Johnny Wright: He was never just the “other guy”
This is a piece I wrote six years ago and later re-published it in 21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball
Since we just passed the 70th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson took the field for the Montreal Royals in Jersey City, I think it’s important to celebrate an often-overlooked event that occurred a few days later on April 24, 1946. That was the day Johnny Wright emerged from the bullpen in Syracuse’s MacArthur Park and became organized baseball’s first black pitcher in the 20th Century. Now, I’m not going to go over the “forgotten man” ground that often is the gist of any piece on Johnny Wright. Instead, I’ll try to retell his story as comprehensively as possible. That’s not an easy task – many modern articles about Wright have confusing and sometimes just plain wrong details. Even the black press at the time seemed to drop Wright like a hot potato after he was demoted from Montreal. In writing this piece, I dug up as many contemporary newspaper sources as I could, not only about his brief stint in organized baseball, but from his Negro League career as well. Today, Wright’s time in Montreal is seen as a brief footnote to Jackie Robinson’s story. But the way I want to tell this story is a little different: I’m going to flip it the other way around and argue that those six weeks with Montreal was just a brief footnote in Johnny Wright’s story…
JOHNNY WRIGHT was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1916. His pop, Richard, was a railroad man who rented a house in the Holly Grove neighborhood for his wife, Hazel, daughter, Isabel, and his youngest, Johnny. In high school, Wright developed a scorcher of a fastball delivered with total control. He was just shy of 6 foot, angular and thin, attributes that earned him the nickname “Needle Nose.” As he matured, he augmented his fastball with an arsenal of sharp breaking curves that left a wake of frustrated batters. In most bios of Wright, including a profile written by the Pittsburgh Courier in 1946, it’s stated that he began his career with the New Orleans Zulus, a local barnstorming outfit, but in researching this story I could find nothing linking Wright and this team. Still, the Zulus were named as his first paying job in baseball, and in the 1930’s it was common for black ball players to get their start on these vaudeville-comedy teams. Like the better-known Indianapolis Clowns, the Zulus mixed slapstick comedy routines with baseball, usually while dressed up in “exotic” costumes. Today, we recoil in horror at the thought of what passed as entertainment back then, but at the time it was a decent paying job and a way to travel the country. Since these teams often played exhibition games against professional Negro League teams, it was also a good way to have one’s talent scouted by the real pros.
A few stories about Wright report that he was discovered by the Newark Eagles while playing with the Zulus in Louisville, Kentucky. Whether that’s true or not, somehow the New Orleans speed baller got the attention of the Eagles who invited him to their spring training camp at Louisburg, North Carolina in 1937. Although he was good enough to make the team, the Newark Eagles had a solid rotation consisting of future Hall of Famer Leon Day plus Terris “The Great” McDuffie and Robert Evans. Wright drew favorable mentions for his hard throwing, but he remained strictly a second-line pitcher with the Eagles. During the 1938 season, he was loaned out to the Atlanta Black Crackers for a spell before returning to Newark. When Max Manning joined the squad in 1939, Wright moved over to the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Craws had been a powerhouse Negro League team from 1933 through 1936, but had quickly declined after most of the team defected to the Dominican Republic in 1937. The team struggled to find a home and Wright pitched for the club through their moves from Pittsburgh to Toledo to Indianapolis.
Wright’s entry into professional ball coincided with his starting a family. He married Mildred Creecy in 1937, and they had their first child, daughter Joyce, in 1939, followed a year later by a son named Sylvester. Mildred and the kids lived in the Lafitte Housing Project in New Orleans while Johnny was on the road during the season. That Wright had a family will have an important bearing on his baseball career further down the road.
In 1941, Wright signed with the Homestead Grays, the pride of the Negro National League. The Grays were in the middle of an impressive run in which they won the pennant nine consecutive seasons. It took Wright two full seasons before he became a Grays starter, but when he did, he sure made his mark.
