Wagner, Honus

views updated May 08 2018

Honus Wagner


American baseball player

Considered by many baseball experts the greatest shortstop of all time, Honus Wagner was one of the National Baseball Hall of Fame's five original inductees in 1936. Among his fellow inductees were Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth . At first glance, Wagner looked somewhat ungainly and awkward. Stocky, barrel-chested, and bow-legged, he nevertheless exhibited great speed, which, in tandem with his heritage, earned him the nickname of "The Flying Dutchman." Wagner compiled a lifetime batting average of .326 and managed to top .300 for an incredible fifteen consecutive seasons. John McGraw, the legendary manager of the New York Giants for more than thirty seasons, said of Wagner: "While Wagner was the greatest shortstop, I believe he could have been the number one player at any position he might have selected. That's why I vote him baseball's foremost all-time player."

Born in Western Pennsylvania

Wagner was born in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, on February 24, 1874, one of nine children born to Peter and Katheryn (Wolf) Wagner, who had immigrated to western Pennsylvania from Germany's Bavaria in 1866. Big, clumsy, and bowlegged from birth, Wagner was called Honus (a German term often applied to awkward children) by his family. He also acquired the nickname "Dutch," a corruption of "Deutsch," the German word for German, and fairly common in this heavily German-settled region of Pennsylvania. Wagner was raised in Chartiers, Pennsylvania, not far from Mansfield. The two towns, close to Pittsburgh, were eventually merged and renamed Carnegie. His father worked in the mines, where twelve-year-old Honus joined him in 1886.

Young Wagner labored in the mines during the day, but most evenings and Sunday afternoons found him playing sandlot baseball with his brothers and neighbors. By the time he entered the mines, Wagner had already acquired star status on his neighborhood team, the Oregons. His older brother, Albert, was thought by many in the area to be the better ballplayer, but Al never

really took the game seriously. He did, however, recognize Honus's potential and encouraged his younger brother to learn every playing position. In time, the brothers graduated from sandlot play to positions on area church and company teams, often earning up to five dollars a week in pay and tips.

Honus and brother Al began playing semiprofessional baseball in 1894 for Mansfield, a member of the Allegheny League. The following year the Wagner brothers jumped to the Carnegie Athletic Club and in 1895 joined the Steubenville, Ohio, team, part of the newly formed Inter-State League. In his first game for Steubenville, Honus hit a home run. Not long thereafter, Honus Wagner was signed by manager Ed Barrow to play for Paterson (New Jersey) in the Atlantic League. Older brother Al meanwhile went north of the border to play for a team in Toronto. So impressive was the younger Wagner's perfomance for Paterson that he soon became the object of a bidding war between a number of major league baseball clubs. Louisville eventually took the prize, paying Paterson $2,100 for the rights to sign Wagner.

Breaks Into Major Leagues

On July 19, 1897, Wagner made his major league debut for the Louisville Nationals, playing center field, and occasionally filling in at second base. In the sixty-one games he played for Louisville in 1897, Wagner compiled a batting average of .338. His batting average slipped a bit in 1898, falling to .299, but Wagner proved his versatility, playing first, second, and third base. His batting average bounced back in 1899, when he hit .336. However, at the end of the season the Louisville team disbanded, and Wagner, along with his close friend Fred Clarke, signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clarke played left field for the Pirates and also managed. In 1900, Wagner won the first of eight batting championships with an impressive batting average of .381. Happy to be playing near his hometown, Wagner resisted tempting offers from American League teams to lure him away from Pittsburgh.

Wagner in 1901 began playing shortstop, the position for which he became best known. He also led the National League in doubles and runs batted in with an average of.353 and won the first of five stolen-base titles. His ungainly appearance was deceptive, for as awkward as he looked, Wagner could turn on the speed when it was needed. He established a career record of 722 stolen bases, a record that stood until it was eventually broken by Ty Cobb. The Pittsburgh Pirates, thanks in large part to Wagner's superlative batting, was the strongest club in the early days of the National League, finishing first in 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1909. In the very first World Series, a best-of-nine series in 1903, Pittsburgh faced off against Boston of the American League. It was not Wagner's finest moment, however, and he batted only .222 during the series. Boston took the series, five games to three.

Despite his less-than-stellar performance in the first World Series, Wagner led the National League as its best player for the next eight seasons, his batting average never dipping below .320. He acquired a reputation as one of the game's best bad-ball hitters, and this in an era when the rules allowed pitchers to hurl spitballs and battered, muddy balls usually stayed in the game for lack of replacements. In the World Series of 1909, the thirty-five-year-old Wagner and the Pirates faced off against the Detroit Tigers and their twenty-two-year-old wunderkind, Ty Cobb. The Pirates took the series, and Wagner outbatted Cobb .333 to .231.

