Imagine, if you will, a team with a solid shortstop - one good enough to lead the league in fielding average a few times, maybe even win a Gold Glove or two. But when that shortstop went to bat, the team could send in a DH for him - say, Lou Gehrig or Jimmie Foxx.
That, essentially was Honus Wagner - a hitter who won 8 batting titles in the old National League, and led in slugging percentage 6 times (more than both Foxx and Gehrig). He was the dominant hitter in the National League as Ty Cobb dominated the American League - he enjoyed 17 consecutive .300 seasons. Though not quite the hitter that Cobb was, he was considered by many - including John McGraw -baseball's greatest all-around player. He led the National League in hitting 8 times (tied with Tony Gwynn for the most NL batting titles ever), in steals 5 times, and in slugging average 6 times. He is also high on the all-time stolen-base, triples, and hits lists. In 1936, became one of the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame (along with Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson).
A capable shortstop, Wagner led NL shortstops in double plays and in putouts and range factor two times each, in fielding average three times, and in double plays four times. When he fielded grounders with his huge hands and collected large scoops of infield dirt, which accompanied his throws to first like the tail of a comet. It was said that Wagner threw out runners lying on his back. Wagner was not the most naturally gifted defensive infielder to play the game, but he was fearless in standing down oncoming runners and inventive. In one instance, he was caught with his glove hand in his back pocket reaching for a tobacco chaw, so he fielded a sharp grounder in his bare throwing hand and calmly threw the runner out, literally, with one hand behind his back. On another occasion, he used his bulk to keep a runner from stealing second after a wild throw from the catcher. Wagner timed his leap so that he landed on the unsuspecting incoming runner short of the base. By the time the players untangled themselves, the centerfielder had thrown the ball back to Wagner, who tagged the embarrassed runner out.
The gangly Dutchman was discovered by Ed Barrow, who was actually scouting Wagner's older brother, Al, near the Pennsylvania coal mines where they both worked. Legend says that Barrow spied the 18-year-old Hans flinging rocks across the wide expanse of the Monongahela River and signed him on the spot. Wagner started in Steubenville, Ohio, then joined the NL Louisville club for three years. After the 1899 season, the National League shrunk from twelve to eight teams, and the Louisville franchise was discontinued. In 1900 former Louisville owner Barney Dreyfus bought the Pittsburgh franchise, and brought Wagner back to Pennsylvania for good.
After winning the batting title in 1909, he was pitted against the Tigers and Ty Cobb, the AL batting champ, in the 1909 World Series. In Game Two, Cobb notified the "krauthead" of his intention to steal second on the next pitch. Wagner's message-laden tag in Cobb's mouth resulted in three stitches and Cobb's lasting respect. In Game Three, Wagner drove in three runs and stole three bases. The Pirates won the Series in seven games with Wagner batting .333 and stealing six bases, including home.
Following his 17 years as a player in Pittsburgh, Wagner spent 39 years as a coach; in his time, Wagner was the first player to have his signature on a Louisville Slugger (1905), had his face put on an early baseball card that is now worth more than $100,000 (1909), served as a sergeant at arms for the Pennsylvania state legislature (1929), and, seven months before he died, saw a statue of himself erected outside Forbes Field. When he died, Branch Rickey declared that Wagner was the greatest player he had ever seen.
Wagner simply loved the game, and reputedly didn't much care about getting paid for it. Ban Johnson tried to lure him to the American League, and Clark Griffith of Washington supposedly offered Wagner a huge sum. But Wagner was loyal and liked Pittsburgh, despite failing ever to earn more than $10,000 a year. Cobb and Nap Lajoie offered him $1,000 a week for a barnstorming tour, but he turned it down.
And supposedly, Wagner didn't want his picture on the now-famous baseball card because the sponsor was a tobacco company, and he didn't want to seem to condone smoking, although he chewed tobacco. The story goes that he sent the tobacco company the money it would have earned from the card, which had already been printed.
"He (Honus Wagner) was the nearest thing to a perfect player
no matter where his manager chose to play him."
— John McGraw
Picture from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc.
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