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.
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.