Stories You Should Know: Honus Wagner

The Flying Dutchman:

 

The definitive question in my family of weeding out knowledge sports fans from yuppies is, “Who is the greatest Shortstop of all time?”

 

The answer to this question is clear and unarguable. But you’ve got to know your stuff. If someone said Derek Jeter, the correct response is to laugh at them and then move on- they know nothing. If they said Cal Ripken Jr., the correct reaction is to shake your head in sadness.

 

The Greatest Short Stop of All-Time is now mainly remembered for his baseball card, which is the most expensive. But it’s expensive because it is rare and because he is that good. Good enough to make a mockery of any modern Short Stop. Good enough to be put in the Babe Ruth category. Who is this man? The Flying Dutchman, Pittsburg’s finest, Honus Wagner.

 

Wagner was born one of 9 children in the heart of American coal country in western Pennsylvania on February 24, 1874. Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States and the country was still trying to heal from the Civil War that had ended just 10 years prior. Wagner was born just outside of Pittsburg and given the name Johannes Peter Wagner by his German parents.

 

Honus came from a family of 5 boys and his older brother, Albert, was considered the most talented baseball player of the family. Honus was awkward looking, he had a big nose, bowed legs, huge hands and a barreled chest. He only stood 5’11” and weighed about 200 lbs. He certainly did not look to be a good athlete.

 

That is certainly what the club president and club secretary for the Louisville Colonels thought when they first saw him.  But they were talked into signing and starting the awkward 23 year old in 1897. He hit .338 his rookie season with the Colonels. He would play for the Colonels until they were dissolved in 1899. With the Colonels he would play first, second, third and hit .299 (it would be the last time he would hit under .300 for 16 years in the big leagues).

 

With the dissolvement of the Colonels, the initially unimpressed club president, Barney Dreyfuss, became president of the Pittsburg Pirates. He would immediately sign Wagner who had helped his club to the top of their league. Honus Wagner would go home. And the next decade of baseball would belong to him.

 

He led in almost every significant category through those years. This awkward walking, quiet talking Short Stop of the Pirates was a wonder to behold in the field. He held the bat with his hands apart to be able to pull balls to the foul line. This style won him 7 batting titles. He also led the Majors in on-base percentage four times, slugging 6 times, runs scored, hits, doubles, triples, and RBI’s.

Honus Wagner hitting

For the bowlegged man from coal country, he was pretty fast on his feet. He led the league in stolen bases and had 722 steals on his career. Wagner was a guy who out-thought his competition. Here’s a story recounted by the Baseball Hall of Fame how the awkward, smart guy could out fox his competition.

 

Burleigh Grimes, who as a youngster was a teammate of Wagner, recalled “One day he was batting against a young pitcher who had just come into the league. The catcher was a kid, too. A rookie battery. The pitcher threw Honus a curveball, and he swung at it and missed and fell down on one knee. Looked helpless as a robin. I was kind of surprised, but the guy sitting next to me on the bench poked me in the ribs and said, ‘Watch this next one.’ Those kids figured they had the old man’s weaknesses, you see, and served him up the same dish-as he knew they would. Well, Honus hit a line drive so hard the fence in left field went back and forth for five minutes.”

 

He out played his opponents without the metal edge too. He was the best offensively, on the bases and defensively in the League.

 

Defensively his large hands came to his advantage as gloves were still in their early phases at the turn of the century. He played all over the field for his first few seasons until the acquisition of Tommy Leach who convinced him to play Shortstop so Leach could play 3rd kept him in the middle of the in-field the rest of his career.

Honus Wagner Fielding

Wagner was part of the first ever World Series in 1903 when his Pirates from the National League challenged the winners of the American League Boston Americans (now the Red Sox). Wagner had a terrible series, going just 1-14 in the best of 9 series. He only led in one category and that was his 6 errors on the series. He ended the series when he watched Strike 3 go by, humiliation complete. The media’s negative attention about the greatest player in the game would haunt Wagner. Wagner would get redemption.

 

Wagner was part of the Pittsburg Pirates greatest season, going 110-42 in 1909. That year Wagner and the Pirates would go to the World Series that year and face off against the Detroit Lions and the antithesis of Wagner, Ty Cobb.

 

Ty Cobb’s legacy has been challenged of late, but Cobb even then was not a particularly beloved individual. Whereas Wagner, with his unassuming ways, quiet dignity and homespun humility endeared him to the baseball community. Especially playing in his hometown, Wagner represented what his city was. Cobb was a fierce and feisty on the baseball diamond and looked the part of star athlete, where Wagner did not.

Ty Cobb

The 1909 World Series that pitted the two giants against each other would not disappoint. By this time the Series had been whittled down to a best of 7 series. It took all 7 games to decide the winner. Wagner would outplay Cobb, going .333 on the series to Cobb’s .231. He would steal 6 bases while Cobb only took 2. Wagner’s six steals in a World Series would stand until 1967. Wagner and the Pirates would prevail in the seven games World Series.

