Born in segregated New Orleans on Nov. 28, 1916 — exactly 104 years ago today — John, or Johnny, Wright rose through his school years in the Crescent City — some reports say he graduated from Hoffman High, others say McDonogh No. 35 — to become a professional pitcher for many years, beginning in the mid-1930s with the New Orleans Zulus and including big-league stints with the Toledo Crawfords and Newark Eagles and, most famously, the mighty Homestead Grays, for whom he served as an ace of the pitching staff in the 1940s, when the Grays were at their dynastic heights.
Wright — who was known as “Needlenose” by many fellow players, and as “Hoss” by his family — served in the Navy during World War II, playing for a service team at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to entertain fellow sailors and soldiers, returning to his professional career at the end of the war.
Things then took an incredible career turn, when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to a pro contract in January 1946, just three months after the Bums brought Jackie Robinson on board. The move made Wright, a hard-throwing righty known for pinpoint control, the second African-American player in Organized Baseball in the modern era.
The sky seemed to be the limit, but the lanky, unassuming Southerner — whom journalist Wendell Smith called “personal and likeable” in a column, and who was described by writer Joe Bostic as “[t]aciturn, almost to the point of complete silence” — struggled when given his chance in the spotlight, failing to make the Dodgers’ major-league roster and being demoted down through Brooklyn’s farm system. In particular, contemporaneous reports related that his famous pitch control flagged when trying out for the Dodgers and their farm system.
By 1947, Wright was back with the Grays, where he starred for several more years, and hopped around other clubs, including several in Latin America. He retired from baseball in the mid-1950s and moved back to his hometown, where he worked for the National Gypsum Company for many years before retiring. He lived in New Orleans for most of the rest of his life, only moving in his later years to Jackson, Miss., to live with his daughter and receive treatment for his flagging health. He died there on May 4, 1990.
Theories abound as to why John Wright couldn’t quite make it on the big stage; some observers felt his formative years in Jim Crow Louisiana made his shift to a white team and integrated situation jarring for him, while other pundits believe that, quite simply, he wilted under the scrutinous baseball microscope, unable to adjust the the intense pressure.
“Wright was a good pitcher,” wrote Hall of Famer and longtime Grays teammate Buck Leonard. “He had a good curveball and everything and could throw the ball over the plate. He was as good as Joe Black, or maybe even better. …
“Johnny Wright had the ability to play in the major leagues, but that was only one part of it,” Buck added. “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.”
To judge Wright for his inability to stay in Organized Baseball should in no way be used to judge him harshly; as Buck indicated, the pressure bearing down on John and Jackie was unimaginable and severe, which in my mind is more a testament to Robinson’s own sheer will, grit and determination and less a reflection on Wright’s character or ability.
I recently came across an article by reporter Lisa Fitterman from March 1995 in the Montreal Gazette newspaper in which she evaluates the brief tenure Wright and another African-American pitcher signed by the Dodgers, Roy Partlow, spent with the Trois-Rivieres Royaux (Three Rivers Royals) of the Can-Am League in 1946. In the article, Fitterman sums up the grueling experience the New Orleans lad faced in Organized Baseball.
“Single, uneducated, prone to hurt feelings, accustomed to being called Jim Crow, a derogatory term first used in the 19th century to describe blacks, and to strict segregation in the U.S. South, Wright was not the best of candidates to toss into the ring with the lions,” she wrote.
But harshly judging Wright based on a single baseball season is unfair and just plain incorrect. In addition to starring and serving in the Navy, Wright posted a longer, arguably better career in the Negro Leagues than Jackie. Wright was the ace pitcher of one of the greatest baseball dynasties of all time, playing alongside greats like Leonard, Josh Gibson, Jud Wilson, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Vic Harris and Sam Bankhead.
John Wright was, quite simply, excellent, and it’s time he be remembered as such. His absence from several halls of fame — especially the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame — is criminal and needs to be corrected. Now.
For those of us baseball history researchers and enthusiasts, Wright is nothing less than a brave trailblazer, one who gave his absolute all for the sport he loved and excelled at, one whose courageous efforts helped open the door for integration and justice. In New Orleans, he is a legend, the equal of other Louisiana-Born Negro League stars like Oliver Marcell, Dave Malarcher and Willard Brown.
Today is Johnny’s birthday, and one person who does remember him is Carlis Robinson, Wright’s daughter. (No relation to Jackie.) Carlis is one of four children of John and his wife, Mildred. Carlis grew up with her family in New Orleans, graduating from McDonogh 35 High School before graduating from business college. She retired in 2018 as a registrar in the Fort Bend Independent School District.
Carlis is the last surviving child of John and Mildred; she now lives in Texas. Carlis works to keep her father’s memory and legacy alive, and she and I connected on Facebook recently. In recognition of her dad’s birthday, I asked her about her memories of John as a father and family man, and how her father regarded his baseball career as he got older.
Below is the short email interview:
RW: How would you describe your father and his personality? What were some of the things that were important to him?
CR: My dad was mild mannered and very laid back. He loved family, friends, food and drink. There was always someone in his home. Later in life, especially after retirement he loved fishing.
RW: Did your father talk much about his baseball career? How did he view his time in professional baseball, including his days playing for New Orleans teams, the Grays and the Dodgers organization?
CR: He never brought it up when we talked, but if I would ask a question, he would respond. He felt very blessed to have had the opportunity to play in the Negro Leagues and to have played with and against some of the very best. He didn’t complain about not staying with the Dodgers’ organization. Instead, he continued playing in the Negro Leagues and winning championships.
RW: How did he view his baseball career? Did he look back on them fondly?
