A lithograph of Samuel Wright from an 1856 issue of the New York Clipper, captioned “Veteran Sam, the well-known cricketer.’
Yesterday was the 205th birthday of American cricketer Samuel Wright, the father of two baseball hall-of-famers, Harry and George Wright. Though a fairly obscure figure in American history (he didn’t have a Wikipedia page until I created one last week), he became the patriarch of the Wright family which would have profound influence on the sporting scene in America–in baseball as well as golf, tennis and cricket. The family produced two US Open tennis champions and three major league baseball stars, but the legacy runs much deeper than that.
Samuel Wright was born on May 22 1812 in Sheffield England (thanks to blogger and historian Mark Aubrey for the info). He married Ann Tone (niece of Irish nationalist Wolfe Tone, whose wife Matilda is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn) in 1830. In 1832 they gave birth to their first son William Henry Wright–known as ‘Harry’ (There is some debate about Harry’s birth date–some sources put it at 1835). At some point in the 1830s they moved to the United States and settled in New York City. Samuel Wright, who was an unremarkable cricketer in England, appears to have chosen to try to come to play professional cricket in the US. He joined the St George’s Cricket Club in New York, American’s most feared cricket team, nicknamed the ‘Dragonslayers’. He served as a groundskeeper and a player for over two decades. He was known as a strong batsman (as batters are referred to in cricket) and bowler. This was before baseball had established itself as the American’s most popular team sport. Cricket was a very prominent sporting activity and matches were covered in the press. St. George had rival clubs in Toronto, Philadelphia, and Staten Island.
Samuel and Ann gave birth to three more sons and a daughter in New York. Three of their sons would become prominent baseball players, though they would also play cricket–at the time it was common for baseball players to play cricket as well.
An 1863 photo by Mathew Brady of Samuel Wright, left, holding a cricket bat, and Harry Wright holding a baseball.
Harry Wright played with his father at the St George’s Cricket Club but he became acquainted with baseball early on at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, home to both St George and the Knickerbockers, one of the first baseball clubs. He would play baseball for the Knickerbockers and the New York Gothams, In 1866 he moved to Cincinnati to play for the Union Cricket Club, but a year later he was playing baseball again. He became the manager and center-fielder for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first fully professional baseball team in America. The team, bolstered by stars including his younger brother George Wright at shortstop, went on an 84-game winning streak. On June 14th 1870, the streak game to an end in front of 20,000 people at Brooklyn’s Capitoline Grounds when the Red Stockings lost to the Atlantics 8-7 in ten innings. The score was tied 5-5 after 9 and by the rules of the time could have ended in a tie; but Harry Wright asked to continue.
The Red Stockings would fold in 1871 due to the expense of maintaining baseball’s first all-professional club. However, the nickname of the Cincinnati Reds is an homage to the team Wright managed. Wright then went to Boston, and managed the newly formed club the Boston Red Stockings until 1877. That team was one of the founding members of the National League in 1876 and would later change to the Boston Braves, and now exist as the Atlanta Braves. They wear red on their uniform as an reference to their origins. It is the oldest professional baseball club in the US. Harry Wright would later manage the Providence Grays and the Philadelphia Quakers (today the Phillies).
Harry Wright’s baseball career stretched from the sport’s origins in New York to the establishment of professional baseball and the formation of the National League. Historian Bill James said of Wright, “Harry didn’t play in the major leagues; he just invented them.” He also organized a baseball tour of England which included an exhibition match between Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics at Lords Cricket Ground.
Harry’s brother George was a star on both his Cincinnati and Boston teams–one of the greatest shortstops of his time. He settled in Boston and founded the Wright & Ditson Sporting Goods company. It still exists today. He also played cricket at the Longwood Cricket Club. He became interested in golf and created America’s second public golf course called Franklin Park in Boston. He also donated land to the city which was turned into another golf course that bears his name today: The George Wright Golf Course.
George Wright had two sons who became champion tennis players. Beals Wright won the 1904 Singles and Double’s Olympic gold medals in tennis, and in 1905 won the US Open. His brother Irving Wright was a two-time mixed doubles champion at the US Open. George Wright’s younger brother Sam Wright Jr., Samuel Wright Sr.’s youngest son, was also a professional baseball player for 4 teams.
