by Hal Gullan
The appeal of baseball to the George Wills of this world lies in its open-ended peculiar rhythms, even its silences. Baseball just seems more cerebral than the constant collisions of tightly-timed football, however complex its strategy. And so perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that many Phillies fans are actually applauding the departure of Chris Wheeler from his long-lasting tenure in the broadcast booth. He talks too much. His voice is too bland. For that matter, he just isn’t “warm and fuzzy” enough.
I’ve never understood this reaction to Wheeler’s work or his demeanor. No color man talked more than Tim McCarver, who Chris prepared for his second career as a broadcaster. McCarver eventually talked his way into the broadcaster’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame – where he credited Wheeler for his ultimate success. Perhaps it’s apt that they will conclude their on-air careers together.
I enjoyed watching and listening to Chris Wheeler long before I met him. Even his detractors admit that his knowledge of the game is remarkable, implying considerable preparation. If you love baseball, shouldn’t learning more about it enhance your enjoyment? I’ve also appreciated his evident good humor, “fuzzy” or not. Yes, he lacks the memorable voice and apt phrasing of a Harry Kalas, or the distinctive, offbeat manner of a Rich Ashburn. No wonder fans loved that distinctive duo.
Indeed it was the unpredictable Ashburn who gave Wheeler his start as a baseball broadcaster. Disdaining doing the second game of a doubleheader in Montreal, Ashburn simply turned the mike over to the Phillies young PR guy, “Wheels,” he said, removing his headset, “I know you’ve always wanted to do this. So I’m going to take off and leave you here to work with Harry.” By the next season Chris was doing radio regularly with Andy Musser.
Speaking of Kalas, ultimately there would be nothing more damaging than that rumor of a feud between him and Chris. Even today you won’t hear the actual facts from Wheeler. He’s simply never been in the business of gossip or recriminations, one of the qualities I came to admire.
Although I’d never met Chris, I called him in terms of doing a book together during that memorable year of 2008. I’d just completed an “as told to” book, “Don’t Call Me Coach,” with another noted sports personality, Phil Martelli of Saint Joseph’s. Rather like putting a frame around someone else’s picture, it was based on Phil’s abundant recollections and reflections. I proposed to do something similar with Wheeler.
Characteristically, Chris’ first reaction was, “Who would be interested in my life?” But ultimately tenacity prevailed, and we started meeting weekly during the off-season in his dining room. His longtime companion, Renée Gosik, would become positively involved, but she was generally at work. Initially only their little dog Nittany (Penn State has no more loyal alumnus than Wheels) had one ear tuned to the tape recorder. The eventual result, “View from the Booth,” was published by Camino in 2009.
Full of candid memories about people and events, many of the stories were humorous, often at Chris’ own expense, some were sad, but none were mean-spirited. That, as I learned, is simply not in Chris’ nature. Over time we got to know each other pretty well. His interests go far beyond baseball. Would that more of his detractors had this opportunity. Our sessions were only interrupted by calls from his far-flung friends.
The original “View from the Booth” ended with the death of one of the most cherished of them, John Vukovich. Our updated sequel, published in 2013, concluded with that of another, Andy Musser. Chris was now the sole survivor of one of the most celebrated broadcast teams in sports history. And now, after four decades, that, too, will end.
But this is hardly a eulogy. I hope Wheeler’s new position with the team will be in the realm of communications. He’s a remarkably effective speaker. Make that “communicator.” Relaxed, low key, perceptive, and invariably humorous, Chris talks with an audience of any size as if the two-way conversation were taking place in his own dining room – or yours. It’s a rare quality.
For years he has given highly acclaimed “State of the Phillies” talks at venues throughout the Delaware Valley. His favorite remains the Center on the Hill, located within the Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church. I’m glad I got to know this authentic guy they call “Wheels” as he really is.
Dr. Harold I. Gullan is a noted Philadelphia historian and author of books on a wide variety of subjects. His current one, “Tough Cop: Mike Chitwood vs. the ‘Scumbags’” (Camino), marks a new departure, and is available just about everywhere in both paperback and e-book format.