Honus Wagner: A Biography

Last Updated 5 December 1999

Here's my review:
Honus Wagner: A Biography
by Dennis DeValeria & Jeanne Burke DeValeria

This book may be the best Pittsburgh-related baseball book I've ever read. The authors have thoroughly researched this book to provide timeless insights to the game during the early 20th century era. Although this is story about Pittsburgh's great shortstop Honus Wagner, the story mixes in observations about other great players of the era, ballparks, fans, rules of the day, uniforms, and everyday anicdotes of American life in 1900's Pittsburgh. The detail in this story goes all the way down to the box scores of individual games to show that during a Wagner hot-streak, the Flying Dutchman was 2 for 4 on a particular day with a double, 2 RBIs, a run scored, and a stolen base. This book is detailed, insightful, and well written. It simply blows away the competition who have written third grade level biographies on Roberto Clemente and other Pittsburgh sports figures. If you are looking for a serious work about Pittsburgh's favorite son, then pick up this book and be prepared for a detailed scorecard of the career, life and times of Honus Wagner.
Some of the details in the book give the reader a vivid description of Honus Wagner:

Physical appearance

"His legs were so bowed he couldn't catch a pig in an alley" (p 4).
"Broad shoulders, long arms, huge hands, and those soon to be famous bowed legs." (p 14) Some baseball men were put off by Honus' appearance; they expected him to be slow or clumsy. One executive wouldn't "pay a dime" for a young Wagner, and another wouldn't pay his train fare for a tryout. (p 40)
Manager Fred Clarke said when Louisville first obtained Honus, "He is a big, heavy German, with very large hands, and is powerful as a bull. He kills the ball..." (p 45)
"...a one story brick house."
His "uniform was filthy, stained with a mixture of mud, blood, and tobacco Juice." (p 59)
In Louisville, he was called the mayor of the bleachers and the idol of rooter's row." (p 66)
Off the field, a likeable, easygoing fellow, while on the field, he is a fleet footed, base stealing hustler who was willing to play anywhere. (p 121)

Playing ability

Wagner played every postion but catcher. Despite what position he might have settled on, Honus could have been a Hall of Famer at any position. He is without a doubt, the greatest shortstop to play the game. With respect to modern day heros like Cal Ripken, any all-time team that includes any name but "Wagner" at shortstop must be considered a suspect line-up.
Fred Clarke said in 1900, "I don't think his equal lives today as an all-around ballplayer... Keeler may lead him in batting when the averages are published, but Hans doesn't bunt them; he hits them out... When his ability to play all the positions on the team is taken into consideration, I say he is the best ballplayer in the business." (p 71)
Sporting Life said, "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..." (p 95)
Tommy Leach called Wagner, "The greatest shortstop ever. The greatest *everything* ever." DeValeria goes on to say, "Batting, baserunning, and fielding - Wagner was recognized as a master of all three." (p 140)
John McGraw said of Honus' batting prowess, "Just throw the ball and pray." Sporting Life opined on Wagner's fielding skills, "Hit 'em where Wagner ain't." (p 142)
Umpire Bill Klem said, "...Hans Wagner, as great a man as he was a ballplayer. He was the best I ever saw - and I saw them all in the last sixty years." (p 162)
Fred Clarke said of Honus, "...the best ballplayer that ever stood in shoes." John McGraw said in 1907, "Wagner is just in a class by himself, and that is all there is to it." (p 167)
1908 Spaulding Guide called Honus, "...the greatest player of this or any other generation, whose likes may never again be seen in baseball." (p 198)
In 1915, Ty Cobb cabled his regrets that he would miss a banquet to honor Honus Wagner. Cobb wrote, "Down here in Georgia, I will be drinking a toast to the greatest ball player that ever lived..." (p 265)
Honus won a batting title in 1911 at 37 years old. He is the oldest player to ever win the NL crown.
Bozeman Bulger wrote in 1917, "Instead of trying to fix these figures in your head, just remember that he is the best hitter and the best infielder that the game has ever known and that will be sufficient." (p 275)

Other pursuits

Honus had numerous off field pursuits through out his career. He dabbled in real estate, oil, chicken farming, owned a pool hall, operated a sporting goods store, launched a circus troupe, and had a passion for cars. He had hobbies like bowling, playing poker and pinochle. He operated an off-season Basketball team for several years.

Famous misconceptions and stories

Honus was not the saint that some myths have tried to create. The myth that Honus didn't smoke and objected to the tobacco baseball card that had limited distributed is simply false. The lack of royalties was probably what caused a shortage of the T-206 card. Honus did enjoy a smoke (and a drink, and a friendly wager too) in moderation.
Honus was a story teller. The stories may change over time, but each one would end with the famous Wagner-ism of, "How about that?". He claimed to have hit a home run into the smokestack of a passing train (almost unbelievable), but then continued the story to say the locomotive belched the ball back out into the waiting glove of the opponent's outfielder. Or how about the time the enemy outfielder got his pants stuck on a nail on the outfield fence and dangled helplessly as Honus circled the bases with an inside-the-park home run? (p 5) How about THAT!
Another time, Honus was playing first base and reached into his back pants pocket for a chew. His huge hand got stuck in the pocket. Though he tried to alert the pitcher to take time out, the pitch was delivered and the batter slapped a grounder to short. Honus covered first and caught the throw from short with his hand still caught in his back pocket.
It seems that Honus and I share a common trait. He never let the facts get in the way of a good story, and neither do I.
The most famous story about Honus Wagner vs Ty Cobb in the 1909 World Series is explained in detail in the book. See page 222 for all the details. Was Cobb out or safe in his steal of second base against the Bucs? Let Dennis DeValeria set the record straight for you.

