Charles Wheatley is usually identified by one line in the major-league record book:
Most wild pitches in a game, AL: 5 – Charles Wheatley, Detroit, September 27, 1912
Yet his life is much more fascinating than that line from a very pedestrian baseball career. Wheatley became a successful businessman, inventor, and self-made millionaire.
Charles D.1 Wheatley was born June 27, 1893, in Rosedale, Kansas, the seventh of nine children born to Francis Harry Wheatley and Fanny Maria (Cheshire) Wheatley. Francis and Fanny were both born in England,2 where they were married in 1876.3 In the 1880s, they immigrated to the United States with their four children: Harry, Frank, Samuel, and Thomas. The family settled in Rosedale, an independent city at the time, but now part of Kansas City, Kansas. Francis was a machinist, a trade that would prove to be very significant in the lives of his sons. The family continued to grow, adding Nellie, George, Charles, Arthur, and Jane. By 1910, the Wheatleys had moved across the state line, settling in Kansas City, Missouri.4
George and Frank Wheatley both followed in their father’s footsteps and became machinists. Young Charles dropped out of school after the seventh grade and took up baseball.5 He joined the Kansas City Juniors, a local amateur team, in 1909. He was the star pitcher, once fanning 18 in a game and drawing the attention of R. S. Stevens, owner of the Stevens semipro team.6 Wheatley pitched for the Stevens both at the beginning and the end of the 1910 season, helping the club to the pennant and once winning a duel with former major-league star Kid Nichols.7 Sandwiched in between the two stints with the Stevens team, Wheatley made his debut in pro ball with Abilene of the Central Kansas League where he won 16 games and was one of the leading pitchers in the league.8
In 1911 he again started the season for the Stevens club, before heading off to Great Bend, Kansas, to play in the Kansas State League. “Young Wheatley, the young pitcher who formerly played in the City Semi-Professional League, has been heaving great ball for the Great Bend team of the Kansas State League. Great Bend is leading the Sunflower Association.”9
His pitching in Great Bend drew the attention of Jack Holland, manager of the Western League’s St. Joseph team. Charley began the 1912 season in St. Joseph with high expectations, but did not pitch well, and was released in May. He caught on with Springfield of the Central League and pitched well. Bobby Lowe, scouting for the Detroit Tigers, saw him, and recommended him to manager Hughie Jennings.10 The Tigers bought him for $3,500 from Springfield11 and the righthander made his major-league debut September 6 against the St. Louis Browns. Wheatley acquitted himself quite well for a 19-year-old, giving up only four runs and pitching seven innings in a 4-2 loss. Wheatley’s next start was again a solid performance, giving up three runs in a 3-0 loss to Philadelphia. On September 18, in the second game of a doubleheader, he picked up what would prove to be his only major-league win, beating the New York Highlanders, 4-2.
On September 27, facing the Naps in Cleveland, Wheatley pitched the game that got his name into the record books. He had a horrific performance, giving up 16 runs, 21 hits, five walks, and uncorking five wild pitches. The reason for this wretched outing was explained by Wheatley nearly 70 years later:
“I was 19 at the time. All I knew to do was throw the ball. At the time, the older men would put a piece of emery cloth on their belts and use it to rough up the ball. That was what we called the emery ball. You could make a baseball break four different ways depending on where you held the rough part. It would really sail. I was pitching in Cleveland one afternoon and used the emery ball for the first time. I didn’t know a thing about it. I threw it five times and it sailed over the catcher’s head every time.”12
The 1912 season marked the beginning and the end of Wheatley’s major-league career. One win, four losses, one ill-fated experiment with the emery ball. Wheatley came to spring training with the Tigers in 1913 full of hope. Tiger players opined that he was going to be a “second Walter Johnson.”13 Unfortunately, that prediction was a bit optimistic, as he was released by Detroit prior to opening day.
