Regarded by most experts as the greatest shortstop in baseball history, Honus Wagner (1874-1955) was the game's most complete star in the early twentieth century. Known as the "Flying Dutchman" for his speedy base-running, Wagner was a perennial batting champion and a versatile fielder during his 21 big-league seasons, 18 of them with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
One of five men who were the original inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, Wagner was a stocky, clumsy-looking athlete who had surprising agility and unsurpassed baseball acumen. Perhaps the best all-around player in baseball history, Wagner played every position during his career except catcher. Burly and intimidating on the field, he was known for his kindness and humility off the diamond.
Johannes Peter Wagner was born in Mansfield, Pennsylvania on February 24, 1874. He was one of nine children born to German immigrants Peter and Katheryn Wagner, who came to western Pennsylvania from Bavaria in 1866. Three of their children died in infancy. Johannes was the fourth of five surviving sons. His family called him Hans or Honus (pronounced HAH-nus), the latter a term usually given to awkward children. From infancy, Honus was big, clumsy, and bowlegged. He also acquired the common nickname "Dutch," a corruption of "Deutsch," the German word for the German language. That was how he later became known as "The Flying Dutchman."
Honus was raised in Chartiers, but most records list his birthplace as Mansfield, an adjacent town. Both towns were within a few miles of Pittsburgh. In 1894 they were merged into the town of Carnegie. Peter Wagner worked in the mines. Like his older brothers and most boys in western Pennsylvania in that era, Honus began working in the mines at the age of 12. He also took jobs in steel mills and helped his oldest brother, Charley, in his barber shop.
All five Wagner brothers played ball every Sunday and most evenings in the summer, often playing as a family team. As a 12-year-old, Honus was the star of a team named the Oregons. Legend has it that in one memorable game he picked up a slower runner ahead of him as both circled the bases and carried him home on a game-winning home run. His older brother, Albert, nicknamed "Butts," was considered by many to be the better player, but never took the sport seriously enough. Al played in the big leagues for one season, 1898. Al recognized Honus's potential and urged him to learn every position. The brothers started playing for church or company teams, making up to five dollars a week in pay and bets.
In 1893, Honus and Al played for Mansfield in the semipro Allegheny League. Honus pitched occasionally. Though he had a hard fastball, he lacked control. The next season, Al and Honus and their brother Luke played for the Carnegie Athletic Club. In 1895, the Wagners got their first chance at professional ball in the newly formed Inter-State League. Al Wagner was the first player signed for Steubenville. He convinced the team manager to take a look at his little brother. According to a story Honus later told, Al sent Honus a telegram saying he had to report that afternoon. Honus hopped a coal train, but forgot his spikes in the rush. He succeeded at the tryout while pitching barefoot.
Wagner scored a home run in his first professional game. However, he played for a series of franchises that kept going out of business. In five months, he played eight positions on five different teams in three states in three leagues, batting close to .380 overall. Both Wagner brothers came to the attention of manager Ed Barrow, a future Hall of Famer. Barrow came to Carnegie with the intention of signing Al Wagner. However, after seeing Honus throw lumps of coals, Barrow signed him to play for Paterson, New Jersey, in the Atlantic League. Playing mostly first base, Wagner batted .348 for Paterson in 1896, while his brother played for Toronto in a different league. The next season, Honus played third base and got off to a good start at the plate. Managers from the National League came to scout him, but many were put off by his bowed legs, long arms and short, shovel-like hands. Despite appearances, his skills could not be ignored, and he led the league with a .379 average. There was a bidding war among several major league clubs for the rights to acquire Wagner, and Louisville bought him for $2,100.
Wagner made his major-league debut for Louisville on July 19, 1897. "I was a green, awkward kid, unused to big-league ways," he later confessed. "I kept my mouth shut, though, and went right along about my business. The one thing that saved me from a lot of extra joshing, I suppose, was I could always slam the ball." The Louisville Commercial said Wagner was built like "a one-story brick house, throws like a shot, and is remarkably fast." He played center field and filled in at second base and hit .338 in 61 games.
Though he had given up on pitching, the versatility he had learned by playing different positions with his brothers paid off. In 1898, Wagner played first, second, and third base and hit .299. He rebounded to .336 in 1899, the first of 14 consecutive big-league seasons batting .300 or more. After that season, Louisville folded, and most of their best players, including Wagner, went to Pittsburgh.
Wagner was delighted he could live at home and play baseball. Playing mostly in right field, he led the league in 1900 with 45 doubles, 22 triples, and a .381 batting average, winning the first of eight batting championships in 12 seasons. Soon, the upstart American League tried to recruit Wagner. He claimed that Chicago White Stockings manager, Clark Griffith, tempted him with $20,000 in cash. But Wagner preferred to stay in his hometown.
It was not until 1901 that Wagner started playing shortstop. He quickly became a sensation at that position, using his range and strong arm. Sporting Life reported: "Wagner is as graceful at short as a steam roller. Yet the clumsy galoot manages to get all over the infield and lays hands on everything that is batted, high or low." In 1903 shortstop became his regular position. However, he often would be shifted to the outfield in crucial late-game situations so that his strong arm could prevent runners from scoring.
