David W. Toll had made a name for himself in Nevada as a writer and publisher. He’s written with unabashed affection about the state and its people for decades.
But this time of year he finds himself serving as the unofficial president of the Wheezer Dell Fan Club.
Don’t know Wheezer? Then you don’t know a spitball about native Nevadans who made it all the way to the Big Leagues.
There have been plenty. Some acquitted themselves with distinction. Others whiffed in baseball’s rarified air.
Hall of Famer Greg Maddux is without question the most famous baseball player associated in Nevada, but he was born in California. Long before Las Vegas native and Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper filled headlines and airwaves, there was “Wheezer” Dell.
In fact, none can best William George Dell in one category. He is the first Nevada native to ascend to major league heights. Toll starches the uniform of Dell’s memory in his entertaining “NevadaGram” blog at nevadatravel.net, a Silver State-loving website that logged more than 1.4 million visits last year.
Perhaps best known as the author of “The Complete Nevada Traveler,” Toll, in the 1970s, published the Gold Hill News near Virginia City and in 1983 served as the first acting director of the Nevada Tourism Commission. He’s written and contributed to a stack of books and magazines. (Among his many books is his co-authorship of brothel baron Joe Conforte’s memoir, “Breaks, Brains &Balls.”)
He’s also a Dell devotee.
Dell was born June 11, 1886, in Tuscarora, a mining outpost northwest of Elko that in the late 1800s reportedly produced $40 million in silver. It appears to have produced only one big leaguer.
Wheezer was a tall right-hander, 6 foot 4 inches and 210 pounds. Starting with the lowly Butte Miners in 1909, he climbed through the minor-league ranks and later distinguished himself in the Pacific Coast League with Vernon and Seattle. He pitched more than 2,000 innings in the PCL and in 1921 led the league with 28 wins.
He broke into the big leagues in 1912 with the St. Louis Cardinals and pitched from 1915-17 with the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers). The highlight of a brief but respectable career was an appearance in Game 5 of the 1916 World Series against the Boston Red Sox, which was then led by lefty pitching sensation Babe Ruth.
If you think that qualifies as a brief career, Dell also appeared in films. He didn’t exactly rise to stardom there, either. He was on camera as himself in Brooklyn’s unsuccessful challenge of the Red Sox, and played an uncredited role as a “brother” in the 1922 short film “My Wife’s Relations.” That 25-minute flick was directed by and starred Buster Keaton.
Thanks in part to Toll’s remembrance, Wheezer is still a big man in Tuscarora. Locals have been considering producing a festive day in his honor. Although, to be honest, “Wheezer Day” sounds like something that pays tribute to asthmatics.
Dell pitched his last professional game in 1926 with the Beaumont Exporters of the Texas League. He died on Aug. 24, 1966, in Independence, Calif., on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, a long day’s drive from his Tuscarora birthplace.
Leave it to David W. Toll to put Wheezer Dell back on the mound of Nevada history.
Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295.