Honus Wagner - The Greatest of All Time


THE GREATEST BASEBALL PLAYER OF ALL TIME

I have written about the Dead Ball Era and the differences between then and today. The game was different in each era but the transItion was a slow and unintentional one.

If you were to have attended a baseball game in the early 1900s, there are some stark observations that would be obvious. For starters, the game moved along very rapidly. In-between the innings, the guys ran off the diamond - leaving their gloves on the field. The pitcher would only throw warm-up pitches until everyone had made it to their positions. It was often a matter of two-or-three tosses. The average time for a game from 1905-1918 was just two hours and ten minutes.

There was no real PA systems but the game was kept alive by roving bands of musicians, barbershop quartets, and other entertainers. The games were part sport, part spectacle, and part carnival. The games packed a lot of entertainment in a short period fo time.

Visiting teams often didn't bring their entire rosters. This was in-order to save money on travel expenses. In fact, the Giants brought just six pitchers throughout their travels - while keeping nine pitchers when they were at home. The St. Louis Browns had just eight pitchers on their roster during the ENTIRE 1904 season - and then only four of them had started the entire season.

It was in this environment that Honus Wagner excelled and stood out from everyone else in the National league. He really got to show his greatness in the 1909 World Series where he went against Ty Cobb and the Tigers. There was much at stake but the Tigers and Cobb were largely ineffective against the Bucs.

Here is my case for Wagner as the Greatest Player of all time.

We measure those players by their peers, and moreover by what their peers thought of them. So even if we had no statistics, we can ''google'' quotes ABOUT Honus Wagner and we can easily see what the players of his day thought of him.

''...Honus could do it all. He was an amazing player. He could have played all nine positions had he wanted to.'' Tris Speaker

''...I hardly had time to get settled before it hits me that this guy the Louisville club had at third base was practically doing the impossible. I’m sitting on the bench the first day I reported, and along about the third inning an opposing batter smacks a line drive down the third-base line that looked like at least a sure double. Well, this big Louisville third baseman jumped over after it like he was on steel springs, slapped it down with his bare hand, scrambled after it at least ten feet, and fired a bullet over to first base. The runner was out by two or three steps.''

''I’m sitting on the bench and my eyes are popping out. So I poked the guy sitting next to me, and asked him who the devil that big fellow was on third base. “Why, that’s Wagner,” he says. “He’s the best third baseman in the league.”

''And it also turned out that while Honus was the best third baseman in the league, he was also the best first baseman, the best second baseman, the best shortstop, and the best outfielder...."

Tommy Leach, The Glory of Their Times

''...Some pundits like to write that I threatened to spike Wagner in that Series. (1909) Now why would I want to do that? Honus was thirty lbs bigger than I was and had tree-trunks for legs. He would have killed me had I tried.''

Ty Cobb

''....No greater player has played and he had fear of no pitcher. ''

Cy Young-

''...One day in Louisville, I had four hits in five at-bats. A player from the other team came over and offered his bat to me. ''Why would I need your bat?'' The young player said, ''On your fifth at-bat, I saw your bat was cracked and wondered why you were hitting with it. "

Well, I certainly hadn't remembered breaking my bat, but when i looked at it, sure enough, there was a small crack in it- right at the handle. That was Honus Wagner. ""

Wee Willie Keller-

''....Honus had a brother who was even better than he was! Albert Wagner looked and sounded just like his brother. His family hadn't considered young Honus until he began playing every day.''

Chief Bender

_________

The game began to change from the late 1800s into the early 1900s. The game was attended by roughnecks where gambling on the outcome was common and the beer flowed. It wasn't the place where women were welcomed or expected. But Honus sees the changes and comments on them.

"We weren't exactly saints when we were playing. Things were changing fast by that time, women were beginning to come to the ball parks. We had to stop cussing.''

So now you can see what his peers thought of him. Here you see that amongst the greatest players of his day, Honus was certainly the most respected player of his era.

