Big League Stew honors one birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Players will be culled from both past and present.
George Wright was baseball's first superstar, nicknamed "King of Shortstops" and "King of the Diamond." He was a slugging shortstop who was the best offensive and defensive player of baseball's first professional team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, and its first dynasty, the 1870s Boston Red Stockings.
George was originally a first-class cricketer, like his England-born older brother Harry, but he was born in Yonkers, and he demonstrated his greatest skill in the sport of baseball. According to George Tuohey's 1897 "History of the Boston Base Ball Club," he was "not only a phenomenal fielder, but he was also the greatest batsman in the country for six or seven years." His brother Harry Wright, also a Hall of Famer, managed many of his teams, and the Wright brothers utterly dominated the sport in the first days of professional baseball.
But Wright's batting skill evaporated as the curveball became more prominent, popularized by pitchers like Hall of Famer Candy Cummings. He was also victimized by baseball's reserve clause, and he spent much of the 1880 season as a holdout as his request for free agency was denied by the president of the league. The reserve clause remained in effect for nearly 100 years after that, when Curt Flood challenged the rule in 1970. Instead, George Wright departed baseball and went back to cricket in the 1880s.
Best Year: 1869
It's hard to say just how good the 22-year-old George Wright was in 1869, because Retrosheet doesn't go back that far, and no comprehensive statistics exist. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, though, George Wright hit 49 home runs in 57 games, with a .633 batting average. Read that again. The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings went undefeated, 57-0, eventually pushing their winning streak to 81 games before finally losing to the Brooklyn Atlantics on June 14, 1870.
Those homer numbers seem hard to believe in light of the rest of his career, however. We don't have any official box score stats until 1871, the first year of the old National Association, and while he was a fine hitter for the rest of the decade for the Boston Red Stockings — who later became the Braves of the National League — he only hit 11 homers in his 591-game career, and no more than three in a single season. (This is according to Retrosheet data, which may not be complete.)
Worst Year 1878: .225/.242/.251, 0 HR, 12 RBIs
Wright's batting had been getting worse for years: 1876 was the first time his batting average dipped below .300, and it dropped another 23 points in 1877. But 1878 was the most ignominious of all, when the man who was once the league's best player struggled to stay above the Mendoza Line, a hundred years before the similarly weak-hitting shortstop Mario Mendoza gave that line its name. Wright was still a slick fielder and a fine baseball mind, however, and his glove and acumen were in enough demand that he moved to Providence to manage its team in 1879, leading the team to a pennant.
Claim to Fame: "The King of the Diamond" was a winner. His Red Stockings won four straight pennants from 1871-1874, and two more in 1877 and 1878. When George leaped to Providence, the Grays won the pennant in 1879, beating out the Red Stockings — whom his brother Harry still managed — by five games. Regardless of his inability to hit the curveball and offensive decline, he remained the top defensive shortstop in the game. Wright's contemporary Deacon White noted that Wright...
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.
Off the Field: During his playing days, he co-founded a sporting goods company, Wright & Ditson. He later sold it to Al Spalding — another early baseball star, and the founder of the A.G. Spalding sporting goods company —a decade after his retirement. After he retired from baseball, he resumed playing cricket, and was recognized by some as the finest cricketer in the country.
He also turned his attention to a different popular English sport, golf. On a lark, he ordered a set of golf clubs from England for his store, having never played the game before. After receiving a book of instructions on the game from Scotland, according to the Boston Herald, he organized the first golf game in Boston.
He never completely left baseball, however, and in 1905, he served on the Mills Commission with Al Spalding, which incorrectly identified Abner Doubleday as the inventor of baseball, and incorrectly credited Cooperstown as baseball's birthplace.