres of the Canadian-American League, where he was joined by Roy Partlow, another African-American pitcher who had been signed by Rickey. By then the Dodgers had also signed Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella into the minor league fold, further dimming Wright’s prospects.
Another opportunity never came. Although Wright pitched well with Trois Rivieres and helped the team win a league title, the 1946 campaign proved to be his only season in Organized Baseball. He returned to the Grays in 1947, where he again shined on the mound, just as he had before being inked by the Dodgers. He bounced around black baseball for a few more years, finally doffing his spikes for the last time in the 1950s and working back in his hometown before dying in 1990.
By then, Wright's legacy—or obscurity—was cemented. Wrote Smith in 1969: "Robinson and Wright were pioneers. Jackie went on to become one of the game's great players. Wright . . . never attained his potential and quietly faded into oblivion."
Great Ability, But Missing Something Robinson Had
Herb Simpson, a fellow New Orleans native who played with and knew Wright, is now 92 and still lives in New Orleans. He remembers Wright fondly. “He could teach you a lot about baseball. He was the best,” Simpson said. “He was a fine fellow. Everybody liked him.”
Wright’s baseball career began with the New Orleans Zulus, a barnstorming team comparable to the Harlem Globetrotters, but he got his true professional start with the Newark Eagles in 1937. He went on to pitch for the Atlanta Black Crackers (’38), Pittsburgh Crawfords (’38), Toledo Crawfords (’39), Indianapolis Crawfords (’40) and the Grays (’41-’43 and ’45), with whom he made three Negro Leagues World Series appearances. His career was interrupted by his service in the Navy during World War II, when he pitched for an all-black Great Lakes Naval Station team.
Judging from media coverage from 1946 as well as several subsequent books, it seems clear that Wright had major league-caliber talent. What he didn't have was the temperament and confidence possessed by Robinson, the key traits that led to his Hall of Fame career. Negro League stars and Hall of Famers Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin, who played with and against Wright in the Negro Leagues, both wrote as much in their autobiographies.
Leonard wrote that Wright could hardly be faulted for wilting under such intense pressure and scrutiny. "Johnny Wright had the ability to play in the major leagues, but that was only one part of it," Leonard wrote. "There was something else, too. Robinson stood up under the pressure and Wright didn't. He just wasn't able to stand the pressure and couldn't take the things he had to take. I don't think many people could have or would have."
In his autobiography, Irvin also noted an advantage Robinson had in spring training, as he was accompanied by his wife Rachel, who knew what he would be facing. Wright was married with two children, but he was alone in Daytona Beach.
“He didn’t have as much formal education (as Robinson),” Irvin wrote, “and no one to talk to, like Jackie did . . . I think being around white people would sometimes scare him, and he never did overcome it. Johnny was not like Jackie. He was kind of timid, and you could hurt John’s feelings. He would go into a shell and not pitch as well as he could. Jackie was aggressive and outgoing, so things like that would not bother him. (Jackie) would just take it out on the ball, or opposing players. Jackie had a mental toughness that seemed to bring out the best in him when he encountered adversity.”
Perhaps the perceptive Rickey recognized Wright's flaws from the beginning, making his public statements about Wright's talent and opportunity just PR smoke obfuscating the fact that he was there to ease the transition for Robinson. At any rate, Rickey clearly recognized the flaws at some point, and Wright was out of Organized Baseball as quickly as Robinson became ascendant.
Wright spent most of his post-baseball career working for the National Gypsum Co., and according to a 1997 story about him by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, he never publicly spoke of his foray into the major leagues. “I’m sure most of his co-workers at the gypsum plant never even knew he was a ballplayer,” Walter Wright told the newspaper.