With a family sporting prowess that stretched across three generations, a legacy that is still seen today in at least four major cities, and with significant impact on the sports of baseball, cricket, golf, and tennis, no family has impacted the American sports landscape like the Wrights have. And it started with a cricketer from Sheffield who came to New York like millions of others in search of a new life.
Babe Ruth, perhaps baseball’s greatest ever player, was born on this day in 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland. He defined the early greatness of the Yankees and established it as baseball’s greatest club. His transfer from the Boston Red Sox also helped define one of baseball’s greatest rivalries.
Babe Ruth Plaza outside Yankee Stadium
Plaque at Monument Park
The most relevant place to experience Babe Ruth in New York of course is Yankee Stadium, even though it’s not the Yankee Stadium that Babe Ruth played at. The original was torn down into in 2008. The new Yankee Stadium contains the Yankee Stadium museum which contains player memorabilia and Monument Park, and open air museum featuring retired numbers as well as plaques honoring famous Yankees. Unfortunately Monument Park is closed in February but access it is included in tickets to Yankee games.
You can also visit the Ansonia apartment building, where he lived for a time, at 72nd and Broadway. You can have an ale at McSoreley’s on 7th Street, a bar he drank at. You can also visit his grave at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester County north of the city. It can be accessed by train from Grand Central; the stop is Mount Pleasant. A number of other baseball players are buried there.
Ruth’s grave at Gate of Heaven Cemetery
Photographers have long been drawn to sporting events, looking to capture moments of triumph, exhilaration, struggle, passion, and also despair and defeat. The Brooklyn Museum is running an exhibit now which shows the breadth of possibilities for sports photography. The exhibition is called Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to Present. It’s at the Brooklyn Museum until the 8th of January.
One of my favorite photos in the exhibit. It’s a photo by Gerry Cranhan of a 1979 soccer match at the City Ground between Nottingham Forest and Bolton Wanderers.
The images I’ve attached are photos of the exhibit taken by me, many which have my reflection or other blemishes. Photographs are allowed, though a few photos have a no-photography label just for that photo.
Team Canada huddling on the ice during the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The exhibition contains over 200 photos in several rooms. They depict a wide range of sporting topics and many different sports including baseball, cricket, soccer, American football, basketball, etc. Most photos are enlarged enough to view comfortably. The photos are grouped thematically, not by sport (though there is an Olympics section) but by the photo’s relationship with the fan, the photographer or athlete.
NFL star Joe Namath on vacation in Florida.
English cricketer Ian Botham
The exhibition has sections of photos of fans, photos of the field of play, photos of athletes in training, athletes off the field, and other themes. Some pictures show famous athletes like Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona,, Carl Lewis, the cricketer Ian Botham, etc, but some feature nameless athletes such as impoverished children playing soccer barefoot. Some photos are iconic shots that you probably have seen like Ali standing over Sonny Liston or Babe Ruth facing the crowd but there are many more. Some photos are experimental, such as a photo of Muhammad Ali boxing underwater. Some photos feature unusual angles such as overhead shots.
The Knuckleball, a 1913 photo of a baseball held by pitcher Eddie Cicotte
The exhibition takes at least an hour to appreciate fully. You are required to pay the full suggested admission of $16 for an adult; children 19 or under are free and there are discounts for students and seniors. A ticket to see the museum’s permanent exhibits only is pay as you wish. Other exhibits include a world-class Ancient Egypt collection, a reconstruction of the 17th-century Jans Schenk house, and European and American art collections with pieces by Rodin and Monet. The museum’s normal hours are 11-5, Wednesday-Sunday. On the first Saturday of each moth it’s open until 11 pm and the special exhibition is only $10. Before visiting, study the details more fully on the museum’s website.
The Twickenham Streaker.