After a year with Providence and Sioux City, Wheatley spent the winter of 1913 in New Orleans, accompanying Kansas City boxer Clarence “Wildcat” Ferns to the Crescent City and staying there to play some winter ball.14 It was apparently here that Wheatley met Cora Beecher Patterson15 because shortly thereafter, they were married.16
Wheatley mainly pitched in independent leagues from this point on, although he did make appearances in three different seasons for his hometown Kansas City Blues of the American Association. In 1921, he supposedly struck out 510 men and won 34 out of 37 games, including a game against the Kansas City Monarchs where he defeated Bullet Joe Rogan.17 This amazingly stellar record could be as a result of Wheatley returning to the emery ball, according to an interview with Edward “Dutch” Zwilling in 1936: “Roy Sanders, Charley Wheatley, Gene Packard, Red Shackelford, and a group of the veteran hurlers were using the emery ball in small town games and the batters gradually were going blind.”18
In 1926, the Philadelphia Phillies made Wheatley an offer to finish the season in the majors, but Wheatley turned them down, believing he could make more money pitching independent ball.19
Wheatley had a lot of irons in the fire. Aside from pitching independent ball, he teamed with his brothers, who had formed the Wheatley Brothers Machine Company in 1916. He also owned Wheatley-Philco Radio.20 He had a 1/25th investment in an oil well in the Texas Panhandle. Oil News, a trade publication, said of the well, “It created the week’s drilling sensation. It topped the first pay at 2,960 feet, filled up 1,800 feet in oil. It is said to be showing 500 barrels a day in the first pay, more than any other well ever showed in the first pay in the oil history of the Panhandle.”21
Wheatley continued to pitch independent ball into the 1930s, in 1933 even pitching a game against his 17-year-old nephew, Richard, as he took the mound for the Wheatley Brothers baseball team against the Fourteenth Ward Democratic Club.22
By 1940, Wheatley Brothers had moved to Tulsa, and Charles moved there as well.23 He formed his own company, the Charles Wheatley Company, in 1954.24 He obtained several patents as an inventor: the check valve,25 a pipeline closure apparatus,26 a butterfly valve,27 and in 1981, at the age of 88, a coffee keeper,28 a device for keeping coffee fresh.29
Wheatley sold his business in 1972 to the Tesoro Petroleum Company of San Antonio for $10.5 million. Despite his seventh-grade education, he received three honorary degrees from the University of Tulsa. He was a good friend of President Harry Truman. “Mr. Truman is said to have asked Mr. Wheatley’s advice about running for the presidency and on election night, Mr. Truman called to thank him.”30
Charles Wheatley died December 10, 1982, in Tulsa. He is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa. His business was eventually sold to Halliburton Industries, which closed the Tulsa operation, then known as Wheatley Valve Operations, in 1999.31 Even today, Wheatley’s name still lives on as the Wheatley pump is still being sold by several online companies.
This biography was reviewed by Phil Williams and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed the following sites:
1 There is some question as to his middle name. His WWI draft registration shows the initial D., while his WWII registration says “no middle name.” The initial doesn’t seem to appear anywhere else.
2 1900 census
3 Manchester, England parish register
4 1910 census
5 “Businessman Charles Wheatley Dies,” Kansas City Star, December 12, 1982.
6 Kansas City Times, June 21, 1909.
7 “The Stevens Slugged the Ball,” Kansas City Times, October 3, 1910.
8 “Leading Pitchers in the C. K.,” Topeka State Journal, September 23, 1910.
9 Kansas City Star, June 15, 1911.
10 “Detroit Has an Ex-City Leaguer,” Kansas City Star, September 14, 1912.
11 “Wheatley Going Up,” Barton County Democrat, February 28, 1913.
12 “Inventor Brews Fresh Idea,” Tulsa Tribune, February 6, 1981.
13 Kansas City Times, February 18, 1913.
14 Kansas City Star, December 9, 1913.
15 Kansas City Star, Obituary, September 8, 1975.
16 This is an assumption. He was married by the time he filled out his WWI draft registration in 1917.
17 “Wheatley Fanned 510 Men,” Kansas City Star, October 30, 1921.
18 “The Sport Dial,” Kansas City Times, October 23, 1936.
19 “Phils Make Wheatley Offer,” Kansas City Times, August 19, 1926.
20 “Charles Wheatley Invites you To Hear the New 1930 Philco Balanced Unit Radio,” Kansas City Star, November 1, 1929.
21 “New Oil for Men Here,” Kansas City Times, June 7, 1927.
22 “Uncle and Nephew to Clash on Mound,” Kansas City Times, May 20, 1933.
23 Obituary, Kansas City Star, September 8, 1975.
24 “Businessman Charles Wheatley Dies.”
25 US Patent 3687155
26 US Patent 2743034
27 US Patent 3081791A
28 US Patent 4362095A
29 “Inventor Brews Fresh Idea,” Tulsa Tribune, February 6, 1981.
30 “Businessman Charles Wheatley Dies.” This story may be apocryphal. He is also said to have had Dwight Eisenhower as his catcher when he pitched for Abilene. No proof has been found of that.
31 “Wheatley Valve Closing,” Tulsa World, February 9, 1999.