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Wheezer Dell: A Life Hit Out of the Park

Nevada’s first Major League Baseball player pitched in the World Series.

BY DAVID TOLLWheezer Dell-edit

 

I spent three pleasant days delving into a Wheezer Dell archive—especially a thick scrapbook into which Eleanor Dell had pasted newspaper clippings about her husband’s career as a baseball player.

It begins with accounts of games he pitched for the Seattle Giants after they were married in 1914, carries through three years with Brooklyn; his years in the Pacific Coast League, first with Vernon and thenSeattle again; then the Atlanta Crackers; and at last to Beaumont, Texas, where he pitched his final season in 1926 for the Exporters.

Wheezer Dell. Photos from the collection of Bill and Marilyn Dell taken by Max Winthrop.

Wheezer Dell. Photos from the collection of Bill and Marilyn Dell taken by Max Winthrop.

The album has some peculiarities. The sheets the news clips had been pasted on were brittle; many of them torn away from the binding so that over the years the loose pages fell out of order. The clippings aren’t dated or sourced, just clipped out and pasted in. Eleanor made it even more interesting by treating each page as a mosaic collage, pasting small clips in the gaps left by big ones, so there is no certainty of source or sequence.

Most of the clips are game reports but there are also some reminiscences and other features that throw light on the years before Eleanor, so that a firmly grounded sketch of his life emerges.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

He was born William George Dell in Tuscarora June 11, 1886, and moved by 1890 to Butte, Montana, where he was such a good high school quarterback that he was allowed an extra year of football eligibility after graduation. He played sandlot baseball as a kid, and was a pitcher on the high school team.

After he graduated, he went to work at the mine as an electrician and pitched for a semi-pro company team. After that, he pitched for a succession of bush league teams, working as a journeyman electrician at the mine in the winter and a journeyman ballplayer around the Northwest in the summer.

In 1908, he signed with the Vancouver Beavers in the old Northwest League and helped them win the pennant. Four years later he was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals. He had made it to the big leagues!

He lasted three weeks.

ROUGH INNING

There are a few references to his brief interlude with the Cards in the scrapbooks, centered on his beefs with manager Roger Bresnahan, and there is no mystery about his quick departure. Wheezer wasn’t satisfied with his contract and Bresnahan wasn’t satisfied with Wheezer’s attitude. One reporter wrote, “Roger Bresnahan, manager of the Cubs, says that the only thing that will keep Weiser Dell, Seattle pitcher, from being a sensation on the National League is laziness. Dell was with St. Louis when Bresnahan was there but didn’t try very hard to make good.”

What’s In A Name? There have been various explanations for the nick-name Wheezer. Having seen his photograph, I supposed it came from his nose having been kissed by the back side of a shovel once upon a time. Another theory was that it was inspired by his forceful grunts as he delivered his wicked fastball. Both wrong. An article in the album came closer: “When Dell reported to Brooklyn from Wesier [sic], Idaho, he was known as ‘Wesier'[sic] Dell. Brooklyn scribes apparently did not know there was any such state as Idaho, much less a town by that name, which caused his wife to wire him from Idaho to ask if he had contracted hay fever.” He didn’t come from Weiser Idaho of course, but his family had connections there, and visits were common; he and Eleanor were married there. But in fact the name was applied to little William in childhood by his older siblings, who teased him by singing out every time they saw him, “Wee Willie Weiser, pig-tail squeezer!” So as a tyke he was Wee Willie Weiser, and grew up as “Weiser” in and out of the family. His wedding announcement in the Butte newspaper had this headline, “Big Weiser Dell Is Married to Butte Girl.” I found the definitive evidence in the memorabilia collection, on a baseball bearing the signatures of the 1916 Dodgers attending a 1949 World Series reunion. He signed his name Weiser. Yet he is forever in the record books as Wheezer.

