SABR

Don Wheeler

This article was written by Stew Thornley.

Don Wheeler was an outstanding athlete from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who had a nine-season career in professional baseball over a period of 12 years. A catcher, Wheeler spent his first years in pro ball in the shadow of another Minnesota catcher, Wes Westrum, but Wheeler got his chance to play in the major leagues after he was drafted out of the New York Giants organization.

Wheeler was born in Minneapolis on September 29, 1922, the only child of Archie, a railroad mail clerk, and Marion, a housewife. He grew up in south Minneapolis, originally in a house near East 25th Street and Bloomington Avenue and later at East 26th Street and Elliot Avenue, a site now occupied by Abbott-Northwestern Avenue.

After elementary school at Greeley Elementary and one year at Phillips Junior High School, Wheeler started in tenth grade at South High School, where he played on the varsity teams for baseball and hockey. The baseball coach was Frank Cleve, who coached other sports and later achieved prominence for coaching the Minneapolis Henry basketball team to two consecutive state high-school championships. One of Wheeler's baseball teammates at South was pitcher Francis "Red" Hardy, who was later a teammate on the Minneapolis Millers.

Wheeler said he acquired his love of sports from his dad. "My dad never played athletics, but he was a fabulous fan," he said in an interview November 28, 2003, 12 days before his death. "He'd go to high-school football-a game in the afternoon and then the night game at Nicollet Park. He followed athletics real close."

Wheeler himself made many trips to Nicollet Park, but mainly to watch the Millers baseball team. "I used to crank the numbers on the old scoreboard out there," he said. Wheeler and his friends in could get free admission to the games, and, although he was a long way from home plate, Wheeler could see the game from his perch within the center-field scoreboard. "We got paid a little, but mostly we got in and had the chance to get the balls and bats and stuff we could use in the neighborhood." They'd often run errands for players, and Wheeler recalls going to a nearby drugstore between games of doubleheaders in 1938 to get ice cream for Ted Williams, who was in the process of winning the American Association Triple Crown.

Wheeler played sandlot baseball at Stewart Field on East 25th Street and 10th Avenue, not far from his home. American Legion baseball was not available to him at this time since the post in his area had dropped its league membership. Wheeler instead played in a men's league starting the summer after his junior year of high school.

Wheeler graduated from South in June 1940 and had a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Minnesota. He began attending the university while also working in the equipment room at the university's athletic department. But Bob Evans, a scout for Mike Kelley, owner of the Minneapolis Millers, convinced him to sign a professional contract.

Wheeler was assigned to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in the Class C Northern League, where he received the nickname of Scotty after teammate Dave Garcia, during a friendly argument, called him a "dirty little Scotchman." (Wheeler is Irish, English, and Scotch in his ancestry.)

Wheeler had a .280 batting average in Eau Claire in 1941. He also drew 62 walks and had an on-base percentage of .379. Westrum, from Clearbook, in the northwestern part of Minnesota, played 98 games for Eau Claire that season, displacing Wheeler from behind the plate. "I ended up playing the outfield and second base."

Wheeler and Westrum started the 1942 season with the Minneapolis Millers in the Class AA American Association. Both made their Millers debut in the team's home opener, on April 23 against Kansas City. Although starting catcher Bob Linton hit three home runs, all over the center-field fence, Minneapolis trailed, 11-7, going into the last of the ninth. Wheeler came up in the ninth, as a pinch hitter for Joe Lafata, and walked. This was after the Millers had already scored four runs to tie the game.

In the top of the 10th, Westrum replaced Linton at catcher and Wheeler went to second base. Still another Millers catcher, Angelo Giuliani, who had pinch hit in the last of the ninth, went into the game at first base. The Millers won the game in the last of the 10th on a home run by Joe Vosmik, his second of the game.

Wheeler was sent back to Eau Claire, this time producing a .432 on-base percentage in 96 games, before returning to Minneapolis to finish the season with the Millers.

That fall Wheeler was drafted into the Army and sent to Camp Hood (now Fort Hood) near Killeen, Texas, where he was assigned to the tank destroyers. "While I was there the colonel of the weapons school was a baseball nut, and his prime thing was to beat the OCS [Officer Candidates School] team there." Upon learning of Wheeler's baseball skills, the colonel had him transferred to the weapons school. Wheeler played in semi-professional tournaments in Texas. "We played a naval air team that Birdie Tebbetts had. [Tebbetts was a major league catcher who later had a long career as a manager and scout.] Birdie was going to have me transferred to the naval air corps, but the push came all at once."

