Doing his best for me, Figi got on the bar phone and rang up an old minor-league player from the late '30s who used to tend bar at the Kerry House. Maybe he could tell me something about old Al Wright. Turned out he knew less than the bleary crowd at the bar. He said he had a brother who once played with Wright on the Seals. I called him. Again, zip.
On my way out an old man with rheumy eyes and one remaining tooth stopped me and kept repeating one phrase, the only charge of memory about Wright he could muster. I didn't understand him at first. But the other fellows at the bar told me he was saying, " 'A-1' Day. 'A-1' Day." It was a reference to June 11, 1939, when the San Francisco Seals held Al Wright Day at Seals Stadium. As I walked out I could still hear the old man muttering, " 'A-1' Day. 'A-1' Day."
It seems fairly clear: After he left baseball, Al Wright disappeared into a bar and really never came out again.
Before Wright disappeared too far into the woodwork of the Kerry House, he did the one thing that would help people like me tell his story. He pasted down in a scrapbook, and wrote down in longhand, the bare facts of his life in baseball.
In many ways it's a more perfect baseball story than the MLB-sanctioned heroics we're used to.
Al Wright played almost his entire career in the minor leagues, mostly for the PCL's two San Francisco teams, the Seals and the Missions. He wasn't much of a hitter, but he was tall and rangy and could turn a double play better than anyone, even Bobby Doerr, who went on to glory on the Boston Red Sox and in the Hall of Fame.
Wright's best moment in baseball came early, in 1933, when he was 19. The Boston Braves bought him and another player for $60,000.
In spring training, Wright shone, going 3-for-4 against the Yankees and clobbering pitches off eventual Hall of Famer Red Ruffing. But Wright was competing for the shortstop position with another eventual Hall of Famer, Rabbit Maranville. Later in life, Wright liked to tell the story of how Maranville was so spooked by him that he raced back from his mother's funeral to play a spring training game scheduled the same day.
When the regular season started, Maranville got the nod and Wright warmed the bench. During one game, however, as the Braves were enjoying a comfortable lead, Wright was allowed to play a few innings. He was afforded one at-bat, and he got a hit.
It would be his only major-league at-bat. He was sold back to the Missions the same season, where he took a pay cut from his former minor-league salary of $300 a month to $250.
This short major-league stint put Wright in a much-studied group of major-leaguers. His single hit ensured that his entry in the baseball record books would forever list him as having a lifetime major-league batting average of 1.000. He liked to joke about that with the boys at the Kerry House.
After returning to the Pacific Coast League, Wright became a minor celebrity in San Francisco. The sportswriters and the fans, who, because the West Coast as yet had no big-league teams, treated the PCL like the majors, showered Wright with praise. His scrapbook is full of stories by local sports scribes talking about how this or that coach or scout thought Wright was on the verge of a breakthrough.
It never came, of course. And booze was a big reason.
The '30s were good years for Wright. But his drinking began to cause serious problems in the 1940s. He was fired on three separate occasions for his boozing. One-time famed Seals manager Lefty O'Doul instituted a fine for any player caught drinking with Wright. After ruining a lot of chances with PCL teams, Wright ended up in the Eastern League with the Utica (New York) Blue Jays.
In Utica, Wright's boozing would take its most embarrassing toll. The day before the final game of the league's championship series, Wright decided to go drinking. Years later, in his memoir, he professed confusion about his decision to hit the bottle. "I proceeded, for some unknown reason, to go out on the town. Of all things to do THAT! on the eve of a very important game."
By game time, he was in no condition to play. The manager benched him; his replacement allowed a routine grounder to go through his legs, letting the opponents score a run and losing the championship.
The manager tracked Wright down at the bar of the hotel where the team was staying and fired him on the spot. The next year, playing for a Class B club in Bremerton, Wash., Wright broke his arm. The injury ended his career.
As I sat in a cubicle at the Alameda County Coroner's Office reading about the highs and lows of Wright's career, Amason's phone began ringing. First came a call from Richard Beverage, president of the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America. He left a message saying a friend had sent him the newspaper blurb on Wright dying. "We take care of our older members when we can," he said. Amason called him back and got a pledge of between $350 and $500 for the funeral.