The Second Measure of Greatness is what we know about his character. From reading quotes of his in newspapers, third-party stories, etc.. We get these clues:

He was one of the first players to speak out on behalf of having blacks play in the majors. The Detroit Free Press wrote a story on Honus in 1909, at a time when the World Series was determined who would be playing but the first game hadn't started. Honus Wagner says that the best players need to be playing on the field at all times.

For this reason, he believes negros should be in the Major Leagues. ''I was compared to the great John (Pop) Lloyd. It was an honor for me to be called the white John Lloyd. '' Wagner

Honus didn't like his face on a baseball card. But he didn't want for the buyer of the smokes to be out of money either. This just tells you how deeply Honus thought of others before himself.'' --- Connie Mack-

The third test of greatness is the numbers, real, and modified to today's game.

Honus Wagner was truly the greatest player aside from Ty Cobb, and here is why:

He was a hitting machine.

"...Honus Wagner says that the best players need to be playing on the field at all times. For this reason, he believes negros should be in the Major Leagues. '

'I was compared to the great John (Pop) Lloyd. It was an honor for me to be called the white John Lloyd. ''

''....Honus didn't like his face on a baseball card. But he didn't want for the buyer of the smokes to be out of money either. This just tells you how deeply Honus thought of others before himself.'' --- Connie Mack-

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"He was the nearest thing to a perfect player no matter where his manager chose to play him." - John McGraw

Nobody ever saw anything graceful or picturesque about Wagner on the diamond. His movements have been likened to the gambols of a caracoling elephant. He is ungainly and so bowlegged that when he runs his limbs seem to be moving in a circle after the fashion of a propeller. But he can run like the wind." - New York American (November 19, 1907)

HONUS WAGNER'S STATISTICS

The third test of greatness is the numbers, real, and modified to today's game.

Honus Wagner was truly the greatest player aside from Ty Cobb, and here is why:

He was a hitting machine. In 1900, he earned black-ink in five categories, a sign of things to come. He won his first batting title, would lead the league in Doubles, Triples and OPS.

Perhaps no player ever had the ten-year run from 1900-1911 that Wagner had. This is a unique statistic that I came up with to determine greatness amongst his peers.

If you take those 12 seasons, from 1900-1911, and multiple this by the number of offensive categories (19) you will see that the number 228 comes up. Out of 228 opportunities over 12 seasons, Wagner was BETTER than all 526 of his peers in 45 categories.

Now sit back and just take that in for a moment.

When he retired, he did so as the greatest hitter of his time. He led in EVERY category. Even still, considering the 45 out of 228 categories that Wagner led, he accumulated some amazing numbers.

How does Wagner compare during those 12 seasons to the best 12 seasons of other great players? Consider this:

From 1995-2006, Barry Bonds led in 30 categories. (We're taking out Intentional Walks because those weren't always recorded as an intentional walk)

Let's look at Ted Williams: In his first 12 seasons, Williams was incredible. He led in 43 categories and was - in every sense of the word - the GREATEST player of his generation. Williams was probably a better pure hitter, but Wagner also contributed with a career of 726 stolen bases and excellence in the field. How about Pete Rose? Winner of three batting titles and a throwback to an earlier day of the game, Rose took ink for being the best in his field from 1964-1976 in 20 categories.

Stan Musial - (who often goes under the radar) he had 33 offensive categories where he led the league. (Perhaps the most under-rated player of all time!)

To understand his impact I have taken a sampling of players from various eras to show Wagner's greatness. The dead-ball era did indeed produce little in the way of long-balls. True, the fields were larger. But the pitching was much better too. (Although an argument can respectfully be made for the inverse) This is why I choose players from different eras.

Honus Wagner not only deserves to be on that list, but perhaps at the TOP of that list. If you were playing against him, you would have seen and known greatness before the game was over. He wasn't graceful.

In fact - some accounts of him running was that it was awkward and he his bow-legs made you wonder how he got to the balls in the hole. With a powerful arm, he could thrown from almost any position with a lot of gas on it. If Wagner were playing today, even now, he would have few peers.

Few players left such an indelible mark on the game like Honus Wagner - and few ever will. ***

Honus Wagner late in life


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