Hall of Fame skipper John McGraw called Honus Wagner “The nearest thing to a perfect player no matter where his manager chose to play him.”
Wagner played 21 seasons, primarily with his hometown team the Pittsburgh Pirates, and was the total package. He hit for average and power and could change the dynamics of a game on the base paths and in the field: He played every position on the diamond in his major league career except for catcher.
Nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman” in reference to his German heritage, Wagner had a bit of an awkward look about him. He gripped the bat with his hands inches apart and went the other way on outside pitches – or slid his hands together in a more traditional grip and pulled pitches down the line.
Burleigh Grimes, who as a youngster was a teammate of Wagner, recalled: “One day he was batting against a young pitcher who had just come into the league. The catcher was a kid, too. A rookie battery. The pitcher threw Honus a curveball, and he swung at it and missed and fell down on one knee. Looked helpless as a robin. I was kind of surprised, but the guy sitting next to me on the bench poked me in the ribs and said, 'Watch this next one.' Those kids figured they had the old man's weaknesses, you see, and served him up the same dish – as he knew they would. Well, Honus hit a line drive so hard the fence in left field went back and forth for five minutes.”
Wagner hit .300-or-better for 15 straight seasons from 1899-1913. In that span, Wagner won eight National League batting titles, led the NL in doubles seven times, stolen bases five times and RBI four times. He paced the league in slugging percentage six times and on-base percentage four times.
When he retired following the 1917 season, Wagner had totaled 3,420 hits, 643 doubles, 1,739 runs, 1,732 RBI and 723 stolen bases to go with a .328 batting average.
“You can have your Cobbs, your Lajoies, your Chases, your Bakers, but I'll take Wagner as my pick of the greatest,” McGraw said. "He is not only a marvelous mechanical player, but he has the quickest baseball brain I have ever observed.”
Wagner was among the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936. He passed away on Dec. 6, 1955.