Grave Story: Don Wheeler (1922-2003)

Here lies Don Wheeler, a catcher who played one year in the major leagues, with the 1949 Chicago White Sox. His last appearance in the minor leagues as a player came eight years after he thought he’d retired.

Donald “Scott” Wheeler (he picked up the nickname due to his Scottish heritage) was born in Minneapolis on September 29, 1922. He graduated from Minneapolis South High School and was signed by his hometown team, the minor-league Minneapolis Millers, in 1941. He went to their farm team (yes, minor-league teams like the Millers had minor-league teams of their own), the Eau Claire Bears. The only problem was that the Bears already had a catcher, Wes Westrum, who was a top prospect of the Millers, so Wheeler moved to the outfield. When Westrum was out for a time, Wheeler went back behind home plate. He even played a bit of second base, which didn’t go nearly as well. Wherever manager Rosy Ryan needed Wheeler, he hit well. In 112 games, He hit .280 with 35 doubles and five home runs. Not bad for an 18-year-old who was fresh out of high school.

Source: Minneapolis Star, June 22, 1941

Wheeler tore up the Northern League in 1942 with a .350 average for the Bears and made his debut for the Millers in August. While his first game was a great one – a single and RBI double – he failed to hit over .200 in 24 games. He would have to wait a few years to get another shot with the Millers, as he was drafted into the Army. Wheeler served with the 100th division in France and Germany, earning four battle stars, a unit citation, a Bronze Star and a combat infantryman’s badge, according to a 1947 article. He missed three years of his pro ball career, returning stateside in December 1945.

Wheeler, now 22, hit a combined .264 for the Millers and St. Cloud Rox in 1946, but he found his hitting stroke again in 1947. He batted .323 for the Sioux City Soos and was named the team MVP. He won a watch from the Oscar J. Hoberg Co. for that honor. Wheeler returned to the Millers in 1948 and clubbed a career-high 11 home runs, to go with 74 RBIs and a .302 batting average. His back-to-back breakout seasons caught the attention of the Chicago White Sox, who drafted him in November 1948.

I’ve written about the 1949 White Sox a bit. Recent Grave Story subject Fred Hancock had his only season with the team, and backup third baseman Rocky Krsnich died on February 14, 2019. The team finished 63-91, which put them in 6th place in the AL. With 220 plate appearances, Wheeler was technically the Sox #1 catcher that year. Backup Joe Tipton had 219 PAs, and Eddie Malone had 200. Tipton got the starting job out of Spring Training, but ineffectiveness and a broken finger gave Wheeler the chance to start. He picked up a single and an RBI in his major-league debut, on April 23 against the St. Louis Browns.

Wheeler was a better hitter than Tipton, who had a bit more power and was better defensively. Neither one exactly set the world on fire, which is probably why GM Frank Lane picked up Phil Masi for 1950. But Wheeler did appear in 67 games and had some good performances. He drove in 5 runs against the Yankees on July 30 with a double, triple and two singles. He led the Sox to a 9-2 win, spoiling the 59th birthday of Yankees skipper Casey Stengel. For the year, Wheeler slashed .240/.333/.323, with 46 hits that included 9 doubles, 2 triples and 1 home run. He drove in 22 runs, scored 17 times and drew 27 walks.

The White Sox released Wheeler to Memphis of the Southern Association in February 1950. He hit .262 for the Chicks, which was essentially his last full-time season in the minors. He had a great .361 batting average for Memphis and Colorado Springs in 1951, but that came in a total of 61 games between the two teams. Wheeler played in 19 games for Toledo in 1952 before his contract was sold to Buffalo. Instead of reporting to his new team, Wheeler retired from baseball to join an independent team in Detroit Lakes, Minn.

“It’s about time for me to settle down,” he told the Minneapolis Tribune. “My family is in Minneapolis and I want to stick around here. You’ve got to quit sometime and I decided to make the move now.”

Source: Minneapolis Star, April 12, 1960.

But he didn’t retire completely. Wheeler played and managed various teams in Minnesota before settling down as a postman and high school umpire. In 1957, he started catching batting practice for the Millers. Eventually, he began throwing batting practice as well.

“It’s quite a different way to keep up with the game,” he said of his new role as a pitcher. “The main thing is to get the ball over. If you give them their pitch, you better duck. So you learn fast what pitches the hitters like.”

Wheeler found himself back on the Millers active roster in 1960 when injuries left the team with just one active catcher, Bob Tillman.

“I told Tillie to protect his meat hand,” Wheeler said. “At 37, it’s too late to start making a comeback.” He got into one game as a catcher but never made it to the plate as a hitter. All total, Wheeler played parts of 9 seasons in the minors and hit .301 with 37 home runs.

Wheeler worked for many years as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. According to his obituary, he also officiated high school and college sports. He worked the sidelines for Minnesota Vikings football games for 32 years and was a penalty time-keeper for the Minnesota North Stars.

Don Wheeler died on December 10, 2003 in Bloomington, Minn., at the age of 81. He suffered a heart attack while blowing snow out of a neighbor’s driveway. He is buried in Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Wheeler’s SABR bio includes some quotes from Wheeler, taken just weeks before his death. Stew Thornley, who is a great historian and a baseball grave-finder, wrote the bio, and it’s worth reading for more details about Wheeler’s military service and his interactions with the likes of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski.

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