CR: He spoke fondly of the other players and held them in high regards. Several of them continued to correspond with him even after he left the game. He told me that he had no regrets because he had his chance. I found out after his death that he had memorabilia and shared stories with his physical therapist while recuperating at home. He was proud of his career and accomplishments.
RW: What do you think defined him as a father, and what are some of your biggest memories of him as a dad?
CR: My parents divorced when I was very young. I am the youngest and only surviving child. Therefore he wasn’t always around. But if you were able to speak with my two oldest siblings, you would probably get a different answer. They were born during the peak of our dad’s baseball career. However, daddy was around for those special occasions in my life such as baptisms and graduations, etc. My family and I visited him whenever we were in town. My best memories are when he used to take me (as a kid) to the park to watch him practice baseball. That was daddy and me time.
RW: How important were his roots and time in his hometown of New Orleans to him?
CR: Very important. He entertained a lot at home and seldom traveled. My grandparents only lived a block away. I suppose that he had traveled enough between the Navy and baseball in both the summer and winter leagues.
RW: What do you think your father was proudest of, both in terms of baseball and his personal life?
CR: In baseball he was viewed somewhat as a celebrity locally when he was signed with the Dodger’s Montreal farm team. Personally he owned his own home. And bragging on his kids.
RW: Did he talk much about his time in the Navy? How important was his time in the service to him?
CR: Daddy was proud of his service. He said that he learned Spanish through his travels. He also played baseball for the Navy team.
RW: What are the things you most remember and treasure about him and his life? What do you think is his legacy, in terms of baseball, life after baseball, and as a father and family man?
CR: The memories all over the place. His nickname was “Hoss.” But I was always “Lil Chicken.” It makes me smile to this day. Dad always had something for you to eat, and he was probably the smoothest person I know in speaking slang. He left some items from his career and travels. Those gave me a different perspective of John Wright, husband and father.
Our family may have not been traditional, but as a family we had some good times when we all got together. That’s what I will always remember. As for his legacy, truly the second Black man signed to a major league team should never be forgotten. Somehow his story has been lost.
I still don’t understand why his home state has not inducted him into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. I came across a book entitled “NEGRO YEAR BOOK.” The preface of the book speaks about how it includes prominent Negroes of the time. John Wright was listed in the book. And when I contacted the MLB organization, they emailed around 85 pages of information about him.
Many thanks to Carlis for taking time to speak with me for this post. I’m very grateful for any and all help and input I receive working on Home Plate Don’t Move.
Despite his struggles in organized baseball, Wright possessed a character that was quiet, humble, hard-working and optimistic. He was a committed family man who always dedicated himself to his team and his sport — whether it be at McDonogh 35, Newark, Pittsburgh, Latin America, Quebec or the Great Lakes Navy Base — his entire life, a life that has garnered respect, admiration and a lasting legacy as a baseball legend.
To wrap up this article about Johnny Wright, here’s a couple quotes from late winter 1946 from a pair of columns from Baltimore Afro-American columnist Sam Lacy, a personal hero of mine. The comments reflect why Johnny Wright is a hero in his own right and deserves to be recognized as such.
Here’s the first excerpt, in Lacy’s words, from March 1946:
“Wright, too, is doing a fine job of pioneering. Like Jackie, he has asked nothing from the other men on the squad.
“He has taken his gruelling [sic] running chores without a whimper, has worked seemingly endless sessions of covering first base from the pitching mound. He has chased bunts and sweated flies in the outfield, all with the zeal of determination that sooner or later must pay dividends.
“Wright doesn’t boast the college background that is Jackie’s, but he possesses something equally as valuable — a level head and a knack of seeing things objectively. He’s a realist in a role which demands divorce from sentimentality.”
Here’s the second quote, spoken by Wright himself to Lacy in February 1946. His words reflect his belief that regardless of how he fares in his own career, other players of color who follow will benefit from the trails that he, and Jackie, were blazing:
“I feel that there will be more and colored boys getting a chance in professional sports now that the first step has been taken. I expect to keep trying to do my very best, because I know I only got this far by plugging.”
If you have a few extra minutes, here’s the text from an article in the Feb. 9, 1946, issue of the Louisiana Weekly that came out the week after Dodgers GM Branch Rickey signed John Wright to a contract:
“Sports fans and citizens were elated to learn of the announcement last week by Hector Racine, president of the Montreal Royals Brooklyn Dodger farm team, that John Wright, 1705 St. Peter St., is the first native New Orleans Negro to be signed to play ball with a major league club.
“Wright, this week, began his preliminary workouts and training on the Xavier University diamond.
“Upon being interviewed, Wright said: ‘I am very happy to be the second Negro that will have an opportunity to play major league ball. I will do my utmost to come through and I wish to thank all of my friends who have been pulling for me.’
“Wright was recently discharged from the Navy. While at the Navy’s Great Lakes Training Center in 1944, he was a member of the first all-Negro varsity in the history of the Navy. In the same year he helped to win the Mid-western Service Championship.
“In 1945, Wright transferred to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he won the third Naval District Championship. He was also a member of the Floyd Bennett Naval Air Force team.
“Wright has been playing since 1932 when he was a member of the Hoffman High School team. John says that the greatest thrill of his baseball was when he defeated the Chicago White Sox by the score of 9-0 last year. He also has a victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. His last game against a major league club was with the Boston Red Sox.
“After about four weeks of training here, Wright will leave for Florida in March where he will join Jackie Robinson of Los Angeles, the first Negro to sign [a National] League contract. E.J. Ducy and J.B. Spencer, two prominent Negro ball players, are working out with Wright at Xavier.”