Grave Story: Harold “Chief” Wonson (1918-1998)

Here lies Harold “Chief” Wonson, who had a brief career as a pitcher in the minor leagues. He would go on to a long teaching career, but he still found a way to make it to the majors – as a batting practice pitcher.

Harold Wonson was born on August 3, 1918, in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Tabor Academy, on Cape Cod, Mass., and attended Dartmouth University. He was an ace pitcher for Dartmouth from 1938-40, coached by former big-leaguer Jeff Tesreau. The “Chief” nickname seems to have come from a time that he stole a cigar store Indian as a fraternity prank. Wonson, though, said that the nickname came when Tesreau jokingly referred to him as a “full-blooded Indian” when talking to some sports writers. Either way, Dartmouth game recaps were referring to him as Chief Wonson by 1939.

Wonson majored in history, English and biology at Dartmouth. Along with his baseball play, he also lettered in cross country and track and was the president of the Zeta Psi fraternity. He joined the faculty at Blake School in Hopkins, Minn., and served as a baseball and football coach as well as a history, English and math teacher. He met Ethel “Dode” Hamilton, an assistant secretary at the school, and the two were married on November 26, 1943. They were the first couple married at Blake Chapel.

In the early 1940s, Wonson kept up his love of baseball by pitching for a semipro team in Sleepy Eye, Minn. He also signed with the Minneapolis Millers, though he could of course only play during the summer months when school was not in session.

“Wonson is tall and slender, with a good hard one and a fine knuckler,” reported the Associated Press. “He pitched for one Ivy League champion and a runner-up.” An ear affliction left him as a 4-F, so he was a safe addition to the Millers roster, since this was a time when any healthy player was likely to get drafted into the military. Wonson wasn’t a particularly effective pitcher, though. He was chased from his first Millers start in 1943 in the third inning. He ended that year with a 5.88 ERA in 16 games. The following season went even worse, as Wonson went 0-6 with a 6.20 ERA in 38 games. He lasted three games for the Millers in 1945 before the team released him. His minor-league stats are somewhat incomplete, but Baseball Reference lists him with an 0-3 record and 6.52 ERA for his career. His daughter, Barb, said at his death that he had been injured while pitching at Dartmouth, and he never regained his form.

His release from the Millers left Wonson free to play for his team in Sleepy Eye, where he was the team’s pitching ace and a top slugger as well. In 1945, he led the Sleepy Eye Indians to the State Baseball Tournament, featuring semipro teams from across Minnesota. Unfortunately, those three games Wonson pitched for the Millers made him ineligible for the tournament, and the Indians lost. He pitched for various local teams until 1954.

Harold Wonson as a pitcher for the Minneapolis Millers. Source: Star Tribune, June 10, 1943.

Wonson remained as a football coach at Blake School, though he began working for Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance in the mid-‘50s. Almost a decade after he had retired from baseball, Wonson found himself in the majors leagues — kind of. Thanks to a connection from his Millers days, Wonson caught on as a batting practice pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. According to the book Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball, by Armand Peterson and Tom Tomashek, he didn’t always make it easy for Twins hitters. One story was that Tony Oliva was taking BP against Wonson and struggling. After failing to make good contact, he turned and said to nobody in particular, “[This] guy, he keeps throwing me changeups.”

Wonson’s contributions to the Twins were not forgotten, said his wife. “Chief even got a portion of the Twins’ World Series share in 1965. I don’t know exactly how much it was, but it was enough that we bought a snowblower with the money,” she told the authors. (The Star Tribune reported that his share of the World Series money was $150. The Twins players who were on the team that whole year got $6,634.36 each, while the victorious Dodgers got $10,297.43 each.)

Chief Wonson taught at Blake for 36 years and also spent many years as a Little League coach. He died on February 17, 1998 from injuries suffered in a fall while clearing ice from the roof of his home in Hopkins. He was 79 years old.

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