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.
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 Baseball-Reference.com, 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 Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken 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 Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays