Easy-going Honus was a Pirates icon
By Bob Diskin
Special to ESPN.com
Game 2 of the 1909 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the Pittsburgh Pirates: The man who would lead the majors in hits over the next decade took his lead off first base. He glanced toward the shortstop, who had been the hit leader for the decade just ended.
Thus ended the first skirmish in the war that was the only meeting between Detroit's Ty Cobb and Pittsburgh's Honus Wagner. The Flying Dutchman batted .333 with six runs batted in and six steals in leading the Pirates to the Series title in seven games.
In his 21-year career, Wagner won eight batting titles, a National League record he shares with the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn. He batted above .300 for 17 consecutive seasons -- including seven times hitting at least .350 -- and finished with a .329 lifetime average.
He was the second player (after Cap Anson) to reach 3,000 hits, and his total of 3,430 is seventh all-time. His 252 triples are a National League record and third most overall. He led the league in doubles eight times and had 651 for his career (No. 6 all-time).
During an era when 2-1, 3-1 and 3-2 games were the norm, Wagner knocked in at least 100 runs nine times, winning the RBI title in four seasons.
Wagner was 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, ordinary by today's standards but above average at the turn of the 20th century. His legs were bowed and his arms hung so low to the ground that it caused pitcher Lefty Gomez to remark, "He could tie his shoes standing up."
This unlikely package was able to lead the league in stolen bases five times, with a high of 61, and to steal 722 for his career.
Along with Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, Wagner was part of the Fabulous Five, the first class elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936.
Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel, who used confusing "Stengelese" to make a point, was remarkably concise when talking about Wagner. "They'd tell ya this feller was great but ...," the Old Perfessor said. "And then they'd tell you what his weakness was. With Wagner, though, there weren't any buts. He was great, period."
Not only was Wagner a great player, but his 1910 baseball card produced by Piedmont Tobacco also was extremely valuable. In 1991, the card was purchased by hockey star Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall for $493,000 at auction.
The reason for the high price was that Wagner objected to the card and asked that it be withdrawn from the market. Only 12 are known to exist. Wagner's granddaughter, Leslie Blair, says her grandfather's reasoning had nothing to do with any objection to tobacco (Wagner was known to enjoy cigars and chewed tobacco as a player). Rather, he didn't want young children purchasing tobacco products in order to acquire his likeness.
During lunch, the Wagner brothers played baseball and developed their skills to such an extent that four of them became professionals.
The story differs slightly as to how Honus was signed to his first contract. One says that his brother Al insisted that his younger brother be signed as a contingency for his own signature with Steubenville in the Tri-State League in 1894.
The other says that Ed Barrow, who would become the general manager of the New York Yankees, saw Wagner tossing rocks and was so impressed by his arm and his powerful physique that he signed him for his Paterson club in the Atlantic League.
During his first season with Paterson, Wagner played mostly the outfield, with some stints at first and third. Barrow believed Wagner's best position was shortstop, but a former major leaguer was playing there.
In 1897, Louisville owner Harry Pulliam, who would become the president of the National League in 1900, offered Barrow $2,100 for Wagner. Barrow had promised Pittsburgh owner William Kerr the right of first refusal to sign Wagner, but when Kerr didn't match Pulliam's bid, Wagner joined Louisville in the National League for the second half of the 1897 season. He hit .344 in 61 games.
In 1900, the National League consolidated from 12 to eight teams. Barney Dreyfuss, co-owner of Louisville with Pulliam, assumed the Pittsburgh franchise and brought most of the team with him. Wagner won his first batting title that season with a career-high .381 average, while also leading the league with 45 doubles and 22 triples.
He remained a fixture in the Steel City for the rest of his life. His early years in Pittsburgh were split between the outfield and infield until he was installed as the Pirates' shortstop in 1903.
The Pirates never finished worse than third from 1900 to 1912 and won pennants in 1901, '02, '03 and '09. In 1903, they lost the first World Series to the Boston Pilgrims, five games to three, as Wagner batted just .222.
From 1903 to 1909, he won six batting titles. And the year he lost, he finished second at .363, the second highest average of his career.
Wagner's easy-going nature was legendary. He never bothered to negotiate contracts with Dreyfuss, preferring instead to simply accept what the owner felt he was worth.
After the 1909 season, Wagner was ready to call it quits as a result of arthritis in his legs that caused him to feel he was slowing down. When manager Fred Clarke and Dreyfuss convinced him he still was integral for the team to succeed, he continued playing. Finally after the 1917 season, at the age of 43, his body told him it was time to hang up his glove. He managed five games (losing four) that year and quickly saw that the job wasn't for him.
From 1933 to 1951, Wagner was a general instructor for the Pirates and was a favorite of the players. Shortly before his death at age 81 on Dec. 6, 1955, in Carnegie, Pa., a statue in his honor was erected in Schenley Park, not far from Forbes Field.
When Forbes Field was razed and the new Three Rivers Stadium was built, the statue came with it. Standing by the entrance to the stadium, it remains a tribute to The Flying Dutchman.