The "push" brought about Wheeler's transfer to the infantry in England for in 1943. In the latter part of 1944, several months after D-Day, Wheeler's unit made it to the European continent, crossing the English Channel, landing at Omaha Beach, which was by this time peaceful, and marching through France into Germany. A sergeant in the 398th infantry regiment, Wheeler received the Bronze Star for, as his citation read, "heroic achievement on 13 April 1945 in the vicinity of Lowenstein, Germany. Leading his squad forward in an advance, Sergeant Wheeler observed hostile activity on a ridge that was his objective. Aware that a frontal assault might result in severe casualties, he ordered his men to take cover while he advanced along to a vantage point from which he directed mortar fire upon the opposing forces. He then summoned his men forward and led them in an attack in which six hostile riflemen were captured and the position secured without casualty to his squad."

After Victory in Europe Day (May 8), Wheeler was informed, "we would probably be coming home and then going the other way [the Pacific theater]. Then V-J Day [Victory in Japan] came along." With the war over, Wheeler remained in Europe until returning stateside on a Liberty ship in November. "On Thanksgiving Day, we sailed from Marseilles [France]. They got us up at three in the morning, gave us turkey, we went to the dock at noon, they fed us turkey, we got on the ship at night, they fed us turkey."

Along with many other veterans whose careers had been interrupted by the war, Wheeler was back in 1946 and started the season with the Millers. In April, longtime owner Mike Kelley sold the Millers to the New York Giants, the end of Minneapolis as an independent team. Wheeler split the season between the Millers and the St. Cloud Rox of the Northern League.

In 1947, he was in Sioux City in the Class A Western League, playing for Joe Becker, whom he described as "the greatest manager I ever saw. He was the only manager in baseball that I saw, when he came out to the mound to get the pitcher that the pitcher didn't talk him out of it." (The next year, Becker's son was one of the Duluth Dukes players injured, along with several who were killed, in a bus crash. Joseph Becker, a 19-year-old shortstop, suffered burns and a compound fracture of a leg.)

For Wheeler, another season with Minneapolis followed in 1948. That season, he set an American Association record with a .998 fielding percentage for a catcher (.9977116 to be exact). This record stood until 1993 when Matt Walbeck had a percentage of .9982174.

By 1948, Wheeler was working in the off-season at the post office in downtown Minneapolis, and it was there that he got the news from a co-worker on November 10, 1948 that he had been drafted out of the New York Giants system by the Chicago White Sox. Wheeler saw this as an opportunity for him, as Westrum was catching for the Giants, who also had Walker Cooper behind the plate.

Wheeler made the White Sox in 1949 and played in his first major league game on Saturday, April 23, against the St. Louis Browns in Chicago. Wheeler entered in the second game after the team's regular catcher, Joe Tipton, jammed his thumb in the top of the second inning. In the last of the fifth, Wheeler had a run-scoring single to cut the Browns' lead to 4-3. The White Sox went on to win, 12-5, as Wheeler was hitless in his other four at-bats.

He hit his first, and only, home run at home in the second game of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox on Sunday, June 12. The home run came off Ellis Kinder.

On July 30 in New York, he had four hits on the birthday of Yankees manager Casey Stengel. The first was a run-scoring triple off Vic Raschi in the second inning, which made the score 2-0 for the White Sox. Wheeler added two singles and a double as Chicago won, 9-2. "After the game, Casey walked by me and said, 'You had a great day, but it was a lousy birthday present.'"

Of his year in the majors, Wheeler commented on the strong clubs of Boston and Cleveland, Boston for its outstanding batting order. He also enjoyed reconnecting with Ted Williams before a game. "We passed and I said, 'Hi, Ted.' He looked at me and said, 'I know you from somewhere.' I asked him, 'Could it be 1938?' And Williams remembered."

Wheeler recalled the Cleveland pitching staff, with its rotation of Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, and Mike Garcia. "Wynn was the toughest because he would knock you down if you took a good swing," Wheeler said, adding a memory of a plate appearance against Bob Feller, when he was looking for a fastball on a 3 ball, 1 strike count. "He threw me a curve that was unreal. They say what a great fastball he had. I still think his curveball was so good that it set up his fastball."

Wheeler played in 67 games with Chicago, producing a batting average of .240 and an on-base percentage of .333. He played three more seasons in organized baseball, with Memphis (Southern Association), Colorado Springs (Western League), and the American Association team that played in both Toledo in 1952. He was gone from Toledo by the time the team moved to Charleston, West Virginia. In June, the White Sox recalled him and tried to sell him to Buffalo in the International League, but Wheeler decided to retire at that point. "I had an agreement with [general manager] Frank Lane that if I was sold, I was supposed to get a percentage," said Wheeler in a follow-up conversation via phone on December 6, 2003. Wheeler said when Lane refused to give him any of the proceeds from the sale, Wheeler returned to Minnesota and went to Detroit Lakes, approximately 200 miles northwest of Minneapolis, to play semi-pro ball.

