Sunday, September 9, 2007

Finding Tommy (Part 2)

Click here to read Part 1 of the interview

Ever meet any players?
I met a lot of professional athletes when I was a kid, but not because I was with Beckett. During the summer my Dad would take me with him to Cardinals and St. Louis Blues practices. I'd shag pucks for the Blues and watch the Cardinals take batting practice while my Dad did his interviews for that night's story. I'd also occasionally go with my dad down to the locker rooms at old Busch Stadium or the old St. Louis Arena, where the Blues used to play before it was torn down.

There are two incidents where I met pro athletes that stand out in my mind. The first was when I was at Cardinals spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was about ten years old. My Dad mentioned to Whitey Herzog, the legendary (at least in St. Louis) Cardinals manager, that I was in the stands watching batting practice.

I realize that people outside of St. Louis might not know much about the "White Rat", as Whitey was known, but let's just say he sometimes had a colorful way of expressing himself. Apparently, Whitey said something to my Dad along the lines of, "What the %$@# is he doing up there? Get his @%# in the dugout!" My dad is old school about journalistic ethics, was horrified at the idea. The next thing I know, Whitey is yelling at me to get down in the dugout. He then proceeded to get a ball and directed all the players to sign it. My dad was mortified. Good times.

The second athlete was Muhammad Ali. I don't want to get into it in great detail, but let me just say that even now he's the most powerful presence in any room. It was a great honor for me to meet someone who lived his life according to his beliefs and had such an impact on modern American history.

What did readers think about Kids Korner?
I never got a lot of direct feedback from the magazine because my Dad did all the talking, but the editors at Beckett loved it and couldn't wait to run it. Kids Korner generated more mail than almost any other column. The majority of people loved it, but every month they would get hate mail from adults that thought either a) it was a waste of space to have an article written by a kid or b) hated it because they thought they could write a better article.

Remember, this is before the Internet. So, some guy had to read my article and become so upset by it that he got a piece of paper, found a pen, wrote his thoughts down, found an envelope, addressed it, put a stamp on it, and then sent it to Beckett, a magazine about baseball cards. To complain about an article written by a ten-year-old. People are insane.

I remember that my Mom was horrified by this and told my Dad not to tell me about the hate mail, but he told me anyway. My reaction was that it was cool that I was getting hate mail.

Did you ever come face to face with someone who didn't like your writing?
I actually never had anyone tell me to my face that they hated Kids Korner. I'd like to think it's because most people liked the column, but maybe they were just being polite.

How long did it last?
I wrote for Beckett from December 1987 to January 1993, from the ages of nine till I was fourteen. I was not a monthly contributor. I think during that period I had about 23 articles published, though the bulk of them were probably written and published from 1988 to 1990. There are actually a couple of articles that never ran, sort of like “lost episodes.”

Did you stop writing or did they kill the column?
More than anything, I grew up. It's hard to write Kids Korner when you're fourteen. It's like the child actors when they aren't cute anymore.

Also, around the early 1990’s I started losing interest in collecting. It became too expensive, with all the limited edition cards and inserts. One pack of cards was a couple of bucks. Completing one full set of cards became a really expensive proposition. Kids could no longer just take their pocket money and buy a few packs of cards on their own. The greedy adults ruined it.

Anyone ever recognize you back then?
I never really had anyone recognize me because the picture that went with my articles in Beckett was possibly the worst headshot in the history of photography. It's embarrassing. To this day I wonder why we didn't send in a better picture.

(Editor’s Note: Sorry Tommy, we found the picture)

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My friends and classmates in primary and high school all knew about it. I never really had anyone try to make fun of me for it, though. I didn't have people on the street recognize me but I was just a kid, so I didn't meet too many strangers.

As I got older, occasionally people would ask me after I had introduced myself, "Say, are you by chance the Tommy Wheatley that wrote for Beckett?" At that point I'd own up to it, and we'd chat for a bit about collecting or Beckett.

I did have one experience when I was in college that made me wonder, though. I lived with the same roommate for the last three years of university. During our first year together, we were talking one day and the subject of card collecting came up and I mentioned that I was really into it as a kid and that I even wrote for Beckett. My roommate, who was kind of a mysterious guy anyway, looked at me and said, "Oh, I know who you are."

After that I wondered if there weren't more guys like him out there that knew exactly who I was but didn't want to say anything about it when they met me. Collecting sports cards isn't exactly the coolest hobby to be admitting in college.

Why didn't you continue writing? You had an impressive resume by the age of 14.
I didn't stop writing; I just stopped doing it professionally. I've had a love of writing from at a young age. I was blessed to have excellent writing teachers when I was growing up. My father is still the best writer I know and he wasn't shy about telling me what I was doing wrong. No coddling there.

In high school I had a teacher named Tom Reck who was a fantastic writing teacher. I remember I got a C on my first paper in his class (almost everyone did, because we all sucked). I was a good student and I went home that night and threw a fit. My dad looked at my paper and the comments that Mr. Reck had written and said, "I don't disagree with anything he's written about your paper." This ticked me off even more.

I had an article published in a book called Fathers and Sons. I thought that was hysterical because the topic of the book was famous fathers and sons in sports. There were chapters on all these famous athletic families, and then a chapter on Tom and Tommy Wheatley. Hmmm, one of these things is not like the others...

I went to college at Truman State University, a liberal arts and sciences school in a small town in northeastern Missouri. There was a paper at Truman called The Monitor. A group of students founded it in the early 1990s after they watched Noam Chomsky's film “Manufacturing Consent", about how a small number of corporations controls a majority of media outlets, which limits the number of viewpoints in the marketplace. They thought our school should have more than one paper. I wrote extensively for The Monitor for about three years and was also an editor for one year.