Johnny Wright’s 1943 season was truly one for the ages. Now 26 years old, Wright had six seasons of blackball under his belt and the best bats in the game behind him. His fastball drew comparisons to Satchel Paige; some even saying it was Wright who was the faster of the two. As good as his fastball was, it was his overhand curve that was his money pitch. While many pure speed pitchers have a problem throwing an effective curve because the ball arrived at the plate too quickly to break, Wright’s broke just in time to throw a batter’s timing off. He also picked up a slider and knuckle ball, giving himself a wide variety of pitches to choose from. You’d expect a guy with Satchel Paige speed to be a strikeout pitcher, but Wright’s success lay in working a batter, allowing him to put the ball in play, and letting his fielders make the play. On a team of veterans like the Grays, it was a recipe for success. Throughout the summer, Wright won game after game, including a streak of eight in a row. This was the season that Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith would wistfully look out his office window in Griffith Stadium as the Grays pulled in more customers than his own big league team could in their own stadium.
In a rare blackball game allowed in Wrigley Field in September, the Grays met up with their bitter rivals, the Kansas City Monarchs. The Monarchs had humiliated the Grays in the 1942 Negro World Series, and although this was an exhibition that didn’t count in the standings, the game was an eagerly awaited rematch. The Grays jumped all over Satchel Paige, and he was run out of the box after giving up seven runs. Except for a bad fourth inning when three runs scored, Wright pitched magnificently, striking out seven Monarchs and walking just one.
Grays owner Cum Posey was so impressed with Wright’s performance that midway through the summer he did the unthinkable and raised his ace’s paycheck $150 a month above what his signed contract called for. In statistics recently compiled by baseball archeologist Scott Simkus, Wright is credited as winning just under 30 games during the season. This tally includes both league and exhibition games. Against Negro National and American League clubs, Wright’s record was 22-3 with 4 shutouts. In official Negro National League games, he won 14 and lost just one. He led the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA, the Triple Crown of pitching. In a league that played just over 30 official games that year, Wright’s fourteen wins really was impressive, and it’s why Cum Posey credited him with pitching the Grays to the 1943 pennant.
That fall the Grays met the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro World Series. In an attempt to attract the largest crowds, the Negro World Series was played in several different cities. In the best of seven series, Wright lost the first game but came back to pitch a shutout victory in game four. Four days later he repeated his performance, blanking the Barons in game six. In the final game eight (game two had ended in a tie) Wright left after six innings down by two runs but the Grays came back for the win and the World Championship.
Then just weeks after returning home to his wife and kids in New Orleans, Johnny Wright got his induction notice for service in the United States Navy.
Luckily for Wright, his fame preceded him into the Navy. After basic training, the pitching ace of the Negro World Champs was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Center just outside Chicago. Great Lakes had a formidable all-white baseball team led by Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane and manned by an endless supply of ex-Major Leaguers who flowed through the base. The Navy was still segregated, and the base had their own all-black ball club called the Great Lakes Sailors. Besides Johnny Wright, the team boasted Larry Doby and Earl Richardson of the Newark Eagles, Zack Clayton of the Chicago American Giants, Herb Bracken of the St. Louis Stars, and Sonny Randall of the Grays. University of Toledo star athlete Chuck Harman also played on the squad. Harmon would later go on to play in the NBA as well as become the first black player on the Cincinnati Reds.
As the team’s ace, Wright ran up a 16-4 record, including a no-hitter, and led his team to the Midwestern Serviceman’s Baseball Championship. In 1945, Wright was stationed in New York where he pitched for the Floyd Bennett Field Naval Air Base. Unlike Great Lakes, Wright played alongside whites at Bennett and he got the opportunity to pitch against three different Major League teams. The Red Sox beat him 9-6 and the Dodgers defeated him 6-4, but he won his last game against the White Sox, 9-6. When asked about how he got along with white teammates, Wright told the Pittsburgh Courier “the white boys treated me swell; we had nothing but agreeableness and harmony.” During the 1944 and 1945 seasons, Wright also managed to play a few games for the Grays. Since he played these games while on shore leave from the Navy, Wright used the alias “Leroy Leafwich.” He won his two appearances in 1944 and followed that up with another three incognito wins in ‘45. Grays owner Cum Posey later said he kept Wright on the Grays payroll throughout his Navy hitch, paying him $250 a month to add to his $65 monthly salary as a sailor.
