Sunday, February 24, 2008

Zum Geburtstag viel Gluck

Happy birthday to The Flying Dutchman, Pittsburgh's own Honus Wagner, likely the best player who will ever suit up for the Pirates. He would've been 134 years old today.
Honus Wagner circa 1909, from the George Grantham Bain Collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
You can make a reasonable case for Wagner's 1908 season as the most all-around dominant performance in baseball history. It's worth revisiting for a moment. There were more impressive raw offensive seasons that revolve around dominance in one or two areas (like Babe Ruth's 1920), but only rarely does a player make the entire league look like a gaggle of 12-year-old boys in every aspect of the game. Wagner hit .354/.415/.542, while leading the NL in almost every significant category (spoiled only by second-place finishes in runs scored, by one, and home runs, by two). He did this in a league environment where the average batter hit .239/.299/.306. That may be kind of hard to contextualize in the modern game, where almost everybody can hit at least a little bit, so here's a quick-and-dirty example. Inexplicable midseason acquisition Cesar Izturis has a career batting line of .259/.295/.334.

In a league where the average team on a typical day trotted out half of a starting lineup that was significantly weaker with the bat than Cesar Izturis, ol' Hans put up a season that wouldn't stand out if you dropped it right into the middle of A-Rod's career. Oh, and he also stole 53 bases, played in 151 of 154 possible games, and was the league's top defender at the game's most difficult defensive position. At the age of 34.

That deserves a moment of respectful silence.

If you feel like reading a bit about Wagner (and really, why wouldn't you want to?), there's a nice SABR biography of him here, and a pretty good chronology of events in his career here.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

http://www.vintageball.com/files/1908_Pirates_Jockey.jpg
Quotes From & About Honus Wagner
http://www.baseball-almanac.com/quotes/quowagn.shtml
"I name Wagner first on my list, not only because he was a great batting champion and base-runner, and also baseball's foremost shortstop - but because Honus could have been first at any other position, with the possible exception of pitcher. In all my career, I never saw such a versatile player." - John McGraw in The Sporting News (December 6, 1955)
Happy Birthday Honus...

Vlad said...

In addition to Wagner, it's the birthday of his fellow Bucco star Wilbur Cooper. Cooper won 202 games in the Burgh, but just missed pitching in the World Series on both ends of his career, joining the team in 1912 and getting traded to the Cubs after the 1924 season.

Also Bronson Arroyo, who doesn't really have anything do do with anything. I just felt like bringing it up.

Anonymous said...

Man I think I've died and gone to Pirate Heaven... Honus, Wilbur Cooper...HyzduHQ had an article on Babe Adams... Good stuff all around... I Salute You...
To paraphrase "Field of Dreams"
"Is this Heaven?" "No it's Pittsburgh"
Maybe someday I'll figure out why my Blogger account doesn't work...Sludgeworm

hyzduhq said...

Nice post about Wagner. Few realize just how great and ahead of his time he was. He conditioned in the offseason and played basketball, at the time played in a cage.

Good note about the defense, as it should be noted he played on fields far from pristine. Filled with rocks and such, and in the case of Exposition Park, the occasional flood.

Vlad said...

Yeah, Wagner was a real trend-setter. He was one of the first ballplayers to lift weights, too; the conventional wisdom at the time was that lifting made you "muscle-bound" and increased your chance of injury.

Another defensive challenge with dead-ball era players was the evolution of the glove. Until about 1920, a mitt was basically just a big thick leather work glove, with no webbing between the thumb and fingers (and therefore no pocket).

Of course, guys like Deacon White would say that Wagner was the one who had it easy, having a glove at all...

WilliamJPellas said...

Seems to me that I read recently about an organized baseball league that plays by the original rules and that uses Dead Ball-era (or even earlier!) equipment. Jim Bouton, I remember, is involved in it. Seems to me it would be very interesting to watch baseball played the way it was originally played.

WilliamJPellas said...

Just looked it up. Bouton is involved in something called the Vintage Baseball Federation. You can learn about them here: http://www.vintagebbf.com/