THE HOUSE THAT WAGNER BUILT: MEMORIES OF A GRANDFATHER AND BASEBALL LEGEND
Honus Wagner throwing a ball in a Pirate uniform, photo: Charles Conlon circa 1910-1915. Photo courtesy of Wagner Family Photos
When Honus Wagner turned 80 in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent him a note proclaiming Wagner as his boyhood idol. “I venture to say that your name and the records you established are as well known to the boys of today as they were to me…You are truly one of baseball’s immortal heroes.”
A hero to a president, to rookie and veteran players, to neighborhood kids, to Henry Ford, who enjoyed taking Honus around Central Park in his “new contraption.” Honus Wagner is a legend. He was a grandfather to those same neighborhood kids and to Leslie Blair, whose youthful image looks up at his statue in front of Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.
“I am so proud of him,” she says. “I want to walk up to people around here and say, “This is my grandfather.” When I was a little girl and used to drive over this bridge for Pirates games with my family, as soon as we would spot this statue, we would all yell, “Hi Buck.”
Buck’s full name was John Peter Wagner, but he answered to many nicknames. John in German is Johannes, and when his friends finished mangling it, it came out “Honus.” He was mostly called Buck by his family; his father started that, calling him Honus Buck, as in the leader of a deer herd. He became Buck Jay when his wife Betty began calling him Jay, an abbreviation of John.
His fans cheered him as a masterful hitter and base runner, the latter earning his nickname “The Flying Dutchman.”
Sometimes Blair visits her grandfather’s grave in Jefferson Memorial Park in Pleasant Hills and finds flowers; one time a baseball was tucked securely inside the bronze vase on his headstone. Thirty-nine years after his death, Buck Wagner fans still show up.
The 5-year-old Leslie was the only person Wagner recognized as he lay on his deathbed the last seven weeks of his life. She climbed up on his bed, his daughter (and Leslie’s aunt) Virginia recalled, and he said “Hello sweetheart.” Leslie adds, “I knew him as a grandfather. I did not know him as a baseball player.”
The 81-year-old sports legend died in his sleep at 12:56 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1955. Age and injuries suffered in a fall at home a few weeks before his death were given as the cause.
More than 100 floral bouquets lined the five rooms of the funeral parlor. Red roses to “Dad” from the family flanked the casket. And a small bouquet of orchids rested next to the all-time baseball great. It was from Leslie and read “To Buck Jay.” Almost every team in the big leagues was represented at the services. Thousands of people attended his funeral and only a fraction of them had actually ever met him.
Once in the late-1930s, when the Pirates were on a trip to Hollywood, comedy star Frank McHugh shut down the filming of his Warner Brothers movie for a day just so he could meet Wagner, who was then a coach with the team.
When he was a poor kid living in Homestead, McHugh said he hung around Exposition Park and later Forbes Field all day long just so he could catch a glimpse of his hero. Later in life, he would retell the story of meeting Wagner again and again. “The greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
Bing Crosby became one of Wagner’s groupies. When he bought into the pirates and visited Pittsburgh, he always sought out the superstar. Once, Crosby stopped him and said, “Say Honus, what happened the year your batting average fell to .252?” Wagner chuckled and shot back, “Nothing, Bing. That was the first year of Prohibition!”
“It really hit me in junior high school that my grandfather was somebody important,” Blair says. “Kids would come up to me all the time and say their grandfather played ball with Buck, or their grandfather drank beer down at the Elk’s Club in Carnegie with him.”
Blair grew up in the house Wagner built when he married her grandmother. It is still there at 605 Beechwood Ave. in Carnegie, the town where he was born in 1874. Almost six when he died, Blair remembers vividly a grandfather who played catch in the front yard. She remembers the children who were always around, remembers him sitting in his favorite brocade chair, sharing a Hershey bar and reading to her.
As dusk approaches in the cemetery that holds his unassuming grave, Blair leans over the bronze headstone marked Honus and Bessie Wagner. She looks professional, dressed in her bright green and navy dress. Her appearance reflects an attention to detail.
“My grandfather placed emphasis not on what he did in life, but on how he lived his life. Recognition and materialistic things didn’t matter to him. What was important was his family and being with them.” And no matter who you were or what your standing was in life, she said, Wagner also believed in taking time to contribute to other people. “I have attempted to live my life this way, and that is how I was raised, thanks to Buck.
“With regard to our family, Buck shared the limelight. I think grandma enjoyed it more than [he] did, and he encouraged her to be a part of everything. She delighted in the excitement. We all went to the games and Buck made sure we each had a turn throwing out the first baseball. Sundays the house was always full of people. Buck had taken players like rookie third baseman Frank Gustine under his wing, and Frank had his place at the dinner table, too. At home, Buck was a husband, father and grandfather first, a real family man.”
Usually late for dinner, the bow-legged, barrel-chested, 200-pound legend consistently took time to stay after the game, sign autographs and talk to fans, even well into his retirement. It was not uncommon for admirers to back Wagner up against the right-field boxes, and he’d run through the ink of four fountain pens before it was time to go home for dinner.
Bessie Wagner claimed Honus never ate a hot meal at a restaurant. By the time devotees stopped buzzing around the table, his dinner was cold. Never resentful, always the gentleman, Wagner had an easy going manner that added to his mystique. His fans believed he represented everything that was right about Pittsburgh and people claimed him as their own.
More concerned about family and home, Wagner turned down numerous offers to play baseball elsewhere. He was stopped by a man in 1901 as he drove his horse-drawn sled through the streets of Carnegie. Clark Griffith, owner of the New York Highlanders, was looking for the baseball star. Griffith didn’t believe the man in front of him was Wagner. “I finally convinced him when I stepped out of the sleigh and showed him my bow legs, my trademark,” Wagner said. “That clinched my identity.”
Griffith offered Wagner $20,000 to play for the Highlanders. Wagner, who was making $3,000 a year playing for the Pirates, told Les Biederman of the Pittsburgh Press his answer in a 1950 interview: “I told Griff I didn’t think there was that much money in the world. He calmly pulled out 20 thousand dollar bills…and I must admit it was tempting.”
The grizzled baseball veteran made his last public appearance on April 30, 1955, at 10:30 a.m., seven months before he died. An 18-foot 1,899-pound statue of the player swinging a bat was unveiled that day in Schenley Park in Oakland, outside Forbes Field. The aging star managed a smile when Leslie pulled the string that unveiled the monument.
Perhaps the ultimate tribute to Honus Wagner is that his fans erected the statue while he was still alive, still able to be brought there to see it. Even with his wavering eyesight and his timeworn gestures, he knew this day and this memorial were for him.
Asked if he wanted his playing statistics displayed at the base of the sculpture, Wagner declined. Instead, he requested that his granddaughter, and neighbor kids Jerry and Frank Sgro and Tom Cengia, be sketched by sculptor Frank Vittor for their permanent home on the base of the bronze monument.
Once a sports wrier was looking for Wagner’s house in Carnegie and stopped some children. “He’s our Honus,” cried the kids. “He takes us out for rides everyday. He’s the best man in town.”
When somebody suggested Wagner save himself from all that bother of signing autographs for the kids at the ballpark, he declared, “Let ‘em alone, I enjoy this, and think it’s not doing baseball, the boys or myself any harm.” It was estimated he signed 10,000 autographs in one year.
Jerry Sgro lived next door to the Wagners and remembers being one of the youngsters who daily haunted the retired star’s front porch. Sometimes Honus played ball with the kids on his front walk. “Other times he sat with us and passed out autographed baseballs which we immediately played with and lost. I wish I had one of those balls today,” says Jerry. “I never realized ‘til much later the importance of Honus Wagner.”
On July 24, 1972 his statue was moved to its current site in front of Three Rivers Stadium on the North Side and rededicated. “They wanted to bring Buck to where baseball was being played,” Blair says. In fact Exposition Park was almost on the same spot where Three Rivers Stadium is right now, and that’s where he started playing. “It’s almost full circle, he came home. Now he overlooks the city he loved.”
Thousands of Pittsburghers donated anywhere from a dollar to $1,000 to erect this monument for their sports idol, an idol whose greatness and iron hand reflected there own rigorous working-class ethic. Names of all the contributors were inscribed on one continuous roll, and contained in a stainless steel tube, and placed permanently in the statue.
The grandfather of local baseball, the sports icon who put Pittsburgh in the baseball record books in 1900 and countless times afterwards, would permanently stand over the city that loved him, too.
Now, as Pittsburghers pay tribute to the symbol of another era, he has been joined by Roberto Clemente, whose statue at Gate A of Three Rivers was unveiled over the weekend.
Instead of traditional fairy tales at bedtime, Blair remembers her grandfather made up his own stories. “He would sit with me and describe a baseball player who was out by a hare, because he was chasing a rabbit around the bases. He would describe the longest homerun in history that went out over the park and landed in a train headed for the west coast.” Leslie’s mother Betty regretted never writing those make-believe adventures from both her own and her daughter’s childhood down for a book.