Other baseball personalities

Fred Clarke: Wagner's player/manager in Louisville and Pittsburgh. Clarke was an inventor of numerous baseball related items: the infield tarp, outfield sunglasses, player's sliding pads, and small equipment bags. Clarke owned two mules on his ranch in Arkansas named Deacon and Honus; He once wired the team offices, "Have sold Honus for $190. Particulars later." (p 242) Clarke was a Hall of Fame player and an accomplished manager also. In my opinion, we should recognize his accomplishments by retiring Fred Clarke's name in the Pirates franchise Hall of Fame.
Barney Dreyfuss: the young owner of the Bucs in the early part of the century. I can see numerous parallels between Barney and current Pirate owner Kevin McClatchy. As Dreyfuss moved to Pittsburgh for the 1900 season, the town and the franchise was ripe for a rebirth of baseball in Pittsburgh. After the 1900 season, Dreyfuss, just shy of his 36th birthday, acquired a majority holding in the franchise; he announced, "I am a citizen of Pittsburgh and will advance its honors on the ball field as much as is in my power." (p 87) I can see some similarities to the 1900-era events with McClatchy's purchase of the team in 1996. Barney Dreyfuss remained club president for 32 years. We Pirate fans can only hope that our post-1996 trades turn out as well as the arrival of the Louisville Colonels for the 1900 season.
Players like Rube Waddel, Deacone Phillippe, Tommy Leach, Ginger Beaumont, and Sam Leever are all profiled in some detail through out the book. Phillippe is called the best control pitcher in baseball history.
Honus' brother Al Wagner was also a player who had a solid minor league career. Some people observed that Al was maybe the better player in the early years, but he lacked the discipline to be subject to the strict rules of conduct required of major league ballplayers of the era. Put nicely, "he was difficult to manage." (p 28) Al slumped in his only Major League stint.
DeValeria provides interesting commentary about the inner workings of baseball management, ownership, and leadership. The struggles between the National League and the upstart junior circuit in 1901 are an interesting part of baseball history that the authors put in perspective for us.

Other Pittsburgh Comments:
Forbes Field was envisioned to replace Exposition Park for two primary reasons:

In her time, Forbes Field was praised for its comfort and beauty. Let's hope our new ballpark in Pittsburgh sets new heights for her debut also.

In 1904, AL President Ban Johnson said the Pirates were the best team in the NL. The Bucs had fast runners, hard hitters, a first class manager, and fine team work. The club owner is a man for whom the players liked to work (p 146). That sounds like a formula that can still work in Pittsburgh today.
If you want to read about the last game at Exposition Park, see the detailed descriptions on page 209 (Bucs beat Chicago 8-1).
Other names considered for the new ballpark in Oakland: Schenley Stadium/Field, and Dexter Park.

Timeless commentary

Players salaries: this was an issue even in the early days. Honus earned record sums in his day. Even his early salary earned him in two months, what it would take an average worker a whole year to earn. (p 48) In 1896, Honus was signed for $125 - it was over the league limit of $100. (p 29) In 1901, Wagner was signed for a record $2700, even though the league limit was $2400. Honus even had at least one spring hold out in 1908 where many writers had figured Wagner had retired (my - we would have missed him in the 1909 season and World Series!). Wagner got a 100% raise to $10,000/year, which was 20 times what an average worker earned. (p 176)

Interesting Tidbits:

Honus was 34-years old before he played one postion for the whole season.
Honus played in the first baseball game under lights on July 4th 1896. An exhibition in Wilmington was conducted under temporary lights using a larger, softball-size ball. The game was poorly played as high flies were lost outside the shine of the lights. The game ended as a farce, as the wildly gyrating pitcher delivered an exploding firecracker ball that Honus hit and destroyed.
Prior to 1901, foul balls did not count as strikes.
June 20, 1901: Honus becomes the first player in the 20th century to steal home twice in a single game.
Wagner was the regular right fielder for the Bucs in the 1900 season. He didn't make his first start at shortstop until July 27, 1901 (replacing Fred Ely's .200 BA).
Honus was the first player to have his signature branded into a Louisville Slugger: Sept 1905 (p 140).
Tommy Leach asked for an arbitrator to hear his salary dispute in 1908; it is a popular venue today, but Leach was 65 years ahead of his time.
Overflow crowds would stand behind ropes in the outfield. Many times, the crowd would swell and reduce the playing field dimensions. Rules varied, but some balls hit into the outfield crowd were awarded only two bases at times.
Second baseman John Miller picked up the nickname of "Dots", when a local writer asked Wagner who was at second, and Wagner replied, "That's Miller", which sounded like "Dots" to the local scribe.
Honus signed a contract to help coach the Pirates in 1933. He worked with Arky Vaughan on charging slow hit grounders. Vaughan and Wagner roomed together on the road for 9 seasons; today, their Hall of Fame plaques share a room in Cooperstown NY.
Honus started his coaching days wearing #36. In 1940, he switched to #33. In 1952, the Bucs retired their first uniform number ever - Honus' #33.
Fred Clarke said prior to the 1909 World Series, "Pennants are not won by managerial hot air or by newspapers. Championships are won on the grass."

Summary:

If you want to read a mature book about Pittsburgh's alltime hometown hero, then pick up this book and enjoy the story of Honus Wagner. The details are incredible clear; you can follow the 1903 and 1909 World Series, game-by-game, Inning-by-inning, and pitch-by-pitch. This is simply the best book written about Honus Wagner.
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