Looking Back: Nashville's Oldest Living Baseball Player

By Bill Traughber / Nashville Sounds | August 11, 2017 2:26 PM ET

 

   The origin of baseball cannot be traced to a significant time or place. Speculation began that Abner Doubleday was its creator in a cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York. Primitive versions of the game existed decades before the time of Doubleday's alleged invention.

 

   Baseball was probably derived from the British children's game of rounders. Doubleday was a West Point cadet at the time he was supposed to have made history in that famous cow pasture. The game in America did begin in the East and soon spread nationally.

 

   One of these eastern old-timers was A. M. Wheeler who gave an interview to The Nashville Tennessean in the April 22, 1917 edition. The story centered on Wheeler being recognized as a Nashvillian proclaiming to be "The Oldest Living Baseball Player."

 

   Wheeler was 75 years old at that time and reminisced about playing baseball before, during and after the Civil War. He was referred to as "Major Wheeler," but his service with the Blue or Gray was never distinguished. The story begins with a brief introduction to the history of the inaugural baseball teams and the league that Wheeler was involved. These are portions from that interview:

 

   It is not generally known, but we have in Nashville one of the boys who played with one of the above clubs, via; the Niagaras of Buffalo, one of New York's crack clubs. Not a professional, but equal in some of the early ones who defeated the celebrated Atlantic club of Brooklyn, for several years the champions of the United States.

   Major A. M. Wheeler, now 75 years young, and hale and heart, is still interested in the game and talked entertainingly of his diamond experiences. He was the catcher and captain of the Niagaras, and when Capt. "Pop" Anson was touring in vaudeville he met Wheeler here in Nashville and admitted he could no longer pose as the oldest player, only he could claim as one of the oldest professionals.

 

   By the 1840's baseball began to explode in the northeast with amateurs teams. During the 1850's, the popularity of the game prompted the teams to charge admission prices to the games. In 1858, the National Organization of Base Ball Players was formed to impose an authority on the game.

 

   By 1860, 60 teams became members of the organization and Wheeler's Niagaras were included. The Civil War was a disruption to the game's growth, but the Northeastern Leagues were left intact. However, the number of teams was reduced.

   Wheeler told the interviewer that he began to play baseball at age 16, before the War Between the States. He stated that in its infancy baseball was played between bank clerks, professionals and "young fellows of leisure." Wheeler gives his recollections of his early life in baseball:

 

   "Our games generally ran into two and one-half to three and one-half hours play. No enclosed grounds. No admission fees. No disputing decisions, always favoring the visitors, cheering for them at home plate, cheering the umpire. The umpires were always escorted in private carriages to different houses in private residences and having a big time at a banquet or ball. A pretty safe time for the umpire.

    "Only underhand pitching was permitted for several years. A ball caught on the first bounce was out and much judgment was required to catch on the first bound the 'foul,' high twisters, full of 'English.' With no one on bases the catcher always stood back and took the ball on the bound, standing close to the striker (batter) only when a man was on first.

   "It was stated I was the first catcher who stood up close up when a man was on second working for third, as well as all the time against good teams."

 

   Eventually the rules were changed to shorten the game to prevent the pitcher from succumbing to exhaustion. Many believe that portions of baseball were also derived form the British game of cricket. Wheeler has his opinions on the British influence on baseball.

 

   "Throwing the ball I think may have been introduced by English cricket bowlers playing our baseball. We were badly defeated by a Rochester club once who had a bowler for pitcher, who could keep his hand on a level or a trifle below his elbow, which was a regulation to prevent throwing. The umpire, who was always a member of the home team or another club in the home town, could not be induced to consider his 'pitching' unfair or 'foul.'"

 

   In is not known the origin of baseball in Nashville. It is a myth that baseball was introduced to Nashville with the Union Army's occupation of the city during the Civil War in 1962. An article in a Nashville newspaper in July 1860 reported on a game being played near the Cumberland River. This was before the Civil War and the election of Abraham Lincoln.

   Wheeler also spoke of baseball during the Civil War:

 

   "I only played the game occasionally during the civil war; my battery used balls too large to catch or throw with ease. By the way, we used no gloves or masks for many years, and broken and cracked fingers were more numerous than now.

