Like the old Delta blues musician, Robert Johnson, the name of Honus Wagner is one that lives in legend, and though he has been gone from this earth for nearly 60 years, he still remains one of the great ghosts of baseballs past. On this date, exactly 100-years-ago, the great Wagner doubled off of Philadelphia pitcher, Erskine Mayer to become only the second player to ever rack up 3,000 hits. He would go on to amass 3,420 total base hits during his 21 year career, between 1897 and 1917.
His face graces the Holy Grail of baseball cards, the 1909, T206, and to this day, he is still tied with Tony Gwynn as having the NL record for most batting titles, at eight. While names like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb have reached god-like heights in baseball folklore, the name of Honus Wagner will not, and should not ever be glossed over. To this day, he still remains one of the greatest shortstops to ever play the game, and at the turn of the 20th Century, there was no player greater and more versatile than the great Honus Wagner.
“The Flying Dutchman,” as he was lovingly dubbed by fans put up his greatest numbers, and won his first batting title in 1900, posting a .381 BA, which included 45 doubles, 22 triples, 100 RBI and posted a slugging percentage of .573. In the same season, he also managed to strike out just 17 times in 580 total plate appearances, and throughout his 21 seasons, he fanned just 735 times in 11,748 trips to the plate.
He was one of the greatest hitters of all-time, and throughout his career, there was no easy way to get Wagner out. Even the great New York Giants pitcher in the early 1900’s, Christy Matthewson, who had a career ERA of 2.13 and recorded 79 career shutouts said that the only way to keep Wagner from hitting was to simply not pitch to him. After falling just one point shy of the .300 mark in 1898, in just his second year in the league, he then went on to hit .300 or greater in 14 consecutive seasons, amassing a career batting average of .328.
While Honus Wagner remains one of the greatest hitting shortstops to ever play the game, it was his fielding skills that also have him front and center among the greatest shortstops of baseball’s past and present. Names like Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken Jr., and Derek Jeter have their rightful place among baseball’s most elite, but when the chips fall, it is hard to argue against Honus Wagner as being the greatest. His .945 career fielding percentage may not rank as high as the aforementioned players, but during a time when fields were not manicured to perfection, Wagner led National League shortstops in fielding in 1912, 1914, and 1915.
Now, 100 years since he doubled for hit number 3,000, the game of baseball has changed drastically, and the game which Wagner played is nearly unrecognizable. He played his entire career in an era of the “dead ball” in baseball, in which the game was more strategic, as opposed to monster swings that result in huge blasts, or giant whiffs that send players back to the bench. Wagner has been described as a good natured man who had a genuine love for the game of baseball, and never had any type of disputes or disagreements with owners regarding contracts. It was a simpler time for the game of baseball, and although the era of America’s pastime may be a bit romanticized, it is difficult not to yearn for a throwback to an age when players played solely for the love of the game, and not because their eyes were so clouded with dollar signs.
Honus Wagner became one of five players elected as the first class into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. His 95.1 percent of the votes received tied Babe Ruth for second, behind only Ty Cobb, who received 98.2 percent of the votes. The remaining two players inducted into the inaugural class included Christy Matthewson and Walter Johnson.
Commentary by Johnny Caito