Circ activation contest

Bringing the past to light

2014-01-17T23:55:00Z 2014-01-18T00:12:04Z Bringing the past to lightBy AMBER KUEHN Independent Record Helena Independent Record
January 17, 2014 11:55 pm  • 

Memorabilia fills a room in Craig R. Wright’s home, some of it even spilling out into the hallway. It’s a collection of baseball artifacts so extensive that it’s easy to forget you are aren’t in a museum.

The Helena resident — a baseball historian and writer — talks of each piece with pride. Every item has a story, often a specific memory attached, and Wright’s eyes light up as he takes you back to another era of the game.

There’s the catcher’s mask of Mike Piazza, a player whose career was advanced largely due to Wright’s support when he was a scout doing player evaluation. There’s a small, clear box containing dirt and grass from the original infield at Dodger Stadium when it opened in 1962, given to Wright by the Los Angeles GM during his 10-year career working for the Dodgers. There’s a box score from Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter when Wright was working in Texas. (He was actually the one who generated the box score that appeared in thousands of papers on that legendary day.) Wright still considers it one of the best games he’s ever seen, and that’s coming from a man who has attended 90 World Series games, saw more than one perfect game from the stands and witnessed multiple players hit for the cycle.

He’s got Cal Ripken’s glove, Barry Bonds’ custom batting gloves and a number of autographed bats. He has Ty Cobb’s signature, Rickey Henderson’s shoes from his final year in the big leagues, and lighting up the room is a chandelier that once hung in Honus Wagner’s house.

The most valuable piece in his collection is a bronze, life cast of Ted Williams’ hands on his bat — one of just 36 in existence, according to Wright. (Another is displayed at the Smithsonian.) But the one item that means the most to Wright is a ball from the 1965 All-Star game. Wright was 13 years old, watching on TV, and his favorite batter, Detroit’s Dick McAuliffe, hit a home run for the American League from his leadoff spot.

After Wright got the ball at an auction 10 years ago, he had his boyhood hero autograph it.

“I sometimes pick this up and think about being that young boy and seeing it happen on TV and realize I’m holding that ball in my hand right now,” he said.

Wright’s love of baseball became a lifestyle, and he worked for Major League Baseball for more than two decades. The 62-year-old, who has resided in Helena with his wife, Cathy, for the last eight years, had his third baseball book published and released two months ago. “Pages from Baseball’s Past” is a collection of short stories Wright wrote and researched as a spinoff of his online subscription series: For $21, you can get a nugget of baseball history in your email inbox twice a week. (see baseballspast.com).

His series was once a pre-game radio show, on air for 26 seasons with MLB play-by-play announcer Eric Nadel providing the voice.

But the book provides something radio never could — rare photos of former greats and lesser-knowns, some of which Wright went to great lengths to get. He also enjoyed being able to break out the numbers and statistics in easy-to-read charts, and found not having the time constraints of radio to be a luxury. The book was the top-selling baseball book on Amazon.com for 90 days, and as of Tuesday evening, it had 16 five-star reviews on the website.

Have you ever wondered who penned the iconic song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game?” Ever heard the interesting story of Jackie Mitchell or the story of the one-ball game? How about the walk-off triple steal, or the story of how “Shoeless Joe” made it to the major leagues? It’s all there, and then some, in Wright’s book.

“I look at that book as just a cup of water that’s been dipped into a stream of stories,” Wright said. “… The story, the history of the game, is longer than I can tell in my lifetime.”

Cathy shares Wright’s love of the game — the two met at a baseball convention years ago — and serves as her husband’s proofreader.

“He does over a hundred stories a year (for the series),” she said. “He has an endless supply of stories; he never worries about running out.”

Wright estimates he spends 25-30 hours each week researching the historical pieces. Some take longer than others; often he will discover new ideas while researching a different story, and people will sometimes send him suggestions of things to write about. He gathers information from anywhere and everywhere, a lot of times getting it from perusing old newspapers and talking to small-town historians. He’s diligent in his fact-checking, thorough in his reporting. To be a good researcher, he said, is to “have that scent hit you, you start tracking it down, and it’s just fun.”