The US Olympic team in Rio currently has 11 New Yorkers. So far medals have been won by fencers Miles Chamley-Watson (Bronze–team event) and Daryl Homer (Silver, individual) as well as by swimmer Lia Neal (silver, 4X100 relay). Given it’s relative size, and the sporting prowess of its teams and clubs (Columbia University’s record college football losing streak notwithstanding), New York City perhaps has not produced the number of Olympic champions you might expect. That said, there are many legends from the past with roots in the 5 boroughs. I’ll run through my list of the most significant Olympians from New York City,–not including team sport participants or other sports like boxing and tennis where the athlete’s fame is not primarily won at the Olympics. (A good list of top basketball players from the 5 boroughs can be found here; only one from that list, Chris Mullin, even played in the Olympics. Lenny Wilkins won golds as a coach. That doesn’t include players with the New York Knicks who played at the Olympics). I’m including players with some roots in New York City, including NYC universities like Fordham and Columbia.
If I’ve missed any athletes, please feel free to tell me in the comments!!
1. Bob Beamon, from South Jamaica, Queens and Jamaica High School.
There can be no debate about the greatest Olympic moment by a New Yorker. Bob Beamon, from Jamaica High School in Queens, shattered the world record in the men’s long jump in 1968 by an amount unforeseen by the sport’s organizers. His jump was beyond the measuring equipment–one foot 9 inches or 55 cm beyond teammate Ralph Boston’s then world record. An excellent video summary of the event can be viewed here. Beamon’s jump was measured at 8 meters 90 centimeters; although Beamon wasn’t familiar with the metric system and had to be told it was 29 ft. 2½ in.
Bob Beamon’s jump in Mexico City
Beamon’s rise to athletic fame is remarkable given his childhood. His mother died while he was an infant. He was expelled from school once. But at Jamaica High School, he was discovered and mentored by the legendary track coach Ralph Ellis. He started to break records and won a scholarship at Western College of the University of Texas (now University of Texas at El-Paso. He didn’t graduate because he refused to compete against Brigham Young University over its racist policies. Coached unofficially by Olympian Ralph Boston, he qualified for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as the favorite for the long jump.
Beamon’s yearbook photo from JHS
Jamaica High School in Queens
Beamon’s record lasted for 23 years, broken in Tokyo in 1991 by American Mike Powell by 5 centimeters. Carl Lewis once jumped, remarkably at the same event as Powell, one centimeter past Beamon’s record in a wind-aided jump, but that effort is not eligible for the record books. To put Beamon’s record in a different perspective–only one person has made a legal jump further than Beamon in history in official competition–48 years afterwards. In Rio, the winning jump in the men’s event was 8.38 meters, more than half a meter short of Beamon’s jump.
I would rank Beamon’s leap as the greatest athletic achievement by a New Yorkers, including baseball records by players such as Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. Their records are not tested by global competition. Also, most baseball records are arbitrary numbers only loosely connected with ultimate success in the sport. Beamon’s jump literally defined the physical limit of the human body.. Beamon’s jump is routinely cited around the world as one of the greatest athletic achievements ever and was ranked by the UK’s Guardian as the 2nd greatest ever Summer Olympic moment.
2. Al Oerter. From Astoria, Queens.
If Beamon’s jump was the greatest ever Olympic moment for a New Yorker, Al Oerter’s 4 straight gold medals from 1956-1968 in the discus throw is surely the greatest Olympic career by a New Yorker. He’s one of three Olympians to win an Olympic event 4 straight times–the others are Carl Lewis and Michael Phelps.
Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, Long Island where Oerter started his track career.
Al Oerter at the 1960 Rome games
Al Oerter was born in 1937 in Astoria, Queens but grew up just over the Nassau County border in New Hyde Park, and attended Sewanhaka High School where he competed in track. He started as a runner. The story of how he became a discus thrower is like a fairy tale. One day a discus landed at his feet in practice, and he picked it up and threw it so far he was made a discus thrower by the coach. His success earned him a scholarship at the University of Kansas, where he was a classmate of Wilt Chamberlain. He won two NCAA titles.
He first made the US Olympic team in 1956 in the Melbourne games and won his first gold with a throw of 184 feet and 11 inches, or 56.36 meters. In addition to his four consecutive golds, he set the world record 6 times, though his Olympic throws were never world records.
