Grave Story: Heinie Heltzel (1913-1998)

Here lies William “Heinie” Heltzel, who had a 13-year career in professional baseball that included a couple of stops in the major leagues during World War II. Heltzel, a shortstop and third baseman, played for the Boston Braves (1943) and Philadelphia Phillies (1944).

William Wade Heltzel was born in York, Pa., on December 21, 1913. His father, Wade, was 32 years old and employed as a loom fixer. His mother, the former Gertrude Rice, was 28 years old and a housewife. Wade Hetzel died of kidney disease in 1918, and the family moved in with the mother’s family. As of the 1920 census, Gertrude was living in the house of Harry and Louisa Rice, along with children Raymond, Lloyd, Edna, William (Heinie) and Louisa. By 1930, he lived with his mother in York and worked as a messenger in a telegraph office. He never finished grade school because he had to start working to help his mother.

The “Heinie” nickname apparently was inherited from an uncle, but where he acquired the nickname is unknown. It wasn’t an uncommon nickname in the early 20th Century among Germans or German-Americans – Major League Baseball alone had 10 Heinies who played the game between 1892 and 1944. Heltzel was baseball’s last Heinie, in fact.

Source: The Indianapolis News, June 2, 1944.

There were two Heinie Heltzels playing baseball in the York area in the 1930s. In 1929, the North York ballclub of the York County League announced the signing of pitcher Heinie Heltzel. This Heltzel is Cloyd Heltzel, who played on numerous teams in and around York in the 1930s. A second Heltzel starts showing up in the box scores of local newspapers around 1934, as a shortstop for Albermarle. He was known for some sensational plays at shortstop, and he was a fierce hitter. This is William.

Heltzel had graduated from American Legion ball to play in those amateur York teams. As early as 1929, he had captured the attention of Harrisburg Senators president Jack Statler and manager Johnny Tillman. However, both men had left the team by the time Heltzel was of age to enter pro ball, so it was up to Joe Cambria, owner of the Harrisburg and Albany ballclubs, to sign the 21-year-old to his first pro contract in 1935. He was advised to sign him by Frank “Rube” Dessau, a former pitcher for the Boston Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers and a former manager of the York White Roses minor-league club. The move made Heltzel a part of the Washington Senators organization.

Heltzel debuted with the Harrisburg Senators of the New York Pennsylvania League in 1935. He didn’t get off to a great start, batting .234 in 44 games, but the locals were thrilled for their native son. When the Senators traveled to York to play Heltzel’s old team, the West York Firemen, in an exhibition game on August 30, the event was called “Heinie Heltzel Night” in his honor. He was presented with a baseball bat and a travel bag by his old teammates, and then he clouted a home run to help beat them 4-0.

Heltzel was a glove-first, bat-second infielder, though he could occasionally put up some good numbers. In his second season in 1936, he hit .269 with his first 2 professional home runs while playing for the Trenton Senators (who began the season as the York White Roses). One of them was the deciding run in a 4-3 win over Wilkes-Barre on August 2. There were reports that he would be brought to Washington for a trial, but nothing came of the rumor.

Heltzel struggled at the plate in 1937, batting .229 for Trenton and committed 55 errors at shortstop, though he hit 21 doubles. It was his third straight season in the New York-Penn League. He headed south in 1939 to start the season with the Greenville (S.C.) Spinners of the Sally League. He was traded to Montgomery, but he was ordered back after 30 games when the league president voided the deal. He hit .224 between the two teams.

One of the knocks on Heltzel in Greenville was a lack of “discipline.” It could have referred to plate discipline, as he was a .199 hitter with them. However, other stories indicate there was more of a problem. He missed the bus to Savannah when the Spinners traveled down to Georgia for a road trip and stayed behind with his wife and young child. He was suspended for the rest of the season. In 1939, he hit .244 for the Florida Senators but was still released in July. He was cut, according to the team, for “violations of training rules.” The Orlando Sentinel columnist Bob Hayes explained that Heltzel and second baseman Lefty Brewer spent too much time drinking.

“Twice before the Senators’ boss [manager John Ganzel] had covered up for Heltzel in an effort to straighten him out. The Orlando newspapers, and this was no secret, cooperated with Ganzel in this matter,” Hayes wrote. “[Heltzel] even blandly told Ganzel that he’d only ‘had eight or nine beers – that ought not to affect his playing.’”

Heltzel returned to the Northeast and spent the next few years playing for teams in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. No further mention was made of his off-field habits. He had a great year with Reading in 1940 as a third baseman, batting .303 with a career-high 5 home runs. While stolen base numbers are not available in the minor leagues for much of the first half of the 20th Century, he must have had some good speed, because he stole 5 bases in one game against Allentown on July 5. One of them was a theft of home as part of a double steal. He remained with Reading for the opening of the 1941 season and was one of the few players kept on the roster when the team was acquired by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was traded to Bridgeport, which was part of the Boston Braves organization, in July.

Heinie Heltzel, then with Indianapolis, is tagged out trying to score on a sacrifice fly against the St. Paul Saints. Sam Narron is the catcher, and Frank Prince is the umpire. Source: The Indianapolis news, August 6, 1945.

