Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Hall of Fame outfielder "Little Poison" Lloyd Waner was a long-time Pirate.
Awards: Baseball Hall of Fame
Lloyd Waner was born in 1906. Despite is 5'9, 132lb stature, Waner broke into the baseball major league in 1927 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where played for almost 15 years and ended his career in 1945. He was the younger and quieter half of the "Big and Little Poison" combination with his older brother, Paul. Waner was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1967, and he passed away in July 1982.
Lloyd James Waner was born on March 16, 1906 in Harrah, Oklahoma. He and his four brothers and sisters grew up on a farm with their father Ora "Ote" Waner and their mother Etta Waner. The brothers worked hard from dawn to dusk every day and baseball was their only form of entertainment. Influenced by their father, who was a star player for a western league in Oklahoma City, brother Paul and Lloyd's love and natural talent developed over the years. The entire family enjoyed playing the game and the siblings developed healthy competition amongst themselves. The Waners used their farm to their advantage and learned to hit against corncobs and cut down saplings in the woods to use as bats. The oldest brother, Ralph, was a decent player but did not show the gifted talents Paul and Lloyd exemplified. Ote Waner was the first to realize their natural abilities:
Well, I heard the two kids playing around the side of the barn and I took a peek, and I sure was amazed. There was Lloyd throwing corncobs at Paul and Paul was smacking those corncobs and sending them out on a line. He never missed one and he was using a hoe handle for a bat. Then came Lloyd's turn, and Paul would pitch to him. Same thing all over. Now I was considered a mighty good hitter myself, but when I saw those kids cracking away at corncobs I knew I was never in their class.
Waner graduated from McLoud High School and went on to attend East Central State University in Ada, Oklahoma. During the three semesters he was enrolled, Waner played for the Ada Independents and several other local teams, as well as the East Central Teachers' College. During this time his older brother, Paul, left Oklahoma to attempt to break into the big leagues. In April 1926, Paul made his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Through his first year he lobbied the Pirates managers to recruit his younger brother. Waner got the opportunity to tryout to make the lineup. With his 5'9", 132 lb frame, his chances were slim as he was competing with veterans Kiki Cuyler and Clyde Barnhart, and talented rookie Adam Comorosky. Two days before the regular season began Barnhart collided with Elmer Lane during an exhibition game. Both were injured and forced to sit out in the last pre-season game. Waner won himself a starting position by banging out four out of five bats in that game.
By the time Lloyd Waner had arrived in Pittsburgh, baseball as an institution had great momentum. Much like Oklahoma, Pennsylvania had a strong sense of baseball history, and Pittsburgh had given its fans unforgettable championships as well as last place finishes. With the 1925 World Series victory over the Washington Senators, combined with Pittsburgh's growth in the iron industry, the "Steel City's" expanding population and love of the game gave promise for the Waners' starting seasons. The Waner brothers became known as "Big and Little Poison" while playing for Pittsburgh. Their nicknames came about in a different way than many would guess. "Poison" is Brooklynese for "person," and one game when the Pirates played the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field, a Dodgers fan supposedly griped "Every time you look up those Waner boys are on base. It's always the little poison on thoid and the big poison on foist." After that, the name stuck.
The first series of games of Waner's debut season proved he deserved to be in the major leagues. He made outstanding catches in his left outfield position, as well as showing great speed and sensational hitting. Throughout the season Waner showed continued improvement upon his natural talent, which ultimately led to reshuffling in the lineup. Waner was batting a .329, and Pirates manager, Donnie Bush, moved him into the most valuable outfield spot, center field. Through his rookie campaign he batted .355 and set a league record with 223 hits. Pittsburgh went on the finish first in the National League and go up against the New York Yankees in the 1927 World Series.
The series was first ever to be broadcast on a nationwide radio hookup, with an audience of 35 million people. In the end, the series was a disappointment for the Pirates who lost in a four game sweep. For Lloyd Waner the World Series came early in his career and never came again: "My first year up to the majors was in 1927, and darn if we didn't win the pennant. Boy, I thought to myself, this looks like a cinch. But I hung around for 18 more years and never saw another one."
The next few years did not go well for the Pirates as they slipped in the standings, but those years were favorable to Waner. He was ranked among the best young players and had a good reputation as a clubhouse guy. He had come in at an inexpensive price tag, but now his value to the Pirates had increased dramatically and he wanted to cash in on it. His brother Paul also had similar feelings. Their sentiments were leaked to the press, which led to a public scandal in which Pirates officials attempted to portray the brothers in a gluttonous image. New York Sun reporter Joe Vila was sympathetic and wrote "The Waners were not responsible for the Pirates' poor showing last season and they have formed a sort of co-partnership agreement to hold up (Pirates' Owner) Dreyfuss until he comes to terms." The Waners remained in Oklahoma as the team began spring training, and the Pirates scrambled to reassemble the team and replace the entire outfield. Waner was non-confrontational in nature and disliked the strife. Unlike his brother, playing baseball was his only shot at success. So in mid-March he relented and signed for $2,000 less than he originally sought and joined the team.