Two articles I'm very proud included a story about a fistfight between a student and a professor, where I scooped the school paper and got an interview with both the professor and the student. The other article was about how Shell Oil was basically paying the military in Nigeria to wipe out villages of people so they could drill for oil. As a result of the efforts of many students on my campus, the local Shell station was forced to close its doors.

How did you get into DJing?
I was turned on to dance music during 1998, when groups like Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, and numerous others broke into the mainstream in America. They were calling it "Electronica.” Thank god that name didn't stick. I started going to raves and became fascinated with the idea of DJing, that a person could take two records recorded at different speeds and keys by different people in different countries and mix them together so that the listener couldn't tell where one song began and one song ended.

The year after college I bought some turntables and started learning to mix records. Some of my friends were DJs and they were very helpful in teaching me how to do it properly. I became obsessed with it and would practice for hours a day, so it wasn't long before I was playing out at house parties. I wasn't really planning on it ever being more than just a hobby, though. It's really tough to break into any part of the music scene in America.

During my first three months in China I met another American named MJ. He was a club DJ and he told me about how he was getting flown around the country to do parties at different clubs. I thought that DJing would be more interesting than teaching English (you can only teach the "My name is ____. What's your name?" class so many times before your brain explodes), and also would be a good opportunity to explore the country. So, I started DJing on the weekends at a local bar, and eventually was able to quit teaching and DJ full time. I've been to over fifty cities in China to play records.

I play house music, and I only use vinyl. It's hard to say what style I play without sounding like a dance music elitist, but if I had to categorize it I'd call it "Chunky Electro Tech House." It's basically music that you'd dance to at a club.

Here's a link to a page with a couple of my mixes. It's all free.

What’s the craziest thing you've seen while DJing?
I had just finished at set at this club and a huge fight broke out. It spilled from the second tier VIP seating to the first tier, and then they brawled all the way across the club to the door. Guys were bleeding and hitting each other with these heavy metal barstools. It was wild. My girlfriend looked at me and said, "That's the best fight I've ever seen.”

Ever look back and cringe at the articles?
Honestly, I don't really feel that way, because the articles were pretty good. Remember, Kids Korner was a risky thing for a print magazine to try, any print magazine. Beckett was like the Bible for card collectors, so it was a big deal for them to hand over a page every month to a kid. These days, a column like Kids Korner might just appear online.

It was very ambitious on their part. I don't know if I've ever read a monthly column in any other magazine written by a grade school kid. Beckett wouldn't have run it for as long as they did if it was just a bad idea.

By contrast, after the first few Kids Korner articles were so well received, they created an article called "Teen Topics". This was a monthly column that was written by a different teenager every month. It didn't last very long. I think it was unsuccessful because they didn't have just one kid write it every month.

Sometimes, there would be a Kids Korner article and a Teen Topics article in the same issue. I used to remember always reading the Teen Topics article to see if it was better than my Kids Korner article. Typically, I always thought mine were better.

How did a Kids Korner article get written, from the concept to the finished article?
Looking back, this was the best part of my experience writing Kids Korner, because I did it all with my Dad. He was like the equivalent of a record producer in a studio.

We always wrote down potential ideas for stories. Sometimes the articles would be about some aspect of collecting and sometimes they would be about something I did, like being the batboy, having a baseball card trading party, and so on. I think the best articles were about something I did.

Whenever my we had a bunch of ideas ready and my Dad had free time we would write an article, sometimes even two. We would go up to my bedroom and my dad would sit on my bed with his laptop computer. I would shoot baskets on myNerf hoop and dictate to my Dad what I wanted to say. He'd type it in for me. After he typed something in, he would read it back to me to make sure it was how I wanted it. I do remember being very specific with what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.

Then, after we'd written the whole thing, we'd go back through it and fix it up. My dad would say things like, "Ok, you've started the last three sentences with "I". Can you think of a different way to say this?" or "Do you want to talk about how you got the interview with this person or just go straight to the interview?"

The thing people really liked about Kids Korner was that it really sounded like a nine-year-old kid. My Dad pretty much left my words the way they were and just helped me fix the grammar and arrange my thoughts properly. He did a great job letting my voice come through in the articles.

The hardest part of any article was coming up with the first sentence. That used to frustrate me. We'd be all ready to start the article and it would take me twenty minutes to think of a good first line. After getting that first line, the rest of the article went pretty quickly. Sometimes, when I got on a roll, I'd be talking so fast my Dad would have to tell me to wait for him to catch up on typing it all.

Where are your cards now?
My cards are all packed in large purple Tupperware tubs in the basement of my parent's house. All the complete sets and boxes of commons are in those set boxes that you had to fold yourself. I also have stacks of three-ring binders with cards in them. It would be entertaining to look through those and see which cards I had selected as a kid to be worthy of binder status.

About how many do you have?
I have thousands of cards. The majority of them are from probably 1987 to 1991. Those were the years when my Dad and I were really heavy into collecting.

We have a whole lot of cards from 1987. My Dad just loved the 1987 Topps cards because they had a wood grain design that reminded him of the 1962 Topps cards he collected as a kid. I mean, he really got into those 1987 Topps cards. We bought so many packs that year that I think we completed about six full sets. My mom thought we were out of our minds.

Ever think of selling them?
I don't think about selling those cards because they just aren't worth that much. The cards from the 1980's were mass-produced, so they aren't very hard to come by. Now, if me how they miraculously shot up in value, I'd sell off some of those excess complete sets I have, but I'd still keep at least one complete set of everything I had. I think in the future those 1980's cards won't be worth much, but will make great gifts for a lot of young sons and daughters.

1 comment:

HookMan said...

Very nice article! I'm going to check out his DJ stuff too!