Ever since Johnny Wright became the second man picked to integrate organized baseball, the question is: why, out of all the great pitchers in the Negro Leagues, did Branch Rickey pick him? Besides his spectacular 1943 season and his subsequent service record, a good reason might be a game he pitched right before his discharge. Brooklyn Dodgers coach Charlie Dressen organized a five game series pitting his team of big league stars against a team of Negro League players. Held in Ebbets Field, Dressen’s pick up team had All-Stars Eddie Stanky, Whitey Kurowski, Tommy Holmes, Ralph Branca, Frank McCormick and Virgil “Fire” Trucks. The Negro League All-Stars had future Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Willie Wells, and Monte Irvin, plus many Newark Eagles regulars. The white stars won the first four games, but in the final game played on Sunday October 14th Leroy Leftwich, aka Johnny Wright, opposed them. The Grays ace had the big leaguers shut out on three hits when the game was called after six innings due to darkness. This was the series of games that led to Branch Rickey summoning Roy Campanella to discuss playing for the Brooklyn organization. It’s inevitable that Branch Rickey would have also noticed Wright’s pitching performance right there in his own ballpark and filed it away for later use.
When he was mustered out of the Navy on Christmas Eve 1945, Johnny Wright looked poised for a triumphant return to the Negro Leagues. However, just as he was getting used to civilian life, came the blockbuster news that the Brooklyn Dodgers had signed Jack Roosevelt Robinson to a minor league contract.
The news of Robinson’s signing sent the Negro League owners into a tailspin. Unmentioned by the white press was the fact that Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson even though he was technically the property of the Kansas City Monarchs. Rickey famously instructed Robinson not sign a Monarchs contract for 1946 – however, just like white “organized baseball,” players were bound to a team by the reserve clause, only relinquished through a trade or and outright release. The Negro League owners knew that Rickey’s snatching of Robinson set a terrible precedent and they were powerless to stop its repercussions.
Back in Pittsburgh, Cum Posey frantically rounded up all his men returning from the service. Among the players he made sure to reach out to was his 1943 ace, Johnny Wright. That $250 he had sent to Wright during the war wasn’t purely out of the goodness of his heart but basically an unspoken retainer that Posey hoped would keep Wright loyal to the Grays. Now with Robinson’s signing, that insurance money he shelled out seemed all the more pertinent. The two men spoke in early January and Posey recalled that the pitcher reassured him he wasn’t going to leave because the team had “been too good to him.” That’s why the Grays owner reacted with shock and rare uncharacteristic anger when he found out a week later that John Richard Wright of New Orleans had signed a minor league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Unlike the Robinson signing a few months earlier, Wright’s went more or less under the radar. Robinson had been fairly well known to both blacks and whites due to his college football career at UCLA, while Wright was known only among those who followed the Negro Leagues. From the moment he signed the Brooklyn contract, Johnny Wright would be forever known as “the other man,” completely eclipsed by Robinson’s talent, personality, and determination.
Wright became acquainted with his Montreal manager on the train headed to spring training. By chance, the two men were on the same train and were introduced by a mutual friend, former big leaguer Dutch Meyer. What Clay Hopper discussed with Wright is unrecorded. It would have been an interesting conversation. Hopper was from Mississippi and was not all that happy to be Montreal’s rookie manager the same year Rickey was trying to break the race barrier. Hopper was being put in a tough spot and he knew it, but he was a baseball man and determined to do his job. If Robinson and Wright could play ball then he would play them. If nothing else, Clay Hopper was going to give Robinson and Wright a fair and equal chance to make the team.
