Wright, Taffy

Position: Right field, left field
Birthplace: Tabor City

First, Middle Names: Taft Shedron   Nickname: Taffy
Date of Birth:  Aug. 10, 1911  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 22, 1981, Orlando, FL
Burial: Meadowbrook Cemetery, Lumberton, NC

High School: Undetermined
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 180
Debut Year: 1938       Final Year: 1949          Years Played: 9
Team(s) and Years: Washington Senators, 1938-39; Chicago White Sox, 1940-42, 1946-48; Philadelphia Athletics, 1948

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1029  3583    1115    465      553      38        .311     .376     .423     16.7

To be blunt about it, Taft Wright tended to look more like the fat guy at the end of the bar than a ball player. Throughout his 20-year career in professional baseball, he endured all the adjectives sportswriters could conjure: Tubby, stocky, plump, round, rotund, roly-poly. One writer noted he was built like a “beer can.” Burton Hawkins of the old Evening Star in Washington got it right, though, when he wrote in 1939, “Taft Wright will plaster major-league pitching as long as he can waddle up to the plate.”[I]

For most of the nine years that he played in the big leagues, Wright was one of the top hitters in baseball. No less a judge than Hall of Famer Bob Feller ranked Wright among the most-dangerous hitters he faced in the American League, along with Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Gehringer. In 75 career at-bats against Feller, Wright hit .320, about 100 points higher than the league average.[II]

An intense competitor, he viewed every at bat as a fierce struggle with a pitcher who was trying to take money out of his pocket and food off his table. He hated all pitchers and himself if he didn’t smack one of their offerings to an outfield gap. Spraying line drives all over the field, Wright hit .300 most seasons and challenged for the batting title in a couple of them. He finished with a .311 career batting average, the highest among North Carolina players with at least a thousand at bats. He’s in the top 20 in six other offensive categories.

Playing the outfield was another matter entirely. Wright was a born designated hitter. Unfortunately, the position was more than a half a century in the future when he was born

That would have been in 1911 in Tabor City, a tobacco and lumber town on the South Carolina line in Columbus County that in Wright’s day also turned out crates for strawberries and watermelons. Someone once asked Taft Shedron Wright why a son of the then solid Democratic South was named after a Republican president. “I dunno,” he responded. “The family must have run out of names.”[III][1]

Isaac and Rosa Jane moved with their four children to Lumberton, about 30 miles away in Robeson County, by the time Taft was nine years old. There, Isaac worked in a cotton mill and in tobacco fields.

Fred Wright, the catcher for the town team, drafted his younger brother to pitch. Taft joined the team as a teenager and fancied himself a pretty good pitcher. When he tried out for a team in the Piedmont League in 1931, however, Wright was cut during spring training.

Pitching for a semipro textile team in Lancaster, South Carolina, the following year, he was on the mound in an exhibition game against the Class B club in Charlotte, North Carolina. His pitching didn’t impress Jimmy Dobbs, the Charlotte manager. His line drives, however, did. “Son, a fellow who can hit like you doesn’t have any business pitching,” Dobbs told him. He invited Wright to join his club as an outfielder the following season.[IV]

He did and went five-for-five in his professional debut, capping the performance with a grand slam in the ninth inning. The Washington Senators signed him in 1934, and Wright spent three seasons in their minor leagues, hitting better than .300 in two of them.

The 5-foot, 10-inch Wright reported to the Senators’ spring training camp in 1938 tipping the scales at 220 pounds. Manager Bucky Harris ordered him to run laps in the outfield wearing a rubber suit. Despite his weight and suspect outfield play, Wright made the team because there was no denying that the rookie could hit.

He started the season platooning with fading star Al Simmons in right field, but that arrangement lasted eight days. After dropping a fly ball in a critical spot during a game, Wright was sent to the bench as a pinch-hitter. Appearing in 100 games, only 61 of them in the field, he finished the season hitting .350, but he didn’t qualify for the batting title, which Boston’s Jimmie Foxx won with a .349 average.