Over the next two seasons, he played with semi-pro teams in Glencoe and Rochester, cities close to Minneapolis to allow him to commute to games. The Rochester Aces played in the Southern Minnesota League. "Good ballclubs," Wheeler said of the teams in the Southern Minny League. "Some of those payrolls were as good as they were in the [American] Association."

After baseball, Wheeler worked full-time at the post office. In the late 1950s he began pitching batting practice for the Millers, who by this time were playing at Metropolitan Stadium in suburban Bloomington and were managed by Gene Mauch. Wheeler remembered the frustration of a young Millers player, Carl Yastrzemski, who had trouble hitting Wheeler's pitches in 1960 after Mauch had left to become manager of the Philadelphia Phillies and Eddie Popowski took over. "He [Yastrzemski] yelled at me, 'Throw one over the plate, will you?' Popowski was standing behind me and told me to ignore him. But I hollered, 'Well, put your bat out, and I'll hit it.' That was stupid and I apologized after-but he was really a nice guy."

In August of 1960, the Millers were short on catchers and asked Wheeler to accompany them to Denver, where they would be playing five games against the Bears in three days. Wheeler took vacation time from the post office to make the trip. He also had to secure his release from the Chicago White Sox. Wheeler wrote a letter to the White Sox, assuring them that he had no intention of re-entering professional baseball on a regular basis, and was given his release, freeing him to play for the Millers. Wheeler got into the final game of the series, on Friday, August 26, as a late-inning defensive replacement at catcher for Bob Tillman.

In the 1950s, Wheeler got involved in sports officiating, first in hockey and then in football and baseball. He gave up on-ice hockey officiating when he was in his 50s, but by this time he was an off-ice official for Minnesota North Stars games in the National Hockey League, first working as a goal judge and then as a penalty time keeper. Wheeler continued longer with football and baseball. During the 1960s, he worked Minnesota Gophers baseball teams, then coached by Dick Siebert, who could dictate which games of a doubleheader that each member of the two-umpire crew would work behind the plate. In the mid-1960s, the Gophers had an outstanding right-handed pitcher, Frank Brousseau, who went on to a major league career. Wheeler said he'd know which game of a doubleheader Brousseau would pitch when Siebert gave him his assignment. If Siebert said he had the plate for the second game, Wheeler knew that was the one Brousseau would pitch. Wheeler's partner, Swede Terres, used the protective balloon. Those with the balloons were considered high-ball umpires (more likely to call higher strikes). Wheeler wore an inside protector, making him a low-ball umpire, one more conducive to Brousseau's style.

Wheeler retired from the post office in 1981. He lived in Bloomington, his home since the 1950s, with his wife, Helen (birth name Downs), whom he met while playing in Eau Claire and whom he married in 1943 while on furlough from the Army.

Wheeler, who was in good health at the time he was interviewed for this biography, died of a heart attack while blowing snow out of the driveway of a neighbor the morning of Wednesday, December 10, 2003. The Wheelers have four children, Terry, Ron, Debbie, and Scott.

Note

A version of this biography appeared in the book Minnesotans in Baseball, edited by Stew Thornley (Nodin, 2009).

Sources

Interview with Don Wheeler, Friday, November 29, 2003 (with phone conversation December 6, 2003)

Old-Time Data, Inc. Professional Baseball Player Database playing record for Don Wheeler

Don Wheeler playing record on http://www.baseball-reference.com

"Vosmik, Linton Spark 12-11 Miller Win" by George A. Barton, Minneapolis Tribune, Friday, April 24, 1942, p. 15

"Millers Service Flag Dotted with 20 Stars" by Halsey Hall, The Sporting News, December 24, 1942, p. 2

"Sox Defeat Browns, 12-5" by Irving Vaughan, Chicago Tribune, Sunday, April 24, 1949, p. 1

"Sox Lose 2 to Boston, 15-3 and 7-5" by Irving Vaughan, Chicago Tribune, Monday, June 13, 1949

"White Sox Bat Out Raschi in 4th and Down Bombers" by Louis Effrat, New York Times, Sunday, July 31, 1949, p. 1S

"Ten of 21 Draftees of Last Fall Continued in Majors Through '49," The Sporting News, November 23, 1949, p. 14

"Millers Lose 14-3 to Bears; Err 4 Times," Minneapolis Tribune, Saturday, August 27, 1960, p. 22

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