Opening day came early this year, Thursday, March 28. Since I’m writing this ahead of time, I can’t comment on who won or lost their home openers.
I’m not sure if having three sons forced me to be a big sports fans or gave me an excuse to indulge my admiration for super coordinated and talented athletes.
This year in honor of opening day, I decided to feature two Hall of Fame baseball players who each made their mark on Pittsburgh teams, Honus Wagner and Josh Gibson. I’ve decided to give each player his own article, so chronologically; I’ll start with Honus Wagner.
Honus Wagner was born in 1874 in Chartiers Borough, Pennsylvania which is now Carnegie. He was one of nine children born to German immigrant parents. Wagner dropped out of school at 12 years old to work in the coal mines with his dad and brothers. The Wagner brothers played sandlot ball in their free time. Three of Wagner’s brothers would also go on to play professional baseball.
Wagner’s older brother Albert was considered the best baseball player of the family. When his Inter-State League team needed players, Albert arranged a try-out for Honus. The younger Wagner proved his worth and played 80 games for five teams in three different leagues during his first year (1895).
Wagner debuted with the Louisville Colonels of the National League on July 19, 1897 and hit .338 in 61 games. Honus almost didn’t get his shot at the majors because he didn’t have a typical baseball physique. Standing 5’11” tall at 200 pounds, Honus was barrel chested with thick muscular arms, big hands and very bowed legs.
Finishing just shy of .300 during his second National League season, Wagner was one of the league’s best hitters.
After the 1899 season, the National League downsized from twelve to eight teams. The Colonels were one of the four teams to be eliminated; however, Barney Dreyfuss the owner of the Colonels had purchased half ownership in the Pittsburgh Pirates. He took Wagner and several other top players from the Colonels with him to the Pirates.
After his move to Pittsburgh, Wagner emerged as a premier hitter in the National League. In 1900, Wagner won his first batting title. For the next nine seasons, his batting average was never below .300.
In 1904, Wagner began playing shortstop full time. To this day many sports historians and commentators consider him to be the best shortstop to ever play the game.
A myriad of books and magazine articles have been written about Honus Wagner. He played in two World Series. In 1903, which was Major League Baseball's inaugural World Series, the Pirates played the Boston Americans. Wagner hit only .222 for the series and many sports writers blamed him for the Pirate’s loss. In 1909, Wagner got the opportunity to set things right when The Pirates faced Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Wagner outplayed the young Cobb and Pittsburgh won their first World Series.
Wagner played in the National League until his permanent retirement in 1917 at the age of 43. After retirement, he managed and played for a semi-pro team. Wagner was part of the Pirates coaching staff for 39 years (he was a hitting instructor from 1933 to 1952). Wagner won eight batting titles, a National League record that still stands. This feat was matched only once, by Tony Gwynn in 1997. Wagner also led the league in RBI’s five times and stolen bases five times. He was nicknamed "The Flying Dutchman" (a popular German folk-tale made famous by Richard Wagner’s opera of the same name) because of his German heritage and amazing speed. Wagner died in 1955 at 81.
He was one of five players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1936. Wagner was inducted with Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson.
When The Sporting News' listed the 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1998, Wagner came in at #13, the highest ranked shortstop. He was also named to the Major League All Century Baseball Team and the Major League Baseball All Time Team.
A life-size statue of Wagner swinging a bat was forged by the local sculptor Frank Vittor, and placed outside the left field corner gate at Forbes Field in 1955. The statue has moved twice with the Pirates and now stands outside the main gate of PNC Park.
A small stadium behind Carnegie Elementary School in Carnegie, Pennsylvania bears his name and serves as the home field for Carlynton High School varsity sports. The Historical Society of Carnegie History Center houses the Honus Wagner Sports Museum which includes many Wagner collectibles and memorabilia.
In 2000, Wagner was one of twenty all-time greats in conjunction with MLB's All-Century team honored by having his image on a postage stamp in the “Legends of Baseball” series of U.S. postage stamps.
The T206 Honus Wagner baseball card is one of the rarest and most expensive baseball cards in the world. The card was designed and issued by the American Tobacco Company from 1909 to 1911. Wagner, who was a nonsmoker, refused to allow production of his baseball card to continue, so only 57 copies are known to exist. On October 1, 2016, a T206 Honus Wagner Card sold at auction for a record $3.12 million.