The story of Jackie Robinson’s first spring training has been told many times, both in print and on film. But the one thing that is often left out is Johnny Wright. The awkwardness upon meeting his all-white teammates? Johnny was there. When Robinson had to be whisked out of town in the middle of the night because of death threats? Johnny was whisked away too. Those times Robinson was prohibited from joining his team on the field due to Jim Crow ordinances? So too was Johnny Wright. All the indignities both subtle and overt, Johnny Wright bore them all, right alongside Robinson. History is sometimes complicated, and short cuts are taken to simplify understanding. For many people, bringing Johnny Wright into the equation simply gets too complex. Racism is better understood when it is distilled to its most basic elements. Unfortunately, Johnny Wright’s memory and story were the sacrifice.
Throughout spring training, Johnny Wright flashed of promise followed by collapse. His trademark control seemed to have disappeared, and he was knocked around pretty good in intersquad games. Besides the racial aspects overshadowing Wright, there was also the normal pressure of a player trying to make the team. Montreal was loaded with right handed pitching. There were two 20 game winners on the staff and a half-dozen other prize prospects. Wright went through the grueling fielding practice and running drills without complaint and, despite some iffy outing, was still considered by some the dark horse of spring training.
Negro League veterans also lent their support behind the former Homestead Gray. Alex Pompez, owner of the New York Cuban Stars and a future Hall of Famer, predicted that Wright would win 15 games for the Royals. Manager Ben Taylor, a veteran of more than 30 years of blackball, said that Wright “can’t help but make good in the International (League). That league won’t touch him, mark my word for it.” The only man who regarded Wright as a possible dud was his former owner Cum Posey. Shortly after Brooklyn announced Wright’s signing, Posey exploded during a phone conversation with sportswriter Sam Lacy. Posey angrily listed Wright’s weaknesses, which included his inability to keep runners on base and his ineptness at fielding his position, especially bunts. Rickey’s stealing of his prized ace was the final nail in the ailing Posey’s coffin. Shortly before Wright made his Montreal debut, the Grays owner spoke to sportswriter Harry Keck from his hospital deathbed. “Don’t let them (Brooklyn) take my best pitcher,” he pleaded. A week later, Cum Posey was dead.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers came around to play the Royals, Jackie Robinson took the opportunity to shine against the big leaguers. When Wright was given the ball, he was tagged for 8 runs on 10 hits in five innings. Then, in his last game before the Royals broke camp, Wright walked four and hit a batter in his only inning of work. Still, Hopper and the Brooklyn management thought enough of Wright that he made the club.
The Royals opened the 1946 International League season on the road. Their first game was in Jersey City to face the Giants’ top farm club, also called the Giants. 25,000 people jammed into Roosevelt Field to see the game. Normally, every opening day in Jersey City was a sell out – for years the city’s corrupt mayor Frank Hague had made it mandatory for city employees to purchase tickets to ensure his city routinely broke International League attendance records. But with Montreal boasting the first two black ball players in the modern era, history was being made on the field and that ensured a full house.
Wright didn’t appear in any of the Jersey City games. Hopper held him back until the April 24th game in Syracuse against the Chiefs. Starter Jack Banta got roughed up for 4 runs in the fourth and was sent to the showers after giving up a two out bases-clearing triple. Clay Hopper waved Johnny Wright in from the bullpen. It was the first appearance of a black pitcher in the modern era. With the pressure on, Wright got the first batter to pop up to end the inning. However, what started out to be promising quickly fell apart. He walked the first batter to lead off the fifth. Then, as if to make Cum Posey look clairvoyant, the runner easily stole second. He scored when the next batter singled. That was followed by another single that scored a run when Wright threw away the ball trying to pick off the base runner. In the sixth, Wright walked the first two batters. This was followed by an RBI double and a sacrifice scored another run. Wright got through the seventh unscathed but was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth.
