Zachariah Davis Wheat was born on May 23, 1888, at his family's farm near Hamilton, Missouri, sixty miles northeast of Kansas City. Missouri was still a wild frontier then; just six years earlier, Jesse James was murdered by a member of his own gang in nearby St. Joseph. Zack was the eldest of three sons, all of whom played professional baseball. The middle brother, Mack, spent five years as Zack's teammate with Brooklyn, while the youngest brother, Basil, was a longtime outfielder and catcher in the minors. Their father, Basil Sr., was a descendant of Moses Wheat, one of the Puritans who fled England and founded Concord, Massachusetts, in 1635, and their mother was said to be a full-blooded Cherokee. Zack was reluctant to discuss his Native American background, but his heritage was well-known in baseball circles. In an era that also produced Jim Thorpe and Chief Bender, Wheat's Indian blood was thought by some to be the primary reason for his excellence. "The lithe muscles, the panther-like motions of the Indian are his by divine right," Baseball Magazine wrote in 1917.
On the advice of scout Larry Sutton, Brooklyn purchased Wheat's contract from Mobile for a reported $1,200 on August 29, 1909, and that September Zack batted .304 in 26 games for the Superbas. "He is an Indian, but you would hardly guess it except from his dark complexion," wrote one newspaper shortly after Zack's arrival in Brooklyn. "He is a very fine fellow and a quiet and refined gentleman." In 1910, his first full major league season, Wheat finally became the offensive threat he had never been in the minors, leading the Dodgers with a .284 average while ranking among the league leaders in hits (172), doubles (36), and triples (15). "I was young and inexperienced [in the minors]," Wheat explained. "The fellows that I played with encouraged me to bunt and beat the ball out. I was anxious to make good and did as I was told. When I came to Brooklyn I adopted an altogether different style of hitting. I stood flat-footed at the plate and slugged. That was my natural style."
On May 13, 1912, Wheat skipped a game at Cincinnati to marry Daisy Kerr Forsman, his 25-year-old second cousin, whom he had first met only two months earlier when the Superbas played an exhibition series in her hometown of Louisville. When the Brooklyn players found out that the couple had eloped, they decorated a "bridal suite" on the team train to St. Louis. It was the start of a tradition: In later years, Wheat's family almost always accompanied him on train trips cities around the circuit. In marrying Daisy, Zach acquired not only a wife but an agent, as well. "I made him hold out each year for seven years," Daisy remembered, "and each time he got a raise."
In the offseason Wheat raised stock -- during World War I he sold mules to the Army to serve as pack animals on the battlefields of Europe--and he used the second job as leverage in contract negotiations. "I am a ball player in the summer and a farmer in the winter time," he said, "and I aim to be a success at both professions." Unless Brooklyn met his demands each spring, Zack was perfectly content to stay on his farm in Polo, Missouri.
In 1927 the Dodgers decided they no longer needed Wheat. In recognition of his many years of service, the club released him rather than trade him so he could negotiate his own deal with whomever he chose. After being wooed by the Giants, Yankees, and Senators, Wheat signed a $15,000 contract with the Philadelphia Athletics and batted .324 in part-time duty there. In 1928 he signed with Minneapolis of the American Association, batting .309 before suffering a bruised heel that put him on the shelf for the season and, as it turned out, forever. Wheat decided to retire from baseball in 1929. At the time, his 2,884 hits were tenth on the all-time major league list, while his 4,100 total bases ranked ninth.
Wheat turned to farming full-time after leaving baseball, but the Great Depression lowered prices so dramatically that in 1932 he was forced to sell his 160 acres for just $23,000. He moved his family to Kansas City, Missouri, where he operated a bowling alley for a time before becoming a patrolman with the Kansas City Police Department. He nearly died on Easter Sunday 1936 when he crashed his patrol car while chasing a fugitive, suffering a fractured skull, dislocated shoulder, broken wrist, and 15 broken ribs. After five months in the hospital, Wheat moved with his family to Sunrise Beach, Missouri, a resort town on the shores of the Lake of the Ozarks, to recuperate. As it turned out, Wheat spent the rest of his life in Sunrise Beach. Always an avid hunter, he opened a 46-acre hunting and fishing resort, which became a popular destination for ex-ballplayers. One of his favorite activities was turning on his radio and television simultaneously to listen to two different ballgames at once. Occasionally he and Daisy drove to Kansas City or St. Louis to see a game in person.
Zack Wheat died on March 11, 1972, at a hospital in Sedalia, Missouri. Shortly before his death he was asked if he had any advice for youngsters with ballplaying aspirations. "Yes," he said. "Tell them to learn to chew tobacco."