 

The Cobb-Wagner rivalry has become something of folklore and the more time passes it becomes forgotten folklore. But the Cobb-Wagner rivalry was one of the best all-time. The following story is probably false. But it needs to be shared here or we would be leaving out part of the aura of the two players.

 

In the 5th inning of the First Game of the World Series Cobb reached First Base. He yelled to Wagner he was going to steal second on the next pitch. Wagner, the aging star faced off against the rising star as the next pitch was thrown and Cobb headed to second. Wagner waited for the ball, swung his arm down and smacked Cobb across the face, taking out teeth some say.

 

The mild-mannered Wagner had beat the feisty, upstart Cobb down. For the rest of his life when asked about the incident Wagner would only wink and neither confirm nor deny the story.

Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb

Wagner and Cobb would go hunting that off-season in Georgia. But still the lore continues on.

 

Wagner would continue to be a great player until 1915. He would hit .252 in 1915 (still worthy of 7th in the League).

 

In 1916 he would marry his long-time girlfriend, Bessie Baine Smith. He would retire the following season after an unsuccessful attempt at Managing his beloved Pirates.

 

The Wagner’s, who were pregnant when he retired, would lose their first baby who was still born. Bessie would then have 2 daughters and their oldest Bessy, would give them their only grandchild, a daughter.

 

Wagner would struggle through the Depression when his sporting good store, Wagner, went under. He would coach again for the Pirates in 1933 until his retirement in 1951. The proudest moment of his life was being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in its inaugural year in 1936. He would stand beside Cobb, Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth. He would pass away in Carnegie, Pennsylvania in 1955.

Honus Wagner old

One of the sad things about sports commentary now is a lack of historical perspective. And the question of greatest short stop of all time is a clear example of that. The reason for this is that of all the positions on a baseball field this has the most clear answer, but you really have to know the history of baseball to get the correct answer. So many modern fans and “sports experts” only know sports from their memory or from video available. They know very little of the game prior to the 1950s. That’s 80 years of history that they know very little about.

 

In 1992 “Sports Illustrated” did a piece written by Steve Wulf titled “The All-Time Dream Teams.” The Shortstop on his baseball team was Cal Ripken. Though his choices were OK otherwise I immediately dismissed him as a serious evaluator. In 1999 the fans voted for the “All Century Team”, their Shortstop again was Cal Ripken. Now this choice was not as outrageous as Wulf’s, because this was a fan vote and Ripken was winding down on a brilliant career, but they also placed Ernie Banks second. Most fans only know what ESPN or modern baseball announcers tell them, but Wulf doesn’t have that excuse. And now neither do you.

 

Let’s get to why Wulf’s conclusion is foolish. Bill James is the most knowledgeable person on baseball I know. First here is a list (using James’ win shares) of the ten best seasons by a Shortstop in baseball history he lists it here:

 

  1. Honus Wagner (59) 1908
  2. Honus Wagner (46) 1905
  3. Honus Wagner (45) 1906
  4. Honus Wagner (44) 1907
  5. Honus Wagner (43) 1904
  6. Honus Wagner (43) 1909
  7. Luke Appling (40) 1943
  8. Arky Vaughan (39) 1935   &    Robin Yount (39)     1982

10.  Cal Ripken (1984) is tied for tenth with another Wagner Year (1901) and two Alex Rodriquez  seasons (2000, 2001) at 37.

 

Not only was Honus Wagner a significantly better offensive player than these fine Shortstops, but he was the best defensive Shortstops of this group. James gives Wagner an A+ as a defensive player while Appling’s rated a B, Vaughan a B+, Yount a B-, Rodriquez a C+ and Ripken a B+.

 

As Bill James says in his Arky Vaughan comment in his book “The New Historical Baseball Abstract”: “The difference between the number one Shortstop (Wagner) and the number two Shortstop (whoever it is) is about the same as the distance between the number two Shortstop and the number 30 Shortstop.”

 

So, unless you issue Wagner a huge penalty because he played over 100 years ago, Wagner crushes the competition. Also, if you’re going to discount Wagner because of his era, then players such as Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth should not be considered either, since they all were active during Wagner’s time.

Honus Wagner basketball
Wagner played lots of basketball in the off season and may have been the first baseball player to lift weights as part of his exercise regime.

Baseball has definitely improved in the last 100 years (integration being one of the biggest factors), but how much? The answer to that question is an article upon itself. Let’s just say it’s not enough to get any other Shortstop close to Honus Wagner.

