September 12, 1930, promised to be a great day for baseball as the Sycamore Shadows “Fighting Buttonballs” took the field to the cheers of the local crowd. The leadoff hitter for the Castor County Poorhouse “Screaming Indigents” strolled to the batter’s box.
On the mound for the Buttonballs was their ace, towering right-hander Virgil “Lefty” Berg, so nicknamed because of his missing right eye. [A clown on and off the field, Berg is famous in baseball circles as being the answer to this trivia question: who is the only pitcher to throw a glass eye to first base?] Despite an ERA of 1.42, Berg held an unimpressive 6-5 record, having received anemic run support while two-eyed hurlers enjoyed five or six runs per game.
Led by their two star players, pitcher “Boo Hoo” Baker, known for crying each time he surrendered a home run, and offensive powerhouse Leonard “Woody” Wheeler, the Indigents were riding a six-game winning streak, giving them the best record in the Great Lakes Poorhouse League.
Like most players on the “Bum Circuit,” Wheeler had known hard times. Abandoned by his parents at age 10, he had lived in a hogshead until losing a leg in a bear trap two years later. At age 12 he was allowed a room at the county home, a guaranteed meal nearly every day, and pickle loaf on holidays. Wheeler wasn’t satisfied. He wanted more, maybe to live at an orphanage one day. He discovered baseball instead.
Now 38 years old and in his 17th and final season, the legendary first baseman, known as the “Dependent Lou Gehrig,” led the league in batting average, RBIs, home runs, and curfew violations. Only one laurel remained in a storied career: Wheeler had stolen food from a bear trap, had frequently snitched candy from his fellow inmates, and had reportedly fathered 27 children with the assistance of 13 women, but he had never stolen a base.
When he reached first on a long single in the 8th, Wheeler saw his chance. The Buttonballs catcher was nursing a sore shoulder and Lefty Berg, like many pitchers missing an eye, had a sub-par pickoff move to first.
Wheeler got a great jump, essential when attempting to steal a base with a wooden leg. According to a report in the Evening Shade, Wheeler “thudumped down the baseline, looking like a pauper running the potato-sack race at a town picnic.” As the Buttonballs backstop caught the ball and threw to second base, the crowd stood. It would be close.
That evening a would-be poet modified Ernest Thayer’s immortal “Casey at the Bat” in honor of the event. In 1957 Buttonballs manager “Tiger” Ford set the last four lines to music. At Buckstone Field, you’ll hear it sung at the end of every 8th inning:
Then from hoards of baseball fans, there arose a mighty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rang the church’s bell;
Five hundred thankful fans stood up, as the umpire hollered “Safe!?”
For the mighty Woody Wheeler, had stolen his first base.
NEXT WEEK: Life in the Shadows
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