Sunday, July 20, 2008

1896 - Meeting Ed Barrow - Honus Wagner Biography

Wagner Signs with Paterson

In early 1896, plans were being made behind the scenes for Honus Wagner's future. Ed Barrow, manager of the Wheeling squad which defeated Wagner's Warren team in the season ending 1895 series, was looking to bolster his team for the coming season. He had sold Wheeling and invested into a new team, Paterson, in the newly-created Atlantic League. Barrow met with a local talent spotter, Shad Gwilliam, who suggested taking a look at Honus and his brother Al. Barrow remembered playing against them and was impressed with their talent. He felt Al was a better player but would be difficult to manage. Al had also recently signed with Toronto from the Eastern League so Barrow decided to make Honus an offer.

Barrow went to Carnegie to talk with Honus and found him engaged in a rock throwing competition with his friends. Impressed with the power of Honus' arm, Barrow was convinced that he had to sign this young talent to his new club. Honus hesitated after recalling the chaos that was the 1895 season but when Barrow ignored the league salary limit of $100 / month and offered Honus $125 / month, it made the decision to say yes much easier. Honus would be making more in the summer than the average worker earned in a year ($439).

According to Barrow:
"It was a bright and sunny day when I landed in [Carnegie] and asked directions to the Wagner brothers' pool parlor. It was located in a low, dingy red brick building, and when I went inside the place I found it was deserted except for a boy dozing in a chair with his feet up on a big round-bellied stove in the middle of the room.

I asked for Hans Wagner.

"All the fellows are down at the railroad yards, having a throwing match," the boy said, hardly stirring himself. I set off for the yards.

When I got there I could see a group of eight or ten young men walking up the tracks towards me. I walked down to meet them, and as I got closer I could make out the young Hans in the van, a derby hat on the back of his head with a chicken feather stuck in the band. He was unmistakable, with his bow legs and long arms and ambling, awkward gait.

As we came up to each other, I got to the point immediately. I asked him if he wanted to play ball for me in Paterson. Wager was diffident. He didn't know. He didn't know whether he wanted to play ball at all. As we talked he would stoop over every once in a while and pick up a lump of coal or a stone and heave it up the railroads tracks. He threw with a great sweep and almost no effort, and as I watched the rocks sail a couple of hundred feet up the track I knew I had to have this fellow on my ball club. We had a league limit of $100 a month for players, but I offered Wagner $125. He accepted and we went back to the poolroom and signed an agreement."
Wagner had a slightly different version of the story:
"When we saw him come we all ran like hell, and he had to chase us before he could get me. We thought he and his partner were a couple of railroad bulls who were trying to arrest us for throwing rocks at company property.

I thought it was pretty good pay for a young player of 22. It was the beginning of a great friendship with Barrow and a lucky break for me."
As word spread of the Wagner signing, Barrow was contacted by Captain Kerr of the Pittsburgh Pirates who again tried to land Wagner. Barrow chose to keep Honus but promised Kerr the first opportunity to acquire Wagner if he developed into a serious talent and his contract came up for sale.

Signed to a new club, Honus Wagner was ready to start the 1896 season.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

1895 - Going Professional - Honus Wagner Biography

Making His Professional Debut: Steubenville

Honus Wagner made his professional debut on April 20th, 1895 playing for Steubenville. His team won an exhibition game against Holy Ghost College where he batted seventh, had two hits in his five at bats (a single and a double), stole a base, and played right field. Honus won accolades for his play in the outfield. According to The Steubenville Star:
"[A fly ball hit to Honus was] like knocking a ball into a well ... as he is sure death to any fly that goes into his territory."
The season officially started on May 2nd and Honus went one for six with a three-run home run in a 29-11 victory over Canton. He was signed as a pitcher and utility outfielder for Steubenville and spent most of his playing time rotating between the two positions. Honus made his first appearance as a pitcher on May 7th where he went two innings, gave up a walk, and had four strikeouts. According to owner George L. Moreland:
"Wagner ... is a young blood with an arm on him like one of Rusie's and speed as great." (Amos Rusie was one of the National League's most dominant pitchers having won 30 or more games in the last four years and leading the league in strikeouts in four of the the last five years.)
The club, however, was unable to attract a sizeable audience and Moreland decided to move the team to Akron when local businessmen agreed to pay Moreland $500 in cash, buy 50 season tickets, and use Buchtel College (which had multiple train lines and easy access for fans to commute to) if he moved from Steubenville. Akron also had three times the population of Steubenville so it was an easy decision for Moreland to make. The Akron squad played its first game in the new city on May 13th. Honus played left field, batted sixth, and had two doubles and a home run. However, the stay in Akron would be short-lived. On May 18th Moreland could not make payroll and the team disbanded.

The Move To Mansfield

Eager to find new work and continue his life as a professional baseball player, Honus signed with Mansfield and his brother Al, whom he played with in Steubenville-Akron, went to play with Canton. Honus' first game with Mansfield was on May 20th where he was positioned at shortstop. In17 games with Mansfield he had a .387 batting average. Unfortunately, three weeks after his arrival, the Inter State League, which Mansfield and Canton belonged to, folded.

