Tuesday came and so did the old friends, meeting for lunch at the Wright Place, a tiny café on Second Avenue where the iced tea is sweet and the tales are tall. They were here this week just as they always are, even though Charles Wright wasn’t.
“We never thought we’d be eating each other’s cooking,” laughed Jimmy Ennis, a Tuesday regular and the owner of Hog Rock, a barbecue joint in Phenix City. They had known each other since they were boys, and in some ways they never grew up.
Last week, Wright asked Ennis to join him for some batting practice. A softball reunion was coming up in Florida and Wright wanted to be ready. Ennis said no, reminding him of their aching knees and how it had been 20 years since they played competitively.
Another former teammate did join Wright and it was like old times. The 59-year-old home run king slammed ball after ball over the fence -- 56 out of 75, using a modern aluminum bat.
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Then he stopped.
“The bat feels heavy,” he said.
He went down and he never really got up. Sunday morning, he died.
“He was doing what he loved. That’s for sure,” Ennis said.
With a bat in his hand, Charles Wright was a superhero. On a basketball court, he never saw a basket he couldn’t make or an opponent he wouldn’t shoulder into a wall. He was comfortable in a kitchen country-frying a steak or whipping up a bushel of potatoes.
Sitting in a booth in his Second Avenue café, he could tell plenty of stories but he also enjoyed ones others came by to share.
In high school, he was a star in an era when basketball was just being desegregated.
Joined by brothers Jimmy and Paul, they were the nucleus of powerful Jordan teams in basketball and baseball.
A promising career in college and pro sports seemed on the horizon.
“But there were moments when his temper got in his way,” Ennis said.
That mean streak only added to his reputation. At Comer Auditorium, site of the old Bibb Tournament, stories of his duels with major college stars were numerous. Like the night Auburn’s John Mengelt -- a future star in the NBA -- scored 50-something, only to be slammed into the bleachers by Wright, who scored 40-something.
Wright found a home in slow pitch softball. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was among the best players in the world, playing on some of the best teams in the world. In 1986, he hit 503 home runs -- a record broken the next season by one of his teammates.
“Charles was the total package,” Ennis said, “a rare athlete that could do it all and do it well.”
Sports Illustrated came to town for a game at Columbus High School between Steele’s Sporting Goods Company in Ohio and a group of local all-stars. Writer Ron Fimrite said that when The Men of Steele played “more balls are caught outside the park than in it.”
Wright was among their stars. He and his mates put on an exhibition. He peppered balls out of the park at Columbus High like he was on a playground. He broke a window in the faraway schoolhouse.
And he was hitting a softball.
Ennis hit two homers for the local stars. He was written up in Sports Illustrated, an article he still cherishes. “One of those games, the score was something like 76-54. It was a game of who could hit it the farthest.”
That would be Wright.
“You expected him to hit it out,” Ennis said. “You just didn’t know how far it would go.”
“Have bat will travel” was Wright’s credo for two decades. He made a lucrative income going around the country playing a game others enjoyed over a cooler of beer. He was a world-class player. Not that anybody knew it.
“Even back in the day, he didn’t brag. I admired that. To him, that was just what he did,” his old friend said.
This week, friends are bragging. They marvel at his talents, remember his smile and talk about the food he could put on the table. They wonder why he has been overlooked at home.
Maybe that is the curse of “The Natural,” as described by author Bernard Malamud:
“He stood at the plate lean and loose, right-handed with an open stance, knees relaxed and shoulders squared. The bat he held in a curious position, lifted squarely above his head as if prepared to beat a rattlesnake to death, but it didn’t harm his smooth stride into the pitch, nor the easy way he met the ball and slashed it out with a flick of his wrists He was, a natural.”