Thursday, December 11, 2008


Dick (centre) celebrated winning the Southern Counties Baseball League championship in 1970 with his St. Thomas Empires teammates and bat boy..
By Timothy Tyler
Player, coach, manager, umpire, sports writer 
Dick Wright gave his best to the game of baseball. And he loved every minute of it.

Like a lot of kids in the 1940s and '50s, Dick grew up in small town Ontario, dreaming of the day he would play in the major leagues, hopefully with the Detroit Tigers. And he had a crack at it too but again, like a lot of Canadian kids, he didn't quite make it.

An all 'round athlete, physically advanced for his age, the young lefthander
played bantam and midget baseball in his hometown of Dresden with players four and five years his senior. At 15 years of age in 1953, he recorded an unblemished 22-0 record against junior and intermediate teams as a pitcher with the Dresden Legionnaires, eventual winners of the Ontario Juvenile "C" championship that season. With Dick and another strong-arm area product, Carl Shaw, sharing mound duties, Dresden would dominate Western Counties junior baseball for the next two seasons, advancing to the Ontario finals again in 1955.

A young man in a hurry, anxious to kick-start his baseball career, Dick took matters into his own hands. Following a month at a baseball school in Florida and another month at a tryout camp in 1956, he signed a professional minor league contract with the Washington Senators on his 18th birthday and was assigned to the independent Donalsonville Seminoles of the Florida-Alabama League. After a month with the Seminoles and only a couple of starts as a pitcher, he was on his way home "to hone his skills" back in Canada.

When he picked up his final pay slip ($60.00 weekly) before boarding a bus out of Donalsonville, he realized that he did not have enough money for the ticket and he was forced to cash a cheque he received from his mother the previous day. He was apparently having "difficulty seeing the catcher's signals" and he had requested the money from home in order to have his eyes examined.

Dick reveals also that during spring training, pitching coaches Pete Appleton and Walter Beck had attempted to change the way he threw his natural lefthander's curve. "I have relatively short fingers and I guess I compensated by throwing my curve and sinker with a stiff wrist. The instructors wanted me to snap my wrist more and put extra spin on the ball with my finger tip."

He said that for two straight days they had him doing nothing but throwing a ball against the centre field fence trying to master the new snap and spin delivery. The end result was that he missed three days of training with a very sore, stiff arm and try as he might, was never able to regain the effectiveness of his previous "bread and butter" pitch. "It was a shame too," he adds, "because I did not have that many pitches to begin with. I certainly could not afford to loose consistent use of the curve."

Discouraged by his professional pitching disappointment, but by now bespectacled, he landed a spot as an outfielder on the roster of the St. Thomas Elgins of the Senior Intercounty Baseball League to finish out the 1956 season, again the youngest player in the league. Another shot at the "big time" came the next year when he was invited by the Detroit Tigers to take part in pre-game workouts at then Briggs Stadium, this time as an outfielder. "By then I was wearing glasses and in the end they seemed to be leery of my ability to hit major league pitching," Dick would explain about the verdict eventually delivered by his scout and former Detroit Tiger player, Pat Mullen. "It was no doubt an accurate assessment of my potential, but devastating nonetheless. The truth can cut deeply, particularly when it means the end of a boyhood dream," he sighed while fingering an Al Kaline Louisville Slugger bat from his collection.

Oddly enough, Dick never did play junior baseball other than the one season in Dresden when he was still bantam age.  I once asked him why he did not take advantage of his junior eligibility to develop his skills more rather than playing in higher classes of baseball with players who had much more experience.  "To tell you the truth, I really don't know," he answered.  "I guess I did not think about it and no one advised me otherwise.  Maybe I should have.  Certainly young players today are brought along carefully and gradually and not pushed into professional ranks until they are ready physically and mentally."   

Resigned to "playing just for fun" and receiving regular treatment for a degenerating back condition that he always struggled to conceal, he spent several seasons as a casual player in a Toronto Senior City Baseball League that attracted such off-season NHL stars as Frank Mahovlich, Charlie Burns, Brian Conacher and Dean Prentice. Transferred back to St. Thomas by his employer in 1960, Dick rejoined the Elgins in 1961 and promptly found his batting touch by pounding out 10 round-trippers in a season that saw him tie Dan "Thumper" Jackson of Guelph for the Sr. I-C homerun crown.

The Elgins folded in 1962 and Dick became coach and manager of the Junior I-C St. Thomas Tom Cats for several seasons, all the while continuing to be active as a player in city league fastball in St. Thomas and London. He was also a director of the St. Thomas Minor Baseball Association and peewee division convener. He was totally sidelined in 1965 due to full blown sciatica in his back and legs and severely hampered mobility which limited any aggressive physical activity.

