Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Carnegie, Allegheny County
Rates the Pirates all-time greatest player, Honus Wagner was born in Mansfield (now Carnegie).
Awards: Baseball Hall of Fame
A native of Carnegie, Pennsylvania, Honus Wagner was born in 1874 and fell in love with the game of baseball at a young age. After a short minor league career, Wagner made it in the major leagues spending the majority of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In his 21 professional seasons, he led the National League in many categories, won a World Series and became a Pittsburgh sports icon. Wagner was selected as a member in the inaugural class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937. He lived out the remainder of his life at home in Carnegie and passed away on December 6, 1955.
Johannes Peter Wagner, named for his father, was born on February 24, 1874. Son of Bavarian immigrants, Katharina and Peter Wagner, Honus was one of nine children and grew up in the coal town of Mansfield, Pennsylvania. In their free time, the Wagner brothers would play sandlot baseball; this is where Honus quickly developed a love for the game. At the age of 15, Wagner dropped out of school and began working in the coal mines to help his father and brothers. With a passion for the game of baseball, older brother Albert Wagner taught Honus the skills and intricacies of every position on the field. With four of the five Wagner sons eventually playing professional baseball, it was not long before Honus made his first semiprofessional team in Steubenville, Ohio. Prior to the 1895 season, Albert, who was already playing for the Steubenville team, recognized the need for more talent and suggested his little brother Honus. In Honus’ first year he played in 80 games for five teams in three leagues, playing every position except catcher and batting .386. After almost instant success, Honus was quickly moved up the minor league ranks and by 1896 was playing for his first professional team, the Louisville Colonels. Here Honus Wagner would meet Barney Dreyfuss, the club president, who would later acquire the Pittsburgh Pirates and bring Wagner into the line up. Not looking like a typical baseball player from the dead ball era, Wagner stood 5’11”, 200 pounds with enormous hands, massive shoulders and severely bowed legs. For someone with this stature, Wagner was deceptively fast, both around the bases and in the field. This attribute earned him the nickname “The Flying Dutchman,” a reference to the opera by German composer Richard Wagner. Wagner’s batting style was pure power. He swung a heavy bat, over 40 ounces as compared to today’s 28 ounce bats, and used the once popular split-handed grip. This now obsolete grip was also used by the famous Ty Cobb. Prior to the 1900 season, National League officials reduced the league size from twelve teams to eight and the Louisville club was disbanded. Louisville President Barney Dreyfuss then bought stock in the Pittsburgh Pirates and became team president. Dreyfuss also brought over his top players from the Colonels, which included Wagner. The move to the Pirates was a delight for Wagner to play for his hometown. Over the next decade Wagner would dominate the major leagues, leading in every significant category except triples and home runs. In his first season as a Pirate, Wagner won the first batting title of his career with an average of .381 and the team finished 4 ½ games out of first place. The following season Wagner led the 1901 Pirates to a National League Pennant, which they would defend for the next two years. During this time Wagner led the National League in hitting, doubles, steals, runs and RBI--all while playing every position except catcher. Even pitching in two games, Wagner gave up no earned runs, giving him the lowest ERA of anyone in the Hall of Fame- 0.00. Eventually, during the 1903 season, Wagner would find a permanent home at shortstop. During this season, he would again led the league with a batting average of .355. After winning the pennant for the third straight year, Pirates President Dreyfuss challenged the American League to a championship playoff. The American League Champion Boston Americans (now the Boston Red Sox) accepted the challenge and thus the World Series was born. Wagner struggled during the playoff with an injured leg and the Pirates lost to the Americans in seven games. Over the next four years, 1904-1907, the Pirates dropped out of pennant contention but Wagner would remain the National League’s greatest player. He won his first of four consecutive batting titles beginning in 1906 and led the league in both doubles and run. After entertaining the idea of retirement over the 1907 off-season, Wagner would return in 1908 to become the highest paid player in the game and put together the finest season of his illustrious career. He led the league in every significant statistical category expect runs and home-runs. The following season, 1908, would be the greatest in Pirates history with an over-all record of 110 wins and 42 losses and a World Series berth. Wagner continued to lead the league in hitting, on base percentage, doubles, RBI, total bases and extra base hits. The Pirates would face the American League star Ty Cobb and his Detroit Tigers in the World Series. The Pirates would eventually win the title in seven games, capturing the first world title in Pirates history. Throughout the Series, Wagner would outplay his counterpart Cobb with a batting average of .333 and six stolen bases. The 1911 and 1912 seasons would mark the end of Wagner dominance over the major leagues and the decline of his career. He would win his last batting title and lead the league in RBI. In two years Wagner would get his 3,000th hit on June 9, 1914. He was the first player to reach this milestone in the twentieth century. Wagner would play his final professional game on September 17, 1917, with three innings at second base. At the time of his retirement, Wagner held the major league record for games, at-bats, hits, extra base hits, runs and total bases. He would finish his career second in RBI with 1,732 and third in stolen bases with 722. He also held the National League record for doubles, triples, and batting titles. After his playing years, Wagner held two political jobs, State Fish Commissioner and Sergeant-at-Arms of the Pennsylvania Legislature, and coached the Carnegie High School Football team and both basketball and baseball teams at Carnegie Mellon University. He also had two children in his retirement, Betty Baine Wagner and Virginia Mae, with his wife Bessie Baine Smith. One of the greatest accomplishments in Wagner’s legendary career was his induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As a member of the inaugural class, Wagner joined Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Babe Ruth in Cooperstown, New York on June 12, 1939. On April 30, 1955, Wagner attended a dedication ceremony for a bronze sculpture in his honor. This would be his last public appearance. The statue was originally placed outside left field at Forbes Field and later moved to Three Rivers Stadium and currently sits outside of PNC Park. Over 80 years after Wagner played his last professional game, he was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team as one of three shortstops. In another measure of his importance, Honus Wagner’s player card is the most famous card in existence. Known as the T206 Honus Wagner card and often referred to as the “Holy Grail” of baseball cards, it would be the first sports card to be sold for over a million dollars. The reason for the card’s scarcity was, at the time baseball cards came in tobacco products and Wagner wanted to discourage children from smoking so he had them discontinued. Wagner would live out the remainder of his life at home in Carnegie and pass away from natural causes at the age of 79 in his home on December 6, 1955. He was buried on December 9 in Jefferson Memorial Cemetery in Pleasant Hills.
De Valeria, Dennis. Honus Wagner. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.
Hageman, William. Honus: The Life and Times of a Baseball Hero.Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing, 1996.
Hittner, Arthur D. Honus Wagner the Life of Baseball’s Flying Dutchman.Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1996.
Lieb, Frederick G. The Pittsburgh Pirates: An Informal History. New York: Putnam, 1948.