Greatest Shortstops:

  1. Honus Wagner
  2. Alex Rodriquez
  3. Cal Ripken
  4. Robin Yount
  5. Ernie Banks
  6. Ozzie Smith
  7. Arky Vaughan
  8. Barry Larkin
  9. Luke Appling
  10. Joe Cronin

 

Derek Jeter? One of the two most over-rated players since World War II (the other being Nolan Ryan). Due to a below average arm his range at Shortstop was very limited. James rates him a D+ on defense. As an offensive player he played in a high run environment, so his numbers need to be discounted quite a bit. His numbers:

BA     OBP      SA

.310    .377      .440

 

This is not an article on Derek Jeter, but those are good numbers, but not better than the ten we’re comparing him to, except Ozzie Smith and Ozzie’s defense was much better. We’ll compare him to Wagner, Vaughn and Rodriquez as an offensive player:

BA        OBP      SA

Wagner       .327       .384      .466

Vaughn:      .318       .400      .453

Rodriquez   .295       .380      .550

 

We chose those three for a reason:

  1. Wagner played in the Dead Ball Era. Runs were harder to come by in his time than any other.
  2. Vaughn played in the high run 1930s, so he matches up well.
  3. Rodriquez was a direct contemporary.

Jeter was not a match for any of the three as an offensive or defensive player.

 

Now let’s look to see where Wagner should rate among all ballplayers. ESPN in the late 1990s ran a series listing the 100 greatest baseball players of the 20th century. Wagner was rated 10th. That’s about where the Flying Dutchman is generally rated, between ten and twenty. That is way too low.  Wagner is one of a handful of players that can legitimately be rated first, ahead of even Babe Ruth. Let’s see, you have a Shortstop that plays the position like Ozzie Smith and hits like Barry Bonds. What’s that player worth?

 

His contributions to a winning team: The Pittsburgh Pirates from 1900 until 1909 had a record of 938-538, a .636 winning percentage. That’s better than the 1920s Yankees, the 1940s Cardinals, the 1950s Yankees, the 1970s Reds, or the 1990s Yankees. The 1930s Yankees tie them at .636. We are talking about the greatest teams ever. The 1920-1929 Yankees had Hall of Famers; Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Earl Combs, pitchers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock.

 

The 1930-1939 Yankees had eleven Hall of Famers; Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Earl Combs, Bill Dickey, Joe Sewell, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, and pitchers Red Ruffing, Herb Pennock, and Lefty Gomez. The 1900-1909 Pirate had three Hall of Famers; Fred Clarke, pitcher Vic Willis and Honus Wagner. Now Clarke and Willis are legitimate Hall of Fame selections, but were they equal to Gehrig, Dickey, and DiMaggio? The answer is rather obvious.

 

Wagner is the one who made the Pirates great. They won the National League Pennant in 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1909. They participated in the first modern World Series in 1903 (they lost), came back to play Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers in 1909 (they won). In a 10-year period they won four League Titles.   For comparisons; Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were teammates for ten years (1925-1934), they won four pennants (1926, 1927, 1928, 1932) and three World Series (1927,1928,1932). That seems to be about as successful as Wagner’s Pirates 20 years earlier.

 

Honus Wagner was the most beloved man in baseball before Babe Ruth. Quoting from “The Baseball Biographical Encyclopedia”: “There probably has never been a more genuine, honest, decent, and beloved ballplayer than Honus Wagner.” Raised just outside Pittsburgh, he became the face of the city for the first half of the 20th century. “Total Baseball” player ratings rank Wagner as the best player in baseball every year between 1903 and 1909. Bill James ranks Wagner as the best player in baseball every year between 1900 and 1908 except 1901 (Nap Lajoie, in an expansion league, Wagner was the best player in the National League). That’s eight or nine seasons Wagner was the best player in baseball. Only Ruth exceeds that number (10).

 

Conclusion: If I was selecting the greatest player of all time, the list would be:

  1. Babe Ruth
  2. Honus Wagner, but it’s very close between the two.
  3. Willie Mays
  4. Walter Johnson
  5. Stan Musial
  6. Henry Aaron
  7. Mickey Mantle
  8. Ty Cobb
  9. Lou Gehrig
  10. Barry Bonds

 

I’ll quote Bill James again from the original “Historical Baseball Abstract.” “(Wagner) was the greatest athlete in baseball. Acknowledging that there may have been one or two whose talents were greater, there is no one who has ever played the game that I would be more anxious to have on a baseball team.”

 

 

4 comments

  1. Best piece you’ve written. Modern sports fans only know baseball since television. At the time Wagner dominated there was no football or basketball. If you wanted to make money in athletics baseball was your only option. The best athletes played baseball. With the possible exception of Ruth, Wagner has the best argument for GOAT.

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  2. I am not a big fan of MLB, but I consider myself a big “sports” fan. I would never have considered Honus. The only thing I knew of him was the rarity of his baseball card! This article makes a good argument for him,along with enlightening us to who Honus Wagner was! Now he will be more than just a rare card to me.

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    • I’m so glad to hear it! He and Jim Thorpe are lost treasures to modern sports fans that deserve as much credit as any of the greats remembered. I hope you will tell Wagner’s story to more people!

      Like

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