Wheeler was force to be reck­oned with be­hind the plate

Sackville Tribune - - SPORTS - Wal­lie Sears

The re­cent pass­ing of Bill Wheeler brought back a flood of rec­ol­lec­tions to those with es­pe­cially long mem­o­ries - to a time when base­ball was king and Sackville could field a pow­er­house team ca­pa­ble of hold­ing its own with the best, with Bill Wheeler call­ing the shots be­hind the plate and keep­ing his in­field on its toes with an on­go­ing chat­ter.

“He was just a great ball player,” re­calls Charles Mcal­lis­ter who says he had the good for­tune to be on the same team with Wheeler even if it was for only a year or two as he broke into the se­nior ranks as a teenager. “Bill did what­ever was needed to win a game and he would do as asked by the coach. He could place his hits and would go to ei­ther left or right field, de­pend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion at the time.”

And Mcal­lis­ter, him­self one of the finest all­round ath­letes to per­form lo­cally dur­ing a 20year ca­reer in hockey and base­ball, de­scribes Wheeler as “a real team player and a chatterbox who kept us on our toes.”

He says he learned a good deal from the veteran catcher who was re­ally a sec­ond coach.

Bill Wheeler was a throw­back to the old days as a catcher. To­day it is con­sid­ered un­eth­i­cal for a catcher to ver­bally ha­rass the bat­ter, but in those days, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the 1940s, Bill was a mas­ter of the “art of ag­gra­va­tion.”

He never stopped talk­ing and of­ten the hit­ters would be­come con­fused. One of his favourite tricks and one that would give his team an edge would come af­ter the bat­ter had swung and missed at a pitch. Bill would glee­fully dance out front of the plate, show the ball to the dis­grun­tled op­po­nent, and tell him to take a good look as that would be as close as he would ever come to the ball.

But Bill was one of the best ever to don the “tools of ig­no­rance” - the term used to de­scribe the catcher - but it was a mis­nomer as catch­ers are like the foot­ball quar­ter­back, call­ing the plays for the pitcher and po­si­tion­ing his field­ers. And he was a mas­ter at these moves, seem­ing to pos­sess an in­stinct for the cor­rect de­ci­sions.

Ninety-two year old Frank (Banty) Maxwell

The Write

Call

de­liv­ered hun­dreds of pitches to Wheeler dur­ing his ca­reer on the mound and he de­scribed his re­ceiver as “one heck­uva good catcher” who had a knack of call­ing the right pitches.

“But I had to ask him to take it easy be­cause of the way in which he would whip the ball back to the mound, as some­times it would nearly knock me over. The ball would come back faster than I could throw it in.”

Maxwell, a diminu­tive left han­der, could barely break a win­dow with his fast ball but carved out a suc­cess­ful ca­reer, liv­ing on wrin­kles - drops, curves and con­trol. He pitched into his late 30s with one high­light be­ing a vic­tory over a power-laden Monc­ton team led by Vince Carter, Don Steeves and Fish Bel­liveau.

“That was re­ally some­thing,” ad­mits Maxwell. “They had a strong lineup but in the very first in­ning we got back to back homers from Les Gal­lagher and Bobby Hicks, and they never re­cov­ered and I was able to hit the cor­ners all night, keep­ing their power hit­ters off bal­ance.”

That game was the one that gave Sackville En­heats the cham­pi­onship. And one of the um­pires for that con­test was fa­mous sports colum­nist Eddie St. Pierre.

Maxwell says there were some re­ally good ball play­ers dur­ing that era, nam­ing such well known per­form­ers as Ge­orge Cham­bers, Grant Lan­ni­gan, Les Gal­lagher, Bob Hicks, John Lund, Gor­don (Bunk) Tower, Bill Estabrooks, Don Robert­son and a host of oth­ers. Sev­eral stars from Amherst came over to help bol­ster the team - names like Bernie St. Peter, Len Tower and Toots Weather­bie - and fans flocked to the Lans­downe Field by the hun­dreds to see them host squads from such cen­tres as Monc­ton, Mem­ram­cook and She­diac.

Maxwell has many mem­o­ries of his days with Bill Wheeler, de­scrib­ing him as “a great ball player but even a bet­ter friend”.

Lloyd (Wil­lie) Mitton, an­other great Sackville pitcher, says he came along a lit­tle too late to see Wheeler at his best but has heard noth­ing but great com­ments about Wheeler as a player, coach, um­pire and in­di­vid­ual. He be­lieves oth­ers who fol­lowed him be­hind the plate - like Aldrich Lan­ni­gan and Con­nie Phin­ney - learned much from the mas­ter.

The Write Call fea­tured Bill Wheeler in a col­umn four years ago and your colum­nist was amazed how a man of 90 could re­call in in­ti­mate de­tail high­lights from his past.

He re­called how his fa­ther op­posed his “wast­ing his time” on sports and how he would be forced to slip away in or­der to play base­ball or hockey. This seemed highly un­usual since many par­ents en­cour­age their chil­dren to com­pete at a higher and higher level for vary­ing rea­sons.

Bill Wheeler al­ways gave much credit to one man, - the late Bert Robert­son (a mem­ber of the Sackville Sports Wall of Fame), for de­vel­op­ing the game of base­ball in Sackville, say­ing he or­ga­nized, coached, man­aged, um­pired and even raked and lev­eled the field.

Wheeler joins a long list of fa­mous Sackville ath­letes who have passed away over the past 12 months - Ge­orge Cham­bers, Gordie O’neal, Richard Noiles, Bob­bie Hicks, Bill Har­ris and Bob Ed­gett - but this should mean Sackville will field an all-star cast when they meet again. But you can be sure who will be call­ing the shots and lead­ing by ex­am­ple.

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