A move to Simcoe in 1966, however, saw him partially rehabilitated and limping back into action with the Simcoe Giants of the Southern Counties Baseball League. He was a key member of a Giants team that won the Ontario Intermediate "A" championship in 1967. His two-run homer in the fifth inning was the margin of victory in a 5-3 decision over the Burlington Mohawks in the final game. He even tried his hand at pitching again after an 11-year absence from the mound and did quite well, posting a 10-1 record over the course of his final two seasons as an active player.

During his time in Simcoe he served as president of the Simcoe Minor Baseball Association, was secretary of the Southern Counties Baseball Association and the Simcoe and District Fastball League. He also coached bantam baseball and juvenile fastball teams in Simcoe and was affiliate coach of a junior entry in Intercounty baseball competition. He was even instrumental in the formation of a Simcoe Reformer (his employer) team to play in the newly reorganized town fastball league. And that was only the summer months. In the winter he found time to serve as manager of the Simcoe Blades Junior "C" Hockey Club and was a director of the Simcoe Minor Hockey Association. He was also statistician for the Niagara District Intermediate "A" Hockey League which included teams from Dundas, Welland, Fort Erie, Port Colborne and Simcoe.

And of course, when not actively participating in sports in the 1960s he was busy writing about them as Sports Editor with newspapers in both St. Thomas and Simcoe. Writing about sports was not really work for him. He would have gladly "done it for nothing" if it were not for the fact that he had to put food on the table for his wife Anne and daughters Debbie and Cindy.

Lured back to St. Thomas in 1968 as city editor with The Times-Journal, he was the driving force behind a rejuvenation of intermediate baseball in the city. With Dick as player/manager, the St. Thomas Empires won the Southern Counties Intermediate championship in their second season of operation and advanced to the all-Ontario semi-final playoffs in 1970.

In his final season of active involvement in baseball, Dick umpired in both the Junior and Senior Intercounty and was named 1971 Umpire of the Year by the St. Thomas and District Umpires Association. That same year he was the founding president of the St. Thomas Minor Girls Softball Association, due primarily to the fact that there was no organized activity for girls in the city and his oldest daughter and a few of her neighborhood friends wanted to play the game. 

Coming out of retirement for a season, he pulled on his last ball uniform in 1975 as manager of a Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, senior "A" fastball team while serving as Managing Editor of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. 

"I could never understand players who quit baseball and hockey before giving something back to the games by working with kids," Dick would say some years later. He certainly had the courage of those convictions, and then some. He was even one-time president of the St. Thomas Figure Skating Club and director of the St. Thomas Elgins Junior "A" Hockey Club. Then there was the leadership role he took with Boy Scouts Canada and the Big Brothers organization. He was also a Sunday School teacher for a number of years and is currently studying to become a Presbyterian lay minister.

In retrospect, he admits to giving in to his "activist innovator, doer" nature a little more than he should have and coming dangerously close to "biting off more than I could chew" on several occasions. "God gave me a lot of energy in those days," he adds. "I'm sure there were some people who thought I was crazy. I know my poor late wife did!"

He was honored in 2003 as a Dresden Sports Hall of Fame inductee along with members of his 1953 provincial champion Dresden Legionnaires juvenile baseball team.  He was recently added to the London Oldtimers Sports Association honor roll for "his outstanding career and contribution to the game of baseball."

Now retired and living in Southampton, ON with wife Rosanne, Dick publishes his own web site, Wrights Lane, which he credits with filling a long-standing void in his life. He has also written and self-published two books in the past couple of years and served as a lay minister in the Presbytery of Grey Bruce Maitland.  The baseball fields are long gone but he remembers with fondness the years when he "ate and slept" The Game of Baseball. His old boyhood dream has been replaced with a new one now -- "coming back in another life with good eyesight, a healthy back and a little more baseball talent."
Indeed, once a dreamer always a dreamer.



The foregoing is an accurate summary of my somewhat mediocre baseball life, albeit abbreviated and glossed over. Pretty much as I dictated it (?). Seriously, none of it amounts to a pinch of you-know-what unless somewhere along the line all those years ago I impacted or touched in a positive way at least one young life -- on a ball diamond, on a players' bench, in the crowd, in an arena or on the street. In the end, it matters not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game of life! -- Dick


Many thanks to old friend Tim Tyler for contributing to the above biographical summary.