"A-1" Wright, R.I.P.
"This is the story of a man who loved baseball. To him it was the greatest game in the world. As we know there are other great sports. But to this man this was it. Baseball."
-- The opening passage of an undated, 22-page memoir by former San Francisco Seals second baseman Al Wright, found in his room at Glenn Brook Terrace senior home. Wright died of pneumonia on Nov. 13 at the age of 86.
Aside from his handwritten memoir, Al Wright's estate consists of $1,102, an old scrapbook filled with pages as fragile as baked phyllo dough, and a still-unverified autograph of Joe DiMaggio.
The bed and television set in the tiny room he occupied at the senior home were rented. So was his wheelchair. His apartment walls were bare, except for a few photos pinned to his closet wall. Wright kept most of his belongings in plastic shopping bags in his closet, or in suitcases. The bags were stuffed with old papers, some meaningless, others incomplete but tantalizing clues as to who Al Wright was.
When Wright died, no relatives could be found to claim his body or belongings. An ex-wife from a brief, late-in-life marriage died years ago. He had a lawyer, but he knew Wright only slightly. No one, it seemed, was available to plan a funeral or write a fitting conclusion to a life lived with gusto and a certain kind of recklessness.
Last week the paltry scraps of Al Wright's life fell into the hands of the Alameda County Coroner's administrator of estates, Joyce Amason, and her earnest young deputy, Eric Larson. Standing in, as they do, for missing or nonexistent loved ones, they began a quest to put Albert Edgar Wright to rest with some semblance of meaning, and at least a measure of the dignity befitting a man who contributed 16 years of his life to building the national pastime.
They didn't have a whole lot to go on.
They hardly ever do.
I came across Al Wright a year before Amason and Larson. Last December, I was combing through a lawsuit five Major League baseball players from the '30s and '40s had filed in Alameda County. The suit dealt with the alleged misappropriation of the players' images -- that is, the use of photos and film without proper payment -- by Major League Baseball. But the lawsuit was also part of a loosely coordinated legal campaign, involving similar suits filed across the country, to force baseball to provide pensions to players who left the game before 1946, when the baseball retirement plan was forged. The Alameda County lawsuit was a class action, representing the interests of all players who suited up for major-league play before 1946. Because Wright played one season in 1933 for the Boston Braves, he qualified as a class member, and his name and address ended up in the court file -- though he didn't know it.
When I phoned Wright in January, he said he'd heard about the suit but wanted nothing to do with it. He told me he was near the end of his life. Diabetes and poor circulation had robbed him of his legs -- both had been recently amputated -- and he had pretty much stopped caring.
"Don't you know I got no legs on?" he yelled into the phone, using an odd turn of phrase, both funny and sad, that stuck with me.
He didn't want to be interviewed.
"I'm depressed and despondent," he said before hanging up.
I was disappointed Wright would not allow me to interview him. I thought he was one of the most striking examples of how baseball had neglected to care for the hundreds of little-known players who'd built today's billion-dollar pastime while working for peanuts.
But I soon forgot about Wright and moved on to other stories. That is, until I picked up my Sunday paper a few weeks ago. A brief item placed by the Alameda County Coroner's Office revealed that Wright had died with no known relatives.
The article said he was known as A.A. Wright in his playing days. As I would later learn, that was wrong; his nickname was "A-1" Wright. Already his small baseball legacy was being lost.
The newspaper left a phone number to call with information. Instead, I called with questions. A few days later I ended up in a small cramped office with Amason and Larson, staring at what might be Joe DiMaggio's autograph.
Joyce Amason looks like everyone's favorite aunt. The one who can hug you with all the love in the world, but also punch you in the shoulder and tell you to get back in the game. She wears her badge on her hip, and when it comes to the dead -- "my decedents," she calls them -- she wears her heart on her sleeve.
Eric Larson reminds you of the kind of guy who will throw on his clothes in the middle of the night and drive wherever to help whichever friend needs him to get out of whatever jam he's gotten himself into.
Amason and Larson are both deputy coroners and estate investigators. As such, they are charged with assembling the belongings of indigents who die in Alameda County. They try to locate relatives who can pay for a decent burial. It's a job the investigators take quite seriously. They will go to any lengths to keep a person from suffering the indignity of a county burial, and they are taking the Wright case very seriously. But everyone seems to get the same passionate treatment from the two deputy coroners.
"What we do is tell the last chapter of someone's life," Larson said.
When I visited her last week, Amason poured herself a cup of coffee, sat down behind her desk, and pulled most of "A-1" Wright's legacy out from under her desk: his old scrapbook, his memoir, and some other papers.