What’s remarkable about his 4 Olympic golds is he suffered significant injuries. In 1957 he was nearly killed in a car crash but recovered for the 1960 games. In 1964 before the Tokyo Olympics he slipped and suffered significant reb injuries on his throwing side. He was told not to compete but did anyway. He won his third straight gold playing through significant pain.
The Al Oerter Recreation Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
In 2009, two years after he died, the Al Oerter Recreation Center was opened in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, a tribute to one of the borough’s greatest sons.
3. Gertrude Ederle, from Manhattan.
I have to admit that by the criteria I established for this post, Gertrude Ederle is an exception. Her medal haul–1 relay gold and two individual bronzes in Paris 1924 are notable but not what made Ederle famous. She was the greatest swimmer of her time, known as the “Queen of the Waves” and the first woman to swim the English Channel.
She was born in 1905 in Hell’s Kitchen to German immigrant parents. Her father ran a butcher shop on Amsterdam Avenue, and owned a cottage in Highlands, New Jersey where she learned to swim. She joined the Woman’s Swimming Association in Manhattan, where she came under the tutelage of the WSA’s founder and pioneer of women’s swimming Charlotte Epstein and former Olympic swimmer and developer of the ‘American crawl’ style Louis Handley.
The US 4×100 relay team in Paris. Ederle is on the far right.–Getty Images
In 1922 in Brighton Beach she set seven world records and established herself as a world-famous swimmer. She traveled to the Olympics in Paris as the favorite for 3 gold medals. She got one with the 4×100 relay team which set a world record. However, during the games Ederle suffered fatigue and injury and may have not been in top form. Had she swum in a later era, almost certainly would have won more medals. In 1924 there were only 5 medal events available to female swimmers. Also, by turning professional to attract sponsors, Ederle became ineligible for future Olympics.
Ticker tape parade in the Financial District. It was the first ever for a female athlete.
It was after her amateur career that she really struck fame. She swam from Manhattan’s Battery Park to Sandy Hook in New Jersey in seven hours in a widely publicized race, and then turned her eyes on the English Channel, which no woman had ever swum across. She succeeded on her second attempt, crossing the Channel in 14 hours and 34 minutes, two hours faster than any man had done it. This feat catapulted her to immense fame. She was greeted by two million cheering fans at her ticker-tape parade in New York, and became one of the symbols of the Roaring Twenties. She stared in a movie, Swim, Girl, Swim, and had an unsuccessful vaudeville career.
Ederle’s name on the Canyon of Heroes on Broadway in the Financial District
She suffered a back injury in 1933 that kept her in bed for 4 years, After that she lived modestly, for much of her remaining life in Flushing, Queens. She taught at the Lexington School for the Deaf for many years–Ederle herself had hearing problems most of her life. She’s buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. In 2013 the 59th Street Recreation Center, part of the NYC Parks Department, was renamed the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center after a renovation. It is located several blocks from where she grew up.
Ederle’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetary
4. John Flanagan, from Manhattan., born in Ireland
John Flanagan in the 1908 Games in London
It’s hard to imagine now but there was a time when the Hammer Throw was an American-dominated event, or more specifically, and Irish-American event. A number of Irishmen medaled in this event in its early years (before it was dominated by the USSR).. Much of this dominance was due to the prowess of the Irish American Athletic Club (IAAC), based in Queens in today’s Sunnyside neighborhood. Though the club folded during WWI, it had a huge impact on early years of American track and field Olympic success, and produced a three-time Hammer Throw Olympic champion John Flanagan.
Flanagan was born in Country Limerick Ireland in 1873 and made the crossing to the US where be became a police officer in New York City as well as a member of the IAAC and the New York Athletic Club. He was the only non-college man to win a medal for the US in the 1900 games in Paris, where he won the first of his three consecutive gold medals in the hammer throw. In 1904 in St Louis he also won a silver in the now defunct weight throw.
The “Irish Whales” at the 1904 Games in St. Louis. Flanagan (left), Martin Sheridan of the Irish American Athletic Club, with fellow Irishman James Mitchell of the New York Athletic Club. Flanagan and Sheridan are wearing the ‘Winged Fist’ symbol of the IAAC. Mitchell wears the Winged Sandal of the New York Athletic Club.
