Happy B-day: Honus Wagner, Eddie Murray

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
7:42
PM ET
A pretty good pair of birthdays for Feb. 24, plus a 200-game winner (Wilbur Cooper), a four-time All-Star (Mike Lowell), a guy nicknamed "Suitcase" because he was traded so often (Bob Seeds) and guys named Steamboat, Bugs, Stubby, Bubba and Pinky.

Honus Wagner: Born 1874

In the first Hall of Fame election in 1936, Wagner received the same number of votes as Babe Ruth. The eligibility rules weren't well defined then (Ruth had played in 1935), but I suspect the vote totals tell how much the writers of the time respected Wagner. These days, Wagner is almost as famous for the rare T206 baseball card he appeared on -- one sold last year for $2.1 million -- as for being the greatest shortstop of all time.

How great was Wagner? Earlier today, I ran a list of Derek Jeter's annual rankings among all major league shortstops via WAR; Jeter ranked No. 1 in one season and in the top three in three other years. Cal Ripken, by way of comparison, ranked as the best shortstop in five seasons and in the top three in five other seasons. Wagner? Here are is annual rankings among all position players, not just shortstops, beginning with 1899, when he played for Louisville (he moved to the Pirates in 1900 when the Louisville franchise was folded):

1899: 5.8 WAR, 4th
1900: 6.5 WAR, 1st
1901: 7.1 WAR, 3rd
1902: 7.2 WAR, 1st
1903: 7.6 WAR, 2nd
1904: 8.2 WAR, 2nd
1905: 10.1 WAR, 1st
1906: 9.3 WAR, 3rd
1907: 8.9 WAR, 1st
1908: 11.5 WAR, 1st
1909: 9.1 WAR, 3rd
1910: 5.2 WAR, 8th
1911: 6.6 WAR, 3rd
1912: 8.1 WAR, 6th

Wagner fell out of the top 10 in 1913 and 1914 and ranked ninth in 1915 -- of course, he was 41 years old then. That's one of the most amazing things about Wagner's career; he was one of the greatest old players ever. In his first year in organized baseball in 1895 he was already 21 years old and played for five different teams in three different leagues. Ed Barrow, a former newspaper reporter, was part-owner of the Wheeling (W. Va.) franchise in the Interstate League that year, one of the leagues Wagner played in, and saw Wagner play. When Barrow and a partner bought the Paterson team of the Atlantic League for 1896, he signed Wagner and thus is often credited with "discovering" Wagner. Barrow would later gain fame for managing the Red Sox to the World Series title in 1918 and turning Ruth into a full-time position player. He left the Red Sox after 1920 and became the business manager of the Yankees (or the general manager as we would now label the position), helping build their dynasty of the 1920s and '30s and eventually get elected to Hall of Fame.

Anyway, Barrow would sell Wagner to the Louisville Colonels of the National League in 1897. Wagner looked awkward, with his heavily muscled upper torso and bowed legs, but he was a tremendous athlete. His first year big season with Louisville came when he was 25 and he didn't become a full-time shortstop until 1903, when he was 29. Nonetheless, in his 30s he averaged 8.0 WAR per season. Like Ty Cobb, he hit with hands split apart, a conventional style of the day. He led the NL eight times in batting average, four times in on-base percentage, six times in slugging percentage, five times in RBIs and five times in stolen bases. Imagine a player today who was the best hitter in the league, the best baserunner and played a good shortstop. I think Hans would make a pretty good living.

Wagner's best season was 1908, when he towered over the rest of the National League. In a season dominated by pitchers, he hit .354; only four others hit .300. He had a .542 slugging percentage; the No. 2 guy was .452 and only three others reached .400. He led with 109 RBIs; the No. 4 was already all the way down to 71. He led the league in hits, doubles, triples, total bases and stolen bases. It's on the short list of best seasons ever.

According to his SABR bio, Wagner had "retired" after the 1907 season, saying he had made enough money and was happy hunting, fishing, raising chickens and opening an automobile garage where he loved tinkering with the engines. But Wagner also hated spring training, often holding out or reporting late. Maybe it was just a ruse to get a larger salary; if so, it worked. (He signed for $10,000, becoming the highest-paid player in the game.)

Wagner's biggest moment probably was the 1909 World Series, when the Pirates faced the Tigers and their young star Cobb. Wagner hit .333, drove in six runs and stole six bases while Cobb hit .231 and stole only two bases. The Pirates won in seven games.

In the SABR bio of Wagner, Jan Finkel writes,
Honus Wagner was no angel or saint. Some opponents thought him a fine fellow off the diamond but overly rough on it. Most umpires thought he "kicked" too much. He affected to dislike formal affairs, but he really hated the next morning. Yet he also embodied the American dream as the son of immigrants who rose from humble roots to greatness. Frailties aside, he was one of baseball's first heroes, a basically gentle, hard-working man, a loyal friend and teammate who treated young players kindly.


I sometimes get asked, "Who would you like to see play that you didn't?" I'm not sure Wagner is No. 1 on my list but he'd be right up there.

Eddie Murray: Born 1956

My favorite fun Eddie Murray fact: He was a teammate at Locke High School in Los Angeles of Ozzie Smith. I'd say that was a pretty high school infield.

So my friend Victor doesn't think Murray is a Hall of Famer. His argument has always been, "Did you ever pay money to go see Murray play?" I try to tell him for a few years there Murray was one of the best -- and dare I say, feared -- hitters in the league. From 1980 to 1985, Murray finished sixth, fifth, second, second, fourth and fifth in the MVP voting with the Orioles. He also finished fifth in the 1990 NL vote while with the Dodgers (it's easy to forget those Dodgers years ... or those Mets years).

Was Murray a star? I thought I'd run the Jeter test on Murray as well, and see where he ranked among all major first basemen and the overall leader that year:

1977: 3.2 WAR, 8th (Rod Carew: 9.7)
1978: 4.3 WAR, 6th (Jason Thompson: 5.6)
1979: 4.9 WAR, 3rd (Keith Hernandez: 7.9)
1980: 4.4 WAR, 3rd (Cecil Cooper: 6.8)
1981: 3.8 WAR, 3rd (Hernandez and Cooper: 4.2)
1982: 5.2 WAR, 2nd (Cooper: 5.6)
1983: 6.6 WAR, 1st
1984: 7.0 WAR, 1st
1985: 5.6 WAR, 2nd (Don Mattingly: 6.4)
1986: 4.1 WAR, 6th (Mattingly: 7.2)
1987: 3.8 WAR, 9th (Jack Clark: 5.4)
1988: 3.2 WAR, 9th (Will Clark: 6.6)
1989: 2.0 WAR, 16th (Will Clark: 8.6)
1990: 5.1 WAR, 4th (Cecil Fielder: 6.6)

That was it for Murray as a top-10 first baseman. He did have one last big year in 1995 while DHing for the Indians, hitting .323. Still, that 1979-1985 run was a pretty solid peak.

Truth be told though, Murray was a bit of a compiler. His triple-slash line of .287/.359/.476 is basically the same, for example, as Kent Hrbek's .282/.367/.481. But Murray hung around long enough to get 3,000 hits and punch out 504 home runs and drive in over 1,900 runs. He was a plus with the glove and, like Jeter, remarkably durable, playing 150-plus in 15 of his first 17 seasons.

They called him "Steady Eddie" and that fit perfectly.




David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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