Honus Wagner was baseball’s first true superstar. When examining Honus (pronounced Hah-Nis), numbers don’t accurately reflect his true greatness. The memories of all his contemporaries paint a much better picture. Almost to a man, they all said he was the greatest player who ever was. Ty Cobb thought so. Babe Ruth thought so (well, besides himself). John McGraw, probably the game’s most legendary manager thought so. Some reading these rankings, I am sure, are going to say “Wagner over Williams? You’re nuts.” So let me explain.
The decade 1900-1909 belonged to Hans Wagner. In the decade, the led the league in batting average seven times; on base percentage four times;slugging percentage five times; runs scored twice; total bases six times; doubles seven times; triples three times; RBI four times; stolen bases five times. That is a decade of domination not seen before or since. Not Ruth not Cobb not Teddy Ballgame owned a league quite to the extent Wagner did in the 1900’s. Throw in the fact he was also regarded as the best fielding shortstop of his era, and the fact he played significant time everywhere on the diamond except at catcher, and it is clear we are talking but an exceptional, top five type player.
Now I am sure some are going to look at Wagner’s raw statistics and say “He only hit .328 lifetime.” Well, this was the height of the dead ball era, featuring the deadest of dead balls. Most years, Wagner’s average was a full one hundred points above the league average. The average was also dragged down a bit due to the four seasons Wagner played past the age of forty. This was not simply the story of a player hanging on too long; Wagner was Pittsburgh’s, and for that matter, all of baseball’s, biggest drawing card. His last four seasons in the league coincided with the beginning of the first World War, which caused attendance in most parks to drop. Having Wagner playing in your city ensured a much larger turnout, and, to some degree, it may have saved the game during those bleak years. Add into the equation that in 1914-1915, the upstart Federal League started siphoning off National and American league players at an alarming rate with promises of greener pastures, and you get the idea. Granted the Federal League folded after two seasons, it was at the time a very real, credible threat, the last of the true baseball wars. Had the Federal League gotten Wagner, there is no telling what would have happened. Wagner, to his credit, was loyal to the National League generally and the Pirates specifically, and helped the Major Leagues to fend off the upstart Feds.
When Wagner retired in 1917, he was the All Time Major League leader in: games, at-bats, hits (3,420), extra base hits, runs, and total bases. In addition, he was the National League’s all time leader in doubles, triples, and batting titles (8, later tied by Tony Gwynn).
The greatest testament to Wagner’s status as one of the best to ever play can be summed up in one notion: He is, to this day, still considered the greatest shortstop to ever play the game. And the argument is not even close. Wagner last played almost a century ago. That he is still considered the best of all shortstops should be all you need to understand his greatness.
Oh, and there’s that little thing about a baseball card of his…