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.

The 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.

After 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.

Lonnie Wheeler

Let’s 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.

Most 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.

The 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 successful meeting

Henry Aaron autobiography

For 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.

I 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.

Of 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

You 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.

One 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 over.

A 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.

Your other initial release was Cincinnati Game. What did you learn about the relationship between baseball and the city?

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.

During 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, Art Mahaffey.

Working 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.

Obviously, 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 signs.

Bob Gibson autobiography

Let’s 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.

Davis 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.

Dave Parker?

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.

Sean Casey?

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 people.

Any 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.

Of course, 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 around him.

Rose 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

Let’s 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.

The 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 with them.

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