Few people get to meet their childhood heroes, much less
work side by side with them. Count writer Lonnie
Wheeler among the lucky ones. Since the release
of his first two books in 1988— The Cincinnati
Game and Bleachers: A Summer in Wrigley Field—he
has been as busy as any sports scribe in the business. With
his 1991 book, I Had a Hammer, Lonnie helped introduce
the world to the real Hank Aaron.
work that conjured the fondest memories for him may have
been another autobiography project, Stranger to the
Game, which chronicled the life and career of Hall
of Famer Bob Gibson. Born in 1952 in St. Louis, Lonnie grew
up a Cardinals fan, and no player symbolized the grit and
accomplishment of the town’s championship teams than
the overpowering right-hander. Lonnie loved reading about
the games he loved. By the time he began high school in
Kirksville—the Missouri town his family had moved
to several years earlier—Lonnie’s career path
was set. He was going to be a sportswriter.
graduating from the University of Missouri, Lonnie bounced
around the country learning the tricks of the trade. Stops
at the Anderson Independent in South Carolina and
Clarion Ledger in Mississippi ultimately led him
to the Cincinnati Enquirer in the late 1970s. A
neighbor of Sports Illustrated writer Peter King—the
two coached a Little League team together—Lonnie transitioned
into magazine work, and then found an even more successful
niche as an author. Today, back in the newspaper business
as a sports columnist for The Cincinnati Post,
he loves the carte blanche he has earned to tackle any topic
that stirs his passions.
start with I Had a Hammer. How did your relationship
develop with Aaron?
I had actually been toying with the idea of doing a book
on Satchel Paige. Then my agent, David Black, got a call
from a representative of Aaron. They wanted to discuss the
idea of an autobiography. I had met Aaron once before, when
I did a two-part series on him for the Anderson Independen—although
I’m sure Aaron had no recollection of that.
of what I knew about Aaron had been shaped by what I had
read in the media. My feeling was that he would be aloof.
He had certainly never been the loquacious type. Everyone
told me doing a book with him would be very difficult. But
I found the opposite to be true. He was very forthcoming
and sensitive. Aaron had been portrayed in unflattering
ways by the media early in the career, so there was a level
of distrust on his part. But I learned how he liked to work,
and we got along very well.
funny thing is that I almost didn’t get through our
initial meeting in Milwaukee. I was coming up from Cincinnati,
and the day of my flight I felt awful. I thought I might
be too sick to even get on the plane. But somehow I made
it up there, and made it through what proved to be a very
Henry Aaron autobiography
I Had a Hammer, you talked to a lot of Aaron’s
former teammates, both from the majors and minors. Who were
the best interviews?
When you’re going back that far, one person’s
recall can be much different from the next person’s.
So you have to talk to three, four or five people about
the same incident, and see where the common threads are.
felt that Aaron’s time in the Sally League was particularly
important. Along with Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner,
he integrated the league. A couple of ex-teammates from
Aaron’s Jacksonville days were really helpful. Joe
Andrews had been a hard-edged white teammate. On several
occasions, he stood up to opponents and fans for Aaron.
Garner was another good interview. I tracked him down working
in a bus garage in Iowa.
the big leaguers I talked to, Dusty Baker and Ralph Garr
were excellent. So were Warren Spahn and Eddie Mathews.
I also traveled to Mobile to interview Aaron’s family.
Ralph Garr, 1974 Topps
learned a lot about the Negro Leagues in your research for
I Had a Hammer. Did you come to any compelling conclusions?
When you look at how the second generation of black players
dominated the majors in the 1960s, it tells you about the
level of play many years earlier in the Negro Leagues. These
players were obviously every bit equal to major leaguers.
The experience of Negro League players was so rich. There
was always a subplot to their lives. It wasn’t just
about their careers on the field—the social ramifications
of what they were doing were so important.
of your first books, Bleachers, dealt with a much
less serious topic. You spent a summer among the Bleacher
Bums at Wrigley Field. What was that like?
I had never been to Wrigley before that summer, but I still
expected this would be more than a baseball experience.
