On Zack Wheat’s final home run hit at home with the Dodgers, he took longer to get around the bases than it will take you to read this story.
Wheat still stands atop the Dodgers franchise leaderboard in hits, doubles, triples, times on base, and total bases. Nobody played more for the Dodgers than Wheat’s 18 seasons (1909-26) for Brooklyn, and he is also tops in games played, plate appearances, and at-bats.
Wheat played mostly before power numbers across the league took off, such that when he retired in 1927, Wheat’s 132 career home runs ranked eighth in MLB history. His 131 homers as a Dodger remained atop the franchise leaderboard until 1938, when first baseman Dolph Camilli passed him.
It was the last of Wheat’s Ebbets Field home runs with Brooklyn that is arguably the most memorable.
Age finally took its toll on Wheat in 1926. Each of his first 17 seasons were above average by OPS+, with his worst year clocking in at 106, in 1915. In each of the next 10 years, Wheat’s worst OPS+ was 120, and he averaged a 138 OPS+ from 1916-25. That included hitting .359/.403/.541 with a career-best 70 extra-base hits in 1925.
But in his age-38 season, Wheat slumped to .290/.326/.411, a 99 OPS+. And his body started to break down. On August 2 at Ebbets Field against the Cubs, Wheat had three hits, including a double, and scored twice. From Joe Niese’s book, ‘Zack Wheat: The Life of the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer’:
Against the Cubs he slid hard into second, once again twisting his ankle badly. When he limped to the dugout to tell [Dodgers manager Wilbert] Robinson that he couldn’t return to the game, the manager snapped, “It’s just a mosquito bite, you can go out and play.”
Wheat finished that game, then after a Dodgers off day he was back in the lineup in left field on August 4, going 0-for-3 with a walk against the Cardinals.
On August 5, Wheat singled, walked, and scored one of Brooklyn’s seven runs in a sixth-inning rally to grab the lead. Rogers Hornsby tripled home the tying run in the ninth, then St. Louis scored four runs in the top of the 10th. Down 11-7 with one out in the bottom of the 10th, Wheat hit a ball over the right field fence, but then things got interesting.
In the book, ‘Dazzy Vance: The Life of the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer’, John C. Skipper wrote of Wheat’s home run, “He hit the ball out of the park and started to trot around the bases. As he rounded first base, he developed a charley horse, fell to the ground as he touched second base and could not get up.”
Some newspaper reports described Wheat’s injury as a double charley horse, one in each leg, but it’s unclear if that was a misidentification of his ankle injury. Possibly an ankle injury in one leg, and a charley horse in the other. However, writing was so much more expressive a century ago.
Billy Evans, an American League umpire, had a syndicated newspaper column that touched on the Wheat home run. Evans described a charley horse as “a painful muscular ailment that practically paralyzes the entire leg and makes locomotion impossible.”
With locomotion impossible, and in considerable pain, Wheat took a brief respite at second base. The manager Robinson huddled with the umpires to figure out exactly what to do, and multiple reports say the delay lasted five minutes.
Robinson had Rabbit Maranville, the speedster who was 34 years old in his lone year with Brooklyn, at the ready to pinch run for Wheat, but there was some question whether this would even be allowed. From the Pittsburgh Daily Post, on August 6, 1926:
Maranville was sent in to run for him and the stands buzzed with the question, “How can Zack make a homer if he doesn’t score the run?” Zack settled it himself by loosening his shoe and hopping the rest of the way on one foot.
Wheat’s charley horse and ankle injury would have likely spelled doom had this been an inside-the-park home run, which Wheat did at least 19 times in his career. But Wheat hit this ball over the fence, yet still found a way to make his last home run for Brooklyn extremely suspenseful.
Writhing in pain on the bases proved a more effective way for Robinson to see just how badly Wheat was injured. Wheat was held out of the Dodgers’ next eight games, and was limited to only pinch-hitting duty for four weeks after that.
Of Brooklyn’s final 49 games in 1926, Wheat only started three times and was limited to just 18 plate appearances with the Dodgers after his memorable home run. He was 3-for-18 and hit one more home run, on September 11 against the Giants, but that was on the road at the Polo Grounds.
Wheat hit 81 of his 131 Dodgers home runs in Brooklyn, including 73 at Ebbets Field, which opened in 1913. But it was that last home home run that was the most memorable.