Wheeler shares stories and insights from his career in baseball
● By Steven Hoffman
Enlisting Chris Wheeler to serve as the guest speaker at a baseball banquet is sort of like writing Mike Schmidt’s name into the cleanup spot—you know he’s probably going to hit a home run.
Wheeler, who served as a broadcaster for the Phillies for 37 years, certainly knocked it out of the park as he shared stories and insights from his life in baseball at this year’s Kennett Old Timers Baseball Banquet, held on Jan. 16 at the Red Clay Room in Kennett Square. It would be difficult to find a better speaker for this crowd of baseball-loving fans who, like Wheeler, grew up rooting for the Phillies.
“You can tell there are so many baseball fans here tonight,” Wheeler said. “You can tell that you love the game.”
Wheeler grew up in nearby Newtown Square, Pa. rooting for the Phillies. His lifelong love of baseball can be traced back to his parents, who both loved the sport.
“I’m a 1950s kid,” Wheeler said. “Baseball was our game. You always played baseball back then.”
He was a shortstop and pitched a little bit. He was never a standout player, and he knew that he was never going to make it to the majors.
“I had pretty good hand-eye coordination so I was good enough to enjoy the game,” he explained.
Like millions of other Americans, he loved watching Willie Mays play. His boyhood idol was Phillies’ legendary outfielder Richie Ashburn, whom he would later end up working with in the broadcast booth. One of the more amusing anecdotes that Wheeler shared was about the year that Ashburn spent living in his home—rent free. After about a year, Wheeler asked Ashburn if he shouldn't be paying some of the rent. Ashburn's response was, “Didn't you say I was your boyhood idol? Why should I pay rent then?”
Wheeler, who graduated with a degree in journalism and broadcasting from Penn State University in 1967, talked about how he worked in radio in the Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York early in his career. He joined the Phillies’ community relations department in 1971, and was added to the radio and television broadcasting team in 1977, working alongside two iconic figures—Ashburn and golden-voiced Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas. Wheeler was part of the team’s traveling party, and did not miss a Phillies’ road trip during his 37 years in that role. His primary responsibility was working as both a play-by-play man and color analyst, which he did through the 2013 season. Those years included two great eras in Phillies’ history—the late-1970s team led by Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton that finally reached the baseball mountaintop during a magical 1980 season, and the talent-laden team that made the playoffs for five straight years and won the World Series in 2008.
Wheeler shared stories about greats like Pete Rose, Schmidt, and Carlton. He explained that Carlton and his longtime personal catcher, Tim McCarver, had an interesting relationship. On the field, they worked about as well as any battery mates ever have. McCarver once famously said that he and Carlton would be buried sixty feet, six inches apart from each other. Off the field, Wheeler explained, the pitcher and catcher were both very stubborn and would become locked in good-natured arguments that entertained their teammates.
Wheeler said that Schmidt was a lot of fun to be around, and the Hall of Fame third baseman enjoyed the game more than it may have appeared to Phillies' fans. Wheeler added that he believes that Schmidt is really enjoying his current stint as a broadcaster during select games throughout each season, and that enjoyment shows itself in the quality of the work that he is doing.
The 1980 world championship was the Phillies’ first in franchise history, and Wheeler treasures the memories that the team provided.
He also spoke fondly of the most recent Golden Age in Phillies’ history that was ushered in by a core group of home-grown players that included Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Carlos Ruiz.
The highlight of the longest era of excellence in Phillies’ history came on Oct. 29, 2008, when the Phillies defeated Tampa Bay, 4-3, to win the World Series four games to one. Wheeler was calling the World Series with Kalas, who had waited his entire career to declare that the Phillies had won the World Series. In 1980, local broadcasters were not allowed to call the World Series games, so this was Kalas’ first chance to call a World Series championship. It would be the pinnacle of a Hall of Fame broadcaster’s career.
“The only thing I was thinking was, ‘don’t make noise. Don’t get in the way of the call,’” Wheeler explained.
When Harry Kalas made the call that the Phillies won the 2008 World Series, Wheeler’s exuberant—but silent—celebration was captured by a cameraman positioned in the booth. It became one of the indelible images of the Phillies’ 2008 post-season.
Wheeler poked fun at himself for the celebration. He also said that he was thankful that Kalas was able to make the call that his beloved Phillies had won the World Series. Kalas would pass away less than six months later.