She gingerly opened a program from a 1977 testimonial dinner in honor of Jerry Donovan, a former San Francisco Seal and one of the first front-office people for the San Francisco Giants. The invitation list read like a who's who of Pacific Coast League stars and former San Francisco Giants; the list included DiMaggio. On the back of the program was what looked like DiMaggio's autograph. Amason said she'd called an auction house the day before and discovered that this piece of baseball memorabilia is now worth approximately $80. "But in six months," Amason said, alluding to DiMaggio's failing health, "it will be worth much more."
Amason, Larson, and I all looked at each other, making a simultaneous realization: For Al Wright's estate to be worth more than the cost of his funeral, a more famous ballplayer must die.
As they did the research necessary to try to find Al Wright's family, the two deputy coroners, both ardent baseball fans, would have liked to uncover tall tales of derring-do at Seals Stadium. Instead, they ran into a cautionary tale about alcoholism.
Drinking, it turns out, ruined Wright's career. After he left baseball, Wright spent most of his time in an Oakland bar called the Kerry House. Amason was particularly touched by one passage from his memoir. She read it to me.
"The moral of my story: To all young aspiring baseball players or any other sports -- do yourself a favor -- take care of yourself -- sure have a few drinks after a ball game, if you so desire, but by all means, don't let drinking, or anything else, interfere with becoming a success in the art of playing baseball. If you were lucky enough to have God-given ability then I say treasure it, take advantage of it and you will become a star."
Although his effects did not directly name any heirs, a search of Wright's apartment turned up one tenuous link to family. The deputy coroner's one and only clue was a 1985 letter from a grandniece named Sheri Welch. Welch was attending a college in Idaho at the time she wrote the letter. Deputy Coroner Larson called police who prevailed on the college to release Sheri's old records. From her transcripts they got a father's name -- it would have been Al's nephew -- and tried to contact him. But the address and phone number were no longer valid.
But Welch's letter also listed all her siblings, by name and age -- all the grandnephews and grandnieces of "A-1" Wright. Amason got on a computer database of all listed phone numbers in the United States, and soon struck gold: Bruce Welch, Wright's grandnephew.
He told Amason that his father's father, Al Wright's brother Wilbur, was still alive, but had suffered a stroke and was in failing health. Besides, the brothers had a falling out more than 30 years ago and hadn't spoken since. Wilbur's children and their children didn't have any retrievable memories of their uncle and great-uncle. They may be able to pay to bury him. But what could they say about him as a person?
You will get precious little help in figuring out who Al "A-1" Wright was from his good-time friends at his favorite bar, the Kerry House.
Last Thursday, I showed up before noon and already there was a good-sized crowd at the bar. Smoke hovered shoulder high, like tule fog. Everyone appeared to be taking off the edge from the previous night. Some of the guys drank with Al Wright for more than a decade, but none could tell me much more than the immediately obvious. He was a ballplayer. He liked to drink. He was a good pool player.
One guy said he was quite a character. I bit. How so? He laughed the dark laugh of a career drinker. "Unfortunately, he and I were always drunk when we talked."
Another guy said Wright used to quit drinking from time to time, and when he did, he couldn't walk on the same side of the street as the Kerry House. But he was a real good-time Charlie when he was on the sauce. Back in the 1980s, he used to close Kerry's and take a cab up to Reno to gamble, they said.
Everyone suggested I talk to Jim Trestler, a neighbor of Wright's at Glenn Brook Terrace. "If anyone knows him well, it's Jim," said Rich Figi, the amiable bar manager. I rang Trestler up. "I can't tell you much," he said. "We were just drunks together."
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.
The next call, a few minutes later, came from Bruce Welch's wife, Carol. Amason told her about the rented television, bed, and wheelchair. Carol broke down and cried.
She told Amason that the family had met and decided the acrimony between Wilbur and his late brother was still too strong. They decided not to tell him that his brother had died without the means for a decent burial. The two women talked about sending the body back to Utah and decided that would be too expensive. Carol said the family didn't have much money to spare, but wanted to come out to California and see what could be done. Amason told her the cost of a funeral in California would be about $4,500.
"They want to do the right thing," Amason told me. "They are going to all try and chip in."
Through one letter found stuffed in a plastic bag, two dedicated public servants have come within throwing distance of giving a lonely old ballplayer a decent end. Amason and Larson have done their part. It's time for others to take up the slack.
SF Weekly will donate $300 toward an Al Wright funeral. And over the next few days, I'm going to be calling the front offices of the Giants and the Oakland A's, and anyone else I think appropriate, to see what they can do to help, and what they are made of. I'll let you know what kind of stuff it is.