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Zack Wheat – One of the Greats

The LOS ANGELES TIMES has a blog which is currently soliciting votes to name the ten greatest Dodgers players of all time. There are twelve Dodgers who have had their numbers retired, including these CMG Worldwide client names: Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges, and Jackie Robinson. It would figure that these great players are receiving a lot of votes.

One player is getting scant few votes, however, even though his number should be retired because he is in the Hall of Fame. The problem is that when Zack Wheat played for the Dodgers, as was the case for pitcher Dazzy Vance as well, no one wore numbers on the backs of their uniforms. So there is no number for him to be retired.

Zackariah Davis Wheat was born in 1888, in the state of Missouri.

Wheat was a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers (though they used different names during this early period) from 1909 to 1927. He also briefly served as the team’s manager. He was a great defensive outfielder, with BASEBALL MAGAZINE stating in 1917 that he was “the finest mechanical craftsman of them all. He is the easiest, most graceful of outfielders with no close rivals.”

And as a hitter his career batting average was 317. To this day Zack Wheat remains the franchise leader in games played, total bases, hits, doubles, and triples. He played mostly during the pre-home run era, the so-called “Dead Ball Era,” or he probably would be atop that list as well.

He hit left-handed and threw right-handed. His career WAR among hitters is fourth in all-time Dodgers history behind only Reese, Robinson, and Snider. Only the latter two Dodgers greats surpass Wheat in OPS+.

His wife Daisy served as his agent negotiating baseball contracts each year. To supplement his income during the off-season, Wheat raised mules and sold them to the United States Army to use as pack animals.

His subsequent careers were in farming, and then he served as a policeman when he lost his farm during the Depression. Following a serious auto accident during a police call in 1936, he retired from the force, and moved to a lakeside home in Sunrise Beach, Missouri where he operated a 46 acre fishing and hunting resort while living happily ever after.

Zack Wheat passed in 1972 at age 83, having lived long enough to finally see his old team prevail in a World Series. Four, in fact. He competed in two losing World Series for Brooklyn, in 1916 (against a Boston Red Sox team which featured Babe Ruth), and in 1920.

One of Wheat’s teammates was Casey Stengel, and some historians have claimed that Wheat’s endorsement of Stengel was responsible for his great managerial career.

“He was one of the grandest guys to ever wear a baseball uniform,” said Stengel of Wheat, “one of the greatest batting teachers I have ever seen, one of the truest pals a man ever had and one of the kindliest men God ever created.”

He played baseball for a long time, and he lived for a long time. When asked what his secret for such longevity was, he offered a colorful answer. “I smoke as much as I want,” he said, “and chew tobacco a good deal of the time. 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.”

It worked out just fine for Zack Wheat!