Carlis Robinson remembers the white shingle house on Mistletoe Street, especially the friends, the laughter and the backyard barbecues serenaded by Louis Armstrong on her father’s record player.
What she doesn’t remember is baseball. Nowhere in the house in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans was there a trophy to be seen, nor a glove, a uniform or a newspaper clipping. That’s surprising because her father, John Wright, was a star pitcher in the Negro Leagues who Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey signed to a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals just three months after recruiting Jackie Robinson.
As a child, Carlis Robinson went back and forth between her divorced parents’ homes, which were blocks apart. Yet, despite spending so much time with her father, she knew little about his life in professional baseball.
“Dad didn’t talk to me a lot about his baseball career,” Robinson said, speaking by phone from her home in Missouri City, Texas. “I only knew that he played in the Negro Leagues, when he played, and that he was a pitcher. I wrote essays about him for Black History Month. Mama would give me that information.”
We had called Carlis Robinson to better understand the ballplayer who marched into history and then vanished from it. Robinson, 66, recently retired from her job as a registrar for the Fort Bend Independent School District in Sugar Land, Texas. She’s now at work on a book about her father, and has been doing her own digging.
“He’s a part of Black history,” she said, explaining why she began looking into his life. “So where is his story?”
Carlis Robinson shares what she has found, and we do the same. As we swap notes, the story of John Wright — the person as well as the player — begins to emerge.
Born in New Orleans on Nov. 28, 1916, to Hazel and Richard Wright, John arrived two years after his sister Isabel. He grew into a tall, lanky kid with a passion for baseball. He started playing professionally out of high school with the New Orleans Zulus, a novelty team. At 19, he joined the Negro Leagues, pitching for the Newark Eagles, Atlanta Black Crackers and Toledo/Indianapolis Crawfords. In 1941, at age 24, Wright joined the powerhouse Homestead Grays and quickly became a mainstay of the rotation. Joe Bostic, sports editor of the Amsterdam News, called Wright the “stringbean fireballer with great control and wicked curve.”
Wright had his breakout season in 1943. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, he had a record of 26-4 and twice shut out the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro League World Series. The Navy halted his professional baseball career, but not his time on the field. Baseball was the only action he saw during World War II. In 1944, he helped the Great Lakes Naval Training Station’s all-Black team win the Midwest Service men’s championship. The following year, Wright won 15 games for the Floyd Bennett Naval Air Force team, in Brooklyn, New York, and posted the lowest ERA of any pitcher in the armed forces. Back with the Grays in 1945, he pitched in two more Negro League World Series.
Word got out: Wright was the real deal. It wasn’t long before Brooklyn Dodgers coach Chuck Dressen got a firsthand look at Wright. In an exhibition game that year, Wright shut out Dressen’s All-Stars for five innings before the game was called because of darkness. For Rickey, that performance clinched the deal. On Jan. 29, 1946, he plucked Wright from the Grays, making him the second Black player on the Triple-A Royals.
In his book, Baseball’s Great Experiment, author Jules Tygiel suggested that, in the eyes of several Major League players, sportswriters and managers, Wright showed more promise than Robinson. According to Tygiel, scouts assessed Wright as having “good control, a live fastball and a wide variety of curves, knucklers and sinkers in his repertoire.”
“We didn’t sign either of these boys because of political pressure,” Rickey told the Sporting News in March 1946. “We signed them because of our desire to have a winning team in Brooklyn.”
Wright was on his way into the history books. But the story turned.
In 1946, when the Montreal ballclub went to Florida for spring training, it was hard-pressed to find a city willing to accept the presence of an integrated team. In Sanford, Wright and Robinson were chased out of town by a group of angry white people. In Jacksonville, the Royals had to cancel a game against Jersey City when local officials, citing segregation laws, padlocked the ballpark.
Other moments were more subtle.
In his autobiography, My Own Story, Jackie Robinson described what it felt like when he and Wright arrived in Sanford and made their way to the ballpark. “I glanced at the players on the field,” Robinson wrote. “[T]wo hundred men out there … Some were tossing balls to each other; others were hitting fungoes to the outfielders; still others were running around the field conditioning their legs. Suddenly I felt uncomfortably conspicuous standing there. Every single man on the field seemed to be staring at Johnny Wright and me …. We were ill at ease and didn’t know exactly what to do next.”
Finally, the Royals set up camp in the more racially tolerant city of Daytona Beach.
What made things especially challenging for Wright was that he was alone. The newly married Robinson had his wife, Rachel, with him. But Wright’s wife, Mildred, and their two children, Joyce and Sylvester, were back home in New Orleans. (John Jr. and Carlis came later.)
“I think the pressure may have gotten to him in that he’s away from everything he knew, away from his hometown, away from his family,” Carlis Robinson said. “He had to have felt vulnerable because now he has to prove himself all over again. He’s already proven himself in the Negro Leagues.”
Wright had no illusions about what he was up against. He told reporters, “I am a Southerner. I have always lived in the South, so I know what is coming. I have been Black for 27 years and I will remain like that for a long time.”
Perhaps due to the intolerance or the loneliness, or a combination of the two, Wright struggled on the field. His trademark control eluded him and, in one game, he gave up eight runs in five innings. In his last Florida appearance, he issued four walks and hit a batter in the only inning he worked. Whatever the reason, it was clear he wasn’t the same pitcher he had been in the Negro Leagues.