Wagner batted .353 in 1901, led the National League in doubles and runs batted in (a career-high 126), and won the first of five stolen-base titles by swiping 49. The speed of the "Flying Dutchman" was deceptive. Bowlegged, he ran like a freight train, covering 100 yards in 10 seconds. On the base-paths, he was daring and sometimes reckless. In his career, he stole 722 bases, a record that was maintained until Ty Cobb broke it.
Wagner was constantly pursued by other teams, especially McGraw's New York Giants, but he was not tempted to leave Pittsburgh. He loved hunting and fishing in the Pennyslvania mountains in the off-season and played basketball for local teams in the winter. "I may have lost a lot of money by it but I feel much happier and satisfied for having stayed in Pittsburgh," he said after his career. "I loved my team and associations. They meant much more to me than money."
Led by Wagner and his close friend Fred Clarke, the team's Hall of Fame manager and left fielder, Pittsburgh was baseball's best club in the early days of the modern major leagues. The Pirates finished first in 1901, 1902, 1903 and 1909 and no lower than fourth from 1900 through 1911. In 1903, Wagner managed 25 games while Clarke was ill, and led the league in batting (.355) and triples. After the season, the Pirates challenged American League champion Boston in the first-ever World Series. Boston won the best-of-nine series, five games to three, and Wagner played poorly, batting .222 and making several key errors.
During the next eight seasons, Wagner shined as the league's best player. Around Pittsburgh, he was a celebrity. He raised chickens, dogs, pigeons, and horses at the family homestead in Carnegie. He often drove a horse-drawn buggy or took the ten-cent trolley to the ballpark, where he would be met by clamoring children. Throughout his life, Wagner pursued business interests around Pittsburgh, including real estate, house building, an auto dealership, and even a short-lived circus venture with him as the starring attraction. The circus folded before it ever staged a show.
Wagner played in the depths of the dead-ball era, when pitchers were allowed to throw spitballs and muddy, battered balls remained in the game for lack of replacements. Wagner's .339 average in 1906 was 95 points higher than the league average, and his .350 mark in 1907 was 107 points above the average. A notorious bad-ball hitter, Wagner often swung and missed deliberately to induce the pitcher to throw the same pitch again. He would sometimes split his hands apart on the bat, like Cobb, but at other times would keep them together, depending on whether he wanted power or contact. Asked how pitchers could get Wagner out, McGraw, his biggest admirer, said: "Just throw the ball and pray."
On defense, Wagner had a "sixth sense of baseball," McGraw claimed. Wagner knew just where to play certain hitters on certain pitches. He played deep at shortstop and used a glove with the palm cut out for better control. Using his stubby hands like scoops and often picking up dirt and pebbles with the ball, he waited till the last second to throw, then used his cannon arm to nip the runner at the base. In a tribute to his versatility and all-around ability, McGraw said: "Wagner is a whole team in himself."
In 1909, Wagner faced Cobb in the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. Both had led their leagues in hitting, and they were the two most feared players in the game. Cobb was 22 and Wagner 35. One story has it that early in the series Cobb came in to steal second, spikes high, and Wagner tagged him in the face. Cobb never tried to steal second again in the series, but Wagner stole six bases, including three in one inning of the third game. The Pirates won the series, with Wagner's triple breaking open the deciding seventh game, and Wagner out-hit Cobb, .333 to .231.
After that season, the American Tobacco Company put Wagner's picture on one of its baseball cards. But Wagner, himself a tobacco-chewer, refused permission to have his photo used, fearing it would make him a poor role model for kids. Several dozen cards were printed and distributed in cigarette packs before production stopped. Though there are many rarer old cards, the Wagner tobacco cards have become legendary and lucrative. In 1996, collector Michael Gidwitz paid $640,500 for one of the 1910 Wagner cards.
In the waning years of his career, Wagner battled injuries and aging, but continued to be a fearsome hitter. In a game in 1912, he hit for the cycle. The next season was the last time he hit .300. He was still playing at the age of 43, his last season. When he retired, he held the all-time records for games, at-bats, hits, runs, RBIs, stolen bases, total bases, and extra-base hits. All of those marks were subsequently broken.
In 1916, the longtime bachelor married Bessie Smith. They had two daughters, Betty and Virginia. After his retirement, Wagner coached football and basketball at Carnegie High School, then became athletic director and baseball coach at Carnegie Technical Institute. He was president of amateur baseball associations, sponsored sandlot teams, and for years ran a sporting goods store. Wagner was interested in politics but lost his only political race, for Allegheny County sheriff in 1928. For a short time he was sergeant-at-arms in the Pennsylvania legislature. In 1942, he was appointed deputy county sheriff.
Wagner became a coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1933. His first assignment was to work with a rookie shortstop named Arky Vaughn. Under Wagner's tutelage, Vaughn blossomed and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 1936, Wagner was among the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame. He remained a part time coach with the Pirates for the rest of his life. In 1955, at the age of 81, he was present for the unveiling of his statue at Forbes Field. He died in Carnegie, Pennsylvania on December 6, 1955.
The Baseball Encyclopedia, Macmillan, 1997.
DeValeria, Dennis and Jeanne Burke, Honus Wagner: A Biography, Henry Holt, 1996.
Kavanagh, Jack, Honus Wagner, Chelsea House, 1994.
Forbes, November 4, 1996.
Sports Illustrated, June 4, 1990. □