39 YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH, FANS ARE STILL SHOWING UP FOR HONUS WAGNER
Cabinet card; 1901 Pirates, national league Champions; with letter from Wagner; $9,317. Photo courtesy of Hunt Auctions
“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”
No player in the early days of baseball symbolized Walt Whitman’s words better than Pittsburgh baseball legend Honus Wagner. If baseball is a cultural resuscitator, then Wagner was the smoky city’s first breath of fresh air.
Wagner played ball for The Pittsburgh Pirates from 1900 until his farewell game, Sept. 17, 1917. He led the National League in batting average eight times, in RBIs four times, in doubles eight times and in stolen bases five times.
Nicknamed the Flying Dutchman for his speed, Wagner played every position on the field except catcher and he never hit under .300 until he was 40. He came back to coach the Pirates in 1933 and retired for good in 1952, at age 78.
Baseball wasn’t Wagner’s 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.
About eight years ago on a drizzly Pittsburgh evening I shared dinner and dialogue about Wagner with his granddaughter Leslie Blair. Blair is the surviving family member of a baseball legend.
She grew up in the Carnegie house Wagner built. As we spoke, I kept looking for a resemblance I couldn’t quite spot.
Blair’s memories were not so much about a baseball legend as they were about a barrel-chested, Goliath-sized, softhearted grandfather she lovingly called “Buck.” The same grandfather who sat on the front porch signing baseballs for all the kids in the neighborhood. The same grandfather who played catch with her in the front yard.
“My grandmother Bessie once told me he never ate a hot meal in a restaurant,” she said. By the time fans stopped buzzing around the table, his dinner was cold.
He didn’t seem to mind. Fans declared that Wagner was everything right about Pittsburgh, and claimed him as their own.
That same evening we stood together at Wagner’s simple grave. “Sometimes I come and still find flowers,” she said. “Another time there was a baseball tucked inside the bronze vase of his headstone.” Thirty-nine years after his death, fans were still showing up for Honus Wagner.
In an era when first-born sons were priceless treasure, Wagner was asked if he was disappointed that his first and only grandchild turned out to be a girl.
“Of course not,” he is quoted as saying. “She’s everything I could ever want.”
“That’s the kind of man my grandfather was,” Blair said.
On Aug. 23-24, Hunt Auctions, Exton, Pa., featured a selection of Honus Wagner memorabilia in its Sport’s memorabilia auction. Here are some current values.
Photograph, Wagner reaching for a ball on the field; sepia-toned image; dated and stamped; $363.
Photograph; Wagner throwing a ball in Pirate uniform; sepia-toned image; by Charles Conlon; circa 1910-1915; $605.
Photograph; 1906 Pittsburgh Pirate team posing in Hot Springs, Ark., March 15, 1906; includes Wagner; sepia tone mounted image, matted and framed; $1,089.
Baseball card; 1910 E103; Williams Caramel Co., strong color; $2,029.
Pennant; rare Pirate pennant; early blue and orange; says Pittsburgh with skull and crossbones; original Kaufmann’s Sporting Goods Dept. tag on back; circa 1910; $2,057.
Cabinet card; 1901 Pirates; mounted image of National League Champions; includes Wagner, came from Wagner’s daughter Virginia in 1963; comes with letter stating that Wagner had this image hanging in his office at Forbes Field when he was coach; $9,317.
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