CHECKING IN with long-time broadcaster Chris Wheeler. Here’s a Q&A with Wheels about his career and the game.
Born in Philadelphia, “Wheels” is a graduate of Marple Newtown High School (1963) and Penn State (1967, B.A., Journalism). Following graduation, he worked for WCAU radio in Philadelphia, WBBM in Chicago and CBS radio in New York prior to joining the Phillies as the assistant director of public relations, July 5, 1971. He began broadcasting Phillies games in 1977, working on radio, PRISM TV and ComcastSportsNet.
On the air he worked with Andy Musser, Harry Kalas, Richie Ashburn, Jim Jackson, Tom McCarthy, Scott Graham, Tim McCarver, Garry Maddox, Mike Schmidt, Greg Gross, Jim Fregosi, Kent Tekulve, Todd Kalas, Jay Johnstone, John Kruk and Gary Matthews.
Longest tenured Phillies broadcasters are Harry Kalas (38-plus seasons), Wheels (37) and Ashburn (35).
You were an infielder on the Marple Newtown High School baseball team. Who was the best player you played against?
“In 1963 we played Cheltenham High School at Marple-Newtown and a LH outfielder punched out two times in his 1st two AB’s on curve balls against a good RH pitcher named Art Hasson. In his third AB this guy timed one of those curve balls and hit a massive shot to right field. Since we had no fences, he had to run it out and he could have run around the bases twice by the time the ball was retrieved. Guy’s name was Reggie Jackson.”
Your childhood baseball hero?
“I loved Richie Ashburn. He could run, hit and go get them in centerfield better than anyone in his era. Duke Snider, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle where superstar power-hitters at the same position when he played. “Whitey” won more batting titles (two), had more 200-hit seasons (three), a higher lifetime batting average (.308) and dominated the league defensively. When I was a senior in high school, I’d listen to him broadcast the games. Then, I got to work with him on the air all those years
“At one point in the late 1970s, Whitey stayed with me in Roxborough. After several weeks, I tried politely to ask him if he would be willing to offer a small sum since he was living rent free. He looked at me, ‘Why should I? I’m your childhood hero.’”
First major league game you ever saw?
“I think my first was at Connie Mack Stadium against the NY Giants around 1954–55. My memory is that Del Ennis and Monte Irvin hit home runs. Who knows what a 9–10-year-old remembers.”
Did you do any broadcasting while at Penn State?
“I was on the student station WDFM as sports director. At the time no one else wanted the job. I did basketball games at old Rec Hall. Also did some baseball games and it was so cold. I didn’t think we had many listeners. My biggest thrill was taping a weekly radio show with a first-year head football coach named Joe Paterno. He was so gracious. I can still remember sitting there talking with him before practice as he put on those black shoes and rolled up his pants. What a thrill. And yes, I sensed even back then that he was special.”
Who is the most famous person(s) you’ve met, other than ballplayers?
“Presidents Nixon, Clinton, and Obama. Also developed a friendship with a young actor and die-hard Phillies fan, Christopher Guest who married a pretty well-known actress, Jamie Lee Curtis.”
You’ve done play-by-play and color commentary. Did you have any preference?
“I enjoyed both. They are two different animals requiring different skills as are presenting the game on radio and TV. But I really loved having a chance to analyze the game. Baseball is a fascinating sport and I felt coming to the ballpark every day I may see something I’d never seen before. I was fortunate to be fairly young in the 70’s and spend a lot of time with the guys who would be world champions in 1980. I did a lot of listening and asked many questions. Those guys taught me the game.”
Your most memorable moment on the air?
“We weren’t on the air for the 1980 World Series as it was all network announcers. So, it had to be the bottom of the 9th inning of game 6 of the 2008 WS. It was a thrill to sit there with Harry Kalas and hear him call the final out. I sort of went crazy pumping my fists. While not a memorable moment on the air, riding in the two parades and seeing the joy on the fan’s faces produced indelible memories.”
If you could change one thing in baseball, what would it be?
“Baseball remains our greatest game. But changes are necessary. I would eliminate the shifts. A pitch clock also is a necessity as is regulating all the nonsense that goes with the hitter between pitches. And no more starting an extra inning with a runner on second base.”
Will you be the public address announcer in Clearwater this spring?
“Yes, whenever that may be. I’ve done it every year since 1972 with exception of I believe 4–5 years when Comcast televised all Clearwater games. Got my break in 1972 when you came to me before my first spring training game and asked if I’d ever done the PA. Turns out the regular guy had been over served the night before and was nowhere to be seen. Of course, I’d never done it before, but I was ready to do anything in those days. Guess I “Wally Pipped” him.”