Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Hall of Fame outfielder Paul "Big Poison" Waner played fifteen seasons with the Pirates.
Awards: Baseball Hall of Fame
Paul Waner was born in 1903, and started his major league baseball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1926. Throughout his career, he had dominating statistics and played in numerous all-star games. He achieved the mark of 3,000 hits and was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1952. Paul Waner passed away in August of 1965, and his jersey was retired by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007.
Paul Glee Waner was born in Harrah, Oklahoma, on April 16, 1903, to his mother, Etta, and father, Ora. He had one younger brother, Lloyd, who was also a famous baseball player, an older brother, Ralph, and two sisters, Alma and Ruth. The Waner children grew up on a large farm, where Paul Waner and his siblings learned the sport of baseball from their father. The children learned how to hit by using corncob balls and whittled tree branch bats, or hoes, broom handles, and two by four pieces of lumber. The corncob balls were made by breaking a corncob in half and soaking it in water to make it harder. If the Waner children could hit a corncob ball, they could sure hit a regular baseball. Ora Waner would set up footraces for the boys to help them with their speed. Paul started his career as a left-handed catcher in grade school, but soon was moved to pitcher.
As a teenager, Waner briefly attended East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. There, he began to study to become a teacher, as per his father's wishes. However, Waner dropped out of college in 1923 and joined the San Francisco team in the Pacific Coast League when scouts noticed his outstanding play in college. His batting talent was discovered here when he injured an arm. All he could do was shag fly balls and hit. Paul Waner himself said, "So they threw and I hit. They just let me hit and hit and hit, and I really belted the ball...heck-I just swished, and away it went." During the three years with that team, he was a pitcher and batted over .350 every year.
In 1926, when Waner was 22, the Pittsburgh Pirates purchased his contract for $40,000.00. Because his hitting was outstanding in the minor leagues, the Pirates played him as an outfielder and not a pitcher. In his first year playing for the Pirates, he batted .326 and lead the league in triples. The next year, Paul's brother Lloyd joined him on the Pirates team. There, they became known as "Big Poison" and "Little Poison," respectively. Baseball writer Red Smith explained these nicknames by stating that the term poison meant person in "Brooklynese." A fan in the New York stadium told people he was there to see the "big person and little person" from Pittsburgh, meaning Paul and Lloyd Waner, but because of his accent, person sounded like "poison." The Pittsburgh Pirates won the pennant in 1927, with the Waner brothers combining for 460 hits, and Paul Waner being named the National League MVP.
Paul Waner continued to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates until 1940. In all but seven of his years with the Pirates, his slugging percentage was over .500. Not only was Paul Waner an exceptional hitter, he had defensive skills as well. He was often considered to have the strongest outfield arm in Pittsburgh until Roberto Clemente arrived. The Pirates released Paul Waner in 1941, and in that year, he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and for the Boston Braves. In 1942, he played for the Braves again, and in 1943 and '44, he returned to the Dodgers. Paul Waner also played a few games for the New York Yankees in 1944 and 1945.
Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in Paul Waner's career came when he was approaching 3,000 career hits in the 1942 season. Waner, playing for the Boston Braves, was playing against the Pirates at Forbes Field. A line drive came off Waner's bat, and the shortstop was unable to field the ball and throw to first in time to get Paul out. It could have, and technically should have, been considered a hit, but Waner insisted that the scorekeeper charge an error to the shortstop because he did not want his 3,000th hit to be "tainted." On June 19 of the same year, he did in fact become only the sixth player at that time to reach 3,000 hits. To this day, only 27 players have reached this achievement. Paul Waner retired from baseball in 1945. In 1946, he became a player, manager, and part-owner for the International League Team in Miami.
Also on Paul Waner's list of accomplishments are a lifetime batting average of .333, and four selections to the all star game (1933-35, 1937). In 1952, Paul Waner was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Furthermore, Waner became a pitching coach in the 1950s, and was a strong advocate of pitching machines.
Paul Waner passed away on August 29, 1965, in Sarasota, Florida, at the age of 62. He was preceded in death by his father in 1948 following a fall at his farm. His brother Ralph also preceded him in death in 1950, when Ralph's ex-wife shot and killed him in a diner.
It is often said that Paul Waner did not receive as much credit for his accomplishments as he deserved. In 1953, despite Paul Waner already being elected to the Hall of Fame, sportswriter Frank Graham said "He was in there every day, beating the brains out of enemy pitchers, yet he never got much of a tumble outside of Pittsburgh where he had his great days." But recognition of Paul Waner would eventually come. In 2007, the Pittsburgh Pirates finally retired Paul Waner's jersey (#11), a rightful tribute to a talented baseball player. Waner joined a short list of Pirates' players to have their jersey retired, including Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell, Pie Traynor, and Ralph Kiner. His name and number adorn a sign on the third-base grandstand at the Pirates' current home, PNC Park.