Life and career
Template:MLB HoF He was born in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mansfield (now Carnegie), Pennsylvania. In a career that spanned 21 seasons (1897-1917), he led the National League in batting average eight times, and in RBI and stolen bases five times each.
Wagner's speed, both on the basepaths and in the field, combined with his considerable size, earned him the nickname "The Flying Dutchman", a reference to a legendary "ghost ship" of the same name. In those very much ethnic-aware days, the term "Dutch" equated to "German", and the newspapers frequently tagged Wagner with Teutonic versions of his first name, such as "Hans" or "Hannes", the latter being short for "Johannes" and written down as "Honus".
After a short stint in the minor leagues starting in 1895, Wagner began his major league career with the Louisville Colonels of the National League, playing with them for three seasons. Louisville was one of four National League teams contracted out of existence in 1900, and the remnant of the Louisville team was merged with the Pittsburgh Pirates, catapulting the team into contention, including participation in the first World Series in 1903. After the 1899-1900 merger, Wagner played 18 more seasons, all with the Pirates, winning a World Series title with them in 1909.
His broad range of skills earned him the high praise of his peers, and in 1936 he was among the first five individuals ever inducted to membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in the select company of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Babe Ruth. He won the National League batting title eight times. He retired from baseball in 1917 as the National League record holder in career hits, doubles, triples, runs, RBI, stolen bases, and games played. His lifetime batting average was .329. In 1999, even though he had played his last game 82 years earlier, he was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, as one of three shortstops, with Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken, Jr. The same year, The Sporting News placed him at number 13, and the highest-ranking shortstop, on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.
Famous baseball manager (and contemporary of Wagner's) John McGraw spoke for many when he said of Wagner that "while he was the greatest shortstop, I believe he could have been the number one player at any position he might have selected. That's why I vote him baseball's foremost all-time player." Similarly, in his section of the book, The Glory of Their Times, Ty Cobb's own teammate Sam Crawford rated Wagner, not Cobb, the best player he ever saw, and certainly far superior on the personal level.
Wagner was on the coaching staff of the Pirates from 1933 to 1952. During this time, he wore uniform number 33, which was later retired for him. (His entire playing career was in the days before uniform numbers were worn.) He died in Carnegie at the age of 81 and is buried at Jefferson Memorial Cemetery south of Pittsburgh.
A life-size statue of Wagner, swinging the bat, atop a marble pedestal featuring admiring children, was forged by a local sculptor name Frank Vittor, and placed outside the left field corner gate at Forbes Field. It was dedicated on April 30, 1955, and the now-frail Wagner was well enough to attend and wave to his many fans. The Pirates have relocated twice since then, and the statue has come along with them. It now stands outside the main gate of PNC Park. As that park is near the site of the Pirates' original home, Exposition Park, in a sense Wagner has come full circle.
More recently Honus Wagner has regained the public's attention for being the subject of the most valuable and sought after baseball trading card. Known as the "Mona Lisa of baseball cards" and "The King of Cards", the Honus Wagner card from the popular T206 tobacco card set was the first trading card to be sold for over a million dollars. The cards were printed by the Piedmont Cigarette Company without Wagner's permission, and their production ceased as soon as he found out. Fewer than 75 authentic cards are known to exist. The finest example used to be owned by hockey great Wayne Gretzky. Today it is valued at well over one and a half million dollars.
Recently a Homus Wagner Card was sold on Ebay for $1.65 million and is the third most valuable item to be sold on the site as of november 2005.