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A Good Example Goes a Long Way

March 24, 2008

Major League Baseball’s spring training is nearly over. A new season begins this week for the Boys of Summer. Since the Boston Red Sox won the World Series last fall, Major League Baseball has been in constant turmoil.

Joe Torre, manager of the New York Yankees for the last 12 seasons, has moved to Los Angeles to manage the Dodgers.

Alex Rodríguez became the highest paid baseball player in history when he signed a ten-year, $275 million contract with the Yankees.

Johan Santana was traded to the New York Mets and signed a record setting six-year $137.5 million deal, becoming the highest paid pitcher in Major League Baseball.

The biggest news of the off-season is that home run champion Barry Bonds has been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice concerning the use of illegal steroids. With his trial set for this summer, Bonds may not play at all this season. These charges may force him into retirement.

Six days after Barry Bonds was indicted, the Mitchell Report on illegal substance abuse in baseball was released. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, both potential Hall of Fame players, were named in the report along with 87 other Major League players.

Though the steroid era has tainted the sport, baseball still has a place in the hearts of the American people. One of the reasons is our collective memory of players like Honus Wagner.

The Flying Dutchman, as Wagner was known, played in the National League from 1897 to 1917. Though he was noticeably bowlegged, he possessed superior speed on the base paths. Playing in what is referred to as the dead ball era, Wagner was an outstanding hitter. Perhaps his fielding, especially at shortstop, was the reason Ty Cobb called Honus Wagner, “the greatest star ever to take the diamond.”

In 1936, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Wagner as one of the first five members, with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

Honus was one of nine children born to German immigrants in Pennsylvania. He dropped out of school when he was twelve to help his father and brothers in the coalmines. In their free time, he and his brothers played sandlot baseball. Four of them would go on to be professionals.

Honus trained to be a barber before becoming successful in baseball. Even after he was a baseball player, he would sometimes give haircuts to his teammates in the clubhouse.

Wagner began his career with the Louisville Colonels in 1897. Legend has it that Ed Barrow, who had watched him throw rocks across a creek, signed him to his first contract.

Honus was a solid hitter from the very beginning of his major league career, hitting .338 in 61 games in his rookie year. By his second season, Wagner was already one of the best hitters in the National League. After the 1899 season, the NL was reduced from twelve to eight teams. Owner Barney Dreyfuss took many of his top players with him to Pittsburgh. Wagner would play the remainder of his career for his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, 21 seasons in all.

In 1900, Wagner won his first batting championship with a .381 mark and also led the league in doubles (45), triples (22), and slugging (.573). Wagner played several different positions to keep his potent bat and speed in the lineup. He would eventually play every position except catcher, even making two appearances as a pitcher. But at shortstop he was at his best.

Babe Ruth said, “At short stop there is only one candidate for the greatest player of all time, Honus Wagner. He was just head and shoulders above anyone else in that position. Honus could out play any other shortstop. He was the greatest right-handed hitter of all time.”

His career totals include a .327 lifetime batting average, 640 doubles, 722 stolen bases, and a career total of 3,415 hits.

In 1916, Wagner married Bessie Smith. They had three daughters.

The Honus Wagner American Tobacco card is the most famous baseball card ever produced. Known as the Holy Grail and the Mona Lisa among collectors, it is by far the most valuable piece of cardboard in existence. In September of 2007, a private collector paid $2.8 million for a card with the likeness of the famous Pirate’s shortstop printed on it.

Very few of these cards are believed to be in existence. One theory for the card’s scarcity is that Wagner requested the production of this card be halted since it was being sold to market tobacco products. At the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, one of the cards is on display. A plaque states that while Wagner was a smoker, he did not want children to buy tobacco products to get his card.

As baseball season begins, I pray that more contemporary players will have the well being of children at heart.

Former President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, told a story. “When I was a boy growing up in Kansas, a friend and I went fishing. As we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”

A good example goes a long way.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, March 2008

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