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William Frederick Wietelmann was born on March 15, 1919, in Zanesville. At an early age he was exposed to baseball.
According to a Times Recorder article dated 3-29-2002, “… Wietelmann grew up around Zanesville baseball with his dad Bill, the field manager and business manager of the Zanesville Mark Greys of the Eastern Ohio League. Jim Thorpe, considered by many the greatest athlete of his generation, was on the roster.”
An excellent all-around athlete, at Lash High School Wietelmann was a star in both football and basketball.
Billy Wietelmann was a caring person who was always willing to help others, but avoided publicity for his good deeds. According to a blog by Bob Lemke, in 1938 the house occupied by Billy and his father caught fire. After escaping from the blaze the younger Wietelmann broke away from the firemen and rushed back into the house to rescue his blind parent. Billy later explained that as a result of the rescue his hands and face were badly burned, and his hair and eyebrows were burned off. Many years later, in 1979, he pulled a man from a burning automobile, saving his life.
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For several years Wietelmann did something special for children. Tommy Helms, then a second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, said, “… he puts on the whiskers and costume and plays Santa Claus to hundreds of kids in San Diego every Christmas. He’s the perfect Santa Claus. They just don’t come any better,” stated a March 2002 article in the TR.
As reported in an April 27 1939 TR article, Billy began the season in the minor leagues and made a good impression: “… Billy Wietelmann of this city was slated to be at short when Hartford opened the Eastern league season yesterday. The blond youngster was the sensation of the club’s training camp at Charleston, W. Va., and won high praise from Manager Fresco Thompson.
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“According to Harold J. Ogden of a Hartford newspaper, young Wietelmann stole the show in the team’s first practice session and continued to rate headlines until the present. He had been playing great defensive ball and has been hitting for distance.”
On Sept. 6, 1939, the 20-year-old Wietelmann made his major league debut with the Boston Bees (Braves) of the National League. He stood 6 feet tall , weighed 170 pounds and was a switch hitter. The Times Recorder reported: “Billy Wietelmann of Zanesville got a good sample of major league ball this afternoon when he capably filled the shortstop position for the Bees, although they were victims of a 10-4 defeat at the hands of Bill Terry’s New York Giants.
“The youngster not only played error-less ball but batted .333, getting a single and base on balls in four trips to the platter. He was brought up from Hartford in the Eastern league.”
He went on to have a nine-year career in the major leagues. The first eight seasons were with the Braves and his final season, in 1947, was with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 580 games he hit .232 with seven home-runs and 122 runs batted in. His best offensive season was 1945, when he hit .271, getting 116 hits in 428 official trips to the plate.
Wietelmann played mostly at shortstop and second base, but also made a few appearances at third base and one at first. He even pitched in four games. Known as a slick fielder, he often served as a valuable utility man and great clubhouse presence.
Nicknames have always been a big part of baseball. Billy Wietelmann’s Boston manager, the legendary Casey Stengel, renamed the young player “Whitey” because of his light blond hair. From then on he was called Billy about as often as later the great “Yogi “Berra would be called Lawrence.
After Wietelmann’s major league career ended he spent several years in the minor leagues as both a player and a manager. In 1966 he joined the Cincinnati Reds as a first base coach and stayed through the 1967 season. He was a member of the San Diego club when it became a National League team in 1969. He continued as a coach for that team through the 1979 season, and remained associated with the Padres for fourteen more years.
The owner of the Padres, Ray Kroc, knew of Wietelmann’s culinary skills. The March 29, 2002, TR article previously mentioned, stated: “After giving his on-field duties up, … Kroc spent $28,000 to refurbish Wietelmann’s office with cooking equipment and a well-stock(ed) refrigerator. Wietelmann then prepared meals for the Padres and opposing teams.”.
He died on March 26, 2002, in San Diego. William Frederick “Whitey” Wietelmann was a good utility player and an excellent coach, but even more importantly, he was a kind and generous person. Dave Bristol, the Reds’ manager, said in 1967: “Whitey’s biggest kick in life is doing something for somebody. What makes him so unusual is that he never wants to be repaid. He’s one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met.”
Lewis LeMaster is a retired teacher of the Zanesville area.