Posts Tagged ‘Zack Wheat’

The Indomitable Zack Wheat

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

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.

1920: A Year of Tragedy and Scandal

Monday, October 31st, 2016

Just a few days before the 1920 World Series between the Brooklyn Robins (also known as the Dodgers) and the Cleveland Indians began, Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson turned rumors to fact about gamblers reaching their tentacles into the clubhouse to choke the oxygen of purity from baseball.

Cicotte and Jackson testified before a Chicago grand jury that eight White Sox players “fixed” the 1919 World Series in exchange for payment from gamblers who bet heavily on Chicago’s opponent, the Cincinnati Reds.  It was an emphatic blow to baseball’s soul.  Another dark event occurred in 1920 baseball, tragic because of its finality.

On August 16th, the Indians’ Ray Chapman got hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch in a game against the Yankees.  The setting was late afternoon, top of the 5th inning.

Thinking the ball hit the bat, Mays fielded it and threw to first baseman Wally Pipp.  Chapman took three or four steps, then collapsed.  Although he walked off the field, with assistance, the Indians’ shortstop died early the next morning in the hospital.  Chapman’s obituary in the New York Times cited Yankee skipper Miller Huggins surmising that Chapman’s spikes got caught in the dirt, thereby preventing him from moving out of the way.

Another theory espoused that Chapman simply did not see the ball because it was scuffed, dirtied, or otherwise marred either by a pitcher or through regular play.  In that era, snow white baseballs were not in terrific supply during a game.  By the later innings, a game ball could be discolored, even misshapen.  Consequently, a batter might have difficulty perceiving the ball, judging its speed, and avoiding its contact.

In the twin wakes of the White Sox betrayal and the Chapman tragedy, a 6’3″ pitcher, lanky yet muscular, strode to his citadel, the Ebbets Field pitching mound.  Richard William “Rube” Marquand, nicknamed by a sports writer after pitching great Rube Waddell, received the task of opening the World Series for Brooklyn.

Four days shy of his 34th birthday, Waddell gave up three runs to the Indians ball club, still mired in grief over the Chapman death.  It was all the fodder needed.  Brooklyn lost the game 3-1, its lone run scored by future Hall of Famer Zack Wheat.  Ignominy fathered for Brooklyn in Game 5 when Indians second baseman Bill Wambsganss made an unassisted triple play, the only one in World Series history.

Brooklyn lost the 1920 World Series to Cleveland, five games to two games.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 31, 2013.