Lonnie Wheeler, Cincinnati Sportswriter And Author, Has Died

Lonnie Wheeler, a Cincinnati sportswriter who authored books with baseball greats Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson, died Tuesday after a long battle with muscular dystrophy.

Wheeler, in his late 60s, worked at both the Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati Post, and for USA TODAY, and wrote more than a dozen books.

Born in St. Louis in 1952, he was first hired by the Enquirer as a features writer in the late 1970s. He  switched to sports in the 1980s after a stint with the start-up of USA TODAY, a sister Gannett publication.

His first two books were published in 1988: The Cincinnati Game, a Reds history with John Baskin, and Bleachers: A Summer In Wrigley Field. He was best known for collaborating with home run king Aaron on his 1992 biography, I Had A Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story.

The Aaron book opened the door to writing three books with Gibson, the Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinals pitcher: Stanger To The Game: The Autobiography of Bob Gibson; Pitch By Pitch: My Views Of One Unforgettable Game; and Six Feet, Six Inches with Gibson and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.

"Lonnie Wheeler was my best man and one of the best men I have known," says Tim Sullivan of Louisville, a former Enquirer sports columnist who met Wheeler at the University of Missouri. As sports editor The Maneater, Missouri’s student newspaper, Wheeler "set high standards for both the quality of his work and the compassion he showed subjects and colleagues even as an undergraduate."

Sullivan described Wheeler "as a prose stylist who rarely raised his voice, either in person or in print, writing to reveal rather than to trigger reaction. He wrote columns for both the Enquirer and the Post, but is best known as an author of baseball biographies of Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Mike Piazza and, coming soon, Cool Papa Bell. His Intangiball won an award from the Society of American Baseball Research."

Peter King, NBC Sports' "NFL Insider," started his career at the Enquirer working five years with Wheeler, who was his mentor and close friend.

"Lonnie was my North Star, in writing and in life. We both lived in Mount Washington and I got to know him and his wife Martie so well. We coached a Knothole team together. The most important thing about Lonnie personally and professionally was his principled kindness. I'll take his ethos with me for the rest of my days," King said.

“Lonnie was a very good friend, devoted to his family and Christian Scientist faith, and the most talented writer I have ever known," says Wayne Buckhout, a former Enquirer business reporter. "We met as Enquirer reporters, and our families spent great times together. As his health declined, it was my privilege to spend lunchtimes with Lonnie talking about our families and politics, about his Reds and my Yankees, and our shared hopes for fairness and social justice in all aspects of American life. Anyone who reads his work, whether about baseball, basketball or anything else, will come to understand what a humble but exceptionally gifted man he was."

"I'm truly saddened to hear of Lonnie Wheeler's death," says Keith Herrell, Post sports editor from 2004 to 2007. "The Post's Sports Department doubled as a debating society, and Lonnie was undefeated, untied and unscored on without ever raising his voice. And of course he was the one we turned to for the sports centerpiece on our last day of publication."

Wheeler's other titles include Intangiball: The Subtle Things That Win Baseball Games; a Reds history called The Cincinnati Game; Cincinnati Schoolboy Legends; a University of Kentucky basketball book called Blue Yonder: Kentucky, the United States of Basketball; and biographies of Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, Negro Leagues star Cool Papa Bell, catcher Mike Piazza and former Detroit mayor Coleman Young.

Sullivan wanted everyone to know what an outstanding writer Wheeler was, and sent me these excerpts for readers of this tribute to him:

From Bleachers: A Summer In Wrigley Field:

"My infatuation is with real places. I think of a real place one that feels different than other places, and there aren't very many of them left in America. An image I had -- I can't even say what the image was, exactly; it was just an indistinct but unmistakable something -- persuaded me that the bleacher section of Wrigley Field was such a place. . .I imagined that the bleachers at Wrigley Field were what baseball was all about, and that if I could capture the bleachers, I could capture baseball."

From I Had A Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story:

"I recall sitting on a picnic table at the Art Gaines Baseball Camp in rural Missouri as the coaches talked about hitting a baseball hard -- not high and far but hard -- and raising my hand to tell them that I had been to Busch Stadium in St. Louis and seen Hank Aaron hit a ball that banged off the left-field wall quicker than, well, I don't know what, but quicker than anybody else alive could make a baseball bang against an outfield wall. I knew that would impress them, because they were baseball people and they would know that Hank Aaron was the right name to drop in that situation."

From Stranger To The Game: The Autobiography of Bob Gibson:

"Gibson pitched the last few years on guts and brains. (Reggie) Smith would have seen him before that, when the guts and brains had legs -- long, strong, basketball legs that seemed, as he kicked and whirled and catapulted off the rubber, to make up about three-fourths… of maybe the best athlete who ever squinted at a catcher's gnarled fingers. Anybody who cares anything about baseball or has an interest in what the game used to be all about or what it's like when a great athlete takes it to the limit should have seen Bob Gibson in his prime."

Wheeler lived in Silverton with Martie. They have three adult children.

I'll add to this post when I hear from more of his coworkers, and get information about services.

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