Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner (1874-1955) became a Major League Baseball player because of his older brother, Albert, considered best player in the Wagner family, when he coaxed his Steubenville, Ohio team to take a look at Honus when the team was decimated with injuries. Wagner impressed management and turned pro with Steubenville and then played every position for five different teams that year, never hitting below the .365-mark. He was an awkward looking character at 5’11” tall and 200 lbs. with massive hands and shoulders, a barrel chest and bowed legs, all attributes that would surely diminish his skills and playing ability. On the contrary, Wagner possessed excellent speed, superior power and ability to get on base and a fielding ability that others could only dream about. Despite his high error totals, Wagner had the ability to reach balls that others could not and he had a cannon for an arm to gun runners down at first. Honus broke into the National League, beginning his career with the Louisville Colonels (1897-1899) where he hit .322 with 258 RBI in 361 games his first three seasons. Honus wielded a heavy (40 oz.) bat and used a split handed grip that allowed him to slap hits to the opposite field or, when closing the gap between his hands, pull the ball with occasional power. He was considered the best pure hitter in the game, with all due respect to Ty Cobb. Wagner and Cobb won twenty batting titles and collected more than 7,600 hits. When the NL contracted after the 1899 season, Wagner followed Louisville president, Barney Dreyfuss, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, finishing his career there (1900-1917).
The Flying Dutchman, as he was called, made an exceptional transition to the Pirates winning his first of eight batting titles in 1900, batting .381 in 135 games. The Pirates were transitioning from one of the worst teams in the National League to one of the best as they captured the 1901, 1902 and 1909 pennants. Once Wagner found his place, settling in at shortstop after playing virtually all over the field, the Pirates dominated. In 1909, they won their first World Series title when they defeated the Ty Cobb-led Detroit Tigers in seven games. Not only did Honus produce at the plate during the Deadball Era, but also his fielding was exceptional posting a .947 career fielding percentage over 21 seasons. His strength and power were evident in his throws to first, reportedly throwing out runners from his back. At the plate, Wagner won eight National League batting titles and also led the league in doubles seven times, six times in slugging percentage and total bases, five times in RBI and stolen bases, three times in triples and twice in hits and runs scored. Wagner played in 2,794 games, had a batting average on .329, accumulated 3,420 hits and stole 722 bases. Nearly a century later, Honus remains in the National League’s top ten in most major offensive categories including games (7), at-bats (6), hits (4), runs (8), doubles (4), triples (1), stolen bases (4) and RBI (7). He played in two World Series for Pittsburgh in 1903 and 1909, losing one and winning one respectively. Commonplace today in the production of Major League Baseball bats, Honus Wagner became the first player to have his name emblazoned across the barrel of a bat. John Peter “Honus” Wagner was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936 as a member of the inaugural class and famed “First Five.”