Former Jesuit and Loyola star Don Wetzel traded his baseball glove for historic business career – Crescent City Sports
We never think of what we would do without ATMs. We take them for granted these days. Looking at the history of ATMs, you’ll find ex-New Orleans native Don Wetzel as the inventor.
Before Wetzel embarked on his business career and created the breakthrough technology over fifty years ago, he was a star in Jesuit High School prep baseball and the American Legion in the 1940s. He also played a season for Loyola University, then pursued a professional baseball career at the age of 19.
However, with the advice of a major league veteran, he decided to quit the sport he loved after three professional seasons and complete college. His course correction eventually led him to a career in financial and banking services, where he developed and implemented the first commercial use of ATMs.
I caught up with Wetzel earlier this week to talk about his baseball career. Now 93 and living in Dallas, he was happy to remember his time at Jesuit High School and Loyola University and in the minor leagues with the Giants organization.
He was an All-Prep performer as an infielder with the Jesuit for three consecutive years beginning in 1944. The Jesuit won the Louisiana State Championships in 1945 and 1946, with the 5-foot-7 Wetzel and 140 pounds playing a key role. The Timetable-Picayune called Wetzel “one of the best infielders in the league”. Other key contributors to the 1946 team included fellow All-Prep Blue Jays: first baseman Tookie Gilbert (league MVP), pitcher Hugh Oser, catcher Jack Golden and outfielders Stanley McDermott and Monroe Caballero.
When coach Eddie Toribio’s roster for the 1946 American Legion summer team for Jesuit players was formed, Oser, Golden and infielders Pete Tusa and Rene Kronlage were missing. due to an age limit for membership in the Legion. Gilbert chose to skip the American Legion season so he could compete in a prestigious high school All-Star Game in Chicago.
The absence of these players forced Toribio to use less experienced players as substitutes. The average age of the team was 16 years old. Still, the Jesuits beat Shreveport for the state title and Little Rock for the regional title. In three regional games, Wetzel had seven hits on 16 at bats, scored five runs and managed 21 error-free chances. The Blue Jays defeated Thomasville, Georgia for the Sectional Championship, earning them a berth in the Little World Series in Charleston, South Carolina. The last Jesuit appearance in the Legion World Series was in 1934.
Their World Series opponents were Trenton, Los Angeles and Cincinnati. After entering the losers bracket with a loss to Los Angeles, Jesuit bounced back with wins over Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Trenton twice to claim the championship. Wetzel and pitcher Pat Rooney were named to the All-Tournament Team. Wetzel was the tournament’s second-leading hitter, with nine hits in 20 at bats for a .450 average. He received the tournament’s sportsmanship award.
Wetzel spoke about the team’s success. “I was surprised we got this far. We ended up with a very young team that lacked experience in several positions. But we united to play a good ball.
Wetzel had the opportunity to play baseball for Loyola in 1947, along with several of his American Legion teammates. Loyola finished 17-4 with two ties, as Wetzel led the team in batting average.
Wetzel recalled being scouted by longtime Jesuit baseball coach Gernon Brown, then working for the New York Giants. He said: “Brown offered me a contract after my first season so I decided to give it a try. It was my first time away from home but I liked it. I was surrounded by people who loved baseball.We would rent accommodations to local residents during the season.
Wetzel said he was first assigned to Jersey City in the Giants organization, but was then sent to Class B at Trenton in the Interstate League for his first season, where he beat .243 with 61 RBIs. Trenton finished second in the league during the regular season, then beat York in the playoffs.
He started with Trenton for the 1949 season and after 50 games was sent to Class C St. Cloud in the Northern League. Between the two teams, he hit .236 with five home runs and 46 RBIs. His on-base percentage was an impressive .416.
In 1950, Wetzel returned to St. Cloud, where his manager was Charlie Fox who was then only 28 years old. Fox would eventually find himself in the major leagues as manager of San Francisco, Montreal and the Chicago Cubs. St. Cloud won the regular season title, with Wetzel batting .274.
Wetzel said he got some good advice from fellow New Orleans native Connie Ryan, who was a major leaguer at the time. “Connie told me that if a player hasn’t made it to the major leagues in five years, the chances of making it are very slim. Since I hadn’t progressed in my three years, I decided to quit and go back to college full time.
After continuing to take classes at Loyola around his baseball seasons, Wetzel completed his degree in 1951 and went to work for IBM. Wetzel said, “At first I went to work for an IBM-affiliated service bureau in the financial industry. I started as a machine operator. He rose through the ranks at IBM as a service desk manager, systems engineer, sales representative and regional industry representative. The banking sector has become his specialty.
He left IBM in 1968 and joined Docutel Corporation, where he first pioneered the idea of a banking terminal available for customer use. In 1969, he set up the first “cashier” (an ATM that only dispensed cash) which was installed at the Chemical Bank on Long Island, New York. Later, he established his own company which consulted with banks on providing remote ATMs, as well as those performing other banking functions.
In an interview with Fox News in 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the first ATM, Wetzel said his early attempts to market the ATM for use in banks were met with great skepticism.
“People [bank officers] thought I was crazy. They would say, “You mean an ATM that anyone could just use? I do not think so. We have cashiers who do that. Then I had to explain why I thought it would be of great value to their customers,” Wetzel recalls.
ATMs eventually spread throughout the banking industry and the rest is history.
At a 2019 ceremony at the site of the first ATM, a bank official said, “The ATM has revolutionized banking and its impact on our economy cannot be overstated. Wetzel became known as the “father of 24-hour banking”. It is estimated that there are more than 3.5 million ATMs installed worldwide.
In a 1995 interview with the National Museum of American History, Wetzel discussed how his professional baseball career influenced him later in his professional and personal life. He said: “I think I learned two things. First, I met a lot of people I would never have met and was able to interact with them. So, I learned about that – a lot about people, and how they feel and how they react in situations that are sometimes a bit pressing and trying. The other thing I learned was how to live away from home. You know, it’s an education in itself, and of course I’ve always lived at home. So those two things helped me a lot.
Wetzel says he still gets mail requests for his autograph. However, the claims are not due to his baseball career, but to people who remember his groundbreaking contribution to modern society.