The Caracoling Elephant
CHICAGO – Sportswriter Hugh Fullerton once wrote, “If a man with a voice loud enough to make himself heard all over the United States should stand on top of Pike’s Peak and ask, ‘Who is the greatest ball player?’, untold millions of Americans would shout, ‘Wagner.’” The pugnacious Manager of the Giants, John McGraw claimed he was, “the nearest thing to a perfect ballplayer.”
Honus Wagner certainly did not look the part. His chest was broad, and looked like it had come from a barrel maker’s shop. His massive shoulders could have doubled for those of a bear. His legs were terribly bowed like a parentheses, and with his long arms and catcher’s mitt hands, players alike swore he could tie his shoes without bending over. In 1909, the German’s face, though 35 years old, looked twice that. As a matter of fact, he had looked twice his age for the more than the ten years he had been playing professional baseball. His nose resembled a beak that always faced the earth. He had ears like an elephant and cheekbones that could break glass.
On his way to the batter’s box, he never engaged in theatrics, never swung three bats at once to loosen up while on deck, or even methodically tap the bottom of his cleats to dislodge dirt. Well off of the plate and deep in the box, he rarely even glared at the pitcher. As a result, the hurler usually did not knowwhen Wagner was ready to hit, until the big man said so. The bat was held a few inches above the knob, with his hands spread a palm’s length apart. His wide stance turned into savagery as the delivery came in. It was said that in that split second, he looked like a ‘primeval man about to club a wild beast to death.’
His short compact swing was capable of rocketing line drives to all field with equal facility. And it seemed that regardless of what the pitcher gave him, he would lunge his bat forward with great efficiency. With those efforts, by 1909 Wagner had led the league in batting for six years, and since he joined the Pirates in 1900, he had averaged over .350 in that time span.
Honus’ fielding was as good as his exploits with the bat. So versatile was Wagner that he was able to play almost every position on the diamond – seemingly better than anyone else as well. With his shovel-like hands, he would throw the ball – and he would throw the ball hard. Players swore that when they were at the receiving end of a Wagner throw, it always slammed into their mitts with iron force, along with pebbles and dirt from the base paths. Grace played a very little role in his fielding arsenal, as he would go after a ball with reckless abandon, moving every single part of his body. Those same motions – along with wonderful instinct – gave Wagner great range on the field as he became an ideal relay man with his powerful throwing arm.
Even his glove bore scrutiny. Barely larger than his hand, the palm of the mitt had been stripped of all of its leather. In doing so, Wagner felt that he could grip the ball better, and do so with greater mobility. It was said that fans could see streams of sunlight piercing through the old thing, that is, when they could actually tell that he had it on.
The speed at which he ran the base paths was extraordinary. He was likened to a freight train when going from base to base, with his legs seemingly spinning like a wooden wheel riding over cobblestone, and his pelvis no more than 15 inches off of the ground. He led his league in stolen bases for five seasons, and was constantly at the top of the league in doubles and triples. With his 5’11”, 200 pound frame he could break up a double play better than anyone else, as well as block any base-runner when covering.
Mentally, few could match Honus’ aptitude on the diamond. While having a limited formal education, he seemed to instinctively break down hitters and pitchers, learning their tendencies and remembering them well. His manager Fred Clarke called Wagner “the brainiest player of all time.” Piloting the Pirates club for 19 years, he persuasively claimed that Honus had a sixth sense, and eyes in the back of his head.
For all of his accomplishments, off the field Wagner was quiet and humble. Caring little for money, though he was one of the highest paid players in the league, he had simple tastes. Hunting and fishing were his passions. He was more comfortable eating simple foods than the high society delicacies that may have been expected from a man with such means. He preferred to socialize with people who were not of the upper crust, people to whom a kind word meant something. One of his teammates commented that when it was arranged that he would meet a wealthy businessman at a party, he would stand around uncomfortably for a few minutes, and then make an excuse to leave.
His encounters with youngsters were a different story. Wagner was known for picking up groups of poor children, loading them into his car, taking them on a hunting trip, and always footing the bill. He would never even boast of such deeds. John McGraw recalled an episode in which his Giants were playing in Pittsburgh. After the game, Wagner was seen watching kids play a pick-up game in a vacant lot near the hotel New York was staying in. He asked if he could play with the boys, and it was not until he stepped up to the plate and hit a rope did they realize who he was. The children surrounded him and pleaded that he autograph the ball he had just hit. The next day with the same children playing in the same lot, he brought enough signed baseballs for each of the adoring kids. On his Pirates, he shared that same affection with young rookies. For those who were interested in learning about the game and there-in, he willingly – and never forcibly – imparted his knowledge.
Though he was considered the perfect ballplayer, it seemed that this notion also referred to his person. This quiet, humble man represented the ordinary working, clue-collar Americans, as well as the new immigrant class of country. Wagner was the hero of the bleacher fan, the everyman. The way he played and carried himself made him one of them, and he wanted nothing more.
The seemingly ungraceful Wagner is pictured lacing a safe hit into the outfield against the Cubs in 1909. The catcher and umpire follow the flight of the ball, as do the crowded stands of Chicago’s West Side Grounds. At the end of that season, Honus and his Pirates would find themselves in their second World Series of the modern era, where they would take their first title home to Pittsburgh. Beating a dominating Detroit Tiger team with Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, the everyman batted .333 with eight hits and six stolen bases.
Perfection never looked so good.