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Wednesday, Dec 23 1998

Page 2 of 3

She gingerly opened a program from a 1977 testimonial dinner in honor of Jerry Donovan, a former San Francisco Seal and one of the first front-office people for the San Francisco Giants. The invitation list read like a who's who of Pacific Coast League stars and former San Francisco Giants; the list included DiMaggio. On the back of the program was what looked like DiMaggio's autograph. Amason said she'd called an auction house the day before and discovered that this piece of baseball memorabilia is now worth approximately $80. "But in six months," Amason said, alluding to DiMaggio's failing health, "it will be worth much more."

Amason, Larson, and I all looked at each other, making a simultaneous realization: For Al Wright's estate to be worth more than the cost of his funeral, a more famous ballplayer must die.

As they did the research necessary to try to find Al Wright's family, the two deputy coroners, both ardent baseball fans, would have liked to uncover tall tales of derring-do at Seals Stadium. Instead, they ran into a cautionary tale about alcoholism.

Drinking, it turns out, ruined Wright's career. After he left baseball, Wright spent most of his time in an Oakland bar called the Kerry House. Amason was particularly touched by one passage from his memoir. She read it to me.

"The moral of my story: To all young aspiring baseball players or any other sports -- do yourself a favor -- take care of yourself -- sure have a few drinks after a ball game, if you so desire, but by all means, don't let drinking, or anything else, interfere with becoming a success in the art of playing baseball. If you were lucky enough to have God-given ability then I say treasure it, take advantage of it and you will become a star."

Although his effects did not directly name any heirs, a search of Wright's apartment turned up one tenuous link to family. The deputy coroner's one and only clue was a 1985 letter from a grandniece named Sheri Welch. Welch was attending a college in Idaho at the time she wrote the letter. Deputy Coroner Larson called police who prevailed on the college to release Sheri's old records. From her transcripts they got a father's name -- it would have been Al's nephew -- and tried to contact him. But the address and phone number were no longer valid.

But Welch's letter also listed all her siblings, by name and age -- all the grandnephews and grandnieces of "A-1" Wright. Amason got on a computer database of all listed phone numbers in the United States, and soon struck gold: Bruce Welch, Wright's grandnephew.

He told Amason that his father's father, Al Wright's brother Wilbur, was still alive, but had suffered a stroke and was in failing health. Besides, the brothers had a falling out more than 30 years ago and hadn't spoken since. Wilbur's children and their children didn't have any retrievable memories of their uncle and great-uncle. They may be able to pay to bury him. But what could they say about him as a person?

You will get precious little help in figuring out who Al "A-1" Wright was from his good-time friends at his favorite bar, the Kerry House.

Last Thursday, I showed up before noon and already there was a good-sized crowd at the bar. Smoke hovered shoulder high, like tule fog. Everyone appeared to be taking off the edge from the previous night. Some of the guys drank with Al Wright for more than a decade, but none could tell me much more than the immediately obvious. He was a ballplayer. He liked to drink. He was a good pool player.

One guy said he was quite a character. I bit. How so? He laughed the dark laugh of a career drinker. "Unfortunately, he and I were always drunk when we talked."

Another guy said Wright used to quit drinking from time to time, and when he did, he couldn't walk on the same side of the street as the Kerry House. But he was a real good-time Charlie when he was on the sauce. Back in the 1980s, he used to close Kerry's and take a cab up to Reno to gamble, they said.

Everyone suggested I talk to Jim Trestler, a neighbor of Wright's at Glenn Brook Terrace. "If anyone knows him well, it's Jim," said Rich Figi, the amiable bar manager. I rang Trestler up. "I can't tell you much," he said. "We were just drunks together."

Doing his best for me, Figi got on the bar phone and rang up an old minor-league player from the late '30s who used to tend bar at the Kerry House. Maybe he could tell me something about old Al Wright. Turned out he knew less than the bleary crowd at the bar. He said he had a brother who once played with Wright on the Seals. I called him. Again, zip.

On my way out an old man with rheumy eyes and one remaining tooth stopped me and kept repeating one phrase, the only charge of memory about Wright he could muster. I didn't understand him at first. But the other fellows at the bar told me he was saying, " 'A-1' Day. 'A-1' Day." It was a reference to June 11, 1939, when the San Francisco Seals held Al Wright Day at Seals Stadium. As I walked out I could still hear the old man muttering, " 'A-1' Day. 'A-1' Day."

It seems fairly clear: After he left baseball, Al Wright disappeared into a bar and really never came out again.

Before Wright disappeared too far into the woodwork of the Kerry House, he did the one thing that would help people like me tell his story. He pasted down in a scrapbook, and wrote down in longhand, the bare facts of his life in baseball.

About The Author

George Cothran


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