At the tender age of 20 he was playing in the major leagues. At 24 he helped the Cincinnati Red Stockings win their first pennant. Harry Wheeler appeared to be a happy-go-lucky, free-spirited young man. He was said to be one of the best harmonica players in the country and enjoyed joining his colleagues in impromptu concerts in their downtown clubhouse.1 At 25 he seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. But as Robert Burns famously observed, things “aft gang a-gley.” Wheeler played his last major league game at 26. He died a painful death at the age of 42, perhaps as a result of an unhealthy lifestyle.
Harry Eugene Wheeler was born on March 3, 1858, in Versailles, Indiana, a small town in Ripley County in the southeastern part of the state, not far from the Ohio and Kentucky state lines. His mother, Jenny, was the daughter of immigrants from Scotland. Nothing is known about his father. Sometime during his childhood his mother married P. J. Ramsey. The 1880 census showed Harry as a bar keeper, living in Cincinnati with his mother and stepfather, who ran a boarding house. By 1880 Harry had already played two seasons in the major leagues, but ball players of that era did not earn enough money to live on year-around, so it was common for them to work as bartenders during the off-season.
Wheeler broke into professional baseball with the Providence Grays of the National League. With no minor-league experience he made his major-league debut on June 20, 1878. He competed with Tricky Nichols for the number two spot on the pitching staff behind Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward. The 20-year-old, 5-11, 165 pound right-hander started seven games, completed six of them, won six, and lost only one. In 1879 he was with the Cincinnati Reds, but arm trouble limited him to only one game. Unable to pitch regularly, Wheeler switched to the outfield. In 1880 he played 17 games in the outer garden for Cincinnati. He collected six hits in 65 times at bat for an amazingly low batting average of .092. When he was not in the starting lineup he was expected to work the gate in street clothing, collecting tickets. Wheeler also played one game for the Cleveland Blues in 1880. Why he played that solitary game for Cleveland is not reported in available sources.
Professional baseball did not enjoy a good reputation in 1880. Many players were poorly-educated, hard-drinking men who saw baseball as an avenue of escape from the drudgery of factory, mine, or farm. As Robert Peterson wrote; “They were saints and sinners, college professors and illiterates, serious men and clowns, teetotalers and Saturday night drunks.”2 Unfortunately, some of them did not confine their drinking to Saturday nights. Peterson was writing about black players, but whites were no different, except for the color of their skin. Some players did not comport themselves well after hours. Baseball was no longer the gentlemen’s sport it had been in the amateur era. Many ballparks were infested with gamblers. National League president William Hulbert sought to improve the image of the game by attracting a higher-class clientele. He banned gambling from the grounds and set an admission price of fifty cents, deemed high enough to keep out the ne’er-do-wells. He also ruled out Sunday ball games and beer sales at the ballpark.
At the National League’s fall meeting, W.H. Kennett, president of the Cincinnati club, refused to sign a pledge against beer sales and Sunday games. In order to make ends meet, the Reds depended on renting out the park on Sundays to non-league clubs. The Cincinnati Enquirer protested that with a large number of German immigrants, beer and Sunday baseball had become a popular necessity. “We drink beer in Cincinnati as freely as you used to drink milk, and it is not a mark of disgrace either.”3 Kennett’s protests fell upon deaf ears. Cincinnati was expelled from the National League on October 6, 1880.
On November 2, 1881, a new league was created at a meeting in Cincinnati’s Hotel Gibson, with clubs in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Louisville, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. (Clubs in New York and Columbus were added the next year.) Officially named the American Association, but popularly dubbed the Beer and Whiskey League, the new circuit permitted beer in the parks and Sunday baseball and set ticket prices at twenty-five cents, half the cost of admission to National League games.
Among the players signed by the new Cincinnati club, called the Red Stockings or the Reds, was Harry Wheeler. For the 1882 season, he was stationed in left field and clad in a light blue uniform in contrast to the dark blue worn by pitcher Will White. It was his best year in the majors, as he hit .250 in 76 games, mostly as the regular right fielder for the Red Stockings, who were on their way to the pennant in the new league’s first season. Wheeler also played 12 games at first base, and pitched in only four contests. With Will White and Harry McCormick in the pitcher’s box, the Reds didn’t have much need for a third pitcher. With the addition of Long John Reilly at first base and Pop Corkhill and Charley Jones in the outfield there was no place for Wheeler on the 1883 Reds, so he left the banks of the Ohio but remained in the Buckeye State.
In 1883 Wheeler played 82 games for the Columbus Buckeyes, the most games he played in one season during his entire major-league career. It was in the Columbus clubhouse that he burnished his harmonica playing skills. That must have been quite a clubhouse. Pitchers Frank Mountain and John Valentine were reputed to be fine singers.4 Rising above the racial prejudice of the day, Columbus players invited Toledo’s multitalented black star, Moses Fleetwood Walker to join them in their clubhouse. The Ohio State Journal approved of Walker: “He is a great favorite with his fellow associates. He favored the boys with some excellent piano solos at the club room last night. Give him a good reception, boys, he is a perfect gentleman.”5
Meanwhile, Wheeler hit only .226 with no home runs in 1883, not enough to keep him on the team, harmonica whiz or not.
The turbulent year of 1884 saw Wheeler playing for four different clubs, the St. Louis Browns of the Beer and Whiskey League, and three clubs in the Union Association - the Kansas City Cowboys, the Baltimore Monumentals, and a Chicago club that moved to Pittsburgh, but disbanded before the end of the season. Wheeler even managed the Cowboys for the first four games of the season, losing all four. He played his final major-league game on October 15, 1884, at the age of 26.
Then the young man who had gone directly to the majors without any minor-league experience got an introduction to the bushes. The majority of his minor-league days were spent in Waterbury, but he also got in 26 games for the Cleveland Forest Citys in 1885, and finished with two seasons in the New England League with Worcester and Manchester. He was out of professional baseball after the 1888 season, at the age of 30.
We don't know how Wheeler contracted syphilis, but it probably made his last seven years a nightmare. The disease attacks the spinal cord, causes degeneration of sensory neurons and stabbing pains in the trunk and legs and unsteady gait, as well as incontinence and impotence.6
After an illness of seven years Harry Eugene Wheeler died in Cincinnati at the age of 42 as a result of Syphilitic Locomotor Ataxia. He left no known survivors. He is buried in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery.7
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the main sources consulted were:
Pete Palmer and Gary Gillette, eds. The Baseball Encyclopedia, New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004
The Baseball Encylopedia, 9th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1993
1 Edward Achorn, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey. New York: Public Affairs, 2013, 162.
2 Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, 3.
3 Cincinnati Enquirer, July 29, 1880, cited by Achorn, 24.
4 Achorn, 162.
5 Ohio State Journal, April 23, 1883, cited by Achorn, ibid.