Wagner, John Peter ("Honus")

views updated

WAGNER, John Peter ("Honus")

(b. 24 February 1874 in Mansfield [now Carnegie], Pennsylvania; d. 5 December 1955 in Carnegie, Pennsylvania), Hall of Fame shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Wagner was one of six children of German immigrant parents, Peter Wagner, a coal miner, and Kathryn Wolf, a homemaker. Called "Honus," a mangled form of the German Johannes, Wagner attended a parochial school for six years until age twelve, when he followed his father and older brother into the coalfields in the Pittsburgh area, and earned $3.50 a week for loading coal.

At an early age Wagner developed a love for baseball, playing catch and pickup games whenever he was not working and showing a natural talent for the sport. In 1893 Wagner quit working in the mines and began to play in a local semiprofessional league for $3 to $5 a game. The next year he played for a semiprofessional team in Dennison, Ohio. A fast base runner, a potent right-handed batter, and a strong thrower, Wagner became a professional player in 1895, signing a contract for $35 a month to play for the Steubenville, Ohio, team in the Inter-State League. Playing both shortstop and the outfield, he hit .369 in forty-four games before the team folded in June. For the remainder of the 1895 season Wagner played with Adrian, Michigan, in the Michigan State League and then with Warren, Pennsylvania, in the Iron and Oil League, hitting .365 with Adrian and .369 with Warren. During the 1895 season Wagner first made a concerted effort to improve his skills and to study baseball. Beginning a practice that continued throughout his career, he looked for ways to better his swing and base running techniques and carefully observed opposing pitchers to identify their pitching tendencies.

In February 1896 Wagner signed to play with the Paterson, New Jersey, team in the Atlantic League at $125 a month. He had a sensational season, batting .348, hitting for power, and stealing bases while playing mostly at first base. Wagner began the 1897 season with Paterson at third base, but in July his contract was sold to the Louisville Colonels of the National League (NL) for $2,100. Wagner immediately became the Colonels center fielder at a salary of $250 a month and usually batted in the third or fourth spot, hitting .338 in sixty-one games in his first major league season. During the next two years he hit .303 and .336 respectively while playing first and third bases and the outfield.

After the Louisville franchise was discontinued in early 1900, Wagner and several other outstanding players from the Colonels joined the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their addition enabled the Pirates to flourish during the next decade. The team finished in first place in 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1909 and had four second-place finishes. Wagner played various infield and outfield positions until 1903, when he became the regular shortstop. He played eighteen seasons in Pittsburgh, earning $2,400 in his first year, $5,000 a season for the next seven years, and $10,000 in 1908, then the top salary in baseball.

For most of his years in Pittsburgh, Wagner was the team's offensive leader. Counting his years with the Colonels, he hit over .300 for seventeen consecutive seasons and led the NL in batting for eight seasons. His best average was .381 in 1900, and his career average was .327 with 3,415 hits at a time when batters had to contend with the "dead" ball, trick pitches like the "spitball," and long outfields. A line-drive hitter who held his hands slightly apart on the bat, Wagner was a free swinger. He hit the ball with power to all fields, leading the NL in doubles for seven years and triples three times. Throughout his career Wagner was a consistent run producer, driving in 1,732 runs and leading the league in runs batted in five times. Wagner was also a speedster on the base paths. He stole 722 bases and five times was the NL's top base thief. His speed on the base paths led fans to dub him "the Flying Dutchman."

Wagner was an unlikely-looking shortstop. Standing six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, he was barrel chested and bowlegged, which made him appear ungainly. But he had nimble feet, large hands, and long arms, and once he learned the shortstop position he became an outstanding fielder, scooping up everything hit even remotely near him and using his accurate, rifle arm to throw out runners with ease. He led NL shortstops in fielding average four times, and even after his batting average began to slip, his fielding kept him in the starting lineup.

The 1909 season was probably the high point of Wagner's career. He led the NL in batting average, doubles, and runs batted in, and the Pirates won the league pennant with 110 victories in 154 games. In the World Series the Pirates faced the Detroit Tigers, led by Ty Cobb, a twenty-two-year-old outfielder who led the American League in batting in 1909 with a .377 average. Wagner clearly out-played his younger rival. Cobb batted .231, drove in 6 runs, and stole 2 bases, while Wagner batted .333, drove in 7 runs, and stole 6 bases, leading the Pirates to a 4 to 3 series victory over the Tigers.