Not an auspicious beginning but not as disastrous as it is sometimes made out. Wright sat on the bench for the rest of the Syracuse series. Next, Montreal came to Baltimore. Wright had played in Charm City many times when the Grays played the Elite Giants. But this time, Wright was playing in front of a hostile white crowd. To go along with its vibrant black community, Baltimore had a vehemently racist white element that was typical of Mason-Dixon border cities. Rachel Robinson noted that in Florida the racists called her husband names behind their hands while in Baltimore they openly screamed them out. The crowd gave Robinson the worst reception of all the International League cities, and the same awaited Wright if and when he got the ball.
That time came on the night of Saturday April 27. The Orioles were pounding the Royals 12-5 and had already chased four Montreal pitchers off the mound. With the bases loaded and two out, Clay Hopper sent Johnny Wright in.
In baseball, there isn’t a more stressful situation for a pitcher than to take the mound with the bases full. That the Orioles already had a substantial lead didn’t matter much; this was Wright’s chance to shine in the face of steep odds and he did just that, getting his man to pop up to end the inning. When he took the mound in the bottom of the eighth his fastball was sizzling. His pitches hit right where he wanted them to, and his curve was as sharp as it had been in the summer of ‘43. Three Orioles stepped to the plate, and Wright struck them all out. He came on in the ninth and again held the O’s hitless. Unfortunately, the Royals couldn’t close the gap and lost 12-7, Wright’s valiant outing going to waste.
A week later, the Dodgers announced the signing of left-handed pitcher Roy Partlow to a Montreal contract. Like Wright, Partlow was a seasoned veteran of the Negro Leagues. Along with Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, who were several rungs down the Dodger farm system at Nashua, Brooklyn had five black ball players in their pipeline, three just below the major leagues.
The Royals came home to Montreal for the first time after opening on the road. Hometown fans immediately got to see Jackie Robinson in action while Wright sat on the bench. And then he was gone. At the end of the month, the Dodgers announced that Johnny Wright was sent to the Class C Trois Rivieres team of the Canadian-American League. With four black players still positioned in the top tiers of the minor league system, Wright’s demotion didn’t possess the sting it might have if he and Robinson were the only ones. The black press consciously chose to focus on Robinson and, to a lesser extent, Newcombe and Campanella, who were dominating the New England League.
At first, Wright didn’t relish his new assignment. On the baseball map, Trois Rivieres is smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. He split his first few decisions, but then two things happened that turned the season around for him. The first was that Roy Partlow also found himself shipped out to Trois Rivieras after an unimpressive stint with Montreal. Having a friendly face that also had been demoted was probably comforting to Wright. The other thing was he now had the chance to pitch regularly. His old control seemed to return and his 12 wins, combined with Roy Partlow’s 11-1 record, helped lead Rivieres to the pennant. To cap it off, he pitched the game that gave Trois Rivieres the league championship. After the season ended, Wright told sportswriters that he expected to hear from the Dodgers after Christmas.
Meanwhile, Jackie Robinson finished off a spectacular debut season by leading the Royals to the International League pennant. Montreal then faced the Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series. Robinson was outstanding, and the Royals won in six games. It was undeniable that next season he would be in a Dodger uniform.
In the custom of the day, Jackie Robinson cashed in on his newly earned fame by organizing a barnstorming tour. Assembled by a Pittsburgh promoter, “Jackie Robinson’s All-Stars” was the first of several post-season tours in which Robinson led a squad of black ball players through the south and western United States. Including its namesake, Robinson’s 1946 team boasted three other future Hall of Famers: Larry Doby, Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin. Other standouts included Don Newcombe, Artie Wilson, and Johnny Wright. The tour enabled black fans in rural towns the chance to see in person the players who were in or would soon be in organized baseball. However, despite his presence on the Jackie Robinson tour and his redeeming record at Trois Rivieres, Johnny Wright never received the expected call back from the Dodgers.
