Monday, November 30, 2009

Tales of T212 #20 : George Wheeler

Back in the early 1980s I thought I'd combine my interests in minor league baseball and vintage baseball cards by assembling a collection of the Obak cigarette cards that were distributed on the West Coast in 1909, 1910 and 1911.I didn't realize it then, but those cards are so much rarer than most of the contemporary T206 cards from "Back East" that putting together complete sets of the Obak could take decades to accomplish -- and that's if a guy had more money than God to buy the cards when they became available.At about the time I started my Obak collection I also started researching the players who appeared in the sets. Over the course of several long Wisconsin winters I pored over microfilms of The Sporting News and The Sporting Life from the period several years before to several years after the Obak cards circulated, making prodigious notes on 3x5 file cards for each player in the set.I gave up trying to collect the T212s (that's the catalog number Jefferson Burdick assigned the three sets in the pioneering American Card Catalog in 1939), long ago, and have since sold off all my Obaks, one-by-one, first on eBay, then on the Net 54 baseball card forum. As I was selling each card, I included interesting tidbits about each player from my notes. The bidders seemed to like learning a little bit about these guys on the cards, so I thought I'd now begin sharing their stories here. Please excuse the lo-res nature of the card pictures; they were scanned for my auctions many years ago.

Ferreting out George Wheeler's identity was one the more challenging during my Obak biography quest. I had it wrong for a long time, attributing his Obak cards to George Harrison Wheeler, rather than the correct George Louis Wheeler. The George Wheelers' careers overlapped around the time of the cigarette card era.

Again it was the SABR Minor League Database that straightened things out for me. This George Wheeler was really even a Wheeler, he was born George L. Heroux in Methuen, Mass., on either July 30 or Aug. 3 (sources differ), 1869. George was a right-handed pitcher who is said to have thrown lefty on occasion; he was a switch hitter, as well. Naturally enough he began his pro career in the northeast, at the age of 22 in 1892. Between 1892-1896 he played in the Class B New England League for Manchester/Lawrence, Lewiston and Bangor.

In mid-September of 1896 he made his major league debut with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was 1-1, earning a permanent spot in the 1897 rotation. He had an 11-10 record that year and pitched part of each of the next two seasons with the Phils, playing with Rome of the N.Y. State League in between major league tours (and also in 1900-1901). His overall big league record was 21-20 with a 4.24 ERA.

Wheeler also pitched in the American League, but it was in 1900 for the Milwaukee Brewers, before the A.L. was considered a major league. After opening the 1902 season with the Syracuse Stars of the NYSL, Wheeler took his act to the West Coast, where he spent the rest of his baseball days, increasingly filling the role of a utility player and pinch hitter. He played with Los Angeles in 1902 and 1903, before the formation of the Pacific Coast League as aClass A minor league. He opened 1904 wiht L.A., then moved to San Francisco through the 1907 season. He was traded back to the Angels in 1908 and closed out his playing days with them in 1911. He appears in al three Obak card sets of the era.

In 1913-1914 he managed Fresno in the outlaw California League and in mid-season 1914 joined the Northwestern League's umpiring staff. When his baseball days were over, Wheeler retired to farming. He died in Santa Ana, Calif. on March 21, 1946.

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