Wheeler was force to be reckoned with behind the plate
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
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.