Johnny Wright, U.S. Navy ace

I apologize for going AWOL for two weeks — I had a couple of pressing deadlines I had to meet, and, per my usual, I kind of procrastinated. Kind of. Just a bit.

Anyway, in doing one of those articles — a summary of Chicago’s blackball history — I came across a few neat little bits and pieces that I wanted to put out there over the next week while I try to work on some longer, more personal posts.

The first one I picked up on involved the Great Lakes Naval Training Center team in Great Lakes, Ill., which sponsored two baseball teams of naval servicemen during World War II — one white, one black. The African-American squad was formed partially to provide a competitive adversary for the base’s white squad, which was helmed by future Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane.

Not surprisingly to readers of this blog, as well as other Negro Leagues volumes, the Negro Bluejackets did more than just compete — they won the Midwest Servicemen’s League title in 1944, in addition to successfully barnstorming around Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and other Midwestern states.

While the black club’s roster included only one huge name — Larry Doby, future star for the Newark Eagles and the Cleveland Indians, and 1998 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee — the aggregation was definitely studded with a solid core of other Negro League standouts of the day. Capitol University graduate Ensign Elmer Pesek [I haven’t been able to track down the Capitol reference] skippered the squad (I’ve seen other variations on his name, including first names Ernest and Al, as well as last name Peshek).

The African-American Bluejackets’ strength was undoubtedly its pitching staff, which, from all accounts, was comprised of just two guys. One was Herb Bracken, who hurled for the St. Louis Stars before joining the Navy.

The other was one of NOLA’s most prominent hometown lads, Johnny Wright, who first gained fame on a national scale when he posted an eye-popping mark of 30-5 for the Homestead Grays in 1943.

However, he’s probably best known, at least to the general public, as the man Branch Rickey signed a couple months after Rickey inked Jackie Robinson. Wright obviously didn’t find the same type of success in Organized Baseball as Robbie did; he never made it to the Dodgers themselves, then flitted out of Organized ball altogether by the end of the ’46 season. He returned to the Grays, where he continued to be a stalwart on the iconic Negro League team for several years before retiring to near obscurity. He died in a VA hospital in Jackson, Miss., in 1990.

Over the intervening decades, a few theories have been advanced regarding why Wright couldn’t match Robinson’s success — by many reports, he had major troubled with control once he entered Organized Baseball — but the bigger issue that springs from that debate is why Rickey even signed Wright in this first place? Did the Mahatma truly believe that the New Orleanian had the potential to make the Majors? Or was Wright brought on simply to provide Robinson, the Chosen One, a companion during that brutal first year (1946) and beyond? (I actually wrote a story on this discussion for Baseball America a few years ago.)

For a pitcher who was described by some blackball compatriots as the equal to Satchel Paige, Wright’s story of slipping away into failure is an unbelievably depressing one.

But that’s not the matter at hand here. For the purposes of this blog post, I just wanted to highlight Johnny’s time in the Navy during WWII. Although I have yet to find any of his actually service records (Ancestry hasn’t been helpful), his success as a hurler for the Bluejackets in 1944 was pretty well documented by the contemporary press.

Wright appears to have been the main workhorse of the two-man rotation; in addition to being the primary starter, he also came on in relief several times. The highlight of his season, though, was a sterling, seven-inning no-hitter he tossed on July 8 against the Naval Air School. Wright’s teammates also came to play, clubbing out 15 hits in the 13-1 victory. The Air School’s lone tally came in the fourth inning on an error and a sacrifice.

Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1944

But that was hardly Johnny’s only prime performance. In May 1944, he entered in relief in the second inning against Fort Sheridan, who had run up four scores in less than two frames, and allowed only one more run in the Bluejackets’ 12-6 triumph. A month later, “Needlenose” Wright blanked the squad from Camp Custer, 1-0, giving up just a troika of safeties.

Then, in mid-August, 15,000 fans witnessed Wright dominating a team of local industrial league stars in Cleveland, giving up just two walks while fanning seven in the ’Jackets’ 14-0 pounding.

