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Cothran 

Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
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Brother's Keeper
Albert "A-1" Wright Jr., former second baseman for the San Francisco Seals, is finally going home.

Last Wednesday, a Burlingame funeral home mailed Wright's estate to Orem, Utah, where his 89-year-old brother, Wilbur, lives with a daughter. The package contained one fragile scrapbook of newspaper clippings recounting Al Wright's 16 years as a Pacific Coast League player, and a 22-page memoir of baseball, drinking, and how one ruined the other.

Another package followed Thursday. That one contained Al.
Sometime in early February, Wilbur, his two sons, one daughter, and 16 grandchildren will gather to place Al's ashes next to his mother, Marie, in the family niche in Orem. Words will be said and, if all goes well, "A-1" will achieve a dignified end.

For Wilbur's three children, the internment will solve a mystery and close a wound. Uncle Al was lost to them for 30 years, after Wilbur and Al had a titanic falling-out over money, and drinking, and long-held recriminations such as only two Depression-era brothers could muster.

Al's 16 years in pro baseball, which he loved most, will be celebrated by his family, which he served least. It may help tie up some loose ends, and allow relatives to save a man they barely knew from an ignominious end in a county grave, a fate Al Wright only narrowly missed.

Burying his reckless younger brother is not going to be easy for Wilbur. Al's homecoming is a reminder of some seven decades of sibling rivalry and hard feelings. And it's dredged up a new feeling too: guilt. Fact is, Wilbur Wright will never fully put his brother to rest.

How do you make peace with a dead man you haven't seen in more than 30 years? How do you feel guilty for not reconciling when you're still angry over what you endured from a careless sibling? And Wilbur endured a lot.

It would be easier if Al were alive, so Wilbur could yell at him. But Al died, neatly avoiding a reckoning or reconciliation with his brother.

The old baggage is now Wilbur's to carry. Alone. That's an uncomfortably fitting turn of events.

Putting Al Wright to rest has been hard for a lot of people, not just his estranged brother.

If "A-1" were still alive I'd probably get in line behind Wilbur and give the old rake a piece of my mind. He was a difficult man, and he left behind a mess for others to clean up.

As I wrote in my Dec. 23 column, " 'A-1' Wright, R.I.P.," Al spent his final years living alone in a tiny room in an Oakland home for low-income seniors, sleeping on a rented bed, watching a rented television. He came down with pneumonia this winter. On Nov. 13, he died at Summit Hospital in Oakland. He was 86, and had been ill for years.

When no one stepped forward to claim his body, the hospital turned the remains over to the Alameda County Coroner's Office and its estate investigator, Joyce Amason.

Amason and her deputy, Eric Larson, had one paltry clue -- a 1985 letter from a grandniece with a different last name found among Al's effects. Applying some rudimentary, but thoughtful, detective skills, they tracked down Wilbur and his family. In a matter of days, actually. They were quite rightly pleased with themselves.

Then they learned they'd reopened deep family wounds.
As I said, this hasn't been easy. The hardest part has been extracting anything from Al's life story that might assign some meaning to his death.

The quest for a dignified end attracted an odd collection of people, myself included. Most of us never knew Al. Some knew him only a little. No one knew him well. We were never asked for our credentials, or held to account for our interests. We all had different motives.

Mine were journalistic and sentimental. Truth be told, I have a thing for troubled legacies and messy lives. I can't quite explain why. I also have a soft spot for old ballplayers, guys who played hard and hurt for a pittance, and were left with nothing to show.

Amason and Larson were doing their jobs. But they were also honoring one of baseball's unsung. Amason is a big fan, even has some pitching rotation advice for Giants Manager Dusty Baker. So is Larson, proud owner of a bat autographed by Babe Ruth and a baseball card signed by Cal Ripkin Jr.

Wilbur's kids wanted to solve a mystery. What was the deal with Dad and Uncle Al, anyway? The kids learned what they could, and they told me.

The late Seals infielder wasn't much help. The carelessness that marked Al Wright's baseball career -- and his life -- followed him in death. He left behind nothing but a scrapbook so old its pages almost crumble in your hands, and a 22-page memoir, cursory at best.

His old drinking buddies are too foggy in the head to fill in many gaps. All they have is chewed-over bar anecdotes, and who can blame them. Bars aren't where you develop deep, lasting relationships.

His old teammates and coaches, including the famous Lefty O'Doul and his best pal and carousing buddy from the Seals, third baseman Frankie Hawkins, are dead. And his brother Wilbur, the person who knew him best, isn't talking much. Partly, he doesn't want to. Partly, he can't, owing to a stroke.

Wilbur told a little of the story to his curious kids, and some of them were good enough to relay this fragmentary tale to me. They tried hard to fill in the blanks with their own recollections. But they were very young when Al and Wilbur split in 1971, during a wee-hours phone call full of desperation and disgust.

Al just disappeared after that. The one and only attempt to reach him, a grandniece's letter in 1985, did not elicit a reply. Wilbur didn't talk about his brother, so what the kids remembered from 30 years ago -- which wasn't much -- was all they knew. That is, until the news of Al's death reached them, and they started asking their dad new, difficult questions. He, struggling against his stroke-damaged brain, haltingly provided some answers.

About The Author

George Cothran

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