What’s In A Name?
There have been various explanations for the nick-name Wheezer. Having seen his photograph, I supposed it came from his nose having been kissed by the back side of a shovel once upon a time.
Another theory was that it was inspired by his forceful grunts as he delivered his wicked fastball.
Both wrong. An article in the album came closer: “When Dell reported to Brooklyn from Wesier [sic], Idaho, he was known as ‘Wesier'[sic] Dell. Brooklyn scribes apparently did not know there was any such state as Idaho, much less a town by that name, which caused his wife to wire him from Idaho to ask if he had contracted hay fever.”
He didn’t come from Weiser Idaho of course, but his family had connections there, and visits were common; he and Eleanor were married there.
But in fact the name was applied to little William in childhood by his older siblings, who teased him by singing out every time they saw him, “Wee Willie Weiser, pig-tail squeezer!”
So as a tyke he was Wee Willie Weiser, and grew up as “Weiser” in and out of the family. His wedding announcement in the Butte newspaper had this headline, “Big Weiser Dell Is Married to Butte Girl.”
I found the definitive evidence in the memorabilia collection, on a baseball bearing the signatures of the 1916 Dodgers attending a 1949 World Series reunion. He signed his name Weiser. Yet he is forever in the record books as Wheezer.

Wheezer finished out the 1912 season in Butte, went to Seattle in 1913, and back to the big leagues with Brooklyn in 1915. Fast forward past his World Series game of 1916 (he closed out the last game of the Series, which they lost to the Boston Red Sox), to the Fourth of July, 1917, and a mystery I had hoped to solve.

Wheezer had pitched in 17 games so far that season, starting four, and was 0-4 for the year. He’d given up 24 earned runs on 35 hits, three of them homers, and acquired an earned run average of 3.72. On this Fourth of July the Robins* played a double-header against New York. Wheezer’s team-mates that day included Zack Wheat, Casey Stengel, Rube Marquard, and Chief Meyers among the Hall-of-Famers.

Marquard, an ex-Giant, was the starter for Brooklyn. He ran into trouble in the third inning and gave up 5 runs. He gave up another run in the 4th and with one out manager Wilbert Robinson called on Wheezer. Wheezer then pitched two scoreless innings (despite hitting Giants shortstop Art Fletcher with a pitch) but gave up three runs in the 7th and was yanked. Red Smyth pinch-hit for him in the 8th and struck out.

The New York Times reported: “John Armstrong Russell, the young man Brooklyn snared in far-off Vancouver, pitched the last two innings, and looked better than Rube and Wheezer put together.”

Brooklyn lost both ends of the double-header and Wheezer never played for the Robins again. Why? He hit a batter and made an error, but the game was already lost. I might have missed a clipping that explained his disappearance, but…he was gone.

I did find one clue. A clipping relating to his minor league career made this reference to his Brooklyn years: “Dell was a curiosity of hard luck when with Brooklyn. He was the best-looking pitcher who could not win that ever broke into the National League. Upon one occasion the Superbas failed to score a run for him in 44 consecutive innings. Some of the innings were in games he started and others in games he finished, but no matter what the conditions were, the Superbas could not put over a run.”

Wheezer was gone from the major leagues for good after that game. By the following spring he was playing for the Vernon Tigers in the Pacific Coast League and beginning a truly magical stretch of years that put him in the PCL Hall of Fame—and the movies.

*The Brooklyn team was fielded as the Atlantics (1884), Grays, Bridegrooms, Grooms, Bridegrooms again, Superbas, Trolley Dodgers, Superbas again, Robins and finally Dodgers (1932).

David Toll, Owner of Travel Nevada Network, author of The Complete Nevada Traveler. Photo by Robin Cobbey.

David Toll, owner of Nevada Travel Network and author of The Complete Nevada Traveler. Photo by Robin Cobbey.

 

 

The story of Wheezer Dell is just one Nevada tale you’ll find in the NevadaGram, a monthly dispatch from the Nevada Travel Network, telling Nevada’s story 24/7/365.

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