In addition to garnering press attention from papers at just about every locale the Great Lakes squad visited, Wright was watched by newspapers in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. The Post-Gazette, for example, occasionally included little blurbs about the NOLA native during the 1944 campaign. In its May 25, 1944, edition, the paper stated:

“Johnny Wright, former star hurler for the Homestead Grays, is keeping up the good work with the Great Lakes Negro baseball team.”

The black press, naturally, played up the service status and exploits of Negro Leaguers, and quite deservedly so. That included Billy Young of the Cleveland Call and Post, who authored a detailed profile of the Great Lakes team in July 1944 that included short bios of each player. Here’s how Young described Wright:

“John Richard Wright, right-handed pitcher, former member of the Homestead Grays, hails from New Orleans, Louisiana, is 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 168 pounds. He won 30 games and lost 5 last year. He worked in the [famed East-West] All-Star Classic at Comiskey Park, Chicago. He operates now as a seaman, second class, is 27 years of age and handles the duties of a physical instructor exceptionally well. He learned his baseball with the Newark Eagles and the Toledo Crawfords.”

(Wright did don the flannels of both those teams, as well as the Atlanta Black Crackers before arriving in Pittsburgh.)

However, although he was excelling for Uncle Sam, Wright also had a handful of opportunities during the season to suit up with his old Homestead mates. Taking full advantage of furloughs, saw time for the Grays in a loss to the Birmingham Black Barons in mid-June, and he made an appearance at the famous and prestigious East-West All-Star Game in Chicago in August. (Pittsburgh Courier scribe Wendell Smith notes that Wright “was getting handshakes from all the ball players.”)

But it was a week or so later that Wright his biggest chance of the season to help the Grays, when the Homesteaders faced the Newark Eagles in a one-game playoff to determine the winner of the NNL’s first half.

And the Crescent City kid came through for Cum Posey’s crew, who pulled out a thrilling, 9-4 victory in the ninth inning. Wright earned the W, while the irascible Terris McDuffie was tagged with the loss.

(As a military-related side note, an article in the New York Amsterdam News described an incident at the game in which a reporter needled Grays slugger Josh Gibson about the latter’s absence from military service. The reporter suggested that Josh was “ducking” service.)

That seems to have been Wright’s final appearance for Homestead in ’44; he went on to finish his service with Great Lakes, while the Needlenose-less Grays nonetheless proceeded to win the NNL overall flag and defeat the Black Barons, 4 games to 1, in the Negro World Series.

To sum up Wright’s service, here’s how the July 2015 issue of Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime newsletter relates it:

“In 1944, Wright pitched for the Negro Varsity team at US Naval Training Station Great Lakes, Illinois. He was 16-4 during the regular season and a Midwest Servicemen League all-star selection in June of that year.”

So, overall, Wright had a quite solid season on the mound in 1944, most of it while representing the Navy, which is definitely admirable. In terms of the role of the Great Lakes Negro team played in the overall war effort, as well as shaping the public’s perceptions of African-American servicemen and athletes, well, that could be a bit more cloudy. In an age when pretty much the entire American military was still segregated — a fact that kind of flew in the face of our country’s stated drive to preserve equality and democracy across the globe during the war — and black servicemen were frequently kept out of active combat and given more humdrum duties, the legacy of ventures like the Great Lakes Negro squad is decidedly mixed.

(To be fair, the military also had an inclination to often keeping star athletes of all races out of active combat and placing them in assignments that helped them play and perform for Stateside troops as well as civilians as a way to boost morale for the war. For example, heavyweight champ Joe Louis fought several exhibition bouts for Stateside crowds while he was serving in the Army.)

Author Steven R. Bullock examined the purpose and impact of military teams during World War II, including on troop morale and public support, in his 2004 book, “Playing for Their Nation: The American Military and Baseball During World War II.”

In a condensed essay in the Spring 2000 issue of the Journal of Sport History, Bullock noted that, while the Great Lakes men found a relatively decent amount of success, they were, unfortunately, an anomaly:

“The glaring exception to this preoccupation with athletics [in the WWII armed forces] involved African-American soldiers and sailors, who were often overlooked, ignored, or isolated by the American military. This inequitable treatment manifested itself very clearly in athletics, particularly in the realm of military baseball. At some of the larger military installations, such as the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, African American sailors did have the opportunity to compete on segregated baseball teams, and did so there with great success. In 1944, for example, a squad composed of African American sailors stationed at Great Lakes compiled an impressive 32-10 record and claimed the Midwest Service League title. However, for many smaller military bases, there were not enough African Americans to field segregated teams; thus, black soldiers and sailors often found themselves unable to compete on base-ball teams.”