Some histories attribute Wright’s Montreal flame out on his inability to deal with the racial animosity heaped upon he and Robinson. While no one who never lived through the race hatred of the time can ever say what the effect could be on a person, reflecting on the two ball players one could almost say that of the two, it was Wright that had the edge in dealing with the hate. Unlike Robinson, who had been brought up in Southern California and attended UCLA, Wright was from and still lived in New Orleans. Wright had spent his whole life living within the sick parameters that the South’s Jim Crow laws and customs held blacks to. Many descriptions of Wright from this 1946 period call him timid and quiet, trying to blend into the background. These character traits are often used to explain why Wright didn’t make it with Montreal. Another way to look at his personality is that it was the way Jim Crow taught southern blacks like Johnny Wright to exist in the white world, not making any waves and blending in. Today, that’s hard to understand, let alone accept, but for decades that was the best way to exist in a world that did its best to marginalize an entire race on account of their skin color.
It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened had some big league team tried to integrate in the early 1930’s. This was before World War II, an event that forced Americans, black and white, to at least tolerate each other’s existence in the service and in factories. Prior to the war it was rare that the two races would mix let alone work together. In this much different atmosphere, a black ball player with the personality of Johnny Wright might have been the right one to have successfully integrated the game in the 1930’s. But this was 1946, and times were changing. For this reason, it was Jackie Robinson’s silent but forceful and bold approach that was needed to integrate baseball, not Wright’s. Whether this had any effect on the pitcher during his six weeks with Montreal is not known.
There’s also another detail that might have had an impact on Wright’s 1946 season. Jackie Robinson had married just after signing with the Dodgers and his wife Rachel accompanied him to spring training and then Montreal. Robinson often told how Rachel’s presence helped him deal with the pressure heaped upon him. The two acted as a team and this contributed to Robinson’s success on and off the field. Johnny Wright had two kids in grade school and they stayed in New Orleans with Mildred. So while Robinson had his wife at his side during this very stressful and trying period, Wright was on his own.
Most pieces on Johnny Wright simply end at this point – a quick mention of a two-year return to the Homestead Grays and then retirement. This abrupt end to a promising career makes it seem like the pitcher gave up on the game when the call from the Dodgers never materialized. It makes a dramatic and easy to digest story, but it isn’t true at all. Wright actually played professional ball for more than eight years before retiring for good.
After the “Jackie Robinson All-Stars” tour ended in California, Wright returned home to be with his family for the holidays, and then he headed to Puerto Rico. Since the mid-1930’s, the Puerto Rico Winter League had attracted white, black and Hispanic players and boasted a league that rivaled Cuba’s famous winter loop. Wright joined the Ponce Leones where he won 8 of the team’s 60 games, making him one of the best hurlers on the island. The ‘46-’47 Ponce team won the league championship and has gone down as one of the best ever fielded on the island. But while Wright helped pitch Ponce to the pennant, he was not with the team for the final series due to a salary dispute with the owners. Wright balked at not being paid for post-season games and the ownership claimed his salary was for the whole season, post season included. Neither side budged, and Wright sat out the final series while Ponce won without him.
With the death of Cum Posey, the Homestead Grays limped on. Several of their young players had signed on with minor league teams, but the Grays had always been a veteran team and most of their starters were too old to be considered viable prospects by organized baseball. Posey’s death also meant that Wright was able to rejoin the club. The Grays failed to win the pennant for the second straight year though Wright contributed a good 8-4 record for them. He was also named to his second East-West All-Star team. Pitcher Wilmer Fields, who was Wright’s teammate at this time, said, “John never talked much about his experience with the Dodgers. He was a happy-go-lucky person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” A winning record, an All-Star appearance and being called “happy-go-lucky” doesn’t seem like a guy ready to pack it in. It sounds like a pro ballplayer who wanted to put a single bad season behind him and get on with his career.
Since his salary dispute made his return to the Puerto Rico Winter League impossible, Wright set a course for Venezuela. Like Puerto Rico and Cuba, Venezuela had a thriving baseball league that attracted players of all races. Wright joined the Lácteos de Pastora (Pastora Milkers) which had a perennial rivalry with the Gavilanes de Maracaibo (Maracaibo Sparrowhawks), the two teams usually finishing first and second every year. Among the other foreigners who played that year were future big leaguers Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Luke Easter and Joe Black.
