Out of Left Field: The Father of Baseball

We know of many of the names that have dotted baseball history in Philadelphia. William Henry Wright isn't generally remembered as one of them though. The truth is that Wright may be one of the men most responsible for keeping baseball in Philadelphia during its infancy.

I wonder what William Henry Wright would think of the modern era game? I wonder if he would think that managers use relief pitchers too often, or that home runs are too easy to hit? I especially wonder what he would think of the salaries. You see, William Henry Wright fathered this game. I don't mean he invented it, but he is largely responsible for the game we see today. William Henry Wright is better known as Harry Wright, and he was the founder of the first professional franchise: the Cincinnati Red Stockings back in 1869. While baseball scholars know Harry Wright well, the average fan has probably never heard of him, including in Philadelphia where Wright may be most responsible for the continued existence of the Phillies.

In 1883, when Albert Reach and John Rogers bought a defunct Worcester Brown Stockings baseball franchise and moved it to Philadelphia, Harry Wright was beginning his second season running the Providence Grays. Prior to his two seasons in Providence, Wright had won seven baseball championships, mostly in Boston. Cap'n Harry, as he was affectionately known back then, gave the fledgling Phillies a loss in their inaugural game in 1883, beating his old friend Al Reach's new franchise 4-3. The Phillies went on to post a terrible 17–81 record that first season. Since baseball franchises regularly went out of business in those days, it seemed the upstart Phillies days were numbered. However, Al Reach called on his old friend Harry and convinced him to come to Philadelphia and help him build a contender.

The addition of the legendary Harry Wright as manager of the Phillies in 1884 lent immediate credibility to the National League franchise. Harry Wright revamped the Philadelphia lineup, and although improvement was modest that first season at 39–73, the franchise did begin to show signs of flourishing. In Harry's second season, the Phillies cracked .500 for the first time, beginning an era that would see the Phillies become a perennial contender, albeit never quite getting over the championship hump.

In 1887, behind the pitching of Dan Casey and the offense of outfielders George Wood (14 home runs), Jim Fogarty (102 stolen bases), and Ed Andrews (.325 average), the Phillies won 75 of 123 games. They finished second in the league, three-and-a-half games behind eventual World Series Champion Detroit.

That was as close as a Harry Wright Phillies' team would come to a championship during his tenure, but in ten seasons at the helm (still a Phillies record) Wright would compile 636 victories; which places him second on the Phillies all-time list behind Gene Mauch. He would almost certainly be first on that list if not for an ailment that felled him during the 1890 season. Reportedly, a strange virus caused him to lose his vision entirely.

Owner Al Reach, and players Jack Clements and Bob Allen shared managerial duties for 65 games in Harry's absence. By the time his sight partially returned later that season, his wife had also become gravely ill. Nevertheless, the Phillies won 78 games that season, establishing a high-water mark for the franchise.

Two-years later, in 1892, Wright's Phillies would win 87 games behind an incredible outfield that comprised eventual Hall of Famers Sam Thompson, Billy Hamilton, and Ed Delahanty. Inexplicably, the Phillies' other owner, John Rogers decided not to renew Wright's contract following another winning season in 1893. Responding to Harry Wright's lifetime in the game, the National League created the position of Chief of Umpires for Harry in 1894, and he held the position until his death on October 3, 1895.

Harry Wright was an innovator during his entire career. In addition to fielding the first professional team and creating distinctive uniforms, he reportedly also was the first to use relief pitchers on a regular basis and was considered a guru of the philosophy of teamwork. Harry Wright is buried in Philadelphia's historic West Hill Cemetery, along with his good friend, Albert Reach. His headstone reads simply "The Father of Baseball." Now, nearly 110 years after his death, I wonder what Cap'n Harry would think of this game he fathered.

Columnist's note: I welcome any feedback; please send your comments to dncurry@comcast.net.

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