During a wide-ranging Q & A, attendees asked Wheeler about a variety of topics.
The Phillies have had some good catchers during the last three decades—Bob Boone, Mike Lieberthal, Darren Daulton, and Carlos Ruiz. One person asked Wheeler who the best catcher was.
Wheeler said that he thought Boone probably edged out the others.
Another person asked about one of the most difficult losses in the Phillies’ 133-year history—the infamous “Black Friday” game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Oct. 7, 1977. The series was tied, 1-1, as the third game got underway in Philadelphia. The Dodgers took an early 2-0 lead, but the Phillies scored three runs off Dodgers’ starting pitcher Burt Hooton, who got noticeably rattled after several ball-and-strike calls went against him.
The Phillies carried a 5-3 lead into the ninth inning. Throughout the 1977 season, Phillies manager Danny Ozark usually put Jerry Martin in as a defensive replacement for left fielder Greg Luzinski. But on this night, he didn’t.
Reliever Gene Garber set down the first two hitters, but then pinch-hitter Vic Davalillo reached base on a bunt single. The next batter, pinch hitter Manny Mota, lined a deep drive to left. Luzinski reached for the ball, but the ball bounced off his glove and hit the wall. Luzinski’s throw back in to second was off the mark, allowing Davalillo to score. Mota moved to third base. He would score later in the inning, and the Dodgers went on to win, 6-5. The Dodgers scored 22 runs in game four to win the series. The game was played despite a torrential downpour.
Ozark’s decision not to put Martin in as a defensive replacement in the late innings of game three forces Phillies fans, even four decades later, to wonder what might have been.
“He made a mistake,” Wheeler explained of Ozark’s decision. “One of the great things about baseball is that you can’t take a knee. You can’t take a timeout. In the moment, you just have to keep going.”
Wheeler also talked about how the role of general manager has changed since when he first started working for the Phillies. He explained that John Quinn, the Phillies’ general manager from 1959 to 1972, was very gentlemanly and business-like. Paul Owens then became the general manager during a time when negotiations for trades by baseball executives took place in bars and lasted long into the night. Baseball men ruled the front offices. But now, Wheeler explained, more and more general managers aren’t lifelong baseball men, but Ivy Leaguers who rely on statistical analysis to make their decisions. The Phillies’ new leadership includes president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak. Klentak certainly represents the new breed of general manager, while MacPhail is part of a well-respected baseball family. Wheeler said that he thinks they have the Phillies headed in the right direction.
Young stars like Aaron Nola and Maikel Franco and top prospects like J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Jake Thompson, and Cornelius Randolph could form the nucleus for a team on the cusp of another era of excellence.
“In all the trades that they’ve made, they’ve tried to bring back pitching,” Wheeler said, referring to new pitchers like Mark Appel, Zach Eflin, Thomas Eshelman, Vincent Velasquez, Ben Lively, and Nick Pivetta.
Wheeler, who authored a book chronicling his long association with the Phillies called “A View from the Booth: Four Decades with the Phillies,” has seen a lot of Philadelphia baseball in his lifetime. He said that Carlton and Schmidt still rank among his favorite players because they played the game at such a high level.
For Phillies fans, it’s only natural to compare the 1980 team to the 2008 squad. Wheeler said that the 1980 World Championship team is still his favorite, in part because he joined the organization at about the same time the core group of players were making their way through the Minor League system.
“We were all about the the same age,” Wheeler explained. “I grew up with those guys on that team. That’s still my favorite team.”
Wheeler now serves as a club ambassador for the Phillies by working in a number of different roles. He is about to start his 45th season with the organization and, as is his custom, he will be leaving for Clearwater, Florida, the Phillies’ Spring Training home, at the end of January.
His visit to Kennett Square was well-received by attendees of the Kennett Old Timers Baseball Association banquet, and he certainly ranks among the very best guest speakers who have participated in the event.
“Chris wins hands-down for his insightfulness,” said Keith Craig, the master of ceremonies for the banquet.
Wheeler said that he really enjoyed talking baseball with the attendees. He congratulated Bob Burton, the president of the Kennett Old Timers Baseball Association, for a well-organized event.
“It is really neat to be here at an event like this where so many people enjoy this great game,” Wheeler said. “It’s still the greatest game in the world. There is something about the game that is so pure and so wonderful. There’s nothing quite like it.”