Heltzel failed to hit .200 for his new team. But the good thing about the trade was that it put Heltzel in the orbit of Braves manager Casey Stengel. He took a liking to the young infielder and saw what others did not. A feature on Heltzel in a 1942 edition of The Boston Globe featured the headline, “Heltzel of Braves Not Athletic Type.” “He looks less like a ball player off the field than any Brave in camp,” the story opens. “Although only 27, he is semibald. He claims 155 pounds and 5’9” yet appears much skinnier. He walked with a slouch that is usually associated with pool sharks. During the off-season, moreover, he is a full-fledged junk dealer in York, Penn.”

While that paragraph didn’t inspire much confidence in the ballplayer, Stengel raved about Heltzel’s fielding. “He can go get a ball with any infielder on our club. What’s more, he knows the right plays to make once he corners the apple,” Stangel said. “Heinie is a spectacular defender too. He catches all flies in the vest pocket manner of Rabbit Maranville and Eddie Miller.” (The quote refers to Maranville’s habit of making a type of basket catch on infield popups.)

The Braves assigned Heltzel to the Harftord Bees of the Eastern League. He spent a full season there in 1942, and he batted .237 with 16 doubles. He seemed to figure out the league in 1943, as he hit .285 in 76 games to start off the year. He didn’t have much extra-base pop, but he walked 30 times and had a .354 on-base percentage. Up on the big-league club, the team’s third basemen, Eddie Joost and Joe Burns, couldn’t hit .200, and Stengel started looking for replacements. After a brief audition with Connie Ryan, the team summoned Heltzel up from the minors to try his hand.

Heltzel’s major-league debut came on July 27, 1943, in Cincinnati. Batting in the No. 2 spot in the lineup, the new third baseman singled in his second at-bat against Bucky Walters. He also reached on an error and bunted into a double play, ending the game with a hit in 5 at-bats. It was the only time his batting average would be .200 or higher. He was hitless in his next four starts, though he walked three times in his second game. He singled twice against Pittsburgh on August 2, and he drove in 2 runs on the 3rd with a grounder that hopped over the second baseman’s shoulder for a base hit. That brought his batting average over .100, but Heltzel just struggled to hit. He played in 29 games and slashed .151/.215/.186, with 5 runs driven in. To make matters worse, Heltzel didn’t field well at third base, with a fielding percentage below .900.

Heltzel’s contract was sold to the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians at the start of 1944. Unhappy with the move, he quit the team at the start of June, vowing to go back to York and his off-season job of truck driving. In mid-July, Phillies shortstop Ray Hamrick was inducted into the U.S. Navy, and the team needed a replacement. It so happened that Philadelphia’s All-Star pitcher, Ken Raffensberger, was a York native and happened to know of an available replacement.

Source: The York Dispatch, August 30, 1946.

“I got him the job down in Philadelphia,” he said when Heltzel died. “During the war, they needed some ballplayers, and Herb Pennock, the general manager, asked me about him.

“He wasn’t much of a hitter, but he was a good shortstop,” Raffensberger added. “He could cover ground. He was on par with the rest of the shortstops who were playing in the major leagues.”

Heltzel made it into 11 games as a shortstop with the Phillies and had 4 hits for a .182 batting average. In the field, he committed 3 errors in 67 innings for a .919 fielding percentage. One article from a Scranton newspaper indicated that the shortstop claimed he was sick, and Phillies manager Freddie Fitzsimmons didn’t know how long he would stay with the team. Heltzel entered the first game of a doubleheader against the New York Giants on August 6 and doubled in the ninth inning against reliever Andy Hansen. It was the last hit – and last at-bat – of his major-league career. The Phillies soon returned him back to Indianapolis.

Heltzel returned to the Arrows for all of 1945. He appeared in a career-best 142 games and hit .252 with 5 homers and 24 doubles. He committed 46 errors at shortstop for a .932 fielding percentage, but it was noted that Heltzel’s range permitted him to reach more balls than most other shortstops. He had more than 4.8 chances per game and turned 70 double plays. He was also thought to have the best throwing arm of any shortstop in the league.

Heltzel traveled west to start 1946 with the Seattle Raniers of the Pacific Coast League. He was one of several future or past major-leaguers, including Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff, Cliff Mapes and Earl Torgeson. The player who may have had the biggest impact on the city of Seattle was a pitcher named Dewey Soriano. He was part of an ownership group that would, 20-some years later, own the Seattle Pilots for a year. Heltzel played just 15 games for the Raniers before being reassigned to a team in Shreveport. He never made it to Louisiana. Instead, he ended up playing closer to home with the York White Roses. He was 32 years old, and though he was one of the oldest players on the team, he tore up the Interstate League, to the tune of a .327 batting average, 23 doubles and 5 home runs. He returned to York in 1947, but an injured hand kept him from playing consistently. He hit .288 in 23 games and retired from pro ball after the season.

Heltzel appeared in a total of 40 games in his two stints in the majors. He had a slash line of .157/.229/.194, with 4 doubles among his 17 hits. He drove in 5 runs, scored 7 times, and drew 9 walks. In 13 seasons in the minor leagues, he had 1,048 hits for a .257 batting average.

Heltzel played amateur ball starting in 1948 for Seven Valleys in the York County Baseball League. He later became manager of the Jacobus team in the Central York County League in 1960. His obituaries reported that he remained self-employed, holding down a variety of jobs over the years. He had a son and grandson, both named Bill, who followed the family tradition of athletics, though bowling was their chosen sport. His grandson once came within a pin of bowling a perfect game.

William “Heinie” Heltzel died on May 1, 1998, in York. He was 84 years old. He was survived by nine children and remained passionate about baseball right up to the very end of his life. He is buried in Mount Rose Cemetery in York.

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