* * *

Wright grew up in Lansing, Mich., where his family lived in a black neighborhood during the days before integration. His father was a high school teacher, and Wright was one of seven kids.

“We were essentially poor, and one way to help make ends meet was to live in a black neighborhood, as they generally had cheaper homes,” Wright explained. “I have elementary class photos where I’m the only white kid in class.”

Magic Johnson lived three blocks down from Wright’s childhood home, and Craig’s younger brother, Eric, used to play basketball with Johnson, Wright said.

Wright, on the other hand, would play baseball with his friends for several hours a day. He learned the sport from his grandfather, Leroy Hiler, a great storyteller who passed away just shy of his 104th birthday. Wright dedicated another of his books, “The Diamond Appraised,” to Hiler, who got great pleasure out of seeing his name in Japanese when the book was translated and published in the additional language.

“He loved to tell stories, and he told good stories,” Wright said. “I hadn’t been aware of the fact he was teaching me the history of the game all those years, because they were just stories.”

Wright developed a passion for baseball at a young age. But there were few opportunities to play, as organized baseball was only offered at the high school level in his neighborhood. And, at that time, Wright was working a paper route and other jobs to contribute to the family income. He took a break from working the spring semester of his senior year so he could play on the school’s baseball team. A broken wrist cut his season short, but he said he carried countless lessons learned from that short time into his baseball career.

While he learned a lot about the physical aspects of the game from his grandpa and high school coach, and also from big league hitting coach Art Howe, it was Earl Weaver who taught him the most about the strategy behind building a successful team.

“Joe McCarthy, in many ways, has a tremendous case for greatest manager of the game,” said Wright, who began working for Major League Baseball in the fall of ’81, just after the strike. “But my own instinctual feeling is it would be hard to be better than Earl Weaver. He was remarkable.”

During his time as a player evaluator, Wright wrote scouting reports on guys such as Piazza and Alex Rodriguez. While most saw the obvious talent A-Rod possessed, Piazza was a different story. Wright was a strong proponent of Piazza’s ability as both a hitter and a catcher before others saw his potential. Piazza went from a longshot non-prospect to a future Hall of Famer, in large part due to Wright. Piazza sent Wright a copy of his autobiography with an inscription thanking him, a gesture that meant a lot to Wright, as it’s not something Piazza often does.

* * *

As a team consultant, Wright traveled to various locations to evaluate minor league prospects, most often players in the full-season leagues. It was rare of him to attend a rookie league game, but he said he felt a pull to Montana, and saw an opportunity when Rangers prospect Benji Gil was playing for the Butte Copper Kings of the Pioneer League. The game took place at Kindrick Legion Field in Helena, and Wright can still recall various details from that day. After all, it’s the moment he decided to make his home here.

“I never got over it,” Wright said of his first visit to Montana. “It really hit me right away that this is where I would settle someday.

“… I remember sitting behind home plate at Legion Field, watching Gil make a dive for a ball at shortstop and going into a body roll, coming up on his feet. I was writing a report about his good coordination. Then I remember looking over towards Mount Ascension and thinking, ‘Some day I could live at the bottom of that.’ Our first house in Helena was there.”

Though he has received offers to get back into baseball, primarily in a front-office capacity, Wright said he doesn’t think he could ever leave Helena.

“I’m not going to have another day in my lifetime where I don’t wake up knowing my home is in Montana,” he said with a smile.

Wright is content here in the Treasure State. He’s a regular at Helena Brewers games, and he’s happy conducting his research from home surrounded by his precious collection. While he’s not sure he will publish another book like “Pages from Baseball’s Past,” he plans to continue the online story series for as long as he is able.

Rudyard Kipling said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Craig R. Wright is doing his part to make sure it never will be.

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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