Waner played for the Pirates fourteen years, until the beginning of 1941. The Pirates leadership felt he and his older brother did not fit in with the youthful direction of the team. Waner had batted .300 or higher ten times with the Pirates and he finished in the top ten in MVP voting in 1927 and 1929 and was an All-Star in 1938. After the 1938 season both "Big" and "Little Poison" seemed to lose their drive. Paul Waner was released on December 10, 1940, which marks the day the Pirates terminated the longest running brother combination in baseball history. Waner was crushed, but pushed on with the Pirates. His season started out slow and never picked up. He posted his lowest average in the majors, his hits dwindled to low numbers, and he was noticeably slower in the outfield and around the bases. The Pirates tried to salvage the situation and trade him immediately. Lloyd later reminisced about that day; "I can tell you the saddest day of my career. It was the day in 1941 when the Pirates traded me to Boston for pitcher Nick Strincevich. I never thought I'd get over it."
Between 1941 and 1944 Waner played for the Boston Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The 1943 season was a breaking point for him. At 37, he was ready to retire from baseball and dropped out of the league, but Paul convinced him to give it another try one year later. He was easily convinced because he enjoyed the idea of playing for the same team as his brother again. Unfortunately, Waner blundered in spring training and was released from the Brooklyn Dodgers.
After his release the Pirates picked him up, no doubt as a fan favorite. The Sporting News reported in 1945 that:
Little Poison did not get much of a chance to work last year, but he was, and is, a swell insurance policy to have around. One of baseball's most beloved veterans, especially in Pirates circles, where he played for more than 14 years after first coming up to the big show, and a very popular chord was struck when the Pittsburgh club brought him back to Forbes Field on June 18 last year, following release by Brooklyn, which made him a free agent. No better liked player ever wore Buccaneer flannels.
Lloyd appeared in 23 games that season, and then asked the Pirates to release him. On September 25, Lloyd Waner hung up his baseball uniform for the last time. When he retired his lifetime average was .316 and 2,459 hits which put him in a rare class of center fielders and leadoff hitters, not to mention his immeasurable speed.
Lloyd moved back to Oklahoma but did not shy away from baseball, just the limelight of playing the game. He scouted for the Pirates from 1946 to 1949, and then for the Baltimore Orioles in 1950. Tired of travelling, he returned to Oklahoma City full-time and took a job as an accountant and foreman.
In 1967, the Veterans Committee elected Lloyd Waner to the Hall of Fame. It was clear for many years prior he would not get into the Hall of Fame through the Baseball Writers Association of America's (BWAA) rigorous route. The Veteran's Committee provides an additional opportunity for Hall of Fame election once players have been passed over by the BWAA. Lloyd was undoubtedly an excellent player but his defense, singles, and speed just did not measure up to the BWAA's standards. Nevertheless, he survived the harsh criticism surrounding his selection and made the trip to Cooperstown, New York to be officially inducted. Waner was honored by the city of Pittsburgh on January 29, 1967. In part of his speech Waner emphasized how pleased he was that his career started and ended in Pittsburgh: "This is really my home because this is where I broke into the majors with the Pirates in 1927 and played for almost 15 years. This is where my friends are and this is where my fans were." In 1999, Pittsburghers were asked to vote and create the Pirates team of the century. More than 14,000 cast their votes and the team consisted of some of the greatest players in the history of the game and some particular fan favorites; Included in that team was center fielder, Lloyd Waner.
On July 22, 1982 at the age of 76, Lloyd Waner died of complications related to emphysema. He was survived by his wife Francis Mae, daughter Lydia Freeman, and son Lloyd Jr., and five grandchildren.
From the days where brothers tossed corncobs and swung broomstick bats to being inducted into the Hall of Fame years later, the Waner brothers and their story are permanently woven into the history of America's favorite pastime. Fellow Pirates player Woody Jensen remembered the Waner brothers warmly: "There are a lot of guys in there [Hall of Fame] who don't deserve it, and there are some guys playing in the big leagues now who couldn't play high school ball back then... But those Waner boys, now they deserve to be in there. They were great ballplayers. Paul was an extrovert and Lloyd wouldn't say much and stayed away from the cameras. But they stayed together and pulled for each other."