As for Johnny Wright, he, too, remains an enigma, not just in the larger landscape of American baseball history, but also here in New Orleans, where his post-athletic life has always been shrouded in mystery.

When he was signed by the Dodgers, the local African-American newspaper, the Louisiana Weekly, ran massive spreads on the event and followed Wright’s progress in Organized Baseball, while national correspondents from other papers descended on the Crescent City.

However, once the local lad crashed and burned on the big stage, the local media gave him sporadic, fleeting mention as he rounded out his pitching career with the Grays and beyond.

After that, Wright worked a bunch of steady blue-collar jobs here and elsewhere, but in general he slipped into the ether, his life becoming just as puzzling as the reasons for his inability to match the success of Robinson and other black players who followed in Jackie’s path.

In fact, from what I’ve gathered, many locals — well, not many, really, because he’s sadly but largely forgotten here in his hometown — have just stories of fleeting encounters, tales of sightings at bars and in crowds. Whether Needlenose kept up with baseball or followed the sport on any level is just plain unclear, at least to this point.

One person who knew John Wright as well as anyone was legendary New Orleans player, historian and activist Walter Wright (no relation), who served as the patriarch of NOLA’s surviving Negro Leagues community for decades until his own death in 2002. In 1997, Wright was interviewed by the Times-Picayune newspaper, and he relayed a tale that was at best fragmented and mysterious.

“I’m sure most of his co-workers at the gypsum plant never even knew he was a ballplayer,” Walter Wright told the paper.

The article concluded with Walter telling the paper about giving the eulogy and Johnny’s funeral.

“And I when I looked over at his casket,” Walter Wright said, “I couldn’t help
wondering how many stories it contained – stories that now would never be told.”

One of my good friends here, Ro Brown, is an award-winning former TV sports anchor who currently works in the athletic department at the University of New Orleans.

On a couple occasions, Ro has related how, many years ago, he tried to track down John Wright and, at first, didn’t have much luck at all, until an old timer suggested Ro check a local dive bar. Ro says that even though he asked the man for the former star pitcher, the gentleman didn’t at first make the connection between “star baseball player” and the aging John Wright the man knew.

But Ro took the gentleman’s advice one afternoon and went to the bar, where he did, in fact, find John Richard Wright Sr., former pitcher for one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history and compatriot of Jackie Robinson, sitting alone in the gloomy tavern. The scene and discovery shocked Ro. Just the fact that such a phenomenal athlete — one who, at one time, was the talk of his hometown — had faded into such doleful obscurity was disheartening to Ro, who knows the history of sports in NOLA as well or better than anyone, especially when it comes to black baseball.

True, in modern New Orleans, the American pastime is, in many ways, an afterthought; once the Saints arrived and LSU turned into a pigskin power, football has reigned supreme in the bayou. Add in the fact that the city has had two NBA teams, and hardball just doesn’t have the appeal it once did. (We’ll see if the Baby Cakes can help change that this year. Oy.)

Johnny Wright’s story has also intrigued me as well, so much so that I was concerned that he, like so many other Negro League greats, was buried in an unmarked grave, so I decided to find his burial spot.

Fortunately — and this is what I was hoping for — Wright was given a full military burial, including a modest but proud grave marker, among family members in Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, which also includes the final resting places of musical legends Mahalia Jackson and James Booker, among others.

While I was working on my story on Wright for Baseball America, I made contact with a few of his descendants, but I was unfortunately unable to speak with any of them in depth. Since then, a multitude of other stories and projects have filled my calendar and to do lists, and I haven’t had a chance to follow up and speak with them.

I hope one day I can, because there’s so much I, as well as many other baseball history enthusiasts, want to learn about a man who not only starred on the mound but also served his country.

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One thought on “Johnny Wright, U.S. Navy ace

  1. Pingback: Wright, Welch and the Black Diamond | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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