Happy 138th to the Flying Dutchman

I will have the normal “This Date” article in the morning but one former Pittsburgh Pirates player born on this date deserves his own post. John Peter “Honus” Wagner, was born on February 24, 1874 in Chartiers, Pa., which is just outside of Pittsburgh. His older brother Albert was a minor leaguer before him, getting Honus his first job in pro ball in 1895 playing for a team from Steubenville,Ohio, the first of a handful of teams he played for that season. Albert later played in the majors in 1898, his only season in the big leagues. In 1896 Honus played for the Paterson Silk Weavers of the Atlantic League and hit .313 in 109 games. The next season, still with Paterson, he was hitting .375 through 75 games when the Louisville Colonels of the National League purchased his contract and brought him right to the majors for his debut on July 19,1879. He played 62 games that first year, hitting .335 with 39 RBI’s and 20 stolen bases.

During his first full season in 1898, he hit .299 with 105 RBI’s, 80 runs scored and 27 stolen bases while playing every infield position except shortstop. He played those same three infield positions the next seasons and added games at each of the corner outfield spots to go along with it. For someone who is known as the greatest shortstop ever, it is surprising to some to find out he never played the position before 1901, when he was already 27 years old. That 1899 season he hit .341, scoring 100 runs, driving in 114 while adding 45 doubles and 37 stolen bases to his impressive resume. Following that 1899 season he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 16 player deal that was covered here. The trade made the Pirates an instant contender as they combined the best players from two different teams.

His first season in Pittsburgh he would win his first batting crown as he hit .381, a mark that would turn out to be his career high and the second highest single season total in Pirates history. He also led the league in doubles with 42 and triples with 22 while scoring 107 runs and driving in 100. The Pirates finished in second place with a 79-60 record that season, tied with the 1893 season as their highest finish in their 14 years in the NL at that point. In 1901 Honus hit .353 with a career high and league leading 126 RBI’s. He scored 101 runs that year and led the NL with 49 stolen bases. The Pirates won their first NL crown that season with a 90-49 record, 7.5 games ahead of the second place Phillies.

In 1902 the Pirates had arguably their best season ever, going 103-36 and winning the NL by 27.5 games. Honus hit .330 and led the league in runs scored(105) doubles(30), RBI’s(91) and stolen bases with 42. In 1903 Pittsburgh won their third straight NL pennant and played in the first ever modern day World Series. Wagner led the league with a .355 average and 19 triples, while also driving in 101 runs and stealing 46 bases. In the WS he hit a disappointing .222 in 27 AB’s as the Pirates lost the nine game series five games to three.

Honus would win his third batting title in 1904 with his .349 average. He also led the league with 44 doubles and 53 stolen bases. The 1905 season was the only year out of a 13 season stretch(1900-12) that Wagner didn’t lead the league in any offensive category but it wasn’t as if he had a poor season. He hit .363 with 101 runs scored and 114 RBI’s, ranking in the top four in the NL in all three stats. In 1906 he won his fourth batting title, hitting .339 with an NL leading 103 runs scored and 38 doubles. From 1906-09 he hit either 38 or 39 doubles every season and led the NL all four years for a total of seven times leading the league in doubles in his career. Honus hit .350 in 1907 to win his second straight NL batting crown and fifth overall title. He also stole a career high 61 bases which led the NL.

The 1908 season saw Honus win his sixth batting crown with a .354 mark. He won his third and final triples title with 19 and for the first time in his career he led the league in hits, as he tied his career high of 201 that he set back in 1900. He also led the league with 109 RBI’s and won his last stolen base crown with 53 swipes. He would play a then career high 151 games that season(later topped in 1915 at the age of 41) as the Pirates finished in a tie for second place, just one game behind the Cubs.

In 1909 the Pirates won the NL pennant with Honus leading the way. He won his fourth straight batting title with a .339 average and drove in a league leading 100 runs. In the WS against Ty Cobb and the Tigers, Wagner hit .333 with six stolen bases and six runs batted in, as the Pirates won their first ever WS title. That 1909 season would be the fourth and final time he led the NL in batting average, slugging percentage and on base percentage all in the same season.

Wagner began to lose a step in 1910 as he stole just 24 bases, his lowest total since his rookie season when he played just 62 games. He hit .320 which was his lowest average since 1898 but he still managed to score 90 runs, drive in 81 and lead the league with 178 hits. In 1911 he won his last of eight batting crowns with a .334 average and set a career high with 67 walks. At the age of 38 in 1912 he won his fifth RBI crown with 102, the ninth and final time he reached the century mark in that category. He also, for the first time, led all NL shortstops in fielding percentage.

In 1913 he batted .300 for the 16th and final time, but he played in just 114 games, his lowest total since his rookie season. He played four more seasons, hitting between .252 and .287 each year. As mentioned above, he was still playing nearly everyday into his 40′s, playing 156 games during the 1915 season. In both 1914 and 1915 he led the league in fielding percentage by a shortstop. He also collected his 3000th career hit during that 1914 season, just the second player ever to accomplish that feat.

Honus retired after the 1917 season with 3430 hits, later changed to 3415 then to 3420 after some research and recalculations took away 15 hits, then found five more hits. The same type of research uncovered the fact that Pete Rose actually broke Ty Cobb’s record for hits three days earlier than previously thought. Wagner retired with a .328 average, 1739 runs scored, 643 doubles, 252 triples(third all-time), 1733 RBI’s and 723 stolen bases. Among Pirates all-time leaders he is second to Clemente with 2967 hits, fourth in batting average, tied with Clemente for the lead with 2433 games, second in runs scored, doubles and RBI’s and he is the all-time leader in triples with 232 and runs scored with 1521.

Wagner was among the first class of inductees voted into the baseball Hall of Fame, joining Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson in that class. He had 215 votes out of 226 ballots, the same total of votes Ruth had. Honus became a Pirates coach in 1933 and stayed with the team until 1951 in that role. His number 33 he wore while coaching was retired by the Pirates in 1952.

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About John Dreker

John was born in Kearny, NJ, hometown of the 2B for the Pirates 1909 World Championship team, Dots Miller. In fact they have some of the same relatives in common, so it was only natural for him to become a lifelong Pirates fan. Before joining Pirates Prospects in July 2010, John had written numerous articles on the history of baseball while also releasing his own book and co-authoring another on the history of the game. He writes a weekly article on Pirates history for the site, has already interviewed many of the current minor leaguers with many more on the way and follows the foreign minor league teams very closely for the site. John also provides in person game reports of the West Virginia Power and Altoona Curve.

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