Samuel Wright had one of the more unusual motives for emigrating from Sheffield, England, with his family in 1836. He brought his wife, Annie Tone Wright (niece to Wolfe Tone!), and young son, Harry, to the United States so that he could play cricket professionally in New York. He joined up with the St. George’s Cricket Club of Harlem, an exclusively English team which barred American players. The club later moved to Hoboken, New Jersey.
The St. George Dragonslayers dominated local competition and helped to start a touring tradition amongst American sports teams, traveling as far as Canada for their matches. Teams from Toronto ventured to New York to face off against them. In 1859, George Parr’s All-England XI became the first touring team abroad as they faced the Dragonslayers and other teams in the United States and Canada.
Harry Wright himself played his first game for the Dragonslayers when he was fifteen years old, eventually earning $12 per week as a skilled cricketer. His brother, George, also joined the team. While practicing cricket at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, the brothers witnessed their first baseball game as they observed a neighboring field, where the New York Knickerbockers played. While still playing cricket professionally, both Harry and George joined the Knickerbockers and then the New York Gothams. In 1866, Harry moved to Cincinnati to play for the Union Cricket Club. While there he helped to form the Cincinnati Base Ball Club, encouraging players from the Union Cricket Club to abandon their cricket team for baseball. By the late 1860s, Harry was a stand-out pitcher/center fielder for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, and George was one of the best players in the country as a shortstop for the Washington Nationals.
In 1869, as a player/manager, Harry assembled the first all-professional team of baseball players on the Cincinnati Red Stockings. His brother George was the team’s star and highest paid player, and was prodigiously productive with a .633 batting average on the season. The Red Stockings won all 57 games of their season as part of their cross-country tour, as well as the first 27 games of their 1870 season until finally defeated by the Brooklyn Athletics. Their success quickly led to the professionalization of the sport across the nation, with amateurs soon banned from professional leagues.
The Wrights (with another brother, Sam Jr., who also played baseball professionally) maintained their ties to cricket as well as to Britain. In 1874, Harry Wright led baseball out of America for the first time. He connected with the secretary of the Surrey County Cricket Club (and first secretary of the Football Association), Charles W. Alcock, who organized a baseball tour including matches in London and Liverpool. The tour saw the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics face off against each other in an exhibition game at Lord’s.
With the Wright family continuing to play key roles in both sports and transportation links greatly increasing the ability to tour around the country, by the mid-1870s baseball and cricket were each in the midst of a period of rapid growth in the United States. And players from Great Britain, and especially Ireland, were crucial factors in that popularity.
Happy opening week of the baseball season! Go Rockies! (Yeah… I know.)