The Flying Dutchman

Honus Wagner

A dozen things you should know about Honus Wagner:

1. His name was John Peter Wagner. “Honus” is a play on the name “Hans”, which is a diminutive of “Johannes” (German for “John”).

2. In 1905 he became the first Major League player to have his name branded onto a “Louisville Slugger” bat.

3. He was originally scouted and signed by future Hall of Fame general manager Ed Barrow, who obviously knew a thing or two about talent.

4. His rookie season was 1897. Although he  is most famous for playing shortstop, he played first base, second base, third base, left field, center field, right field, and pitched during the 19th Century but did not play a single game at shortstop until 1901. The only position he never played was catcher.

5. His 1908 season is, in context, one of the finest hitting years any player had in the 20th Century. By Bill James’ “Win Shares” rating, it is number one, and by any measure is in the top five. The numbers: 100 runs, 201 hits, 39 doubles, 19 triples, 10 home runs, 109 RBIs, 53 stolen bases, 54 walks, a .354 batting average, .415 OBP, .542 slugging percentage, .957 OPS, 205 OPS+, 308 total bases, 68 extra base hits, and he also finished first in putouts by a shortstop. For the National League as a whole the league averaged ..239, had an OBP of .299, a slugging percentage of .306, an OPS of .605, and averaged 3.33 runs a game. All are lows for the entire 20th Century. By the way, Wagner’s number would look even better in the American League where the batting average was the same, but the OPS, OBP, and slugging percentages were even lower. Only the 1968 and 1969 American League seasons produced lower batting averages and no AL season was ever lower for the other three. So in the lowest overall batting season in Major League history, Wagner produces the numbers listed above. Not bad, right?

6. He won eight NL batting titles. No one has won more and only Tony Gwynn has equalled him. Ty Cobb has more in the AL.

7. He was a member of four teams that won the NL pennant (1901-3, 1909), two of them before the World Series was played. In World Series play his teams lost in 1903 and won in 1909. He hit a combined .274 with six runs, 14 hits, three doubles, one triple, and nine RBIs in 15 games, all at shortstop.

8. His nickname, “The Flying Dutchman”, comes from a combination of his speed and the mispronunciation of “Deutsch” as “Dutch”. The genesis of the name is a medieval legend about a ship captain who was cursed to sail the seas forever until he could find one true love. Richard Wagner’s opera of the same name is one version of the tale.

9. His older brother, Albert “Butts” Wagner, got into 74 games for Washington and Brooklyn in 1898. He played second, short, third, left, and center, hit .226 with a .279 OBP, and a .307 slugging percentage, had one home run, 34 RBIs, and never got back to the big leagues. Obviously the younger brother had most of the talent.

10. When the first vote for the Hall of Fame occurred, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Wagner (alphabetically) were the initial inductees. In the voting, Wagner tied with Ruth for second. Cobb received the most votes.

11.A statue of Wagner was erected in front of Forbes Field (the Pirates home field) in April 1955. Wagner lived to see it in place. He died in December of the same year. The statue was moved to Three Rivers Stadium when it became the new Pirates field, and subsequently moved to PNC Park where it currently resides.

12. He was a heck of a story teller. There are a bunch of Wagner stories he told himself. My favorite is this one. A slow grounder was hit to him. At the same time a hare dashed out onto the field. Wagner grabbed the ball, the hare, and a handful of dirt and sent all flying toward first base together. The batter was out. According to Wagner, “I nipped him by a hare.” Gotta love that man.

And as a bonus, Wagner was an innovator. The picture above is a little hard to see, but it’s the only copy I could find on-line. I’ve seen an enlarged copy which shows Wagner is wearing a cap with the bill in back. As far as I can tell, he invented them. I’ve got to get one some day. All my caps have the bill in the front. Anybody know who sells them?

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One Response to “The Flying Dutchman”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Didn’t realize that Wagner had an older brother who played pro ball.
    13. Honus Wagner boasts the most expensive baseball card in history, the T-206 Holy Grail of baseball cards.
    Lots of 2nd generation Germans in the game back in those days. Baseball’s cultural history is always intriguing.
    Have a Merry Christmas, Bill

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