One of my favorite books as a kid was Hank Aaron’s autobiography, I Had a Hammer. I loved baseball. I lived in Atlanta, and to me, Aaron was all that was good about sports.
For all Aaron had been through in pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record, a Black man playing baseball in a southern city during the Civil Rights era, he was a hero. He was a great player with a great story to tell, and I loved reading it. The co-author of I Had a Hammer was Lonnie Wheeler. Whenever I read Lonnie’s tome on Aaron as a young teen, I never analyzed the quality of the writing. I didn’t think about the reporting and interviewing skills of the author. I didn’t think about how the book was laid out and how it was put together. I didn’t think about how Wheeler was tasked to write the book in such a way that it would sound exactly like Aaron was the one speaking it.
The technical aspects of the book flew over my head. I just know that I liked reading it over and over again.
About a dozen years later, I got to work with Lonnie when I was hired at the Cincinnati Post. I met him in 2004, and we went down with the ship together when the newspaper closed at the end of 2007. So many of those days in those three years, I got to see him pound away at his keyboard. The next day, I’d get to read the results of his late-night sessions. It was then that I could truly appreciate his skills, with his interviewing and his writing and the way he laid out his columns. I appreciated Wheeler’s work when I was a kid without comprehending why. I appreciated him even more when I truly understood his technique and his talent.
He wasn’t a hellraiser by nature, and his columns weren’t usually controversial. But they were always such a pleasure to read. Just like I Had a Hammer.
In some ways, the strange schedule of the Post—we were an afternoon newspaper, meaning copy editors stayed up until 5 a.m. or so putting the next day’s edition to bed—was a good setup for Lonnie. He could tap out his words, delete and edit as needed, and he could ride his deadline until well after midnight. If you worked at the Post and had the inclination, you could take your time and churn out a quality piece. Lonnie always did.
I always thought Lonnie would’ve been brilliant at a magazine like Sports Illustrated or Sport or The Sporting News. There, he could have waxed magnificently for 5,000 words about baseball or college basketball or, who knows, equestrian. And you would have wanted to read it over and over again simply because Lonnie wrote it, the same way people wanted to read Gary Smith in SI because Gary Smith was the one who had written it.
Lonnie was born in 1952, and he died on June 9, 2020. He was just about finished with his final book, a biography on Cool Papa Bell. It’ll be a fantastic work, because Lonnie was a fantastic writer.
But he was even better as a person. He was a good friend, the kind of guy who would give you advice, who would try to find ways for you to succeed. He was a jokester too. He fired out one of the sickest, yet most subtle burns I’ve ever heard when he and my friend Trent Rosecrans were covering the Flying Pig marathon.
I hadn’t spoken to Lonnie much in the decade or so after I left Cincinnati, but in the past few years, I’ve loved reading Lonnie’s Facebook posts. Much of the time, he was waxing poetic on the birds who flittered outside the window of his home.
In one of his final Facebook posts, written in May, he declared, “For several days, we were visited by what appeared to be a somewhat larger sparrow that we couldn’t identify. It was close to a white-throated sparrow but not quite. Yesterday, the annual rose-breasted grosbeak came pleasantly calling. This morning, two RBGs (I call them Ginsburg) showed up at the same time, which prompted us to check whether the females look the same as the males. They do not.”
And that’s how I like to imagine Lonnie now. Sitting inside his home office, tapping out gorgeous words onto his computer for his latest book, looking outside every now and again to see if the birds had stopped by for a quick chat.
The most important teacher of my life, the late, great Conrad Fink, talked about wordsmiths and how some writers just have a knack for turning in magnificent prose. Lonnie was a wordsmith, one of the most beautiful writers I’ve ever read.
A real scribe, Lonnie was. In Lonnie’s case, though, he was an even better human. In the lingo of Cincinnati sports writers—who mourn Lonnie today in Twitter threads, Facebook postings, and text messages—he would have been known as a “sheer delight.”
We’ve lost Lonnie, our friend and mentor. But we still have our memories of him. We can still remember his talent. And we still have all of his beautiful words to read over and over again.