When we think about the early days of baseball, the players that most often come to mind are Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, and for good reason. But those players unfairly overshadow the great Honus Wagner, who is considered by many to be the best shortstop of all-time. Wagner is perhaps best known for being the face of the most expensive baseball card ever. But he was so much more than that. Wagner was not only a great player but a huge influence on the game for all the right reasons.
On the surface, Wagner didn’t look like someone who would go down as one of the greatest athletes of his generation. He stood just 5’11’’ and around 200 pounds, but he had large hands and some of the most powerful arms and legs of any player of his generation. His huge hands and great arm strength made him an elite fielder capable of playing anywhere on the diamond before eventually settling in at shortstop.
Wagner may have looked short and stout, but he had the speed to steal over 700 bases during his 21 seasons in the majors. He also had the strength to use a 40-ounce bat and a split-hand grip, a practice that would be unheard of in today’s game but helped Wagner win eight batting titles and collect over 3,400 hits.
“At shortstop, there is only one candidate, the immortal Honus Wagner. He was just head and shoulders above anyone else in that position. Fellows like Marion, Bancroft, Peck, and Billy Jurges were all great fielders. But Honus could more than out-field all of them.
He was perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter of all time. He had remarkably long arms, hams for hands, and just drew the ball to him. Ed Barrow once told me he could have been as good in any position but he made his greatest name as a shortstop. He led the National League seven times at bat and he was always up with the leaders when he was in his forties.”
Those qualities made him one of the greatest shortstops of all-time. Even Cobb himself once admitted that Wagner is “maybe the greatest star ever to take the diamond.” But his contributions to baseball extended much further than his play, and his influence can still be seen today.
When American League teams began poaching players from the National League by offering them more money, Wagner declined to go along. He turned down more money from the White Sox so he could stay with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team he played with for 18 seasons, setting an example for other players.
“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)
Of course, when it came time to hold out for more money, Wagner wasn’t afraid to use his leverage. In 1908, a decade before his career would come to an end, he feigned retirement, using it as a negotiating tactic to become the highest paid player in baseball.
He immediately had one of the best individual seasons of all-time, hitting .354 with 109 RBIs at a time when the league average was .239 and pitchers collectively posted an ERA of 2.35.
Wagner was also a great pioneer on the commercial side of baseball. He was the first sportsman to ever endorse a product when he reached an agreement with Louisville Slugger to create a bat with his signature on it. Today, we take for granted that players are willing to attach their name to a product, but it’s a practice that began with Wagner.
“Acknowledging that there may have been one or two whose talents were greater, there is no one who has ever played the game that I would be more anxious to have on a baseball team.”
Bill James, Baseball historian
Moreover, Wagner’s infamous T206 baseball card is not the most valuable card of all-time based on his ability alone. Only 57 copies of the card were distributed publicly because Wagner did not allow production to continue because the card was being issued by the American Tobacco Company. As he had done previously, Wagner took a stand, and because he did, his baseball card is the most valuable ever, with one of the rare copies sold for a record $3.2 million in 2016.
Ultimately, Wagner may be known more for his famous baseball card than his accomplishments on the field or the fact that he was one of the first five members of the Hall of Fame and is actually tied with Ruth for the second most votes ever. It’s unfortunate, but it’s fine, and there’s not much that can be done at this point. However, it’s wrong not to know about the impact he made on matters that transcend baseball and had a lasting effect on the game.