Professional baseball player Mel Wright born in Manila

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bat added to Jackson collection

Avery Jackson displays a bat once belonging to professional baseball player and pictures of Mel Wright, who was born in Manila.

Matthew Jackson of Manila, longtime collector of baseball cards and other sports memorabilia, is always on the lookout for professional baseball players with ties to Arkansas. He was pleasantly surprised when his research led him to the discovery that baseball pitcher and coach Mel Wright was born in Manila, Ark.

Wright was born May 11, 1927, to Melvin Sr. and Lola Wright in Manila.

Jackson has added one of Melvin Wright's bats to his collection of autographed pictures. It was a unique birthday present from his mother, who found the bat on line. She surprised him with the bat and he and his son, Avery, have enjoyed the gift.

Mel Wright, 1983

"The bat has been used, it has a crack in it," Jackson said. "I was also surprised at how heavy it is. I can't imagine swinging a bat that heavy. It was a great gift."

Avery is in the second grade and, like his father, has already started his own collection of baseball items.

"We actually have a lot of professional baseball players from Arkansas and quite a few pitchers," Jackson said. "Collecting baseball cards has always been a hobby of mine."

Jackson collects baseball cards, autographed photographs and other baseball collectibles from all teams. He doesn't have a favorite team he collects exclusively. He does search for items and information from players from Arkansas.

He shared a baseball card of Mel Wright for the Manila museum sparking interest from committee members Donna Jackson and Barbara Chojnacki. Chojnacki wanted more information and contacted Wright's daughter, Kathy Wright, and his long time friend, Mrs. Bill Virdon.

(Editor's note: The following information was provided by Kathy Wright on request. Baseball fans should enjoy this bit of baseball history and Manila citizens can boast that professional baseball player and coach Mel Wright was born in Manila. Information and pictures of Wright will be displayed at the Manila Museum located in the former train depot on the corner of Baltimore (main street) and Dewey Street. Wright's mother's family, the McElroys, once lived in Manila.)

Mel Wright was born in Manila but his family spent the majority of his childhood in DeWitt, Ark. He graduated from DeWitt High School in May 1947, where he played football and basketball, however, his first interest was always baseball. Upon high school graduation Wright was offered scholarships in both football and basketball from Oklahoma as well as a football scholarship from Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia. He accepted the football scholarship from Ouachita Baptist, however, following his life-long dream of playing professional baseball, Wright chose to leave Ouachita and pursue his baseball career.

The New York Yankees sent Wright to their try-out camp in Branson, Mo., in the summer of 1949. In November of that same year, his dream became reality when he was signed into professional baseball by Yankee scout, Atley Donald, long time friend and Yankee battery mate of Bill Dickey. From that day forward, Mel Wright would spend the rest of his life living the life he had dreamed, dedicating 33-1/2 years to professional baseball.

He played as a "sinker-slider" pitcher for 12 years before an elbow injury ended his pitching career in 1961, while with the Chicago Cubs. Still devoted to the game he loved, he would live out the remainder of his career and life, serving professional baseball as a special pitching instructor, special assignment scout, manager, and pitching coach in both the major and minor leagues.

Wright accumulated 12 complete seasons and six partial seasons in the major leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Pittsburg Pirates, New York Yankees, Houston Astros, and Montreal Expos.

He was coaching for the Montreal Expos when he lost his battle to cancer in May 1983.

While with the Cardinals (1954-1955) and the Chicago Cubs (1960-1961), Wright pitched in 58 games as a "sinker-slider" relief pitcher often being referred to as the "fireman," putting out fires on the mound. His lifetime career record was 89-65, including both the major and minor leagues.

After signing with the Yankee organization in 1949, Wright began his pitching career in 1950 in Class D ball (Sooner State League) for McAlester, Okla. There he won 17 games, lost eight and had an ERA of 3.02. Mel finished the 1951 season with a record of 15-9 where he led the league in shutouts with eight.

In 1952, Wright moved up to Class A ball in the Eastern League with Binghamton, New York. There is where he became one of the first relief pitchers in professional baseball. He set a league record for appearances, pitching in 57 regular season games and five playoff games. He would break the old mark of 49, set in 1939 by Sam Page. In 46 games, Wright did not allow an earned run, finishing the season with an overall ERA of 1.93 (second in the league). Wright was selected runner-up in the Press Annual Triple Cities (Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott) "Athlete of the Year" for 1952.

The following season, Wright found himself with the Yankees Triple A Club in Kansas City (American Association). His record for that season was 13-2. He led the American Association in winning percentage with a .867, while once again pitching in over 50 games. That season, Kansas City played in the Little World Series against Montreal (managed by Walt Alston). Kansas City would win only one game during that series and Mel Wright would capture that win.

Following that season, the New York Yankees called Wright, along with Vic Power, Elston Howard, Bill Virdon, and four others up to the "Big Leagues."

After only four seasons in professional ball, Wright signed his first Major League contract with the Yankees. However, in spring training of that same year, he along with Bill Virdon and Emil Tellinger were to be traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Enos Slaughter. Wright divided 1954 and 1955 between the Cardinals and their AAA farm clubs, playing for Eddy Stanky, Harry Walker, and Johnny Keane. In 1954, Wright pitched in the second game of a double-header against the New York Giants, when Stan Musial set a major league record by hitting five home runs in a double-header.

