by Annette Hinkle
Wilfrid Sheed, writer, raconteur, avid fan of baseball and the Great American Songbook, and the official “unofficial” Commissioner of Sag Harbor Softball has died.
Sheed passed away at a nursing home in Great Barrington, Mass. on Wednesday, January 19. He was 80 and according to his family, the cause of death was urosepsis due to complications of cancer and the effects of childhood polio.
Sheed was born in London on December 27, 1930 to Francis (Frank J.) and Maisie Sheed, owners of a Catholic publishing house. Sheed wrote about them in his 1985 book “Frank & Maisie: A Memoir with Parents.” The family moved to New York in 1940 when Sheed was nine to escape the war. It was there that Sheed discovered his passion for music and baseball. Though a case of childhood polio at the age of 14 left him without the full use of his legs, it never dampened his enthusiasm for the game.
Sheed’s literary career began in the 1950s with magazine reviews, essays and criticism. A Book-of-the-Month Club judge, he was also a novelist whose titles include “A Middle Class Education,” “The Hack,” “Square’s Progress,” “Office Politics,” “Max Jamison,” “People Will Always Be Kind” and “Transatlantic Blues.” In memoirs, Sheed wrote about everything from baseball to his struggles with cancer, polio and drug and alcohol addiction. Sheed’s final book, “The House That George Built: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole and a Crew of About Fifty” came out in 2007 and was a tribute to the music that he loved.
Less than a month ago, Sheed was transferred from a care facility in Southampton to Great Barrington where his wife, Miriam Ungerer Sheed, had relocated to be near her daughter after the couple sold their North Haven home. But all who knew Sheed will tell you that the East End was truly home for him.
“He said to me, ‘At some point everyone finds their place and this is mine,’” recalled Sheed’s friend and onetime neighbor, David M. Alpern, this week.
The Sheeds moved to Sag Harbor fulltime in 1972 where they bought a house on High Street.
“We were among the very first transplanted New Yorkers,” said Miriam Ungerer Sheed. “He really liked Sag Harbor. It was he who said when we decided to move to the East End, ‘I really want to live in a town. I don’t want to live in one of those communities where they close up the doors on Labor Day and you don’t see anyone on the street until Memorial Day. I want a town town.’ And when we moved to Sag Harbor it was a town.”
In a 2002 interview with the Sag Harbor Express, Sheed himself recalled what the village was like at the time.
“We were close to the creation of The American Hotel,” said Sheed. “In those days, before the crowds moved in, I liked Sag Harbor. Nobody knew or cared what I did for a living. It was like New York City east. You heard Brooklyn accents and there were almost as many saloons.”
It wasn’t long before others started coming out from the city, and among Sheed’s many friends were fellow writers, including Kurt Vonnegut who used to play power croquet on his High Street lawn. But Sheed didn’t just hang out with the literary crowd. He also got to know Sag Harbor’s local characters, including artist Cappy Amundsen whom he once beat at a game of pool at the Black Buoy. Sheed was one of the few people who ever did.
“The Lord was on my side that night,” said Sheed. “I played the best game of my life.”
But perhaps one of Sheed’s greatest joys in Sag Harbor were the Saturday morning softball games that began in the mid-1970s on a field behind Pierson High School. Played by a collection of writers, friends and other locals, the games eventually moved to Mashashimuet Park, where they grew in popularity are still played to this day, though a bit more seriously now.
Despite his use of a leg brace and cane, Sheed took his turn at bat by swinging with one hand, and relying on a pinch runner, usually a local kid, who trotted the bases for him.
“Sheed was the official unofficial commissioner of the Sag Harbor Softball League,” said friend Billy Powers. “It was a wonderful, useless occupation for him, but great fun.”
Even in later years, after Sheed was diagnosed with tongue cancer, the love for his passions remained evident.
“You’d run into Sheed and he looked like hell, but then you’d forget about it because he was so bright, engaged and enthusiastic,” said Alpern. “He was the smartest man I know who suffered fools gladly. He was a pleasure. You could talk to him about anything.”
“I remember sitting around singing to old records and having a fine time,” added Alpern. “He had an endless supply of great stories about the song writers. He knew more lyrics than anyone.”
“He was a stoic,” added Miriam Ungerer Sheed. “He never complained, though he had so many illnesses in the last couple of years. Self pity was not in his makeup whatsoever.”
“He loved to talk. He was a great talker,” she added. “Now that he’s not here. I don’t know who I’m going to talk to. There’s no one else I’d rather talk to.”
This week, stepdaughter Phoebe Ungerer added that what she will remember about Sheed was his sense of humor.
“Bill always told me how he loved W.C. fields’ quote on his headstone, ‘All Things Considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.’ In proper fashion, Bill is exiting with that great kind of humor.”
“On his headstone he wanted, ‘He wrote some good sentences.’”
In addition to his wife, Miriam Ungerer Sheed and sister, Rosemary Luke Sheed Middleton, Sheed also leaves three children from a first marriage, son Francis Robert Augustine Sheed (Deborah Joy Gordis), daughters Elizabeth Carol Sheed and Marion Tango Nelson (Todd), and step daughters Phoebe Alexis Ungerer, Dominique Michelle Strandquest and Pamela Strandquest. He also leaves grandchildren Julia Rebecca Sheed, Grace Michal Sheed, Luke Jones and Jack Squire Tango Nelson
A funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, January 29 at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church, 99 Maple Avenue, Sheffield, Mass. with Rev. Bruce Norcross Teague officiating. Interment is at Our Lady of the Valley cemetery. A reception will follow the funeral at Dewey Hall, 91 Main Street, Sheffield, Mass. Those who would like to send flowers for the Mass can call Wildflowers at (413) 528-3004.
A memorial service will be planned by friends in Sag Harbor for sometime in spring or summer.