Wagner used a grandfather’s storytelling ability with many of the Pirate rookies as well. As a star with the Pirates and later, when he was a coach traveling with the team or sitting in the dugout at Forbes Field, the rookies would sit open-mouthed around him and listen to his tales. “One day I was fielding a grounder,” he said, “and a dog came rushing toward me. I reached down and darned if I didn’t grab the dog instead of the ball!”
“So I threw the dog to first base and darned if the umpire didn’t call the runner out!”
Baseball for Wagner wasn’t a hard job, it was his life. He earned $10,000 a year in his prime. “Shucks, I liked baseball so much I would have played for nothing,” he said.
As to his talent – the shy, reticent star was unable to see what all the fuss was about and would be genuinely embarrassed by all the hoopla today. Yet, during his 21-year career, Wagner led the National League in batting average eight times, in RBI’s four times, in doubles eight times and in stolen basses five times. Because of his speed he was nicknamed the Flying Dutchman.
He never hit under .300 until he was 40, and played every position on the field except catcher. He also was the first player to have his signature produced on a Louisville Slugger (1905) and, off the field, served as sergeant at arms for the state legislature in 1929, according to “The Ballplayers” (Arbor House/William Morrow). Inducted into the Hall of Fame during the first year of its existence, Wagner was one of the best shortstops baseball ever produced – and he seldom used the word “I” in conversation.
Honus played for the Pirates from 1900 until his farewell game, Sept. 17, 1917, and it was said that every house in Carnegie had his photo.
When he came back to coach the Pirates in 1933, he explained, “I’ve been something like a fish out of water since I went out of the game, and it does my heart good to return to the Pirates.” He continued to be the center of attention until he retired again in 1952, at the age of 78.
Honus’ eyes and legs began to fail him, and he spent his remaining years quietly in Carnegie with his family, seldom coming back to the ballpark. He spoke at sports banquets, played ball with the neighborhood kids and settled into being the patriarch of Pittsburgh baseball.
His locker from the Forbs Field clubhouse and uniform No.“33” now reside in baseball’s shrine in Cooperstown.
Younger players always looked to the star for advice. “Keep trying,” he would urge. “Don’t be afraid to make an error. Go after every ball within reach. Soon you’ll be making plays you once thought impossible… and stay away from the booze and cigarettes.”
By the time he was 12-years-old, John Peter Wagner was earning $3.50 a week working in a coal mine. For loading a ton of ore, he earned 70 cents. He quit because the job left him no time to play ball.
While working in his brother Charley’s barber shop in 1895, a telegram came offering Wagner $35 a month to play for Steubenville, Ohio. Over the next two years in the minor leagues, he also played in Akron, Kent, Mansfield, Adrian and in Warren, Pa. In 1897, he moved on to Patterson, N.J., and then was sold to Louisville, a team that was part of the National League and owned by Barney Dreyfuss. For $2,000, Dreyfuss purchased what would turn out to be the baseball player of a lifetime. Two years later, when the Louisville franchise and the Pirates merged, he moved back to his hometown. And the rest is in the record books.
Later Dreyfuss (who came to Pittsburgh in 1900 as well) would tell Wagner, “You’ll play shortstop for me as long as I have anything to do with the Pirates. I’ll never fire you. When you feel you’re through, you walk off the field. Until that day, you’re the shortstop.”
Sports Writer John Kennedy in a 1950 article for Collier’s magazine had this to say about Honus: “I asked him as he sat with his great shoulders hunched and his big face beaming like a genial Punch, what moment he would call the most thrilling of 30 years as a professional ballplayer. ‘That double play on my first day as a Pirate. Nothing else beat that.”’
The consensus seems to be that Wagner continuously played championship baseball from the day he walked on the baseball field till the day he walked off. The weather changed, the players shifted, a new ballpark opened at Forbes Field, but Honus Wagner stayed pretty much the same. Like a warm fire on a snowy night, Wagner left his mark on baseball history in a way few players ever have.
In an era when first-born sons were relished, he was asked if he was disappointed that his first and only grandchild turned out to be a girl. Blair calls his response one of the things that made him a truly special grandfather. “Of course not,” he said. “She’s everything I could ever want.” As the press snapped the first photos of the duo, Wagner’s brick-red face radiated as he delicately cradled the 6-pound, 15 ½-ounce infant in the same unconquerable arms and hands that ravaged baseball’s best players on the diamond.
Wagner had long before reached a point where he no longer belonged to himself. A city had adopted him as a grandfather, and a nation loved him for the quality athlete he was. But it was the little thing, in the form of his relationship with his granddaughter, that was emblematic of the kind of person he was. And that is really why we all remember Honus Wagner.
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