Sunday, February 3, 2008

the greatest buc of them all

honus wagner
The Flying Dutchman, Honus Wagner
from Wikipedia

We tend to only rate players that we've seen with our own eyes or heard our fathers talk about. And when you're looking at a franchise with over a century of rosters to check out, that eliminates a lot of names. But for my money, I'll back The Flying Dutchman, Honus Wagner, as the best player to ever wear a Pittsburgh uniform.

Johannes Peter Wagner was born in 1874 to German immigrants from Mansfield, now a part of Carnegie. He was one of nine children. As a child, he was nicknamed Hans by his mom, which would later evolve into Honus. Wagner dropped out of school at age 12 to help his father and brothers in the coal mines. In their free time, he and his brothers played sandlot baseball. One bro, Albert "Butts" Wagner, played in the bigs for a season.

Legend has it that he was discovered by scout Ed Barrow who had come to watch Butts play. But instead he spied Honus rifling rocks across the Monongahela River and signed him on the spot. Other stories say he was pulled out the stands to replace an injured semi-pro player, won a job on the team, and that's how the scouts found him. In 1897 he began his major league career at Louisville in the American Association, owned by Barney Dreyfuss, recent HOF selection and an early owner of the Pirates.

Dreyfuss took many of his top players, including Wagner, with him to Pittsburgh after the Louisville franchise folded at the end of the 1899 season. Hans would spend the rest of his career with the Bucs, retiring after the 1917 season. Today's owners would have loved Wagner. He never made over $10,000 a year as a Pirate, and resisted several efforts to lure him away from Pittsburgh. Talk about your hometown discount!

Still, he had to work to get that. Before the 1908 season, he missed spring training and told the team and media that he "was tired" and was thinking of taking the season off. Now everyone in the business knew that he was holding out for a bigger salary, but he never came right out and blustered for the money, and eventually got his paycheck doubled to $10K - Ty Cobb held out the same year and only got $4,800 - without losing the fans in a spitting contest with the team.

The players should appreciate him, too. In 1905, Wagner signed the first endorsement contract with a bat company. His deal with Hillerich & Bradsby, Co. called for them to supply Wagner with Louisville Slugger bats made to his specs. In return, the bat company added Wagner's name to their bats and sold them to starstruck fans. Since then, more than 8,500 players have done business with Louisville Slugger.

Wagner had a lifetime batting average of .327 (he hit .300 or better for 17 straight seasons) and collected 3,415 hits. He led the NL in batting 8 times, RBIs five times and stolen bases five times (he swiped 722 sacks in his career despite having bow legs that made him look like a Popeye caricature.) He also led the league in slugging percentage six times, on-base percentage four times, total bases six times, doubles seven times and triples three times. Wagner hit for the cycle once and stole second, third and home three times. He only hit 101 homers, but in the deadball era before Babe Ruth started mashing them, that was a decent show of power.

The rangy shortstop is considered by many to be the greatest gloveman at his position of all time, while others will only admit to him being the best of his era. He was so gifted with the leather that he played every position on the field except catcher during his career, even pitching a couple of times. He walked six batters in his eight innings on the mound, but Hans did not allow a run. He has a perfect 0.00 career ERA.

Wagner won a series ring in 1909 after bombing in his first series in 1903, hitting only .222 while playing hurt. The series win was against Ty Cobb and the Tigers. Hans redeemed himself by hitting .333 while stealing six bases, a series record, and Cobb's thunder. He had waited six long years to shed the rep as a choker, ala Barry Bonds, on the big stage, and came through in spades.

When the Baseball Hall of Fame held its' initial election in 1936, Wagner tied for second in the voting with Ruth, trailing only Cobb. On the 100th anniversary of professional baseball in 1969, a vote was taken to pick the greatest players of all time and Wagner was selected as the shortstop. In 1999, after 82 years had passed since his last game and 44 years since his death, Wagner was voted Number 13 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Players, making him the highest-ranking shortstop on the roster. That same year, he was selected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

Not enough proof? Modern sabermetrician Bill James rates him as the second best player of all-time, right behind Ruth. Statisticians John Thorn and Pete Palmer rate Wagner as ninth all-time in their "Total Player Ranking" in their book Total Baseball.

The Pirates honored him by retiring #33 (although he played in the days before numbers were worn, that's the one most often associated with him) and hauled his statue from Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium to PNC Park, where it now rests a stone's throw from his original playing grounds, Exposition Park.

honus wagner statue
Honus Wagner's Statue from Wikipedia

There's are a couple of baseball tales about Honus, a clean living dude by all accounts except for his tobacco chaw. One involves Cobb in the 1909 World Series. During game two, Cobb told the "krauthead" Wagner of his plans to steal second on the next pitch. Wagner's response was to tag Cobb squarely in the mouth, resulting in three stitches and Cobb's lasting respect. It also effectively shut him up for the rest of series.

Once he was caught with his glove hand in his back pocket reaching for a tobacco chaw when a ball was spanked to short. He fielded the sharp grounder with his bare hand and easily threw the runner out, literally with one hand behind his back.

On another occasion, he used his wits to keep a runner from stealing second after a wild throw from the catcher. Wagner timed his leap for the wayward toss so that he came down on the clueless runner short of the base. As the players picked themselves up, the centerfielder threw the ball back in to Wagner, who tagged the embarrassed runner out.

Another story involves his famous player's card, the holy grail of collectors the world over. It's said he made American Tobacco Company pull the card because he didn't want kids to have to buy tobacco products to get it. At least that's what Cooperstown says. More cynical observers said he wasn't paid, or at least paid enough, by the company for the right to use his image, and that's why Wagner made them quit producing it. Either way, the card, like the player, is the best of its' kind. It sold for $2.8M in September 2007.

After Wagner retired, he took it easy by hunting and fishing, two of his passions, before coming back as the Pirate hitting coach from 1933-1952. He opened several Honus Wagner Sporting Goods stores, and though they lost money for him, one still exists on Forbes Avenue in town. Honus barnstormed with a local semi-pro team called the Wagner All-Stars well into his fifties. He was a county deputy sheriff for awhile.

He still lived in Carnegie in the Beechwood Avenue house he built for his wife Bessie and himself in 1916, and he was a popular and gregarious figure in his hometown. They named the Carlynton High football field Honus Wagner Stadium after him. He died on December 6, 1955 at the age of 81. Honus Wagner was buried at Jefferson Memorial Cemetery in the South Hills.

Sometimes you don't have to leave home to make it. As Honus said "There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer."

Lineup for Yesterday
W is for Wagner,
The bowlegged beauty;
Short was closed to all traffic
With Honus on duty.

Ogden Nash, Sport Magazine (January 1949)

honus wagner card
Honus Wagner Card from Wikipedia


Evan Camrichael said...

I just found your blog through this Honus Wagner post and wanted to congratulate you for the fantastic wealth of information that you are providing!

Keep up the great work!

Benny Benack's Ghost said...

Thanks, Evan, it's much appreciated. Glad to hear you like it.