Dear Joe, Dear Dwight

Yesterday I dug into the files of the Old Timers Baseball Club, a former group of ex-Negro Leaguers here in NOLA dedicated to the preserving the history and legacy of African-American baseball. The group’s founder and long-time president, Walter Wright, donated his collection of correspondence, photos, documents, articles and ephemera to Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center late in life.

Wright’s, and now Amistad’s, collection is a treasure trove of fascinating materials and remembrances of a time long ago. Walter Wright never really made it to the big big time in the Negro Leagues, but he was such a mainstay on the New Orleans scene, and his post-baseball career as an educator in the New Orleans Public School System made him a beloved figure in this city.

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Walter C. Wright (from All State Sugar Bowl Web site)

As the head of the Old Timers Baseball Club, he oversaw the annual Old Timers baseball reunion game, which each year honored a different former Negro Leaguer, including, one year, future Hall of Famer Bill Foster. For that edition of the contest he received personal testimonial letters to Foster’s mound prowess from Foster’s manager with the Chicago American Giants, Dave Malarcher, himself a NOLA and Louisiana product.

Wright was also an eternal optimist, and he was thankful how much support gradually grew over time for remembering and honoring the Negro Leagues, and he enjoyed spreading that cheer. Two examples of that are hidden in the files of the Old Timers Baseball Club Wright donated to the Amistad Center, one of which is a May 15, 1975, letter to then NBC announcer and former MLB player Joe Garagiola, who had consistently been vocal in his desire to see the Negro Leagues recognized and respected. Here are some excerpts from that letter on behalf of the Old Timers Club:

“This is just our way of introducing ourselves as an organization that strongly supports your ideals and ideas as they relate to the world of sports, especially baseball.

“We feel deeply indebted to you for the concentrated focus that you have aimed so expertly at the Negro and his exploits on the baseball field and yet because of your youth and limited associations with the Negro player, we fell it is our responsibility to offer you whatever assistance we can give.

“You, we are sure, have played an important role in the selection of qualified Negro baseball players who have been enshrined in the hall of fame and yet it is because of this that we want to help you be aware of certain pitfalls. One that gives us much concern is the fact that so far the area of concentration in search of Negro greats of the past has been mainly in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia section. The players who have been selected so far are men who have exhibited greatness and we are thoroughly pleased but let’s consider Kansas City, Milwaukee, Detroit, Atlantic City, Memphis, Birmingham and New Orleans. Please accept this not as a criticism or protest but as a constructive observation.”

Wright then offers to help arrange an interview by Garagiola of Bill Foster, who at the time was the deal of men at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss. (At that time it was Alcorn A&M College.)

This year, Wright’s recognition of Garagiola’s contributions to the memory of the Negro Leagues takes extra significance because the latter was the recipient of the prestigious Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2014 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award.

In another letter, this one dated May 27, 1987, Wright contacts former Mets star pitcher Dwight Gooden, who at that time was just getting out of substance-abuse treatment for cocaine problems and was working out in the minors. Wright, as head of the Old Timers Club in New Orleans, wrote to Gooden to offer support and advice:

“We are a baseball club made up of black baseball players from the leagues of yesteryear, 100 members. Our aim is to:

“1) Annually, pay tribute to those men of yesteryear who have contributed to the game of baseball.

“2) Keep the game of baseball alive in the New Orleans Community.

“3) Give leadership to the youth of our city.

“… we want you to be know that to us and millions like us you are still the greatest. Come back with your head high, not as an expression of boastfulness but of simple humility and pride.

“You cannot undo what has already been done but you certainly can make it become a part of your total education and store house of experiences that should make you a better man because of it all.

“Keep in mind that whatever affects you affects us all, that when you cried millions of us cried with you. Let’s vow that from here we’re going to put the pieces together and keep on smiling.

“If you ever again feel that you are weakening just look to the bull pen and see several million anxious faces ready to take the job for you and complete the job at hand.

“That’s a pretty good bull pen, don’t you think?”

Granted, there’s a certain amount of naivete there in Wright’s note to Gooden, and who knows what the struggling star pitcher would have accepted the letter, if he read it at all. But the fact that Wright was moved to, on behalf of his colleagues in the Old Timers Club, take the time to write an inspiring letter of support and encouragement to a player whose name and public image had been tarnished immeasurably took a level of caring and faith in the human spirit that is more than admirable.

So on this day of thanks, try to remember these words from Mr. Wright to Mr. Garagiola and Mr. Gooden, and feel grateful that there still are people like Walter Wright in the community, people who still believe in the goodness of men and women and our ability to overcome adversity and reach out to those in need.

Thank you, Mr. Wright. May your spirit and inspiring light shine forever.

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