Any player/Any era: Honus Wagner

What he did: I read something in The Glory of Their Times on Wagner, the Deadball Era legend and arguably the greatest shortstop in baseball history. Tommy Leach spoke of learning of Wagner’s prowess when he joined him on the Louisville ball club in 1898, shortly before both men were transferred to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Leach spoke of getting stuck behind Wagner at third base, his position in the minors, but how “it turned out for the best” since the two became part of the first baseball dynasty of the 20th century.

Leach said:

And it also turned out that while Honus was the best third baseman in the league, he was also the best first baseman, the best second baseman, the best shortstop, and the best outfielder. That was in fielding. And since he led the league in batting eight times between 1900 and 1911, you know that he was the best hitter, too. As well as the best base runner.

A few chapters later, another contemporary, Sam Crawford echoed Leach, comparing Wagner with Ty Cobb and saying Wagner “could play any position” and became “the greatest shortstop of them all.” Wagner spent the bulk of his career at shortstop, 1,887 games, but also logged time at every other infield position, played 373 games in the outfield, and pitched 8.1 scoreless innings between 1900 and 1902. He also hit .328 lifetime with 3,420 hits, and it all makes me wonder what he might do if he played today.

With his stocky 5’11” and 200-pound build, I think it unlikely Wagner would be groomed in the minors as a shortstop. My hunch is that in the current game, he might excel at a position he never played: catcher.

Era he might have thrived in: We’ll put Wagner on the Minnesota Twins where he might rival Joe Mauer as the best-hitting catcher in the game today.

Why: This is all based on a big assumption, of course, that Wagner’s bulk and versatility could make him a great backstop. His arm might also lend itself to the position, seeing as a scout signed an 18-year-old Wagner after watching him chuck rocks across a river. He was tough too, supposedly splitting Cobb’s lip with a hard tag in the 1909 World Series after the Georgia Peach yelled, as recounted in Ken Burns Baseball, “Watch out, Krauthead, I’m coming down. I’ll cut you to pieces,” and Wagner replied,  “Come ahead.” It seems Wagner would be a tank guarding home, and I wonder why he never played catcher. I think he’d be a natural.

Regardless of whether Wagner could muster Gold Glove-caliber defense behind the plate, though, he’d be something special on offense for the Twins. I ran his numbers through the stat converter on, seeing how he’d do for Minnesota in 2010. Seven of his seasons would be good for a batting average of .360 or better, and his 1908 season converts to a .400 batting average with 12 home runs and 154 RBI to go with 254 hits, 24 triples and an OPS of 1.074. That would trump Mauer, who in his 2008 American League MVP season put up a career-best 1.031 OPS along with a .365 batting average, 28 home runs, and 96 RBI.

Playing today, Wagner might not have the same appeal to a massive influx of immigrants in the early 20th century, which made him so representative of his time as iconic players often are from Babe Ruth to Hank Greenberg to Jackie Robinson. One of the contributors here, Joe Guzzardi, wrote in a recent column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “When immigrants watched Wagner, the ‘Flying Dutchman,’ at shortstop, they saw a mirror image of their hard-working selves. Wagner was one of five children born to German natives, and at age 12, he left school to join his father and brothers in the coal mines.”


There might not be the same connection for fans today. All the same, Wagner’s unique abilities would be hard to deny in any generation.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

7 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Honus Wagner”

  1. I would suggest that placing Wagner behind the plate would underutilize his speed, range and general ability in the field.

    I used to do a time machine thought experiment with a friend, where we would theorize how certain players would do in different eras. I decided the most interesting player to transport up to today would be Wagner. His tremendous strength and speed would likely fare very well outside of the Deadball Era.

  2. Once we get past the unknowables of whether Wagner would get blown away by today’s pitchers and other 21st century conditions, if his skills were of a similar nature as when he played, I think he could play anywhere on the field, including shortstop, and excel. I would expect him to be an outstanding power hitter with great speed on the bases, just as he was in his day.

    He was the greatest all-around player of his era by far. Likwise, Jim Thorpe was the best football player. Could Jim Thorpe play in the NFL today? Similar doubts necessarily exist concerning Wagner, or any other athlete from many decades ago. No one can say for sure.

  3. Why would a guy like Wagner get blown away by today’s pitchers? Were players of his time inferior due to genetics or some other reason?

    If today’s players are better due to better training and nutrition, then if Wagner had grown up in the last 20 or 30 years, he would have been able to take advantage of this. But if we are talking about just dropping a 28 year old Wagner into a game today and see how he would do, that is a different question.

    If the reason is genetics, why? Has something happned to improve our genes over the last 100 years?

  4. On the other hand Joe, how great would modern players be in the deadball era? Playing against the like of some of the greatest pitchers who ever played and at a time where the pitchers could do a lot of doctoring to the ball that was overused and overused. That’s where the term “knock the cover off the ball” came from. I wonder how many homers Bonds, Puljos and Ryan Howard would have hit then?

    Playing in an era where there was no real; money to pay 99% of the players a living wage and they had to work hard jobs in the off-season with no rest and no training. No medical help, you were expected to play through injuries that in many cases often hampered or fatally ended careers.

    You pitched nine innings no matter what and if you couldn’t, you sat on the bench or were sent down. Pitchers too were used and burned out by owners. No pitch counts, no specialists to come in save your butt. No such thing as relief pitcher, just older pitchers long burned out or the younger player not quite good enough to start.

    The game was incredibly rough to play in those days with some of the meanest and toughest players who ever donned a uniform and would do anything not just to get you out, but to hurt you real bad and get you out of the game for the sheer enjoyment of it. Those stories about Cobb trying to cut down Wagner while racing to second are not isolated stories but a mere part of the brutality of the day. No batting helmets, no batting gloves, shin and elbow guards– no protection at all. And having to play with gloves that were stumpy and stiff with minimal to no webbing at all and that was scarcely bigger than your hand.

    I think the question may be just as well or better asked, how would some of those present day players fare back in those deadball days?

  5. When I was a kid I used to talk to the old-timers about certain players. Most said that old Honus threw the ball across the diamond harder than the guy pitching and that he fielded tha ball barehanded often, which wasn’t much different than the padding the old gloves had. Don’t know if batting charts from Wagners days exist, but as I recall, I was told he was a spray hitter with line drive power to all fields. Not many pull hitters in those days, the old ball just didn’t travel well. I am guessing if homers were hit, they had to be early in the game since the ball was all beat up yet. That’s not taking into account the in-side-the-park homers the fast runners could hit. And also, in Wagner’s days, sometimes the fans were allowed to line the foul lines and even stand in front of the outfield fences on sell-out days. Many say Hornsby was similar to Wagner except he was a horses behind and Wagner was a decent guy. And Hornsby never played with the deadball.

  6. I got into baseball seriously in the early 80s. I’ve seen some great ball players such as Brett, Windfield, Rose, Schmidt, Nettles, Jackson. The 90s also had it’s rack of great players all the way to the present day. But I will say this, there are many people would do not give enough credit to the players of the past, the long past. In my honest opinion Honus Wagner would be a HOF player today if given the same benefits given to players today. The same goes for Cobb, Ruth, DiMaggio, Greenberg, Musial and so forth. The game really hasn’t changed if you think about it. Pitchers back then didn’t just lob the ball to the plate back then. They had an arsenal of pitches like today. Grant it, today’s ball players a more physically gifted but by no means does that mean that they are more talented than those of the past.

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