On Jackie Robinson Day, remembering New Orleans’ Johnny Wright _lowres

Johnny Wright

ALGIERS — He’s a forgotten man. His contributions to baseball and society, at first overshadowed, are now unknown.

His array of pitches, once described as a lovely fastball, well-controlled hooks and that all-important knuckler. His 30-win season in the Negro Leagues. His rise from the Lafitte Housing Project to Jackie Robinson’s teammate during the integration of Major League Baseball.

All are forgotten details of a grand career. For reasons unknown, this is how Johnny Wright, a New Orleans native, wanted it. His voice now muted, all we have left are a few of his quotes in newspaper clippings.

Wright didn’t want to be remembered as the man who left the Homestead Grays of black baseball to travel throughout Florida during 1946 spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate — facing angry mobs that yelled hundreds, thousands of expletives at him and Robinson. It was enough to wear at the soul of any man — and even the sharp tongue of Mississippi-born skipper Clay Hopper.

And, he isn’t remembered.

“In a way, out of sight, out of mind,” said Mark Langill, historian for the Dodgers.

Wright, who died in 1990, won’t be celebrated around the nation Monday as part of MLB’s annual Jackie Robinson Day, which celebrates the anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Wright is not portrayed in “42,” the movie released last week that chronicles Robinson’s journey to the major leagues — a path they started together with the Montreal Royals on March 4, 1946, at a park in Sanford, Fla., that no longer exists.

Two days after they arrived, the team had to relocate to Daytona Beach and later canceled several exhibitions in nearby cities because local laws prohibited blacks from playing on the same field as whites.

Wright may not have wanted to be remembered as a failed experiment, but people like Herbert “Briefcase” Simpson considered him a hero.

“Everybody was glad they took him. (Blacks) should have been playing,” said Simpson, also a New Orleans native who played in the Negro Leagues and other minor leagues in the 1940s and ’50s.

One could argue Wright faced greater obstacles than Robinson to perform in the face of Jim Crow. We may never know. What we do know is that after two months, Wright, the second black player signed to a baseball contract, was demoted to the Dodgers’ affiliate in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. While he finished the season strong, it was his lone stint in the minor leagues.

He retired as a porter.

“He didn’t ever, ever, ever talk about it with anybody I knew,” said Huey Arceneaux, a former plant manager at National Gypsum in Westwego.

He worked with Wright for years and was one of the few people with whom Wright shared his story. Arceneaux said Wright was the first black he invited to his home for dinner.

“He was still close-lipped about it,” he said. “If you didn’t ask the right question, you didn’t get the answer.”

Robinson went on to play in six World Series as part of a Hall of Fame career. In 1997, his uniform number was retired throughout the majors. He also has received recognition as the man who integrated the national pastime, creating a path for hundreds of black stars who dominated the sport and, most importantly, forced society to reconsider its place for blacks.

But with few exceptions, only baseball historians, former teammates and young boys Wright once tutored know his story. And those young boys are now wrinkled and gray, if alive at all. Simpson is now 92.

Even the voices of Wright’s supporters are fading.

“I felt he died with a volume of information that he never released to anyone. You never knew what he felt,” said Negro League pitcher Walter Wright, former president of the local black old-timers players association, to the Tallahassee Democrat in 1990. Walter Wright, no relation to Johnny, died in 2002.

Wright told the New York Amsterdam News that he graduated from McDonogh 35 in 1935 and, for money, pitched for the New Orleans Zulus, a local baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters. He broke into the Negro Leagues with Newark in 1937 and also played for Atlanta (1938), Pittsburgh (1938), Toledo (1939), Indianapolis (1940) and twice with the Homestead Grays (1941-43, 1945), his play interrupted by World War II service in the Navy.

He was said to have thrown one of his no-hitters during the 1945 season. That surely caught the attention of Dodgers president Branch Rickey, who was planning to bring black players to the majors.

Some sportswriters of the time considered Wright as nothing more than Robinson’s roommate of the same creed, a friendly face to keep him comfortable.

But while Robinson, a former football All-American at UCLA, played college and semi-pro baseball before his one season of professional black baseball in 1945, Wright had spent nearly a decade in the Negro Leagues. He also had stared against white major leaguers in all-star exhibitions.

Wright told reporters that he expected to be able to handle rowdy crowds because he was raised in the South. It was Robinson, who grew up in Pasadena, Calif., whose patience and temper was in question.

“We didn’t sign either of these boys because of political pressure,” Rickey said in March 1946, according to The Sporting News. “We signed ’em because of our desire to have a winning team in Brooklyn. I would have signed an elephant as quickly if the elephant could have played center field.”

In hindsight, any position on the field may have proved to be easier than the mound.

Imagine Wright’s task: It’s 1946, more than a decade before the civil rights movement. You are organized baseball’s first black pitcher to face major league competition in an integrated setting. There were rumors of an impending lynch mob early in spring training. You likely knew that, in 1910, when Jack Johnson knocked out Canadian Tommy Burns to become the first black heavyweight champion, race riots ensued across the nation.

“What it he would have accidentally hit a white player when he threw inside?” said Langill, the historian. “His margin of error was small. Suddenly, you’re not pitching. You’re aiming.”

Robinson had the advantage of his wife, Rachel, accompanying him to Florida. Wright’s wife, the former Ms. Mildred Creecy, and their two children did not make the trip.

“John had all the ability in the world,” Robinson was quoted as saying in Robert Peterson’s “Only the Ball Was White.” “But John couldn’t stand the pressure of going up into this new league and being one of the first. The things that went on up there were too much for him, and John was not able to perform up to his capabilities.”

In his first action, against Syracuse, Wright lost a six-run lead, allowing four runs on five hits with three walks. He rebounded against Baltimore to pitch 2.1 scoreless innings.

In his autobiography, “Nice Guys Finish First,” Negro League legend Monte Irvin said Robinson was more comfortable around white people. For Wright, the same setting “would sometimes scare him, and he never did overcome it.”

On May 14, Wright was demoted to the Dodgers’ Class C affiliate in Trois-Rivières. He went 12-8 and won the deciding game of the Canadian-American championship series.

“I would just like to get another shot at (the Dodgers’ top affiliate in) Montreal,” he told the Pittsburgh Courier.

It never came.

Wright played in the post-Robinson Negro Leagues through the 1950s. Years later, he surprised Arceneaux with a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photographs, chronicling his already-forgotten baseball journey.

“My God, what are you doing working over here?” Arceneaux asked.

“I enjoy it,” Wright told him. “I like working for people, and that’s all I need right now.”