He frequently competed in competitions in the New York area, often at the IAAC’s Celtic Park facility in Queens, where the Celtic Park apartments now stand. He later returned to Ireland and coached a gold medal winning hammer thrower from Ireland, Pat O’Callaghan, who was the first non-American to win the event.
5. Ethelda Bleibtrey, from Waterford NY, grew up in Brooklyn
Bleibtrey in Antwerp in 1920
Three gold medals seems like a small number for a swimmer. Well before Michael Phelps won his astronomical haul, Mark Spitz won 7 golds in 1976. But in 1920 at the Antwerp Olympics, Brooklynite Ethelda Bleibtrey won all three gold medals available to female swimmers at the time.
She was born Upstate but grew up in Brooklyn and attended Erasmus Hall High School where she took up swimming in part to heal from a back injury, and it remained a lifelong passion. She joined the Woman’s Swimming Association in Manhattan and became a favorite for medals at the 1920 Olympic Games, where she won gold at the 100 meter freestyle, the 300 meter freestyle, and the 4×100 relay. The backstroke, her strongest event, was not available for women in 1920.
Bleibtrey (far left) with the other finalists of the 100 meter freestyle
She would remain an advocate for women’s swimming for the rest of her life. In a stunt to promote the value of swimming for health, she once was arrested for swimming in the Central Park Reservoir (now Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir).
Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn
The Apollo Theater honors Muhammad Ali
Right now the world is morning the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, a three time heavyweight boxing champion and global icon. Muhammad Ali was a citizen of the world, but perhaps New York City carries his legacy more than anywhere else. There are many places that he is associated with: the Apollo Theater is honoring his legacy. He trained at Gleason’s Gym in the Bronx (now in Brooklyn). But the place in NY he’s most associated is of course the place he fought four times, Madison Square Garden. One of those fights was called the Fight of the Century, his first fight with Joe Frazier.
Madison Square Garden at Joe Louis Plaza at 8th and 33rd.
MSG at night
Muhammad Ali in fact fought in New York City 10 times. He fought at the 3rd Madison Square Garden four times as well, when it was located on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th streets. He also fought at Yankee Stadium at at the now torn-down St Nicholas Arena.
Madison Square Garden has in fact had three locations in NYC in its history. The first two buildings were both on Madison Square (hence the name). Every one of the ‘Gardens’ has featured historic boxing matches–in 1882 James Sullivan won the heavyweight title in the Garden’s first site. Jack Dempsey defended his title against Bill Brennen in 1920. Joe Louis fought at the 3rd MSG 12 times (though his iconic fight with Max Schmeling was held at Yankee Stadium). In 1942 Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta fought at the Garden.
Postcard of the 3rd Madison Square Garden
Ali, then Cassius Clay, first fought at the 3rd Garden in 1962 against Sonny Banks. The entire fight is on Youtube. Banks floored Clay for the first time in his career but still lost in a 4th round TKO. Ali’s first fight at the present MSG was in 1970 vs Oscar Bonavena, after he returned to the ring following his exile from the sport due to his refusal to serve in Vietnam. But his biggest fight at the Garden was his first ever defeat, a fight that may have been the biggest ever. Due to his having been stripped of the title, in 1971 two previously undefeated heavyweight champions, Ali and Joe Frazier, met at Madison Square Garden. The fight received tremendous publicity and lived up to it. Ali dominated early but Frazier got into the match. He knocked Ali down twice. After the full 15 rounds, Frazier won by unanimous decision.
Ali and Frazier would fight again at the Garden in 1974, this time in a non-title fight after Frazier lost to George Foreman. Ali’s 12-round victory was the fight that preceded his victory over Foreman in Zaire.
Madison Square Garden still features boxing matches. In 2015 Vladimir Klitschko defeated Bryant Jennings in a heavyweight title match. MSG is the home stadium of the following area teams: the Knicks (NBA), the Rangers (NHL), St John’s University (college basketball), and the New York Liberty (a WNBA women’s professional team). The Arena also hosts many concerts. Billy Joel has played there more than any other music performer. You can also take a tour which highlights the sporting history of the arena.
