The Pittsburgh Pirates finished one game back in the National League pennant race of 1908, tied with the Giants. They hung close all season before dropping a key game to Chicago to put them out of the hunt in October. Losing wasn’t Honus Wagner’s fault, however.
Wagner’s 1908 is one of the finest seasons any major league ballplayer ever produced. The numbers don’t look all that stunning at first blush, but when you consider the context, the times, the pressure of a pennant race, they stand up against almost anything. I read a comment by historican/statistician Bill James that argued Wagner’s 1908 was legitimately one of the five best seasons ever and could be considered number one. In the 2001 version of his Historical Baseball Abstract he gives it a 59 win shares. Except for a couple of 19th Century pitchers who threw every game, that’s the highest total he gives any season, including the 1920’s for Babe Ruth.
What’s all the fuss about? Here’s Wagner’s 1908 in a nutshell. He led the league in hits with 201, doubles with 39, triples with 19, RBIs with 109, stolen bases with 53, a .354 batting average, a slugging percentage of .542, an on base percentage of .415, an OPS of .957, and 308 total bases. For good measure he finished second in runs with 100 (to Fred Tenney, Giants first baseman who had 101 and 40 more plate appearances), second in home runs with 10 (to Brooklyn first baseman Tim Jordan with 12), and had 54 walks, good for a lousy tenth in the league (Roger Bresnahan had 83). Want to put that in Major Lague perspective. Ty Cobb betters him in triples (20 to 19) but Wagner leads both leagues in all the other categories. His second in home runs and runs leaves him still second in home runs and he drops to fourth among all major leaguers in runs (Matty McIntyre and Cobb both have more than Tenney). Top all that off with a great glove at shortstop (in context of rough fields, gloves only slightly larger than a hand) and it’s quite a year.
In context it’s even better. The league average for runs per team was 3.32 in 1908 and the league-wide batting average stood at .239. The latter was the lowest for either league (and throw in the Federal League for good measure) in the entire 20th Century until the American League managed to lower it in consecutive years: 1967 and 1968. Pitchers dominated and hitters suffered. With all that going againt him, Honus Wagner stepped up to the plate in 151 of 154 games and simply destroyed the baseball.
The Pirates didn’t win in 1908. They did in 1909 and won the World Series. I supposed Wagner appreciated the outcome of 1909 much more than he appreciated his own efforts in 1908. We get to celebrate both.