Zack Wheat churned out hits with the reliability of Henry Ford’s assembly line, which débuted the Model T in 1908, a year prior to Wheat’s introduction to the major leagues. From 1909 to 1926, Wheat flourished as a member of Brooklyn’s National League squad with various nicknames in the press—Trolley Dodgers, Dodgers, Robins, Flock. Wheat played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1927, his last season.
Dodgers through the decades have achieved more fame, acclaim, and worship than Zachariah Davis Wheat, certainly. Sandy Koufax pitched his way into Cooperstown with four no-hitters; Jackie Robinson earned civil rights icon status when he broke baseball’s color line in 1947; Tommy Lasorda declared his passion for the Dodgers at every opportunity; Fernando Valenzuela ignited Fernandomania during the summer of 1981; Don Drysdale struck fear into National League batting lineups, then parlayed his stardom into guest appearances on television sitcoms and a broadcasting career; Steve Garvey enjoyed an All-American image until it got sullied with a nasty divorce complemented by publicity regarding extramarital affairs and illegitimate children; Duke Snider defined power with each of his 407 career home runs; and Roy Campanella displayed courage, dignity, and inner strength in facing paralysis after a horrific car accident.
Wheat, surprisingly, often remains sidelined in discussions of Dodger greats. A lack of recognition for Wheat’s performance belies a remarkable career output placing Wheat as the #1 Dodger in the following categories:
- Career hits (2,884)
- Doubles (476)
- Triples (171)
- RBI (1,248)
Wheat racked up a .317 batting average in his 19-year career, broke the .300 mark 14 times, and won the 1918 National League batting title with a .335 batting average.
A deeper dive into Wheat’s statistics reveals arcane nuances reflecting his excellence, which further enhances the value of the left fielder who batted left, threw right, and became a Brooklyn fixture. OPS statistics—On-Base Plus Slugging—offer a baseline measure for ballplayers. Additionally, Gray Ink grades on the number of times that a ballplayer’s achievements place in a given category’s top 10.
Baseball-reference.com states, “Wheat’s Adjusted OPS scores are not particularly high for a Hall of Famer, but on the other hand he was a well-rounded player. His Gray Ink score (which is the 27th highest of all time) shows that he was commonly in the top ten in the National League—in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, among other stats, and he also stole over 200 bases in his career. As a defensive player, his range was good for many years until he began to age. He never played any position but outfield during his major league career, and almost never appeared in any outfield position than left field, which he owned for many years in Brooklyn.”
In the 1916 World Series, which Brooklyn lost to the Boston Red Sox, Wheat did not perform to his usual standard—he batted .211. Wheat fared better in the 1920 World Series, achieving a .333 batting average. It was not, however, enough—the Cleveland Indians beat Brooklyn in seven games.
Wheat’s approach to physical fitness lacked even a whiff of dedication. “I smoke as much as I want and chew tobacco a good deal of the time,” said Wheat. “I don’t pay any attention to the rules for keeping in physical condition. I think they are a lot of bunk. The less you worry about the effect of tea and coffee on the lining of your stomach, the longer you will live, and the happier you will be.”
The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Zack Wheat in 1959.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 23, 2016.