Pele and Ali hug at Pele’s farewell match at Giants Stadium in 1977.
Until 1990, the Garden was the site of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It was then moved to the town of Canastota in upstate NY. In addition to boxing artifacts such as trunks, belts, and gloves of famous boxers, the Hall of Fame features the actual ring used for the 1971 Fight of the Century.
Ali was a fan of other sports, and was a frequent attender of matches of the New York Cosmos and a friend of the legend Pele. Ali called Pele the ‘other Greatest.”
Logo of the tournament
On Friday June 3rd at 9 PM EST in Santa Clara CA, the USA and Columbia men’s football teams will kick off the 2016 Copa America, called the Centenario because it is celebrating the 100th year of the tournament. The tournament, which is formally the championship of South American national teams, features all 10 South American teams and 6 North American teams. The tournament will be played in 10 cities across the US from June 3-26th and the final will be played at Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
The Copa America is a historic tournament and is taken very seriously by Latin American nations and is followed around the world. Given South America’s preeminence in world football, the tournament usually involves many of the world’s best players. First played in 1916 in Argentina, the tournament pre-dates the World Cup by 14 years.
While it is the first time the tournament is being held outside South America, it has involved teams from outside the continent in the past. This is in part because there are 10 South American teams, and that’s an odd number for a tournament. In recent years the tournament has consisted of 12 teams with two invitees, usually Mexico and another country–often one that is a major media market like the USA or Japan. (In the world of international football, Mexico is a very rich media market btw). The US has gone three times in the past and in 1995 took 4th place.
Three matches will be played at Metlife Stadium. First on June 12th there is a group match between Ecuador and Haiti. Tickets are available on Ticketmaster and the cheapest seats are going for $223(!). The next match at Metlife will be a quarterfinal on June 17th, which will possibly involve the US if they finish second in their group. (Their most likely opponent would be Brazil). Then on 26th of June the final will take place at Metlife. Metlife stadium, which of course is home to the New York Giants and New York Jets in that other kind of football, is easily accessible by train from Penn Station in Manhattan as well as by car.
Copa America match chart and schedule
Besides physically attending the matches, it will be possible to take part in the Copa atmosphere in many places around the city. New York City has significant populations of each nation that is taking part in the tournament, and fans will be packing bars and restaurants around the city that show the games or gathering together at people’s homes. The matches will all be shown live on US tv–a few will be on Fox’s main broadcast network and the remaining will be on their affiliated cable channels. Also, all the matches will be broadcast in Spanish on Univision which is available free-to-air in much of the city via antenna. (Full details on tv and streaming options here). And with the European football championship starting a week later (I’ll be blogging on that next week), New York will be experiencing soccer-mania for most of June.
Argentina star Lionel Messi at the 2011 Copa America
USA star Michael Bradley
The favorite to win the tournament is Argentina, given roughly 2-1 odds in the betting markets. Their attack will be led by Barcelona star Lionel Messi and will feature players from top clubs in Europe. The 2nd favorite is Brazil at 5-1. Brazil’s superstar Neymar is unfortunately not taking part–Brazil’s team appears to be focusing on the Olympic soccer tournament later in the summer. But Brazil’s team will still feature many top players. Columbia, the USA (with home field advantage) and Uruguay (which features former Liverpool and current Barcelona star Luis Suarez) all have an outside chance.. Chile is the defending champion and previous host, and Mexico will also be a strong contender and some pundits are predicting that El Tri, which in the US is practically a home team with the large Mexican-American population, will win the trophy.
The USA will be led by veterans Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. Dempsey, now 33, is perhaps making his final hurrah with US team, while Bradley is looking to establish himself and the team’s leader and star player. A preview of the USA-Columbia match is here. Sports Illustrated’s Planet Futbol site has a thorough preview of the whole tournament. A good English journalist to follow who is an established expert on South American football is Tim Vickery.
This weekend I’ll put up post on places in the city to watch the matches.