I certainly had the notion that the bleachers were something
of a culture. All kinds of characters inhabit the bleachers
at Wrigley, from the holdovers and gamblers who bet on every
pitch to the fashionable yuppies who were beginning to take
few fans knew I was working on a book, but for the most
part I worked anonymously. Though taking notes can be hard
when you’re constantly getting beer spilled on you.
I had a lot of fun, and made some good friends.
other initial release was Cincinnati Game. What
did you learn about the relationship between baseball and
It’s hard to separate baseball history from Cincinnati
history. The city was home to the first professional team
and the first commissioner. It was interesting to see how
baseball evolved from a recreational game. The first games
were played in the section of town where the beer gardens
were. Years later, you saw the effect of the big leagues
on amateur players. I really enjoyed following baseball’s
emergence from the grassroots level.
the 1940s and 50s, Cincinnati produced major-league players
at a rate higher than other area, except for maybe Oakland
and Mobile. Guys like Pete Rose, Don Zimmer, Eddie Brinkman,
with Bob Gibson on his autobiography must have been a special
thrill. What was he like?
I enjoyed him immensely. He was frank, plain-spoken, hospitable
and a very funny guy. He wouldn’t play politics or
soft peddle anything. Former teammates like Joe Torre and
Mike Shannon still swear by him, which says a lot.
Gibson had the reputation as being mean on the mound. His
image helped make him great. But as strong-minded as he
is, he also understands himself. People always used to see
him grimacing on the mound and assumed he was trying to
intimidate the hitters. That wasn’t it at all. He
was just nearsighted, and had to squint to pick up the catcher’s
Bob Gibson autobiography
talk about some other famous players you encountered during
your career. How about Eric Davis?
I liked him from the beginning. When he first came up, he
was a little shy. He took on more polish later.
had such great gifts, and people expected him to have a
Willie Mays career. But he had a fragile body. Once he got
hurt and had to deal with his health issues, people really
started to see his character.
He was hilarious—the funniest guy in the Reds clubhouse.
Parker was imaginative and creative. He was also happy when
he was with Cincinnati. I think he deserves stronger consideration
for the Hall of Fame, but a lot of people hold the drug
scandal in Pittsburgh against him.
He has the reputation as a great guy, and it’s not
overstated. Casey is amazing. He’s one of the few
big-leaguers who will actually look you in the eye and shake
your hand and enjoy your conversation. He truly enjoys meeting
other currents Reds who come to mind?
Adam Dunn reminds me a lot of Dave Parker. He has a terrific
self-deprecating sense of humor. Ken Griffey Jr. has changed
a lot since he got here. Initially, he was very defensive.
He never liked talking about himself, but he now understands
that dealing with the media comes with the territory.
we also have to ask you about Pete Rose.
Rose is the overriding figure here. He isn’t a man
of letters, and was never well rounded as an intellect.
But strictly as a player and manager, he was a dream to
deal with for the media and brilliant in terms of anything
related to baseball. His recall was amazing, and he was
able to focus so strongly, no matter what was happening
understood the game completely. I remember once when he
was managing the Reds, someone asked him a question about
an obscure statistic: Who do you think makes the highest
percentage of outs in the air? Without hesitation, he answered
Gary Redus. He was right.
Pete Rose, 1972 Topps
finish up with your state of the union for Cincinnati baseball.
Can the Reds be saved?
Obviously, the team has struggled. This is disappointing
because this should be a golden age with the new ballpark.
I lay the blame at the feet of ownership. Carl Lindner chopped
payroll several years ago to get ready for the opening of
Great American, indicating all the while that they would
be able to beef up the roster and contend for a pennant
by 2003. Then he didn’t do what he promised.
I’m hoping for a new day with Robert Castellini and
his group, though I still have some caution, because he
appears to be cut from the same conservative Cincinnati
mold as Lindner.
thing about Cincinnati is that it’s a really forgiving
town. Fans have been disillusioned with the Reds and Bengals.
But as soon as they show, just for a minute, that they’re
really trying to compete, the people are right back there
Copyright 2006 Black Book Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.
original material appearing on JockBio.com is protected by copyright.
No part of this material may be reproduced in whole or in part,
or stored in a retrieval system, without permission of Black Book
Partners, LLC. Please direct any inquiries regarding its use to