By Ian Echlin
A Northwest Missouri man leaves a legacy pressed in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The small town guy lived thankful for his career playing professional baseball. From the small town in Missouri to the small town of Cooperstown, N.Y. baseball fans find the story of a historic baseball career.
“This is one of the great moments of my life. I’m here on my first visit and I saw a lot of things at the Hall of Fame which brought back memories. It is a beautiful setting for this sort of thing. I’d like to take this occasion to thank everyone for everything,” Zack Wheat said during his induction ceremony in 1959.
He grew up in the country, near Polo, Mo. (Population: 575), and he always wanted to play professional baseball. The stretch of Missouri Highway 13 crossing through Caldwell County and Polo is dedicated as the Zack Wheat Memorial Highway, and at a young age he rode that highway out of town to play semi-pro baseball in Kansas, Louisiana, and Alabama.
In 1909 Wheat signed a Major League contract at age 21 with the Brooklyn franchise, the Suberbas. Charlie Ebbets was the president of the franchise destined to be called the Dodgers, and as the financier he built Ebbets Field in 1912. Wheat spent most of his 18 year career playing at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, N.Y. He played with some of the greats – Honus Wagner, Jimmie Foxx, and Cy Young. Many legends were made in this era, Wheat included.
“He always loved the Dodgers. Baseball was a lifelong dream he got to fulfill,” Zachary Alan Wheat, the great grandson of Zack Wheat, said.
Wheat’s career started during a reformation for baseball. The sport, very popular back then, changed the structure of the ball in 1920 with a tighter wind of the twine core. The new concept of the ball had more pop, and ultimately favored batters.
Wheat hit successfully before the change of the ball. His lifetime batting average was .317, and he batted at least .300 in 14 of the 18 seasons he played. Wheat won a batting title in 1918 with a .335 batting average. With his hitting consistency and lasting career he was able to collect multiple Dodger franchise records, still standing today.
He holds the Dodger career at bats record (8,859) and the record for career games played (2,322). A record that proves his consistency and hitting ability is the Dodger career hit record (2,804). Without the franchise home run record he falls short of a cycle of records with the records for hits, doubles (464), and triples (171) records. The franchise record for career total bases (4,003) comes easy with his other records.
He had nine at bats in a 26 inning game in 1920. The game ended as a 1-1 tie between Brooklyn and Boston, and still stands as the most innings played in a game. The most recent contestant against this record happened in 1984 when the White Sox beat the Brewers in 25 innings, a 7-6 game won by a walk off 2-run home run by Harold Baines of the White Sox.
His last seasons in Brooklyn brought contract negotiations with the team. In 1923 he joined the team late into spring training in Clearwater, Fla., where he would finalize his contract for the upcoming season.
Contracts and salaries differed from those of modern day baseball players. Owners didn’t have to pay the players a deserving salary. The 1919 Black Sox scandal represents the bitter feelings players had toward owners about salary. Since Wheat was the franchise star, he negotiated a decent living. He owned homes in Polo, Kansas City, Mo., and Brooklyn. According to his great grandson Alan, Wheat felt obligated to stick to his rural roots with his house on 162 acres in Polo.
“He was not a farmer. He lived on a farm because he felt like he had to,” Zachary Alan Wheat said.
During the offseason he stayed at the Polo home, where he had pieced together a stone walkway with stones collected from baseball stadiums. His great grandson learned Wheat would roller skate on the third floor of the house during winter to stay in shape for the baseball season. He sold the house in the ‘30s, and moved to Kansas City full time. His wife Daisy already spent most of her time at their home in Kansas City, since she wasn’t a fan of the Polo home.
In 1926 Wheat was the highest paid player in the Brooklyn franchise, signed to a one year $16,000 contract. The franchise, then known as the Brooklyn Robins, did not sign the 39-year-old Wheat the following year. He spent his last season playing for the Philadelphia Athletics to finish his career.
Even as a veteran, Wheat was hitting well and could still compete. Wheat holds the record for the most hits by a 37-year-old in a season, 221 hits in 1925. The 221 hits also rank third in the Dodger record books for most hits in a single season. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn totaled 220 hits at age 37 in 1997.
His friendly personality earned respect from the players he played with. In 1959, by a unanimous vote of the veteran’s committee, he became the 84th person inducted and the only person inducted that year. The Baseball Writers Association declined to elect eligible players, similar to the 2013 ballot plagued by the names from the “Steroid Era.”
His enshrinement in the Hall of Fame leaves the legacy for his family. His great grandson Alan, made the visit to Cooperstown. He said it was amazing. He saw his great grandfather’s plaque next to another Dodger legend Jackie Robinson. It was interesting for Alan because he always saw the mold of his great grandfather’s plaque growing up, and then he got to see the actual plaque on display.
The Dodger franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and Wheat always had ties to the Dodger organization according to his great grandson. He had a strong line of communication until he passed away in 1972. He passed away in March that year, and his great grandson Alan says Wheat came down with pnemonia believed to be caused by cold weather he was exposed to at Dodger spring training.