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Bill Wright

Burnis Wright
Nicknames: Bill, Wild Bill

Career: 1932-1945
Positions: cf, rf, lf
Teams: Nashville Elite Giants (1932-1934), Columbus Elite Giants (1935), Washington Elite Giants (1936), Baltimore Elite Giants (1938-1939, 1942, 1945), Mexican League (1940-1941, 1943-1944, 1946-1956)
Bats: Both
Throws: Right
Height: 6' 4''   Weight: 220
Born: June 6, 1914, Milan, Tennessee

This big, strong, swift Elite Giants' star was a wide-ranging center fielder with a strong though not always accurate arm. One of the fastest men in the league, he was also the cleanup hitter and could hit the long ball when needed. A switch-hitter who was best in the clutch, he had a compact swing and was a good contact hitter but hit better from the left side. Selected seven times to the East-West All Stars squad, beginning with five consecutive appearances (1935-1939), and adding two more in 1942 and 1945, he rapped the Negro American League's best pitchers for a .318 average in All-Stars competition.

One of the top all-around players in the league, he began pitching when he was five years old, but it was another ten years before he made his professional baseball debut in 1931. A Tennessee teenager with a lingering passion for pitching, he played with a local team, the Milan Buffaloes, in his hometown. In those early years he earned the nickname "Wild Bill" because of his lack of control. Later, when he had a tryout in Nashville with the Elite Giants, he hurt his arm throwing too hard in the cold weather and was switched to the outfield.

In 1932, his rookie year, the Elites were in the Negro Southern League, which was designated as a major league that season. Wright remained with Tom Wilson's Elite Giants as they joined the Negro National League and relocated in Columbus, Washington, and finally in Baltimore, where the team found a home until the demise of the Negro Leagues.

He also played with Wilson's Royal Giants in the winter league of 1935, batting .351. During his twelve years with Wilson's club, the big outfielder was credited with averages of .300, .244, .300, .244, .293, .410, .316, and .488 for his first eight seasons, 1932-1939. Those were the halcyon years for the Elites, with 1939 being especially notable because they defeated the Homestead Grays in a postseason playoff. The team's offensive thrust that season was led by Wright, who copped the Negro National League batting title with his fabulous .488 average.

After succumbing to the lure of Mexico in 1940, the perennial all-star returned for an additional two seasons in Baltimore during World War II, due to his draft status. In 1942 he was hitting a league-leading .416 in August and finished the season with a .303 mark. And in 1945, his last year in the Negro Leagues, he registered a slugging percentage of .517 while hitting .371, for a lifetime average in the Negro Leagues of .361.

In Mexico he quickly became one of the most productive and most popular players in the country, registering averages of .360, .390, .366, .335, .301, .305, .326, .282, .299, and .362. Wright's versatility was demonstrated by the diversity of the statistical categories in which he topped the league. In 1940, his first season, he tied for the lead in doubles while also ranking fifth in batting average. In 1941 he led the league in both stolen bases and batting average, with Hall of Famers Josh Gibson and Ray Dandridge finishing in the next two spots behind him in the batting race, and also finished third in home runs, behind league leader Gibson.

But his ultimate accomplishment came in 1943, when he won the Triple Crown. The honors did not come easily, as he was embroiled in a heated but friendly battle with Ray Dandridge that went down to the wire. In the final analysis, Wright barely edged Dandridge for the batting title, and the two ended in a dead heat for the top spot in RBIs. Wright was also engaged in a tight race for the league lead in both home runs and stolen bases, surpassing Roy Campanella by one homer to complete the coveted triad, while missing the stolen-base crown by a single theft.

Wright could circle the bases in 13.2 seconds. He was adept at pushing a bunt down the third-base line, and was a superior drag bunter, employing both in conjunction with his speed to avoid a prolonged batting slump by getting a leg hit when he needed one.

The third time he left the Elites for Mexico was in 1946, when the Pasquel brothers were recruiting major leaguers for their Mexican League team. Wright hit well against major-league pitchers, both in Mexico and in the California winter league, batting. 371 in competition against major leaguers including Bob Feller, Dizzy Dean, Ewell Blackwell, Max Lanier, and Bobo Newsome.

Sometimes called a dirty ballplayer, Wright could be temperamental and occasionally showed flashes of a mean streak, but in a game in Mexico in 1950 these attributes probably saved the life of his teammate Rufus Lewis. After Lewis had hit Lorenzo Cabrera with a pitched ball, the batter rushed to the mound with a bat and knocked Lewis unconscious. While Cabrera stood over the fallen pitcher with his bat raised to hit him again, Wright came out of his dugout with a bat to protect Lewis and struck Cabrera first, rendering him unconscious. Had Wright not stepped in when he did, Lewis may have been killed.

However, this incident contrasts with his other experiences in his adopted country, and Wright decided to move from Los Angeles to Mexico to continue a baseball careerthat spanned a quarter century as a player (1931-1956) and an additional three seasons as a coach. Wright had decided to retire after the 1951 season, but after being convinced by manager Lazaro Salazar to reconsider, he helped his team win the championship that year. After finally retiring from the game, the popular outfielder opened a restaraunt, Bill Wright's Dugout, in Aquascalientes, Mexico, and the sojourn that started as a respite from the rigors of travel in the Negro Leagues became an unplanned permanent home. Wright enjoyed a long career and attained legendary status on the baseball diamonds south of the border, and in recognition was elected to the Mexican Hall of Fame.

In 1958, shortly after Roy Campanella's tragic accident that left him paralyzed, Wright appeared as one of the surprise guests on television's "This Is Your Life" show when Campy was the spotlighted celebrity; he was Campy's first roomie. That was Wright's last visit to the United States until 1990, when he attended a reunion of Negro League players.

Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.