   "In 1865-66 at Richmond, Va., the boys of the union army and the ex-Confederates had several interesting and pleasant games. The "Pastime" and "Union" clubs were very friendly. I played in several of their games.

   "The present war (this interview was given during World War I) won't injure the game, soldiers will play more, also the citizens, boys and all, unless the United States is invaded."

 

   In the present form of baseball, some players will try to get away with what they can. It's called cheating. Corked bats, scuffed baseballs, spitballs and sign stealing have been part of baseball's history. The good Major also recalls those shenanigans:

 

   "One of the old tricks was for a batting team to quietly substitute a 'lively' ball for the 'dead' ball they had played on the strikers. Either ball was admissible (if agreed upon), but a batting team could, when their opponents delivered a 'lively ball' make it very lively indeed for the fielders."

 

   The interviewer also reported that Wheeler had broken his nose once in Canada while playing baseball in a plowed field. The Major believed that the rules should be changed to benefit the batter. He believed the fans liked to see "hard hits."

 

   "I think very few of the members of the splendid non-professional clubs from 1857 to 1867 are alive today. A few became professionals, I remember young Atwater, who pitched a very rapid underhand ball, and his speed gave the Niagaras a victory over the Atlantic, their only defeat in a western trip from New York. The Red stockings of Cincinnati, Ohio, a famous club in the sixties, secured Atwater for a 'sub' pitcher."

 

   Major Wheeler's story does not end here. Further research has found an article from an Associated Press story dated July 26, 1930. The AP story originated from Raleigh, N.C. Apparently the good Major left the future Music City for unknown reasons. This article is led with the caption: "Baseball Vet, 89, Lauds Game." Wheeler repeats some of the same information he gave 13 years earlier in Nashville. This is a portion of that AP story on Wheeler:

 

   Maj. Wheeler, after celebrating his eighty-ninth birthday recently, scorned the idea that the game has been weakened by home run orgies, the lively ball, big-score games and the competition of golf.

   Modern slugfests paled into insignificance when he recalled with many chuckles the time the Niagaras defeated one of the early professional teams, 209 to 10. Looking back over 72 years of baseball, Maj. Wheeler said among the first professional outfits were the Brooklyn Atlantic and old Philadelphia Athletic clubs.

   These were organized about 1864 and Wheeler's Niagaras downed the Atlantics, 17 to 13, the major recalled, in a big game at Buffalo in 1865 or 1866. Maj. Wheeler observes that several changes from the old time rules have given the game wider appeal.

 

   The newspaper trail ends here. The old gentleman has been lost to time, but the lively baseball debate on when and where baseball originated continues.

 

  Traughber's Tidbit: In 1932, Walter "Boom Boom" Beck would have pitched against the Nashville Vols in Sulphur Dell for the Memphis Chicks. Beck led the Southern Association that season in pitching with a 27-6 mark, which was the best season of his long career. Beck would pitch for 23 teams in 13 leagues during a 27-year career. Beck surfaced in the Three-I League, Texas Association, Western League, American Association, International League, Southern Association, Pacific Coast League, Inter-State League, Southeast League, Central League, and Middle Atlantic League. This included the National and American Leagues.

 

   In the major leagues, Beck saw action with the St. Louis Browns, Brooklyn Dodgers, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. In 265 ML games he was 38-69 and a minor league record of 199-167. While pitching for Brooklyn against the Phillies in 1934 Beck, while holding a slim lead, was removed from the game by manager Casey Stengel.

 

   Before he left the game Beck, in anger, threw the ball as hard as he could to right field where it hit the outfield wall. Outfielder Hack Wilson, who was not paying attention to the pitching change, heard a "boom" and thought the ball was in play. He retrieved the ball and threw it to second base. From that time on Beck was known as "Boom-Boom."

 

Tidbit Two: On sale now is the book "Nashville Baseball History: From Sulphur Dell to the Sounds." The paperback book consists of 227 pages, 33 chapters covering 19th Nashville baseball through the Nashville Vols and Nashville Sounds through First Tennessee Park. There are 86 illustrations and the book can be purchased at Parnassus Books (Green Hills) Barnes & Nobles, Amazon and Summer Game Books. Nashville baseball enthusiast and the Sounds first general manager Farrell Owens wrote the foreword to the book.

 

If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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