From 1909, when he reported to Washington Park after almost three days on a train from Louisiana, until 1926, when his legs gave out at Ebbets Field, Zach Wheat was a fixture in left field for Brooklyn. He was the club’s stellar performer, a quiet team leader who was never thrown out of a game in a 19-year career. He batted over .300 13 times, and remains the Dodgers’ all-time leader in games played, at-bats, hits, doubles, triples, and total bases.
Wheat was a graceful, lefthanded, line-drive hitter who could handle the curveball so well that Giants manager John McGraw forbade his pitchers to throw him any. Wheat topped the .320 mark only once during the dead-ball era – in 1918, when he had a 26-game hitting streak and won the batting title with a .335 average. He was 32 when the ball was made livelier, and his production soared. He batted .320 or better each year from 1920 through 1925, with .375 marks in both 1923 (when he played just 98 games after a long holdout) and 1924, and a .359 mark in ’25. He had averaged about five home runs a year through 1919; from ’20 through ’25, he averaged more than 12 a season.
Wheat generally batted clean-up and was rarely expected to bunt. One afternoon he found himself in a sacrifice situation, awaiting the obvious sign from manager Wilbert Robinson, who was coaching third. Because Uncle Robby had forgotten the bunt sign, he went through an improvised set of gestures. Realizing they did not convey the message, Robinson simply pantomimed a bunt. Team captain Wheat decided he hadn’t received the bunt sign and lined the next pitch out of the ballpark. As Wheat rounded third, the jubilant Robinson slapped him on the back, though he could have slapped him with a fine.
Wheat’s last home run for Brooklyn signaled the end of his great Dodger career. He had injured his heel and, with only a few games to play in the 1926 season, was resting his aching legs. Sent in to pinch hit, he pulled a pitch to right field and raced down the line. As the ball cleared the wall, he got a charley horse. As he hobbled on, his other leg failed him, and he lurched into second base. He sat down on the bag as time was called. Robinson and the umpires consulted. Finally, Wheat got his to feet. With the crowd wincing with him on every step, he virtually crept over to third. It took him an estimated five minutes to finally score.
Released by the Dodgers on New Year’s Day, 1927, Wheat signed with the Athletics. He batted .324 his final season, pinch hitting and playing 62 games in the outfield for a Philadelphia team that had ten .300 hitters, including Ty Cobb (.357) and Al Simmons (.392). He finished his career in the American Association in 1928. After retiring to his native Missouri, he was nearly killed in an automobile crash, and was hospitalized for five months. The all-time leader in games played in left field, he was named to the Hall of Fame by the Committee on Baseball Veterans in 1959. His brother, McKinley “Mack” Wheat, caught for the Dodgers for parts of 1915 through 1919, and for the Phillies in 1920-21.