"A-1" Wright, R.I.P.
"This is the story of a man who loved baseball. To him it was the greatest game in the world. As we know there are other great sports. But to this man this was it. Baseball."
-- The opening passage of an undated, 22-page memoir by former San Francisco Seals second baseman Al Wright, found in his room at Glenn Brook Terrace senior home. Wright died of pneumonia on Nov. 13 at the age of 86.
Aside from his handwritten memoir, Al Wright's estate consists of $1,102, an old scrapbook filled with pages as fragile as baked phyllo dough, and a still-unverified autograph of Joe DiMaggio.
The bed and television set in the tiny room he occupied at the senior home were rented. So was his wheelchair. His apartment walls were bare, except for a few photos pinned to his closet wall. Wright kept most of his belongings in plastic shopping bags in his closet, or in suitcases. The bags were stuffed with old papers, some meaningless, others incomplete but tantalizing clues as to who Al Wright was.
When Wright died, no relatives could be found to claim his body or belongings. An ex-wife from a brief, late-in-life marriage died years ago. He had a lawyer, but he knew Wright only slightly. No one, it seemed, was available to plan a funeral or write a fitting conclusion to a life lived with gusto and a certain kind of recklessness.
Last week the paltry scraps of Al Wright's life fell into the hands of the Alameda County Coroner's administrator of estates, Joyce Amason, and her earnest young deputy, Eric Larson. Standing in, as they do, for missing or nonexistent loved ones, they began a quest to put Albert Edgar Wright to rest with some semblance of meaning, and at least a measure of the dignity befitting a man who contributed 16 years of his life to building the national pastime.
They didn't have a whole lot to go on.
They hardly ever do.
I came across Al Wright a year before Amason and Larson. Last December, I was combing through a lawsuit five Major League baseball players from the '30s and '40s had filed in Alameda County. The suit dealt with the alleged misappropriation of the players' images -- that is, the use of photos and film without proper payment -- by Major League Baseball. But the lawsuit was also part of a loosely coordinated legal campaign, involving similar suits filed across the country, to force baseball to provide pensions to players who left the game before 1946, when the baseball retirement plan was forged. The Alameda County lawsuit was a class action, representing the interests of all players who suited up for major-league play before 1946. Because Wright played one season in 1933 for the Boston Braves, he qualified as a class member, and his name and address ended up in the court file -- though he didn't know it.
When I phoned Wright in January, he said he'd heard about the suit but wanted nothing to do with it. He told me he was near the end of his life. Diabetes and poor circulation had robbed him of his legs -- both had been recently amputated -- and he had pretty much stopped caring.
"Don't you know I got no legs on?" he yelled into the phone, using an odd turn of phrase, both funny and sad, that stuck with me.
He didn't want to be interviewed.
"I'm depressed and despondent," he said before hanging up.
I was disappointed Wright would not allow me to interview him. I thought he was one of the most striking examples of how baseball had neglected to care for the hundreds of little-known players who'd built today's billion-dollar pastime while working for peanuts.
But I soon forgot about Wright and moved on to other stories. That is, until I picked up my Sunday paper a few weeks ago. A brief item placed by the Alameda County Coroner's Office revealed that Wright had died with no known relatives.
The article said he was known as A.A. Wright in his playing days. As I would later learn, that was wrong; his nickname was "A-1" Wright. Already his small baseball legacy was being lost.
The newspaper left a phone number to call with information. Instead, I called with questions. A few days later I ended up in a small cramped office with Amason and Larson, staring at what might be Joe DiMaggio's autograph.
Joyce Amason looks like everyone's favorite aunt. The one who can hug you with all the love in the world, but also punch you in the shoulder and tell you to get back in the game. She wears her badge on her hip, and when it comes to the dead -- "my decedents," she calls them -- she wears her heart on her sleeve.
Eric Larson reminds you of the kind of guy who will throw on his clothes in the middle of the night and drive wherever to help whichever friend needs him to get out of whatever jam he's gotten himself into.
Amason and Larson are both deputy coroners and estate investigators. As such, they are charged with assembling the belongings of indigents who die in Alameda County. They try to locate relatives who can pay for a decent burial. It's a job the investigators take quite seriously. They will go to any lengths to keep a person from suffering the indignity of a county burial, and they are taking the Wright case very seriously. But everyone seems to get the same passionate treatment from the two deputy coroners.
"What we do is tell the last chapter of someone's life," Larson said.
When I visited her last week, Amason poured herself a cup of coffee, sat down behind her desk, and pulled most of "A-1" Wright's legacy out from under her desk: his old scrapbook, his memoir, and some other papers.