Born June 11 1886 in Tuscarora
Died August 26 1966 in Independence California
Wheezer was the first Nevada native (and the first Eskimo) to play major league baseball. He played briefly for the St. Louis Cardinals and for the Brooklyn Robins — later the Dodgers — and pitched an inning in the 1916 World Series against the Red Sox — from 1915 into the 1917 season.
His father was a miner, and he moved the family to Butte Montana for a job in the copper mine when little Willy was still a baby, so he grew up there. He played football in high school and was such a talented quarterback that he was granted another year of eligibility after graduation.
But he excelled at baseball, a tall right handed rocket firing pitcher, and out of high school he played for the bush league Butte Miners as a lark, a dab of butter on his daily bread, which came from his work as an electrician at the mine. That was a job; baseball was a lark.
He pitched for the Miners for a season, and then in 1908 he signed with the Vancouver Beavers in the old Northwest League and helped them win the pennant.
In 1910 he was pitching in the Western Canada League, and in 1912 he was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals. He had made it to the bigs!
He lasted three weeks.
There is no mystery about his quick departure. Wheezer wasn’t satisfied with his contract and Manager Roger Bresnahan wasn’t satisfied with Wheezer’s attitude.
He’d grown up in Butte at a time when labor strife was real and bloody. He was inculcated with life’s lessons by veterans of the IWW and the labor struggles in Victor, Cripple Creek and Goldfield. Those guys were staunch union hard-asses and it’s no wonder he grew up with a grudge against the bosses.
So when manager Roger Bresnahan called Wheezer into his office to tell him he was being sent down to the minors, Wheezer told him to go to hell and went home to Butte where he played out the season and then went on to the Seattle Giants in 1913.
He was drafted again in 1915, by the Brooklyn Robins*, and by this time he was married with a small son. Baseball wasn’t just a lark any more. He swallowed his pride and went, grumbling about greed, exploitation and slavery..
He pitched well and the following year made a late inning appearance to close out an already lost game 5 of the World Series.
In 1917 Wheezer pitched in 17 games, starting four, and was 0-4 for the year on the 4th of July when the Robins played a double-header against New York. Wheezer’s Hall-of-Fame team-mates that day included Zack Wheat, Casey Stengel, Rube Marquard and Chief Meyers.
With one out in the 4th inning, manager Wilbert Robinson called on Wheezer, who pitched two scoreless innings but he hit a batter and made an error. When he gave up three runs in the 7th, he was yanked and Brooklyn lost both ends of the double-header.
He can’t have been in a good frame of mind when manager Wilbert Robinson called him into his office and told him his contract had been sold to the minor league Baltimore Orioles, because Wheezer told him to go straight to hell and went home to Butte again.
About the Nickname —
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 Wieser, pig-tail squeezer!”
Wieser is the little Idaho city where the Dell family visited friends and relations. He grew up as “Wieser” in and out of the family — his wedding announcement in the Butte newspaper had this headline, “Big Wieser 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 the 1949 World Series reunion. He signed his name Wieser. Yet he is forever in the record books as Wheezer.
From Butte he went west where he became a star pitcher for the Vernon Tigers in the Pacific Coast League, and in 1919 the Tigers won a shoot-out over the L.A. Angels at the end of the season to win the PCL pennant. The Tigers then played a “Little World Series” with St. Paul that went to game 9.
Wheezer pitched the game and knocked in the winning run with a double in the 8th inning. At the final out, the fans rushed down from the stands in exuberant celebration to pick him up and carry him off the field on their shoulders.
And he got into the movies, showing up in a handful of Buster Keaton 2-reelers [that’s Wheezer on the left].
Wheezer’s grandson, Bill Dell and his wife Marilyn maintain the voluminous Wheezer Archive. The thick scrapbook his wife Eleanor kept chronicles his 18-year professional career beginning on the pitcher’s mound of the Butte Miners in 1909 and ending with the Beaumont (Texas) Exporters in 1926.
After that he went to work for Los Angeles Water & Power in the Owens Valley and retired from that job in 1951.
*The Brooklyn team was fielded as the Atlantics (1884), Grays, Bridegrooms, Grooms, Bridegrooms again, Superbas, Trolley Dodgers, Superbas again, Robins and finally Dodgers (1932).