Though he hit .309 in 129 games the following year, the Senators traded Wright at the end of the season to the Chicago White Sox. He started the 1940 season with an 18-game hitting streak and battled teammate Luke Appling, a fellow North Carolinian, for the lead in the race for the batting title most of the year. Wright cooled at the end and finished with a .337 average, good for seventh place.[2]

The White Sox sent Wright and two other players – dubbed the Fat Man Club – to a resort in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to boil off some flab before the new season began. A coach went along to guard the mashed potatoes. Wright caught the flu, spent time in the hospital and missed the first two weeks of the 1941 season. He was hitting .300 by mid-July, though, and finished with .322 average while knocking in a career-best 97 runs.

Teammates by then were accustomed to the particularly harsh criticisms Wright would hurl at himself whenever he was retired by a pitcher for whom he had little respect, which was most pitchers. That guy was on the mound to make a fool of him, he’d tell them. His job was to return the favor. “I don’t worry now,” Wright told a reporter at the time. “I know every time I’m up there, the pitcher’s going to give me one good ball. That’s the baby I’ll park down his throat.”[V]

This was war and he went to the plate prepared for battle. “I used to study a pitcher every minute he was on the mound,” Wright recounted years later. “I might not remember his name, but I knew what was his best pitch and what he liked to throw in a situation.”[VI]

He was in the middle of another .300 season in 1942 when the Army drafted Wright in August for a real war. He spent World War II playing baseball.

Wright was 34 when he returned to the White Sox in 1946 and for the first time in his career finished a season batting less than .300. He rebounded the following year and even challenged Boston’s Williams for the batting title, but he had become a slap hitter with only 17 extra-base hits.

His final two seasons in the majors were desultory affairs. He batted just .235 in the last one, 1949, as a pinch hitter for the Philadelphia Athletics.

He played or managed in the minor leagues for five more years. Wright was hitting .406 for Ottawa, Ontario, in 1953 when he fractured his skull after getting hit in the head by a pitch. He spent a month in the hospital. When he was released, the team tossed a party for the International League’s leading hitter. Six thousand fans showed up. “There was something fine and wholesome about the tribute to leftfielder Taft Wright…” the Ottawa newspaper commented. “It had the appearances of a spontaneous outpouring of affection and esteem for a good sportsman, one who is no glamour boy by most standards but who has caught the imagination of baseball enthusiasts here by quietly going about his business and turning in a workmanlike job whenever called upon.”[VII]

Hobbled by a bad knee, Wright made the tough decision to quit for good in 1955. “You don’t do that,” he said years later. “They quit you, is what happens.”[VIII]

Wright had sold his farm in Lumberton in 1947 and had moved to Orlando, Florida. That’s where he settled after baseball with his wife, Marie, and their three children. He could be found most days at the Taft Wright Bar and Package store downtown. It didn’t take much prompting to get him talking about growing up with little during the Depression, or playing semipro ball at age 17, or pulling a Feller fastball to gap in right. “Playing baseball is all I ever wanted to do,” said the old ballplayer, who actually was that fat guy at the bar.[IX]

Failing health forced Wright to sell the place. He tended bar at a local VFW hall until he died of a heart attack at age 70.


Footnotes
[1] William Howard Taft, the 27th president, was a great baseball fan who played second base as a youngster and started the tradition of presidents throwing out the first ball at season home openers. Taft first did that on April 14, 1910 at a Washington Senators’ opener.
[2] The New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio won his second consecutive batting title in 1940 with a .352 average. Luke Appling was second at .348.

References
[I] Corbett, Warren. “Taft Wright.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/taft-wright/.
[II] Brietz, Eddie. Associated Press. “Dopey Dean. Charlotte Clown May Get Schacht’s Old Role.” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), July 9, 1940.
[III
] Condon, David. “Taffy Wright Was a Big Sox Hit.” Chicago (IL) Tribune, Oct. 28, 1981.
[IV
] Corbett.
[VI] Conzelman, Jimmy. International News Service. Journal and Courier (Lafayette, IN), March 12, 1941.
[VII] Beebe, Bob. “Taft Wright – Could Be a Designated Hitter.” Minneapolis (MN) Star, March 28, 1973.
[VII] Ruby, Earl. “Ruby’s Report.” Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), July 28, 1953.
[VIII
] “Taft Wright… Toasting Baseball.” Orlando (FL) Sentinel. April 1, 1973.
[IX]
Ibid.