The Move To Adrian

Both Honus and brother Al were again looking for new teams to play for. Al found a spot with Warren, a team in the Iron & Oil League, while Honus went to play with the Adrian Demons of the Michigan State League for $50 per month. He made his debut on June 20th where he played second base and got two hits in a 12-11 victory over Owosso. According to The Adrian Daily Times:
"Some of the ground stops he made were handsome plays in every respect. He is undoubtedly a strong point on our team."
The Move To Warren

Honus went on to bat .386 in 16 games and helped Adrian move into first place. On July 6th, however, Honus felt homesick and left Adrian to sign with his brother Al's team in Warren. He was given a roster spot and was offered $35 per month. He took the deal. According to Honus:
"I got homesick after a few weeks. Most of the boys from home were playing with the Warren team in the old Iron & Oil League, and I joined the same team."
The jump to Warren reunited him with his brother Al as well as other hometown friends like Claude Ritchey and Toots Barrett. Honus went on to play 26 games for Warren, hit over .300, and spent time at the third base and right field positions. His season was cut short, however, after running for a train, falling on a fence, and creating a painful gash in his right arm that required several stitches and took him out of the lineup for three weeks.

A week after Honus returned to the team, the Iron & Oil League began to fall apart as four of the eight teams folded. The league decided that first place Warren should face off against second place Wheeling for a seven game series to determine the overall champion. Honus went 8 for 29 but Wheeling, managed by Edward Barrow, won the series.

An Uncertain Future

Honus' year ended on September 12th when Warren went out of business and payed their players for the last time. In 1895, Honus Wagner played for five different teams in three states and three leagues. He played every position on the field except catcher and he also pitched.

Unsure of what lay ahead for his baseball career, Honus returned home to Carnegie to spend time with his friends and family. He was soon visited by his Steubenville manager George Moreland. Moreland was asked to visit Honus on behalf of William Kerr, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kerr wanted Honus to play for him in the 1896 season and offered him a $100 a month contract. Honus later discovered that Kerr wanted to send him to the Kansas City minor league team. Having experienced life on the road in Adrian, Honus decided not to sign as he wished to stay with a team that was close to home. According to Honus:
"I'd much rather stay here at home with my dogs and go hunting than to go way out there and be lost. Unless I went to Kansas City, Mr. Kerr didn't want me. So that ended that. I went home and hunted and fished some more."
With his baseball future in question, Honus returned his life of hunting and fishing, hoping a new opportunity would present itself for the next season.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Growing Up - Honus Wagner Biography

Growing Up

Honus Wagner was born on February 24, 1874 in Chartiers, Pennsylvania to parents Peter and Katharina Wagner who had come to America from Prussia in 1866 in search of a better life and more opportunities. Peter found work in the coal mines while Katharina became a house cleaner. They had nine children, six of whom survived (five boys, one girl, Honus was the fourth child) and were given German names with English equivalents. Born Johannes (John) Peter, his family called him by a shortened version of his name, Hans or Honus. The name stuck and he would forever be remembered as Honus Wagner.

While his parents spoke English with a heavy accent and used German in the home, Honus excelled at the language and considered himself to be American. He went to school at his local church and since there were no local schools that taught children after the age of 11, Honus did what most of the local boys did and at 12 years of age - he went to work.

Honus joined his father and older brothers in the coal mines. The minimum age allowed by law at the time for working in the mines was 12 which allowed Honus to earn an income. Reflecting on his days in the mines, Honus later said "It was hard work, but good exercise." The work in the mines would also later be credited with giving Honus such a large and muscular frame.

Baseball

When the Wagner boys weren't working they played baseball. They threw a ball around whenever they could get the time to and weekend pickup games with the neighborhood kids became a tradition. Honus surprised everyone with his tremendous speed despite having bowed legs and an awkward body.

At the time, baseball was not the established sport it is today. It was often violent and seen as an uncivilized game. Honus and his two older brothers, Al and Luke, however excelled in the game. They all began to play competitively on local teams and Al recommended that Honus learn to play every position, including pitching, so that he would always have a spot on a team. His versatility would later make him an invaluable asset to his professional teams.

Bets were often placed on the games and the young Honus could make up to five dollars on a pair of games. Not wanting to miss out on a money making opportunity, the brothers would often assume each others identities and fill in for each other if one of them could not make a game with their respective teams.

In 1889, at the age of 15, Honus began hanging around older brother Al's sandlot team which played in the Allegheny County League. He started off being known as Al's little brother and was given the duties of carrying the equipment for the players. He would go on to play with the team and become a valuable on-field member.

In 1890 Honus joined St. Luke's, prominent local Catholic team and later the Carnegie Athletic Club, both in the Allegheny County League. Honus would later recall "I had as much fun in the Allegheny County League as a kid in my teens as I had in my 19 years of big league stardom. All I lived for was baseball. I played from the end of March until the end of October."

Honus and Al Wagner played again together in 1893 when they joined the Mansfield Indians in the Allegheny County League. The Indians were in last place and the brothers did not get regular starting positions but it did give them an opportunity for greater exposure in the baseball community. However, the league did not allow contracts with players - money was made through gambling provided that your team won.

Becoming A Professional

In 1894, George L. Moreland, a Pittsburgh based sportswriter wanted to create a new minor league consisting of teams from Ohio and West Virginia in time for the 1895 season. He also wanted to own and manage his own team in the league based in Steubenville, Ohio.

One of the first players Moreland wanted on his team was Al Wagner. Al managed to convince his new boss that his brother Honus would make a good pitcher on the team and could fill in as a substitute for other position players. Moreland agreed and on February 10, 1895 signed Honus to a $35 a month contract. Honus made his debut on April 20th and rotated throughout the season between being a pitcher and playing in the outfield.

Honus was now 21 years old and had a late entry to professional baseball compared to most of the other rising stars in the sport. He was, however, five feet, eleven inches and weighed 185 pounds - a giant of a man for the times and still not fully grown. More importantly, he was ready to make his mark and show the baseball world what he could do.

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