In my post yesterday about PNC Park, I forgot to mention that one of the really great aspects of the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates is its homage to four heroes in the form of statues just outside the baseball stadium.
The one depicted here, whose career not only predated the end of the color line but the dawn of the home-run era, is probably least familiar to the modern fan, but he looms large in franchise history. There’s a reason why Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner, though life-size like the other three statues, is mounted on a pedestal: He helped put Pittsburgh on the baseball map at the turn of the last century.
The statue, by local sculptor Frank Vittor, was transported from Forbes Field, then to Three Rivers Stadium, and finally to its present site, just outside the main gate of PNC Park. It stands above the common herd, the way the Pirate faithful regarded him in life. (They didn’t even hold it against him when he held out for more money before the 2008 season.)
Because of that vantage point, you might not notice the unusual gait of this baseball demigod. Look more closely, though, and you’ll see the player described by Cait Murphy in her fine account of the 1908 season, Crazy ’08: “the long, long arms, ending in paws the size of mitts; the ungainly gait; the slumping shoulders; the sleepy eyes; the big feet; the slouchy posture at the plate.”
The statue shows Wagner having followed through on his swing, so it takes a little while before you observe the bent knees. Few on the diamond missed that, though, including Pirates catcher George Gibson, who said: “I’ll say he had bowed legs. He couldn’t stop a dog in an alley.”
He came by his nickname, “The Flying Dutchman,” partly because of his ethnic heritage and partly because of his speed, especially the 722 stolen bases he amassed throughout his career. But he excelled at other aspects of the game, too, including hitting (National League batting champ in eight of his 17 seasons) and fielding (he was generally considered the top defensive shortstop of his time). He retired with a career batting average of .327, along with 3,415 hits. He was considered elite, a distinction that continued in 1936 (when he was elected one of the inaugural members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson) and even up to today (baseball historian Bill James has written, “Acknowledging that there may have been one or two whose talents were greater, there is no one who has ever played the game that I would be more anxious to have on a baseball team”).
Just how good was Wagner? There have been other shortstops who probably surpassed him in individual aspects of the game (e.g., Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken in power, Ozzie Smith in defense). But—sorry, Derek Jeter!—the question of the greatest shortstop of all time begins and ends with Wagner.
(Well, there is one area where the Yankee captain beats the Flying Dutchman: scoring off the field. It took Wagner eight years of courting before he got around to marrying Bessie Baine Smith, and he does not sound like a randy fellow. On the other hand, Jeter’s record in this regard—dating the likes of Mariah Carey, Hannah Davis, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Minka Kelly, and Jordana Brewster—has been so startling that the young Mets ace Matt Harvey—no slouch himself at dating supermodels—sees the longtime shortstop of the Bronx Bombers as “the model,” he said in an interview in the current issue of Men’s Journal: “'I mean, first off, let’s just look at the women he’s dated. Obviously, he goes out — he’s meeting these girls somewhere — but you never hear about it. That’s where I want to be.”)
Wagner’s genial nature was accompanied by a homely wisdom about all matters relating to baseball, perhaps most of all when he noted, “Bats are strange and moody things.” (I don’t know why this statement hasn’t made it into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or been committed to memory by any player who ever strides to the plate.)