Historical Markers
Honus Wagner Historical Marker
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Honus Wagner

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Mansfield Blvd. & Chartiers St., Carnegie

Dedication Date:
August 29, 1998

Behind the Marker

                  Honus Wagner was "the nearest thing to a perfect ballplayer."
                     -Giants manager John McGraw

Honus Wagner Jumping
Honus Wagner Jumping
The very archetype of the turn-of-the-century ballplayer of hardscrabble beginnings, Honus Wagner looked like an old man when he was young and yet continued to play with the abandon of a young man even when he was old in baseball years. He was stocky and barrel-chested and his nose looked like a geometry problem. His legs were horribly bowed, and he had hands the size of catchers' mitts. One newspaper account of the day compared his physical grace - or lack thereof - to "the gambols of caracoling elephants."

Even so, Wagner could play ball. Some contend that he played better than anyone. Ever.

For the first decade of the twentieth century, Wagner was the dominant hitter in the National League. He led all comers eight times in batting average, five in stolen bases, and four in RBIs. And he contributed mightily on defense. "The only way to get a ball past Honus is to hit it eight feet over his head," bemoaned Giants manager John McGraw. "He was without question the reigning shortstop of his era." Famed Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton once wondered, "If a man with a voice loud enough to make himself heard all over the United States should stand on top of Pike's Peak and ask, "Who is the greatest ball player?" [The name he'd hear shouted back would be] Wagner." He was, agreed McGraw, "the nearest thing to a perfect ballplayer."

One of nine children, Johannes Peter Wagner was born in 1874 to parents who had settled eight years earlier near Pittsburgh in the poor, working-class section of Chartiers (now Carnegie). The Wagners were part of the enormous wave of German immigrants that flooded the resource-rich region after the Civil War. His father worked in the coal mines and, once he was old enough, so did the young boy, whom the entire family called "Honus." For a while, the boy thought of becoming a barber like his older brother. But more than likely, his future would have been underground in a coal mine or in the steel mills had he not shown a remarkable knack for hitting a baseball.

in his 70s, holding many bats
Honus Wagner in his 70s, Pittsburgh, PA, circa 1940's.
Wagner rose through the ranks of sandlot ball and played on local mill and mine teams until 1893, when he joined the semi-pro Mansfield Indians. From then on, he steadily moved through minor league clubs in Ohio and Michigan until breaking into the majors with the Louisville Colonels in 1897. He was traded to Pittsburgh in 1900, won his first batting title that year, and two years later played with little distinction in the markerfirst World Series against Boston. He retired in 1917 and, for much of his life after his retirement, remained a Pirate.

Fans loved him, even though they misunderstood his roots and incorrectly dubbed him "The Flying Dutchman." He exuded none the meanness of Ty Cobb or the high-hatting airs of Nap Lajoie, the other best hitters of the day. Fans saw Wagner as one of them, and they embraced him. He wasn't boastful or loud, churlish or proud. He avoided brawls and respected umpires, but no one was tougher on the field than Wagner. In one legendary incident, he split Cobb's lip with a tag in the 1909 World Series after Cobb had hurled a series of ethnic slurs at him. (He also out-hit Cobb that series, .333 to .241.)

Wagner's popularity also appealed to advertisers, who made him an early prototype of the athlete as commercial pitchman. "Wagner" was the first player's name emblazoned on a Louisville Slugger bat, and his likeness helped sell chewing gum, beer, Coca-Cola, gunpowder, ice cream, and baseball gear. Though Wagner was an avid cigar smoker, he drew the line on promoting cigarettes, especially at children. In 1910, he denied the American Tobacco Company permission to use his image on a baseball card for inclusion in cigarette packages; the cards, already printed, had to be destroyed. The few that did slip through are today the most valuable of all baseball cards, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

Pittsburgh Pirates Shortstop Honus Wagner in action at bat.
Pittsburgh Pirates Shortstop Honus Wagner in action at bat.
After retiring, Wagner took a succession of jobs. He remained a popular baseball presence on Pittsburgh's sandlots, playing and managing for a steel company team called the Carnegie Elks, and for the Green Cab team. He later coached baseball at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University) and ran a sporting goods store. There was no one more popular than Wagner in Pittsburgh. It was impossible for him to walk into a tavern and not have someone buy him a drink.

Despite his popularity, the Depression did not treat Wagner kindly. Out of work, his bills mounted. When Pittsburgh Post baseball writer Fred Lieb penned a 1933 column on Wagner's plight, the new president of the Pirates paid his debts and put him to work as a coach and a goodwill ambassador for the team. In 1936, Wagner joined markerChristy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and his old rival, Ty Cobb, as one of the original five inductees into Baseball's Hall of Fame.

In 1951, crippling arthritis forced him to hang up his uniform for good. Four years later, Honus Wagner, "The Flying Dutchman," passed away.
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