Year Inducted: 1936 (BBWAA, ballot #1, 215/226)
In 1896, future Hall of Famer Ed Barrow was the owner of several Minor League teams, including one in Pattersonville, PA. It was there that he had a young shortstop who he thought belonged in the Major Leagues. So he called Fred Clarke (whom Barrow discovered) and Barney Dreyfuss (the owner of the Louisville Colonels) to come and scout this player. What the two men saw was a stocky, awkward looking player that they didn’t think would stick. However, the scout they brought with them said that he should be offered a contract, and soon Honus Wagner embarked on the greatest career of any shortstop in history.
Wagner spent his entire career playing under Barney Dreyfuss’ reign, first with the Colonels and then with the Pirates after the League contracted the Colonels. In his 21-year career, Wagner achieved fame as the greatest player in National League history until that point. In addition to leading the League in average eight times, and playing at the height of the Dead Ball Era, Wagner slashed .327/.391/.466 for a wRC+ of 144. The second player ever to reach 3000 hits, Wagner collected 643 doubles, 252 triples and 101 home runs. Wagner stood back in the box and used a split-hand approach to hitting, similar to Ty Cobb. Wagner felt this way, he could stay back on a ball and hit it to right field if needed, or he could bring his hands together quickly and rip a ball down the left field line if needed. This also helped him in run production as Wagner drove in a total of 1732 runs while leading the league in RBI four times. Although with his stocky legs and flaling arms he may have looked incredibly awkward, Wagner was a very accomplished runner. The Flying Dutchman stole an impressive 722 bases, scored 1739 runs and was worth 56.9 runs on the bases per Fangraphs.
In addition to his great hitting and base running Wagner was a superlative fielder. Despite having big feet that would occasionally get in the way, Wagner was renowned for how he played the position. He had a strong, accurate throwing arm, impeccable range, and barely used a glove. When he did use a glove, he would cut a hole the size of the baseball out of it, so he could have a better feel for the ball and quicker reaction time. He also, to the chagrin of his manager, would take his time on a lot of plays in order to not force an error. As such, Wagner’s defensive runs of 184.4 are extraordinary especially given the deficiencies in equipment and field upkeep of the time. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Wagner was the first true 5-tool player.
Wagner and the Pirates were the National League representatives in the first ever World Series, facing off against Cy Young and the Boston Americans (Red Sox) in 1903. While heavily favored, Wagner and the Pirates lost the series, with the Dutchman taking a called strike 3 to end it all. Wagner’s poor performance in the series would haunt him for a long time, and many writers of the time labeled him as a choker. Then, in 1909, Wagner reached the Series for what would be the second, and final, appearance of his career. Facing off against arch-rival Ty Cobb, Wagner avenged his 1903 woes with an excellent series and a Pirates victory. The series itself was noteworthy for an event that has become legend. When Cobb reached first base in one game, he warned Wagner (allegedly using some German slur) about stealing the base. With the next pitch, Cobb was off and running, when allegedly Wagner tagged him hard enough to at least loosen some of Cobb’s teeth, while Cobb spiked Wagner’s shin. Both players denied the legend, of course, but that’s what makes it more fun.
Wagner retired as the game’s greatest shortstop after the 1917 season, and the best player in the National League. A charter member of the Hall of Fame, Wagner will always be an iconic player, the son of an immigrant family growing up to become a legend.
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On deck 12/16/16:
The final two first basemen are revealed. But, who was better?