Retires from the Pirates in 1917

Wagner played for the Pirates until 1917, when he was forty-three years old. In the latter years of his baseball career, he struggled against the effects of aging and multiple injuries but still managed to perform impressively. He last compiled a batting average of .300 or better during the 1913 season, although his average never dropped lower than .252 in his remaining years of play. In 1916, Wagner married Bessie Baine Smith, the daughter of another professional baseball player. The couple had two daughters, Betty and Virginia. After his retirement from the Pirates, Wagner continued to play semiprofessional ball in the Pittsburgh area until he was well past fifty. His one run for political officethe sheriff of Allegheny Countyin 1928 ended in failure, but in 1942 he was appointed deputy county sheriff. In between, he served briefly as sergeant-at-arms in the Pennsylvania legislature. He also returned to professional baseball in 1933, this time as a coach for the Pirates.


1874Born in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, on February 24
1886Begins work in the coal mines at the age of 12
1894Plays with older brother Al for Mansfield in the semipro Allegheny League
1895Breaks into professional baseball, playing for Steubenville (OH) in Inter-State League
1896Signs to play first base for Paterson (NJ) in the Atlantic League
1897Makes major league debut playing center field for Louisville on July 19
1900Joins Pittsburgh Pirates after Louisville folds
1901Begins playing shortstop, position for which he would become famous
1909Leads Pirates to victory over the Detroit Tigers and Ty Cobb in the World Series
1916Marries Bessie Baine Smith
1928Loses electoral race for Allegheny County Sheriff
1933Becomes a coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates
1942Appointed deputy country sheriff
1955Dies in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, on December 6

Awards and Accomplishments

1896Batted .348 for Paterson (NJ) in Atlantic League
1897Compiled batting average of .338 during his first season in the major leagues
1898First of eight National League batting championships with .381 average
1901Led National League in doubles and runs batted in
1903Led Pirates to National League championship with .355 batting average
1904-11Acclaimed best player in the National League
1907Batting average of .350 tops league average by 107 points
1909Pirates win World Series over the Detroit Tigers
1917Retired from Pirates with all-time records for games, at-bats, hits, runs, stolen bases, and total bases
1936Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame

In 1936, Wagner, along with Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson , and Babe Ruth, were the first players to be inducted into the newly opened National Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1955 Wagner, by then eighty-one years old, attended the unveiling of a statue in his honor at the Pirates' Forbes Field. (The statue was later relocated to Three Rivers Stadium.) Later that year, on December 6, he died at his home in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.

Career Statistics

LOU: Louisville Nationals; PIT: Pittsburgh Pirates.

One of the most dynamic forces in baseball, Wagner was active in professional ball for nearly forty years, more than thirty-five of which were spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates, first as a player and later as a coach and manager. One of his greatest admirers throughout his baseball career was John J. McGraw, the longtime manager of the New York Giants. According to McGraw, Wagner had a "sixth sense of baseball" when it came to defense, knowing just where to play certain batters on certain pitches. In perhaps his highest tribute to Wagner, McGraw once observed: "Wagner is a whole team in himself."



American Decades CD-ROM. Detroit: Gale Group, 1998.

Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5: 1951-1955. American Council of Learned Societies, 1977.

Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement. Volume 20. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.

Hageman, William. Honus: The Life and Times of a Baseball Hero. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing, 1996.

Hittner, Arthur D. Honus Wagner: The Life of Baseball's "Flying Dutchman." Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1996.


Neff, Craig. "Scorecard: Honus or Bogus." Sports Illustrated (June 4, 1990): 15.

"Saga." Bulletin Index (September 7, 1939).

Weir, Tom. "Top Shortstops Brought More Than Glove to Work: Honus Wagner Established Standard with Success at Plate, on Basepaths." USA Today (August 27, 1999): 6C.


"Clarke, Fred C." HickockSports.com. http://www.hickocksports.com/biograph/clarkefr.shtml (October 15, 2002).

"Fred Clarke." National Baseball Hall of Fame. http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/hofers_and_honorees/hofer_bios/Clarke_Fred.htm (October 15, 2002).

"Honus Wagner." Baseball Almanac. http://www.baseball-almanac.com/players/p_wagner0.shtml (October 15, 2002).

"Honus Wagner: Career Batting Statistics." CNN/Sports Illustrated. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/mlb/stats/alltime/player/batting/12792.html (October 14, 2002).

"Honus Wagner." http://members.aol.com/stealth792/wagner/wagner.html (October 14, 2002).

"Honus Wagner." National Baseball Hall of Fame. http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/hofers_and_honorees/hofer_bios/wagner_honus.htm (October 14, 2002).

"Player Pages: Honus Wagner." The Baseball Page.com. http://www.thebaseballpage.com/past/pp/wagnershonus/default.htm (October 15, 2002).

Sketch by Don Amerman

Honus Wagner

views updated May 21 2018

Honus Wagner

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.

Up from the Mines

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.

Hometown Hero

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.

Attuned to the Game

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.

Hall of Fame Original

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.

Further Reading

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. □