Carlis Robinson struggles to reconcile the rattled pitcher with the man she knew as her father. “My dad was just so laid back,” she said. “I never heard him raise his voice. [But] if you go back to the time period that my dad was in, you had to always be on the defense. You lived your life on defense because you never knew what you were going to have to react to. I can’t walk in his shoes. I can only imagine.”
Ryan Whirty is a New Orleans-based sports journalist who maintains a blog about the Negro Leagues. “Wright was the ace of the Grays pitching staff during their dynasty,” he said. “But this was a guy who has rarely pitched to a white professional player. He might have [seen a few] in the Navy or during all-star exhibitions, but now every batter he faced was white. I can’t imagine the psychological toll or impact that might have.”
Leslie Heaphy, a history professor at Kent State University and a Negro Leagues historian, considers the strain that both Wright and Robinson were under. “It had to be completely overwhelming,” she told The Undefeated. “Everywhere you turned, it was new, it was intense and the scrutiny never went away. I don’t know that they could have gone anywhere where they didn’t stand out. I imagine they were constantly on guard because they never knew if the person they met was going to be supportive or negative.”
Still, Wright did make the Royals, and after spring training, went north to Montreal with Robinson. Once the season began, however, Wright was used sparingly — and never flashed the brilliance he had shown as a member of the Grays. Playing in front of a jeering crowd in Syracuse, New York, he gave up four runs in 3⅓ innings of relief. In front of an even more hostile crowd in Baltimore, he came on in relief and pitched his way out of trouble. But, in the middle of May, he was demoted to the Dodgers’ Class C affiliate in Trois-Rivieres, Canada.
Meanwhile, Jackie Robinson, as history has well documented, flourished. The comparisons between the two players started immediately.
One of Wright’s Grays teammates, Buck Leonard, wrote in his memoir that “Wright had the ability to play in the major leagues, but … Robinson stood up under the pressure and Wright didn’t.”
In Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams, Robert Peterson quoted Jackie Robinson. “John had all the ability in the world … But John couldn’t stand the pressure of being one of the first … If he had come in two or three years later when the pressure was off, John could have made it in the major leagues.”
Whirty points to Wright’s and Robinson’s different backgrounds. Robinson was raised in California, attended UCLA and was accustomed to being around white people and playing sports in integrated settings. Wright grew up in the Jim Crow South and lived with his parents and sister in segregated housing.
“Johnny didn’t go to college,” Whirty said. “He was from the Deep South, where, unfortunately, white supremacists’ attitudes made African Americans feel intimidated around whites. And so I think it was a culture shock for him.”
Carlis Robinson agrees. Having come of age in the 1950s and early ’60s, she remembers as a young girl riding in the back of buses with her mother. “I know she and my dad went through a lot,” she said.
Wright eventually found his rhythm. He won his last five starts and ended the ’46 season with a record of 12-8. Trois-Rivieres won the league championship and Wright told sportswriters he’d had a “swell time” and that he hoped to get called back up to Montreal for the ’47 season.
That call never came.
While Jackie Robinson was headed to the major leagues for his historic debut, Wright was released by Trois-Rivieres. He resumed his career with the Grays until the team disbanded in 1948. Then, he barnstormed throughout Latin America.
“Unfortunately,” Heaphy said, “he fell into the same category as a lot of Black players in those first couple of years when integration was happening, where the expectation was that you had to come in and make an impact right away. And if you didn’t, you were gone. It was just that simple.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” Whirty said, “to be so close to the quote-unquote promised land and then to just fade into anonymity.”
After retiring from baseball, Wright went to work at the National Gypsum Co. near New Orleans as a driver and janitor. He spent more than 20 years there. In his free time, he fished in freshwater lakes and played pickup baseball games at a local park, where Carlis Robinson would sit in the stands and watch — having no idea of the history her father carried with him.
According to his coworkers, Wright never mentioned his baseball career. Huey Arceneaux, a plant manager who worked with Wright for several years at National Gypsum, told the New Orleans Advocate, “He didn’t ever, ever talk about it with anybody I knew. He was close-lipped about it.”
So, when Wright died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 73, his story could have died with him.
As she looks back at the challenges her father faced, Carlis Robinson begins to see how they undermined the man she knew to be proud, affable and seemingly unaffected by racial hatred. Then she makes the obvious comparison.
“His story just got lost because the focus was on Jackie Robinson,” she said. “So, Daddy was kind of shuffled to the side, even though he did go back to the Negro Leagues and win championships.”
When Major League Baseball announced in December its decision to recognize the Negro Leagues as a major league, Carlis Robinson was thrilled. “I just wish he could be around to see the decision that [Major League Baseball] made,” she said. “I think he’d feel pretty good about it. When history looks back, and there’s a book of records, I’ll just want to see that he’s included.”
Even though Wright rarely spoke about his exploits, it turns out he never let go of the memories. Shortly before his death, he was being treated at home by a physical therapist who was related to Carlis Robinson’s husband, Albert. The therapist called her from the house on Mistletoe Street.
As she remembers it, “I get a phone call one day, and the therapist says, ‘You’re not gonna believe who I’m sitting here with — your father!’ ”
Apparently, Wright was entertaining the therapist with tales of his baseball career.
“[The therapist] said to me, ‘Oh, man, he’s showing me all kinds of stuff.’
“I said, ‘From where?’
“ ‘It all came from a box that was under his bed.’ ”