Before the Harbaughs came baseball's Wright brothers

Harry Wright, "The Father of Baseball," is memorialized at West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Harry Wright, "The Father of Baseball," is memorialized at West Laurel Hill Cemetery. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 02, 2013

Two crossed bats and the words "The Father of Baseball" are inscribed on the marble pedestal at West Laurel Hill Cemetery that supports a 6-foot-6 bronze likeness of Harry Wright.

Several hundred miles from that Bala Cynwyd hillside, in Middlesex, Mass., the simple headstone marking the final resting place of Wright's younger brother, George, notes merely his name and life span.

Though considerable gaps in taste and distance separate their grave sites, the Wrights remain an unbreakable tandem in baseball history. Both were cricket players and instructors who became baseball stars, managers, innovators, and, ultimately, Hall of Famers.

Now, with the nation buzzing about Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII matchup of the coaching Harbaugh brothers, interest in the story of the nation's first well-known professional sports siblings, America's other Wright brothers, has resurfaced.

Like Jim and John Harbaugh 134 years later, the Wrights in 1879 guided the two teams that battled it out for their sport's championship.

There was no World Series then. The American League's debut was 22 years in the future. But the National League pennant drama that season came down to George's Providence Grays and Harry's Boston Red Caps.

In his first and only season on the job, George bested his better-known brother, becoming the only one-year manager in baseball history to win a championship. As a player, he survived three more seasons, then devoted the rest of his long life to playing cricket, running his Boston sporting goods company, and promoting golf.

Harry, meanwhile, ended his legendary career here, managing some mediocre Phillies teams and battling with ownership, facts that might help explain why he died 42 years before George.

Easily adapted

Though the exact date is fuzzy, Harry Wright was 3 in 1838 when his father, a cricket professional, emigrated from Sheffield, England, to take a job at New York's St. George's Cricket Club.

He and his four brothers, including George, born in 1847, learned from their father. Harry and George also became cricket pros and easily adapted those skills to the new American game of baseball.

George, a member of the Hall's second class in 1937, was the better player by most contemporary accounts. But Harry once hit seven home runs in a game and is credited with several innovations, including the development of the change-up.

In 1865, George moved to Philadelphia. Here, he worked at the Philadelphia Cricket Club and played baseball for the city's Olympic club. Harry also moved on to a cricket club, in Cincinnati, where in 1869 he founded the first professional baseball team, the Red Stockings.

Later, George went to Cincinnati and was the shortstop and star for manager/centerfielder Harry's team. Behind them, the Red Stockings became a sensation. Barnstorming the country - they traveled 11,877 miles and drew 200,000 fans - they won an astounding 91 consecutive games.

Their success helped popularize and legitimize professional baseball, and when the first pro league, the National Association, was founded in 1871, the Wrights reprised their roles in Boston.

Philadelphia's Athletics won the new league's first title, but the Wrights' team captured the next four.

After the National League supplanted the National Association in 1876, Harry initially stayed in Boston. So did George until 1879, when he became manager of the year-old Providence Grays.

Managing in that era was as much about finding personnel as implementing strategy. For example, with almost no bench players, pitching changes were as rare as triple plays.

Until Wright removed him in the fourth inning of a July 15, 1879, game, Monte Ward had thrown every inning for Providence since it joined the league a year earlier - 73 complete games.

Sibling rivals

In their one season going head-to-head as managers, George got the best of his brother, winning eight of 12 meetings, including the pennant-clinching game.

Despite that, Harry, having won those four National Association pennants in Boston, was widely viewed as the game's best manager.

"Wright is unapproachable in his good generalship and management," wrote baseball's foremost early chronicler, sportswriter Henry Chadwick. "[His teams are] better-trained and more practiced."

Both men were shrewd talent manipulators. On Aug. 5, 1879, after pitcher Bobby Mathews allowed six runs in two innings, George had him switch positions with third baseman Ward. The Grays rallied to win, and Wright employed the revolutionary move several times that season.

Both Providence and Boston trailed Chicago midway through the 1879 season. But in late July, the Grays took two of three from the leaders and got to within 41/2 games of first. When they won eight straight in August, the Grays vaulted into the league lead.

With Cap Anson sidelined by a liver condition, Chicago faded. Only Harry's Red Caps had a chance to catch Providence. Four games back, Boston was scheduled to play four of its final six against the Grays.

Desperate, Harry added Harvard catcher Jim Tyng to Boston's roster on Sept. 23. Tyng, who a year earlier became the first catcher to don a mask, also could pitch, and that same day he beat the Grays, 7-3, to pull Boston to within two games of first.

Two days later, Tyng couldn't repeat the magic, and George's Providence routed Tyng and Boston to clinch a pennant tie.

The next day, Sept. 26, in another matchup with his brother at Providence's Messer Street Grounds, George's Grays won, 7-6, to capture the pennant and touch off wild celebrations in the Rhode Island capital.

To add to the elder Wright's sting, George scored the decisive run in the ninth inning.

The Grays finished with a 55-23 record, while runner-up Boston went 49-29, and the Wrights never managed against each other again.

'Most popular'

George's Wright & Ditson sporting goods became extremely successful and, not coincidentally, he was one of the first Americans to advocate for tennis and golf.

It was Wright who built Boston's first golf course and who in 1912 urged an employee named Francis Ouimet to play in the U.S. Amateur. George Wright died at 90 in 1937.

In 1884, Harry Wright came to Philadelphia to manage the National League team that had moved here from Worcester a year earlier.

He took a 17-81 team and got it into sixth place his first year. There was continued improvement, highlighted by a second-place finish in 1887.

But Wright clashed frequently with owners Al Reach and John Rogers, and his Phillies stagnated. From 1888 to 1893, they finished either third, fourth, or fifth.

Wright's contract wasn't renewed for 1894, and a year later, while in Atlantic City, he died of pneumonia. Thousands flocked to his Philadelphia funeral, where one floral tribute poignantly read, "Safe at Home."

Baseball remembered him with a "Harry Wright Day" in 1896. A series of exhibition games involving veteran players raised money for the monument that now stands in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Surprisingly, his legacy faded quicker than George's. It wasn't until 1953 - 16 years after his brother's election - that the veterans committee elected a man proclaimed in his time as "The Father of Baseball" to the Hall.

He was "the most widely known, best respected, and most popular of the exponents and representatives of professional baseball, of which he was virtually the founder," Chadwick wrote of Harry Wright.


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz.

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