The series, which was marked by widespread bench jockeying, hit batters, and the spiking of players, produced the most famous tale about Wagner. Cobb was a feared base runner who tried to intimidate opposing players by sliding into a base with his spikes up. He reached first base in the fifth inning of the first game and quickly stole second base, sliding into the bag underneath Wagner's sweeping tag. The mixture of the heated atmosphere of the series and the stature of Wagner and Cobb led to an exaggerated story about this incident that took on a life of its own. According to the story, when Cobb reached first base he yelled to Wagner, "I'm coming down on the next pitch, you big krauthead." Wagner was said to have yelled back, "I'll be ready." Cobb then took off for second base and slid into that base with his spikes flashing. Wagner applied a hard tag to Cobb's head and, depending on the source, either loosened three of Cobb's teeth, bloodied his lips, or nearly decapitated him. Other than Cobb stealing second base, the story has no truth. However, it has endured, perhaps for the way it epitomizes the two men in the public's eyes, the aggressive Cobb and the stalwart Wagner.

On the field Wagner was a tough competitor, but in person he was unpretentious, forthright, good natured, and simple in his ways. He was well liked by other players and beloved by fans. He was always willing to talk to them and reputedly signed as many as ten thousand autographs in a year.

In 1914 Wagner, now forty years of age, hit only .252, the first time in his major league career he did not hit .300. While his average slightly improved during the next two years, he did not again top .300 in those years. On 30 December 1916 Wagner married Bessie Bain Smith; they had two daughters. Saying his wife's "good home cooking" was taking its toll on him, he quickly gained weight, and whether because of a salary dispute or concern over his waning skills, he did not join the Pirates for the 1917 season until 7 June. The Pirates, who had lost forty out of their first sixty games, were atrocious. In late June the manager was fired, and Wagner reluctantly took his place. The team won its first game under Wagner, then lost the next four, prompting him to say that managing was not his type of job, and shortly thereafter he quit. No longer able to cover the ground at shortstop, Wagner alternated between first and third base, but he did hit over .300 into late July. He then injured his right foot, and when he returned to the lineup, he performed poorly. He finished the season batting .265, and with the Pirates mired in mediocrity, he retired.

During the following years Wagner played semiprofessional baseball in the Pittsburgh area, was physical education director at Carnegie Technical Institute from 1919 through 1921, served as commissioner of the National Semi-Pro Baseball Congress for six years, and became the unofficial patriarch of baseball in Pittsburgh. He also was involved in two sporting goods businesses, both of which failed. Anxious to get back into professional baseball after these failed ventures, Wagner became a coach with the Pirates in 1933, a post he held through the 1951 season. He died of heart failure and is buried in Pittsburgh.

At the time of his retirement in 1917, Wagner held virtually every NL batting record and was considered baseball's greatest player. In 1936 he was one of the first five players selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1969 the Baseball Writers' Association named him the best shortstop in baseball's first one hundred years. Some argue that Cobb and Babe Ruth should be ranked ahead of Wagner as the greatest players of all time. But when baseball was establishing itself as the nation's pastime, Wagner was its premier player, and no other shortstop combined his excellence in the field and at the plate.

Wagner played more for the love of the game than for money. His salary never exceeded $10,000 a year, and he always refused to cash in on his fame. When a tobacco company put pictures of famous players in its cigarette packs, he made it stop distributing his because he did not want his celebrity status to be used to encourage young people to smoke. The few of these prints in circulation are among the most valuable baseball cards.

Material relating to Wagner's career is in his biographical file in the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. For full-length biographies of Wagner see Dennis de Valeria and Jeanne Burke de Valeria, Honus Wagner: A Biography (1995); William Hageman, Honus: The Life and Times of a Baseball Hero (1996); and Arthur D. Hittner, Honus Wagner: The Life of Baseball's "Flying Dutchman" (1996). See also Bob Smizik, The Pittsburgh Pirates (1990). Wagner's statistics are in Total Baseball (1999), edited by John Thorn, Pete Palmer, Michael Gershman, and David Pietrusza with Matthew Silverman and Sean Matthew. Obituaries are in the New York Times (6 Dec. 1955), the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (6 Dec. 1955), the Pittsburgh Press (6 Dec. 1955), and the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph (6 Dec. 1955).

John Kennedy Ohl

About this article

Wagner, John Peter ("Honus")

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article