Johannes Peter Wagner 1874-1955
Honus Wagner if one of my favorite players of all time. He may not be the best ever, but he is on the short list. He had an 11.5 win season (*rWAR) in 1908, one of only five players not named Ruth or Bonds to reach that number in a single season. By all accounts Wagner was the very definition of “strapping” in appearance, and in his 21 seasons he was one of the most respected a feared players in baseball.*
*When Ty Cobb was asked about the legend of a World Series incident in which he challenged Wagner on a stolen base and got stitches in his mouth as a result, his response was there was no way that story could be true – it would be foolhardy to anger Wagner.
Much has been written about Wagner (his SABR bio is here), and there is not much more in the way of words to add to the record. For me, however, there are two pictures of Wagner that have captured the imagination of many (myself included) that help to tell his Hall of Fame Story.
The first is the famous T206 baseball card bearing his image. It makes headlines every so often when it sells for an increasingly absurd amount of money (most recently for $2.1 million in 2013). As with anything that involves this much money, there is a little bit of intrigue and controversy surrounding the cards, particularly when it comes to questions of authenticity.
There is little controversy, however, surrounding the circumstances that led to the shortage of Wagner T206 baseball cards. The card was produced as part of a 1909 baseball series by the American Tobacco Company (ATC) that wanted to use the images to help sell tobacco products in a newly competitive market following Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting. When ATC sought permission of the players, Wagner denied it.
While it is impossible to know his true motives, the most likely explanation seems to be that Wagner, a regular user of chewing tobacco, did not want his image used to sell tobacco products to kids.
ATC honored Wagner’s wishes by halting production of the card, but there were already a handful printed. Thus the shortage, and thus the million-dollar-plus price tag those that are confirmed authentic fetch when auctioned.
The second photo (bigger version here) is estimated to have been taken around 1915, which would make Wagner at least 40 years old. The image of Wagner’s hulking frame, including his legendary large hands, crouched in the dugout pondering the line of bat options has become iconic. It captures a seemingly pensive man at the tail-end of his Hall of Fame career. You can almost listen in to his thoughts as he reflects on all that he has seen in the game that was his life’s work for 21 seasons.
Honus Wagner, like all of us, was far from perfect. He was accused of overly-rough play, and when Ty Cobb takes pains to avoid angering somebody there is some evidence of a temper. Still, there is something about The Flying Dutchman that makes him stand out from other baseball stars. Perhaps it was his frame, odd even for a deadball era player. Maybe it was his unflinching loyalty to Pittsburgh when it would have been easy (and more lucrative) to jump to a different league. It may be that his workman-like qualities and longevity commanded almost unanimous respect among his peers. Whatever the reason, Wagner’s legacy holds a special place in baseball – enough to make him only the second player elected into the Half-baked Hall of Fame unanimously.