From 1956 to 1958, Mel pitched relief in 129 games for the Cardinals AAA clubs: Rochester, N.Y. (International League) and Omaha, Neb. (American Association). He had an ERA of 305. In 1959, St. Louis sold Mel's contract to Houston, in the American Association, where he would pitch in 72 games. During that summer, Dallas, also in the American Association, bought Wright from Houston. Wright would make 53 appearances, in 1960 with Dallas, throwing 61 innings and striking out 63. He walked only six batters, with three of those being international walks. Wright had 30 saves and an ERA of 2.35. His efforts earned him a selection to the All-Star team. In August of 1960, the Chicago Cubs bought his contract and on Sept. 25, Wright would hold the relief for the Cubs, dampening the hopes of the Cardinals in their fight for the pennant. He continued pitching for Chicago Cubs until a severe injury to the elbow in 1961 halted his pitching career.

While an injury to the elbow would halt his career, it did not take Wright from the sport he loved. Over the next 12 seasons, he continued serving the Cub organization. He served as pitching coach at Salt Lake City for Bob Kennedy and El Tappe in 1962-1963. In August of 1963 the Cubs called him up to the Majors as pitching coach where he stayed through 1964. In 1966 he was a Special Assignment Scout. In 1968 Wright joined the Pacific Coast League in Tacoma, Wash., as Whitney Lockman's pitching coach. He managed Huron, S.D., in the Northern League replacing Dallas Green, in 1969, where he also managed the all-Star Team.

Wright returned to scouting in 1970 but was called back to the Cubs the next season as their pitching coach, working under manager Leo Durocher. After spending another year as a special assignment scout in 1972 with the Cubs, Wright would begin his long tenure with his close friend and former teammate, Bill Virdon. In 1973, Pirates manager Virdon asked Wright to join him in Pittsburgh as his pitching coach. When Virdon left the Pirates for the New York Yankees in 1974 through 1975, Wright went with him.

The two remained together from 1976 until 1982 while with the Houston Astros Virdon managed and Wright served as pitching coach. Wright was proud of his accomplishments with the Houston pitching staff during his time with the Astros. In 1979, under Wright's direction, knuckle-baller, Joe Niekro, would go on to win 20+ games for the first time in his career, which he would then repeat again the following season. Wright would also have another 20+ game winner in pitcher and "strike out king" James Rodney (J.R.) Richard.

In 1980 the Houston Astros became the National League, Western Division champs but would go on to lose one of the most exciting and heart-braking five-game playoff series in baseball history. After defeating the Dodgers in a one game season tie-breaker in L.A. (due to the slit season created by baseball's first professional strike), the Astros would lose the pennant to pitcher Tug McGraw and Philadelphia Phillies.

The following 1981 season, the Astros' pitching staff had an overall ERA of 2.66, making it the best in the Majors. On Sept. 26 of that same year, under Wright's watchful eye and direction, Nolan Ryan threw the fifth no-hitter of his career. During the third inning, following two straight walks, Wright detected a mechanical problem (overstriding) by Ryan -- once corrected -- the rest is history. Other no hitters thrown by Wright's premier pitching staff were by Larry Dierker (1976) and Ken Forsch (1979). Also while with the Astros, Wright would coach six pitchers who were selected to National League all-Star teams.

When Bill Virdon moved to the Montreal Expos in the spring of 1983, Wright would again go along as his coach. However, while with the Astros, Wright was diagnosed with lung cancer and after a three year battle with the disease, he passed away in May that same year.

Upon his death, the Expos retired Wright's uniforms, sending them to his wife, Joan, and three children.

Wright made many contributions and gave volunteer hours working with college baseball teams in several states. In Arkansas he worked with UCA, UALR, West Ark, Harding, Henderson, and the University of Arkansas. He instructed baseball clinics in Pine Bluff, spoke at civic and religious functions, made personal appearances at Arkansas hospitals, instructed at the Baton Rouge baseball clinic for 15 years, was selected to the Baton Rouge baseball clinic's Hall of Fame in 1978, and Baton Rouge baseball clinic dedicated to Wright in his memory.

In the summer of 2007, the American Legion field at the Diamond Center Baseball Park in Maumelle, Ark., where Wright's grandson, Scott, played baseball, was dedicated in honor of both Mel and his wife, Joan, and named "Wright Field." A plaque at the field is displayed in their honor.

Wright was an active member of the United Methodist Church of Almyra, Ark., the Cooperative Ministry of Maumelle, Ark., where he and his family moved in 1977, and the Professional Baseball Chapel.

Mel's wife, Joan, passed away in June 2006 from pancreatic cancer.

He is survived by his three children, Dale, Steve, and Kathy, and their families.

He was one of three generations to play professional baseball. His father, M.J. Wright, Sr., pitched in the Cotton States league during the Schoolboy Rowe and Travis Jackson era; and a son, Steve, was an infielder in the Chicago Cub organization from 1978-1979. Two of his grandsons (Blake and Scott) inherited his love for baseball, with both playing Little League, Legion and college ball. Like his grandfather, Blake was a pitcher; Scott was a catcher.

Mel and Joan lived by the Prayer of a Sportsman -- "when we reach that last inning, Lord, grant that I may win Thy decision and be counted safe at home."

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