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Flying Dutchman- The Honus Wagner Story

Posted by on May 17, 2012 at 3:30 PM In a quiet little tavern in the Wrigleyville area of Chicago, on July 3rd 1949, a gray haired gentleman puts a silver dollar on the bar and quietly drinks his dollars worth of beer. Around him the other patrons are talking about the Cubs/Pittsburgh game that took place several hours earlier. In this year of 1949, the Cubs and the Pirates are pitiful teams. The Pirates end the season 26 games out of first place and the Cubs, a dismal last 36 games out. The talk around the bar this night is of young Ralph Kiner, the Pittsburgh slugger, who for the second consecutive day homers to allow the Pirates to take two of three games from the Cubs. As the banter grew louder and louder, each “expert” argued the relative merits of Kiner versus the Cubs newly acquired star Hank Sauer. As the bow-legged gray haired gentleman walked out of the bar, he turned to the group and simply said, “Kiner, boys, there is no one like him.” And he left, to head down the street to another bar, where he plopped his silver dollar down and sat quietly drinking his beer. Kiner, no one like him....except there was...the old gentleman himself, 30 years earlier. John Peter (Honus) Wagner was born in the hills of Western Pennsylvania on February 24, 1874. He worked in the manly world of the Pennsylvania coal mines, and when he made his major league debut for the Louisville Colonels (then a part of the National League) he made quite an appearance as a “ham-handed, bow-legged, grizzled sort”, who looked far older than his 23 years. He was a good player for Louisville, raw and without a position. He played outfield, first base, shortstop, second and third base. Wherever he was asked to play, he did so with intensity and natural skill. When the Louisville manager, Fred Clarke and most of the Louisville team defected to Pittsburgh when the Louisville team folded, Wagner followed. He was coming off his best season in 1899, a .336 average and 192 hits. He was going from the young Hans Wagner to the Hero Wagner. One of the huge inspirational stories to get from Honus Wagner was his amazing consistency. From 1899 to 1913, he hit no lower than .320! This is considered by baseball experts as one of the most consistent displays of excellence ever exhibited. In 1904, the Pirates finally placed him at shortstop and left him there. Despite his bulky appearance, he fielded with grace and threw with amazing accuracy. In a time of hard drinking, hard carousing, hard gambling players, Wagner played with dignity and style. He was deceptively fast, leading the league in stolen bases 5 times and ended his career with 722. Wagner retired in 1917 with major league records in 5 different offensive categories and National League records in 4 additional. His career numbers are staggering in what was considered the deadball era: a .328 career average (35th all time of the over 10,000 players to play the game), 3430 hits (7th all time), 1733 runs batted in (21st), 643 doubles (9th), 252 triples (3rd) and 722 stolen bases (10th). This is particularly amazing considering that Wagner retired 95 years ago. Wagner and another one of my heros Roberto Clemente are tied for most games played for Pittsburgh (2433) and Wagner is still the all-time Pirate leader in runs scored and triples and second in hits, doubles and stolen bases. He is a Pirate legacy over a hundred years after first putting on a Pirate uniform. Two stories from Wagner's career stick out as reasons to find Wagner the man even more spectacular than Wagner the ballplayer. The first one goes back to the 1909 World Series when Detroit Tiger great Ty Cobb faced the veteran Wagner in a contest of each leagues greatest player. Cobb, a brash 23 year old had just come off a triple crown season, leading the American League in home runs, batting average and runs batted in. Wagner in his 14th season still dominated the National League, batting .339 and leading his team in nearly every offensive category. Cobb, not known for his humility and Wagner greatly known for his, would not seem like fast friends. However, despite Cobb’s brashness and bravado, he admired the older Wagner and after the 1909 series, invited Wagner to Georgia for some off-season hunting which Wagner did and later said, disappointed him as the hunting was not nearly as successful as his Pennsylvania exploits. During the series, Cobb let it be known that he and his Tigers would dominate the aging Pirates team, largely intact since 1900 with few changes. However, in a classic exhibition of experience over brash youth, Wagner outplayed Cobb in every category... Cobb, the best career hitter in baseball history, hit only .231 in the series with just two stolen bases. Wagner 12 years older, hit .333 with 6 stolen bases as his Pirates won the series in 7 games. The second story is about the most famous baseball card in history, the T206. In 1909, the American Tobacco Company put out 524 baseball cards of players. Although they requested Wagner’s permission to use his likeness on the card, they did not wait for his approval. They went ahead and printed the card and were flabbergasted when they instead received a refusal. Although Wagner used chewing tobacco, as was almost unanimous in his day, he did not want children to have to buy tobacco products to get his card. Production was stopped after between 70 and 200 of the cards were released. The company was able to retrieve some of the cards, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 remained out in the market. Today, 103 years later, because of the scarcity of the card, it is the most sought after and most expensive on the market. One such card is owned by hockey great Wayne Gretzky and another was purchased in April of 2011 for the unbelievable price of 2.8 million dollars by the owner of the Anaheim Angels baseball team. Wagner’s moralistic refusal to have his image on a tobacco card, not only helped players rights for future use of their images, but also led in part, to the baseball card, chewing gum craze that continues to this day. After retirement, Wagner was baseball, football and basketball coach for his local towns college, assisting young men not just in their athletic, but also their moral development. In 1933, he returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates where he coached until his retirement in 1952. During that time, he had the influence on hundreds of players, both on the Pirates and on other national league players, who naturally sought out the great Wagner when the Pirates were in town. In 1936, Wagner, along

with Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were the first five players selected for the newly developed Baseball Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, New York. After his retirement in 1952, Wagner went back to the Western Pennsylvania coal country where he passed away on December 6, 1955. Today, when you go to PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Honus Wagner in bronze will be there waiting. From the coal mines of Pennsylvania to the hearts of baseball fans everywhere, John Peter (Honus) Wagner’s journey is not quite over. He still has so much to teach young boys and girls growing up to love the game.

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