At the conclusion of the season Wright re-joined the Homestead Grays. Reports from spring training state that the Grays were pinning their pitching hopes on Wright, but this never came to fruition. He appears to have stayed with the team through June and then he and fellow pitcher Groundhog Thompson jumped to the Mexican League. Since the late 1930’s the Negro League owners had had problems with players skipping out on their contracts. Their answer was always blanket banishment from the league, and on July 31, Wright and Thompson were officially blacklisted. Even without Wright’s services, the team had enough in them for their final gasp of glory, winning the last Negro National League pennant. The Grays went on the beat the Birmingham Black Barons, a team that featured a 17 year-old outfielder named Willie Mays, in the Negro World Series.
By now, the Negro Leagues were collapsing – the Homestead Grays and New York Black Yankees called it quits after the 1948 season and the Negro National and American Leagues merged into a single two division loop. That meant positions were drying up as the teams that were still around changed their focus from winning pennants with dependable veterans to signing young players who could be sold to organized baseball and turn a profit. In the wake of the Grays and Black Yankees demise, the Negro American League redistributed the players among the remaining teams. His name picked out of a hat at an owner’s meeting, Wright was made property of the Louisville Buckeyes. In 1949, Johnny Wright was 32 years old, a dinosaur in baseball years, and his options were running out. While he may have had some stuff left in his arm, he already had his shot at the majors and no one was going to take a chance on him again, especially with a new, younger crop of talent to choose from.
In the winter of 1948-49, Wright returned to Venezuela where he switched to Pastora’s bitter rival, Gavilanes de Maracaibo. With the Negro Leagues all but finished, Wright ignored his transfer to Louisville and instead headed south to Mexico. Back in 1946, when he and Robinson were integrating organized baseball, the Mexican Baseball League had lured several white big league players south of the border where they joined many Negro League and Latin stars for one spectacular season of integrated play. High salaries and threats of banishment from the Major and Negro Leagues quickly put the brakes on any hopes that the Mexican League would grow and the loop lost most of their stars. Though the quality dropped dramatically, the league still offered a last chance for many older players like Johnny Wright who still wanted to earn a paycheck playing ball. In 1950, Wright split the year playing for San Luis Potosi Tuneros and the Veracruz Azules and compiled a 13-14 record with a 2.80 ERA in 36 games. The following year he appeared for both the Nuevo Laredo Tecolotes and the Torreon Algodoneros and broke even with 14-14 and a 1.37 ERA in 37 games.
After Mexico, Wright moved over to the Dominican Republic where he played for Escogido in 1952 and 1953 and in 1954 for Águilas Cibaeñas. His record there was an unimpressive 4 wins against 16 losses, but in May of 1954 he took a no-hitter into the 9th inning before giving up a game winning single.
Now we come to the real end of Johnny Wright’s baseball career. As if to come full circle, Wright returned to the States and signed on with the Indianapolis Clowns. Like the very first professional team he played with back 1n 1936, the New Orleans Zulus, the Clowns were a vaudeville-baseball comedy troupe. The Clowns were in what remained of the old Negro American League, playing teams like the once-proud Kansas City Monarchs, who were now no better than semi-pro level. Wright pitched a few good games for the Clowns before hanging up his spikes for good. Work in outsider baseball was quickly drying up and he was now almost 40. It was time head home to Mildred and the kids in New Orleans.
The retired pitcher took a job in a gypsum plant. A 1998 article in his hometown New Orleans Times-Picayune states that Wright never discussed his baseball career, and a friend of his later said that Wright’s co-workers probably never even knew he was a ballplayer. Johnny Wright passed away in 1990 without leaving any interviews or insights into his life in baseball. It’s my hope that this story reveals a little more about Johnny Wright; he wasn’t just a footnote but a real ballplayer who at one time was the best pitcher in the Negro National League, a man whose talent earned him the once in a lifetime shot at integrating