Wagner made history with 3,000th hit
When Honus Wagner became the first 20th century player to reach the 3,000-hit mark, he thought 4,000 hits might be within his reach.
The 40-year-old Pirates shortstop fell a little more than 500 hits short of that goal, but to this day Wagner’s numbers put him in the company of baseball’s best – even more than 100 years after his milestone hit.
On June 9, 1914, Wagner’s ninth-inning double off the Phillies’ Erskine Mayer at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl gave him 3,000 hits for his career. At that point, only Cap Anson – then credited with 3,047 hits – had reached that plateau in big league games.
The Tuesday afternoon crowd gave Wagner an ovation after the hit and when he subsequently scored Pittsburgh’s only run in a 3-1 loss.
Wagner’s effort made headlines throughout the country the following day, a fitting tribute to one of the most popular players in the game during the first two decades of the 20th century.
“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 ballplayer?’ 27,806,009 persons would shout ‘Wagner’,” wrote Hugh Fullerton, winner of the 1964 J.G. Taylor Spink Award, in American Magazine.
Debuting in 1897 with the Louisville Colonels of the National League, Wagner quickly became one of baseball’s best hitters. By 1900, the Colonels and the Pittsburgh Pirates had effectively merged into one team – and Wagner, a Pittsburgh-area native, led the National League in hitting that season with a .381 batting average.
It was the first of eight NL batting titles for Wagner, who split time between the infield and the outfield before taking over as the Pirates’ everyday shortstop in 1903. That same year, the Pirates won their third straight National League crown and faced the Boston Americans in the first modern World Series, falling 5-games-to-3 in the best-of-nine affair.
Wagner hit just .222 in that series and struck out to end the eighth-and-final game. But he rebounded in 1904 to lead the NL in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles and total bases. And he showed no signs of slowing down in his second decade in the big leagues, leading the league in batting average and RBI in both 1908 and 1909.
In the latter season, Wagner’s Pirates again returned to the World Series, this time facing Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers. Billed as a matchup of the two best hitters in baseball, Wagner hit .333 to Cobb’s .231, leading Pittsburgh to a seven-game victory.
“In my opinion,” said Sam Crawford, who hit .314 for that 1909 Tigers team, “the greatest all-around player who ever lived was Honus Wagner.”
The 1914 season marked Wagner’s first concession to age, though he played in 150 games en route to a career-low .252 batting average. Wagner would remain the Pirates’ regular shortstop in 1915, hitting .274 with 78 RBI while playing in each of Pittsburgh’s 156 games at the age of 41. But his last two seasons would come as a part-time player.
In 1917, Wagner was named the Pirates manager when Jimmy Callahan was fired 60 games into the season.
But after five games, Wagner told Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss that he did not want to manage – and Wagner resumed his role as a player.
He retired after the 1917 season with the records (since broken) for games (2,794), at-bats (10,439), extra base hits (996) and total bases (4,870).
Wagner totaled 3,420 hits, 643 doubles, 1,732 RBI, 1,739 runs scored and 723 stolen bases to go with a .328 batting average.
“There ain’t much to being a ballplayer,” Wagner famously said, “if you’re a ballplayer.”
Wagner was elected to the Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1936.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum