Boston Fans Thought That Honus Wagner Was "Yellow" in the Clutch

Harold FriendChief Writer ISeptember 28, 2011

COOPERSTOWN, NY - JULY 26:  The plaque of Honus Wagner is photographed by a fan at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum during the Baseball Hall of Fame weekend on July 26, 2008 in Cooperstown, New York.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Honus Wagner won his sixth batting title in 1908. It was also the third of what turned out to be four consecutive seasons in which he led the National League.

Wagner batted .354/.415/.542 with 10 home runs, 109 RBIs and 53 stolen bases, which is impressive, but many players have had better numbers. Then along came Bill James, who has developed some interesting concepts.

James claims that Wagner’s 1908 season was the greatest for any player in baseball history. 

The league ERA was 2.35, which was the lowest of the dead-ball era. Wagner’s .354 average and 109 RBIs were achieved when about one-half as many runs were scored compared to the modern game.

The crux of James’ claim is that under today’s conditions, Wagner would be a Gold Glove shortstop who would drive in over 200 runs.

This is how Wagner explained his great success: “The only way I have been able to bat is to study the ball. A batsman should simply watch the ball, and if he sees it coming within easy reach he should step out and meet it.

“Many batters know exactly where a ball is coming, but they swing so hard that they lose their balance and, therefore, do not hit it where they intend to.”

In 1909, Wagner batted .339 to win his fourth consecutive batting championship, and in 1911 he won his eighth and final title. In March, 1912, Wagner was appointed the Pirates' captain.

Despite being bow-legged, Wagner could run. He stole home 27 times during his career and averaged over 40 steals a season, leading the league in stolen bases five times.

Wagner joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900 when the National League was reduced to eight teams. Wagner’s Louisville Colonels were among those teams that were eliminated.

The Pirates faced the Boston Americans in the first World Series in 1903. The Pirates lost as Wagner batted only .222 with three RBIs. The Boston Americans fans then were not very different from Boston Red Sox fans today.

They said that Wagner was “yellow” in the clutch, which upset him greatly. In the spring, Wagner refused to send his picture to a “Hall of Fame" for batting champions because he had done badly in the World Series.

Wagner explained why he refused to send his picture.

"I was a joke in that Boston-Pittsburgh Series. What does it profit a man to hammer along and make a few hits when they are not needed, only to fall down when it comes to a pinch? I would be ashamed to have my picture up now."

In 1909, Wagner showed that he could produce in the clutch as the Pirates beat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

Wagner outhit Ty Cobb, .333 to .231. The 35-year-old Dutchman stole six bases to the 22-year-old Cobb’s two.

There have been many great shortstops throughout the years, but the first great one was the best.


Wagner and Donlin in Batting Contest. (1908, Aug 23). New York Times (1857-1922), pp. S1-S1. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/96842472?accountid=46260