For us fans of baseball, few springtime sounds are sweeter than the smack of a ball hitting a glove or the crack of a bat launching a ball into the outfield or beyond. These are happy sounds indeed to me, but the cowbells are missing. As spring training winds down and Opening Day approaches this year, I am drawn back seven decades to my childhood and to a large man named James H. Wheatley and his cowbell sounds. The Baltimore Orioles were in the International League in those days and played their home games in Municipal Stadium after a 1944 fire had destroyed Oriole Park .
In those days, Wheatley was the undisputed leader of the Baltimore Orioles’ devoted army of fans, who called him the Cowbell Man. Here is how the Baltimore Sun described his arrival at the ballpark with his some of his 85 bells in 1946:
“He takes about 25 to a game, carried in a box about the size of a traveling salesman’s suitcase, that is painted orange and black, the Orioles’ colors, and adorned with slogans. Two of them read, ‘The cowbell man, well known all over the land,’ and ‘Make room in the stands for the cowbell man.’ The box takes up two seals just in front of Mr. Wheatley’s favorite spot, Seat 1. Row 23. in the $1.20 section, just beyond first base. After the box, which weighs approximately 75 pounds, has been swung into position with the help of friends, Mr. Wheatley places about twelve bells on top of It along with two plywood orioles, a polishing cloth, a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. The tools, he explains, are ‘in case of engine trouble.’ Often, especially during exciting plays, the bell-ringer shakes the clapper out of a bell. This is repaired immediately, no matter what the situation is on the playing field. “
A slick infield play would yield a silvery soprano tinkle from Wheatley’s cowbell collection. After a snazzy double play or a sharp single, we could count on hearing a rich tenor clang ringing out across the stadium. When an Oriole got hold of a pitch and hit a home run, Wheatley would reach for a deep-throated big bell and clang it vigorously for several seconds. His favorite bell was a one-pounder sent to him by a former member of the Baltimore ice hockey team.
Fans loved the sounds of Wheatley’s bells and chuckled at the variety of his choices that reflected his view of the importance of the Birds’ accomplishments on the field. Most fans believed that the Cowbell Man had a favorite bell for certain plays, but he denied this. “Only one,” he told the Sun’s reporter, “the king. I ring that every time the Birds get a round-tripper.”
He didn’t stop with the bells, either. Here’s more from the Baltimore Sun: “Mr. Wheatley rings bells, yells homemade slogans through a megaphone, which is about the size college cheer leaders use, and blows a wind instrument that has the tonal quality of a fog horn.” Wheatley, a shy, well-mannered man outside the ballpark, never rang his bells to celebrate miscues by opposing teams.
I celebrate the return of spring and of baseball’s sweet sounds, but I will forever miss those cheerful clangs coming from the first base area when my team does something good.